Sunday, 29 December 2013

"Needless to say, I stayed".....Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground

Nothing says Christmas like finishing a existential Russian novella critiquing 19th Century Utopian Socialism.  Well in my house anyway.  Dostoevsky's relatively short monologue from a name-less individual marks a significant change from his other work I have read so far.  Although some of the themes touched on in House of Dead and even his grumpy travelogue make an appearance.  The work, in my view takes a while to catch with the reader but by the end you are entranced with the inner revelations of the "Underground" man and not in a good way.  Some passages are as cringe-worthy and car-crash viewing as David Brent or the Peep Show boys at their peak.  Again Dostoevesky's modernist appeal can be seen here.  I really don't think there was anyone writing like this in 1864.

The novella is split into two relatively distinct parts and the first part is quite hard going.  Having said that: what an opening - "I'm a sick man, I'm a spiteful man. I'm an unattractive man.  I think there's something wrong with my liver".  I hadn't realised that  Howard Devoto had lifted the sentiments of this for his single Song From Under the Floorboards (later covered by Moz!).   The difficulty, for me in the opening third of the work is similar to Camus' The Fall - relying solely on one voice which do not really depict events but simply let rip on their general philosophical views is a difficult way into a book.  In a sense you are walking in at the middle as you have no idea as to how the narrator became the way he is.   This narrative device is resolved a little by the end when a number of significant incidents from his recent past explain his withdrawal from everyday society and most importantly human communication.

The other problem about this early part I think is it is very much specifically dealing with the debates amongst the Russian Intelligentsia at the time which you need to have at least a passing knowledge of to fully understand.   For example the whole work was in part a response to the early Narodnik Chernyshevsky's  novel "What is to be done?" on the necessity of revolution a struggle in Tsarist Russia written the year before.  This was a big favourite of Lenin's - he named one of his significant works after it.

So some of the bile in the first part is personal - FD's own rejection that material struggle and the improveability of man was possible or even worthwhile in achieving.  Feudal Tsarism- though it does exist in the work is very much in the background.  The narrator is a 40 year old retired civil servant - middle ranking in the strict hierarchy.  He has a servant. His "enemies" later in the work are fairly high ranking soldiers.  But for Dostoevsky this regime was not the focus of struggle rather it provided a context for the narrator's human feelings to unravel.

Essentially Dostoevsky argues that it is impossible to impose a logical framework or social system on humans because they will reject it almost as a matter of course.  Human "volition" means that people will always react against being told what to do "sticking their tongue out at it".  This will even be the case if it is not in their best interests to act in this way.

Scientific analysis of human behaviour and striving for a different society then is pointless.  FD labels this as "2+2 = 4".   But for man (and as ripped of by Radiohead) 2 and 2 always makes 5. In symbolism of the time he labelled the new society as the Crystal Palace - a new London Building mentioned in his Winter Notes and seen then as a pinnacle of human creation.  The real thinker he says "does nothing" - action is the sign of someone who doesn't realise how pointless his actions are.  "If only it were simply out of laziness I did nothing" In doing this he has a few side swipes at Napoleon (Bonaparte and the 3rd) so indirectly the actions of the French Revolution.

In part the writings are polemical so exaggerated - still readable but difficult to engage with.  For example such rejection of struggling for new types of society ignores how the current society - in FD's case a  slightly less brutal version of Tsarist autocracy - came to pass in the face of human thought and wish not to be dominated.

If the work was only this then it would simply be an editorial in one of the many literary magazines which Dostoevsky involved himself in at the time but it was obviously much more than this.  Partly this is because of the second part of the work but also because I think FD is being deliberately and exaggeratedly provocative.  Also in another modernist twist the narrator is very self aware of the strangeness of writing this all down  as if "it will turn out grander on paper".  So the text itself is continually being assessed.  In fact at the end the narrator says "I don't want to write anymore"..but then an unknown voice intervenes and tells the reader that in fact he did go on but we'll just end it there.

Hinted at is the fact that the narrator was once an idealist believing in the "sublime and beautiful" - the perfectability of man but his experience made him turn away from this to a world of isolation, debauchery and the "Underground".

These urban St Petersburg events are outlined in Part 2 of the work "Apropos of the Wet Snow". I think setting is important here - the city landscape was unreal and surreal for most Russians at that time but hundreds of thousands had to adapt to the lifestyle.  Similar to FD's earlier work - The Double - this threw up unlikely situation.  It symbolises the combined and uneven development of Russia at that time as mentioned by Lenin and Trotsky in their work.  The narrator's disengagement from ltraditional life I don't think could have occurred anywhere else in Russia.

The events focus on the narrator's inability to interact with other humans.  In one pitiful dragged out scene he outlines how he imposes himself on some old school acquaintances' going away party, gets drunk and borrows more cash even though noone wants him there. He knows he should go but "Needless to say I stayed".
One passage was particularly brutally honest : "Disorder, leftovers, a broken glass on the floor, spilt wine, cigarette ends, intoxication and wild gibberish in my head, tormenting anguish in my heart...."  Yes, I'm sure we've all been there...

To compound the humiliation he ends up in a brothel where he lambasts a young Latvian prostitute Liza over her behaviour (ignoring the fact he had just used her - a bit of Dostoevsky's own hypocrisy coming out then).  He then gives her his address to "save her" - immediately regrets it when he sobers up and in an amusing but desolating end to the work we see why the narrator can no longer interact with human beings. There is also an interesting side line here in discussing the narrator's servant who acts towards him with open disdain - again a fairly modernist touch.

I am not sure if the rant/monologue at the beginning fits in completely with the second part.  That is I am not sure that the incidents explain the strength of the language used at the start - or whether they are simply a device to have a go at some of his contemporaries and their interaction with a very early form of Marxism.  But the work as a whole is very good  and very funny (an unappreciated element of Dostoevsky).  Its view of humanity is open to debate but his outline of the contradictory and difficult elements of human conciousness and how it deals with reality is not dealt with much better by other writers.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Words Which Could Only Be Your Own: Morrissey Autobiography

"My life has often been compared to spilt milk"   So said Steven Patrick Morrissey before the opening bars of Disappointed in the SECC in December 2004 ( I was there - but also have the recording!).  Nearly a decade on the publication of this autobiography has allowed for Moz to examine the spillage with appropriate tears, laughter, barbs and anger.

It is rare when a book provides you with all you expect.  Mandy Rice Davies' words echo here perhaps :"You would say that, wouldn't you" as I am a disciple and purchased the book on publication day but I don't mean by that the work is flawless.   It is though without question the true unexpurgated and unedited (more of that later) voice of Morrissey.  Having a unique voice is a task most writers struggle with throughout most of their life and indeed most inevitably fail to provide it.

I think the anger which Morrissey inspires in others (even nominal Smiths devotees) -  a much more common response than fan devotion - is due to the fact  that this voice doesn't alter - it is always strident and uncompromising.  This is not a new thing as he describes this reaction happened to him way before he became famous from his peer group, school friends etc.  This animus has made it difficult  for people to detatch his music from him.  As an artistic form the pop song (perhaps along with the poem) seems to be a intimate  window to the writer's inner self.  Strange as in the early days most pop singers were the mere vessels of anonymous craftsmen - particularly the solo female singer which the young Moz was so obsessed with. Golden Lights!

If Morrissey had written  a short  story about an alienated youth's attraction to right wing politics (National Front Disco) or a novella about an Asian man discarding his upbringing to embrace the worst elements of Western culture(Bengali in Platforms) would there have been a debate over his racial politics, I doubt it.  The man is the song or as he refers to it obliquely in the work "Saying I am a racist because I sing about racism".  

So the lazy googling of song lyrics to explain what sort of (half a)  person Morrissey is is a well worn path.  Playing with this and definitely with one eye on his fan base the work is scattered with quotes from his lyrical encyclopaedia. But  the first 200 pages about his foundation reveal (I think) how little people do really know about Morrissey and the environment he emerged blinking from 30 years ago when Hand in Glove and This Charming Man were released.

The darkness and bleak surround of Northern England as manufacturing industry began to collapse in the late 1960s are Morrissey's first memories.  Poor housing and brutal schooling are thrown into the mix too.  It is interesting how entwined with Irish immigration the Morrisseys were - himself and his sister amongst his extended families were the only two not born in Ireland.  This community formed the basis of his childhood with the influence of Catholicism and matriarchy with his gran and mum.  Significantly in my view all the Smiths came from the Irish diaspora and the poverty of inner city Manchester:

The power of these pages which veer between stream of conciousness and chronological events stem from the prose and the contrast between the grey of his life with the almost technicolour invasion of pop music into this life.  The young Moz is like a magpie selecting shiny songs and curios which he has found in the charts and appearing on Top of the Pops.  That period from the late 60s to the early 70s when Morrissey was becoming a teenager seemed to have been filled with hidden pop song treasures.  Songs that the lazy journalist would never link with the writer of "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" - like My Boy Lollipop, Eloise by Paul Ryan, You've Lost that Loving Feeling, Rainbow Valley :"No illness of any ferocity could sway my interest in Top of The Pops".  This gathering of 7" classics along with his family's love of torch song singers explain how Morrissey really sounded like noone else  when he came along and still doesn't.  

Not being attached to one particular musical movement or even at that point to albums meant Moz's curiosity could lead him to T Rex (one touching image from the book is the young Morrissey being dropped off at his first gig - Marc Bolan), Bowie, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground and probably most significantly the New York Dolls.  This love and acquistion of music  seems simply to stop once fame comes Morrissey's way.  I don't think he mentions one song apart from his own work from the late 1970s onwards.  

This is evident in a way that isn't in bios of other musicians I have read like Patti S and Dylan both of whom almost continually reference other artists and their songs .  But back to the voice I think Moz was formed by these influences and he's not really interested in anything else music has offered since.  It's not only unlikely but actually impossible that Morrissey could ever make say  a drum and bass album like Bowie in the mid 90s.  He's got his voice, why change?

But the love of pop songs are really an extension of Moz's following of pop culture.  In the work this is shown by his almost obsessional dissection of disposable TV shows like Department S and Lost in Space. Or his throwaway comment on Eric Cantona later on in the book which illustrates his memory for obscure magazine interviews.  Again Morrissey even in his self imposed exile can understand the intertwining of popular culture with English-ness.  In some ways he is still the pre-teenager cataloguing the acts on TOTP and minor TV celebs, Little Man What Now?

Another surprising fact yet at the same time not is that Moz failed his 11 plus exam and in the brutal selection policy of the time was assigned to the dog eat dog world of the comprehensive which in one sense almost destroyed him.  So Morrissey's intellectualism was really self-taught - he shows this through his early tastes of poetry.  He cites this throughout the work as well but little of it came from school.  His description of his love of AE Houseman's work I found particularly moving.  Because another theme of Moz's adoration of all of these things is the ambiguous nature of male sexuality - becoming much more obvious in his love of the Dolls, Bowie, Bolan, Roxy  Funnily enough it is in his discussion of the US Sci-Fi show Lost in Space and its two male characters that this becomes more explicit.  By constantly posing these sorts of questions Moz again  raises ire or interest.  One of his early friends abandons him because he "likes nancy boys".

Leaving school for his bedroom at the time of Thatcherism the tone of the book noticeably alters when we await the brief foray to rock music accompanied by Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, the arrival of Marr knocking on his front door and the firework show that was the 5 years of the Smiths.  I like the pace that Moz injects into his discussion of this time  - it is almost a blur and the reader gets a real sense of the energy around that time.  Fame falling into their laps, constant tours and recordings, almost breaking up then getting back together.  This is not a muso re-telling of the Smiths story - you aren't going to find out what amps were used when recording Headmaster Ritual - it is contextual.  The context obviously being Moz's life and for all this period's significance it was but a brief part of that.  As many music journalists fail to report Moz's solo career has been 5 times longer than 1982-7.  So the speeding over of this time  with the Smiths works.

There are moments of sadness where he recalls the happiness of the band ironically just before their break-up recording Strangeways: maybe one of the reasons why Marr and Morrissey both declare it their favourite album.  And on  after the break-up seeing Marr playing for Brian Ferry on TV  "as if this is what it had been for all along".

The constant disappointment of record placings and general incompetence of record companies are a persistent moan of Morrissey - this eventually grates a little bit but starts off as laugh out loud funny in his dissection of  Rough Trade in general and Geoff Travis in particular.  One gem for me was Morrissey almost bursting into tears when Travis declares he can get Roddy Frame (of Aztec Camera fame) in to replace Marr.  The character assassin element to Morrissey is overplayed sometimes I think but in this book he polishes off his machine gun circa Quarry to great effect - John Peel, surprisingly Sandie Shaw in a funny anecdote about toast (which I wont spoil!), hilariously Siouxsie Sioux and brilliantly I think Anthony Wilson : "he managed a lengthy and slow decline which some thought was actually an ongoing career".....

I think what these attacks actually show are Moz's ability to summarise a person and get under their skin in both nasty and nice ways.  Morrissey has spent so long looking at people like those episodes of Top of the Pops he gets them, it's just he doesn't like them very much.  Although his moving words on Kirsty McColl - who contacted him just before he left for her fateful holiday and sent him a postcard which he got just after she was killed and characters like  Mikey Farrell who played on a couple of his most recent albums show he appreciates human goodness too.  But he can also see the ambiguity in people he likes or even loves - Chrissy Hynde, the New York Dolls who become fairly pathetic figures when he helps organise their reformation and painfully (for some) Johnny Marr.  Undoubtedly Moz still feels close to Marr but exposes him particularly during his marathon depiction of the court case as a very weak man - which is sad to see but looks painfully accurate.

I have avoided reviews of the book until I write this but I saw a headline that says Morrissey reveals his relationship with a man Jake and that is true but much else of Moz's personal life is pretty oblique.  Did he really nearly have a child with a Middle Eastern women 10 years ago?  Why was he so confused about his feelings when Linder told him she was pregnant (to someone else)?  What exactly was his relationship with Allan Whyte, Spencer Corbin?  All this is left hanging in a frustrating and in typical Moz style, his voice again never changes

One thing that he is not oblique though is feelings towards drummer Mike Joyce and the Court case which obviously haunted Moz's life and his lyrics for almost 15 years.   It is outlined here in painstaking detail and basically comes down to a discussion of partnership law where there is no written agreement.  Was Joyce a full partner the court and judge said yes and was hence due 25% although the court was vague as to how this was ever to be recovered.  Incidentally and as Morrissey mentions this same argument was thrown out when Tony Hadly attempted it with Spandau Ballet a couple of years later. This part in particular looks like catharsis for Moz - no editor got a look in at this bit I would say.  As a law lecturer I quite enjoyed it - on the process of English civil law! - but it sticks the book up a bit. As people caught up in endless litigation do (see the SSP from 2006-11) Moz fixates on minute detail which are difficult to involve other people in.  He also polishes off his persecution complex.  But his powers of character analysis particularly of his fellow Smiths and the Judge do make up for the more self indulgent passages.  There is a pathetic epilogue to the case where Joyce writes to him looking for a reunion after the dust had settled ! If nothing else this should put to bed any ramblings about the Smiths ever  reuniting.  Actually Johnny Marr may recoil most as Moz is quite unrelenting in his dissection of Marr's behaviour during the civil hearing.

There are other stylistic problems in the book - though minor.  The last 100 pages or so don't have a consistent tone.  One part outlines the filming of the solo videos in the early-mid 90s, one part outlines a relentless touring schedule from a similar period - it reads a bit like an adapted journal of the time.  Still full of gems but it does not sit well with the rest of the book as it is not chronological (as most of the text is) nor is it completely abstract.  It looks a wee bit like it was just stuck in.  Again editing within the work may have aided that.  What both those parts do indicate though is a real celebration of his solo work - not done often enough.  He makes powerful asides discussing all his music but I found this particularly in his solo oeuvre.  He explains the poor-ness of Kill Uncle, dismisses Picadilly Palare (shockingly) and Roy's Keen (less so) and a paragraph which gave me a bit of a moment describing the beautiful "Hold On To Your Friends".

I think at some points in the book he tries a little bit hard with every sentence like he needed to make every one count.   although his wit is beyond doubt and the book is constantly funny there are some lines which are beneath him for example "Rough Trade personnel in the early 1980s need never have feared sexual assault". This poor judgement has surfaced occasionally throughout Moz's life - although not as much as the NME would focus on and nothing compared to other Mancunian iconoclasts like Mark E.  In his autobiography there are only a couple of these sort of lines - I don't think they really fit in.  More common is his constant and accurate attacks on Thatcherism, the Monarchy and of course meat -eaters.

This book was everything I wanted it to be - funny, sad, engaging, frustrating and self indulgent.  It also reminded me of growing up as Morrissey has been a constant in that and my closest friends and family.  So unnegotiably 5 stars from me.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Close to the Edge of the Grave: Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

One thing that annoys me (amongst many others...) is on review shows where a book or film or whatever is condemned because there were no nice characters.  In fact I have heard debates on the radio about whether "likeability" is a necessity for good literature.  There is no doubt it is a high risk strategy to produce a piece of work where having empathy with the main protagonists is impossible.  Compare the US sitcoms of the 90s Seinfeld and Friends - arguably every one of the 4 main stars of Seinfeld was dislikeable in a different way where in Friends every character fell over themselves to be loveable.   Which one has the endless longevity on TV?    Well, as Jonathan Franzen points out in an essay, Philip Roth with this grizzled big chunk of a novel takes a sawn-off shotgun to the concept of likeablity with his sleazy, horrible and un-redeemed hero puppeteer (literally) Mickey Sabbath who is in almost  every scene of this 450 page book.

High risk indeed and difficult to get through some parts but sticking with it proves to be an intense car-crash of an experience which you can't really take your eyes off.  

The novel covers a turbulent period in the life as  62 year old Mickey confronts mortality and his already pretty shaky lifestyle crumbles to bits.  Interestingly the character is the same age as Roth although (deliberately?) physically could not be more different - he is short, squat with a barrel chest, striking green eyes and a long grey beard.  Almost identical to the sailor in the Otto Dix painting on the cover of most editions of the book - Mickey also spent his youth at sea.

In fact Dix is almost an ideal caricaturist of  Sabbath as it seems that debauched eroticism is his only motivation. Like a Pan figure gone to seed (a pun of which is made in the book) .Arrested for obscenity in the 60s for his street puppet show, married to the woman who he cheated on his first wife with, ensconced in an intense sexual affair with a Croatian innkeeper's wife and living in the shadow of a scandal with a student 40 years younger than him.  And that's just for starters!

He lives (as he points out) "like a fugitive" in a mountain resort in New England having run from bohemian New York in the late 1960s.   It is here he set up an unhappy home with Roseanna  who began building an alcohol addiction as Sabbath indulged his debauchery.  This proves one of the difficulties of reading the book as the first few chapters outline in  graphic detail his sexual adventures with Drenka , his mistress.  To such an extent that you think this is not very far removed from the ramblings of a dirty old man  whether it's Sabbath or Roth you are not really sure.  It is challenging to have this so soon into the novel - it is almost like rows of barbed wire you have to cross before you get into the heart of the work.

For it does alter its focus as Drenka is diagnosed with cancer and is dead by 30 pages in.  This contrast proves to be too much for Mickey - his extreme sexual relationship to be so close to death.  He does not take it well as some more disturbing scenes at Drenka's grave illustrate.  His wife now a recovering alcoholic replacing her love of drink with an obsession with AA and all its support networks also throws him out.    He uses this opportunity to travel to New York and his past for a funeral of a contemporary from the Artistic scene in the 1950s and 60s.

This road trip (although relatively short in American terms) provides the opportunity for Sabbath to review his life - recent and ancient - and we see that many ghosts are travelling with him.  Literally in the case of his mother's ghost in a few strange scenes; though she leaves without any real explanation.  It emerges his athletic star, tall big brother was killed in the last few months of WWII - setting his mother into a catatonic state which she never really recovered from.  His first wife Nikki , a bohemian actress, disappeared from their home together - and has never been discovered.

The narrative structure allows Roth to go over key scenes in Sabbath's life - the scandal with the teenage student at a community college, Roseanna's entry to rehab (precipitated by this), his early life with Nikki, coping with Nikki's mother's death, his puppet shows -based on his fingers - that led to his obscenity trial.  But the shadow of death, particularly Drenka's is always there.

The past is always present  although it is a contemporary work. The only music Sabbath plays or refers to is the 1930s jazz of Benny Goodman who his brother loved.  His days at sea and the foreign brothels are romanticised. In parts the narrative can become quite stream of conciousness - although in one very funny passage Roth deliberately mocks the style of Joyce, Woolf et al as he walks around the New York of the mid 1990s.

Staying with his successful producer - another contemporary of the sixties for the funeral - who after he unsuccessfully tries to seduce his wife and fantasises about his teenage daughter while sleeping in his bedroom correctly calls out Sabbath :  "You live in the failure of this civilisation.  The investment of everything in eroticism".

In such prose (which is brilliant throughout) Roth obviously is aware of the game that he is playing with Sabbath but it is still difficult to read.   Sabbath explicitly states he does not read newspapers, does not know who the President is  and only cares about the carnal. The transcript of the phone sex with his teenage student is printed as an extended footnote - out of the context of the work it would be a simply a piece of pornography.  a final encounter (fantastical?) with Roseanna is equally explicit.  As he looks at every character through the prism of sex this obviously colours your reading - to such an extent that you are not sure what is real or fantasy particularly in the concluding pages of the work.  At different parts of the book he claims to have murdered Nikki. is this possible?

The novel concludes with another journey of Sabbath - thrown out of New York he travels to his family home in New Jersey - contemplating a suicide - via a graveyard to buy his death plot.  He has an encounter with a 100 year old relative, a living ghost and recovers some things (won't say what) which give him a reason to live for a little bit longer.

The work also has Shakesperean influences,  the graveyard replete with grave diggers, the second half of the novel is called "To Be or Not To Be", King Lear which he put on with Nikki when she was alivethe apposite quote which opens the work is from the Tempeset : "Every third thought shall be my grave".  Judaism is an ever present as in most of Roth's work.  It also has (extremely) funny bits.

Like much art though this seems to be about sex (and there is a lot of it) it really is about death and the past.  The burden which Sabbath has had to bear of his dead brother and now lover is too much and has defined him.  The burden of Roseanna is her father who committed suicide when she left to live with her mother this is revealed in a very moving scene in her rehab which Sabbath gatecrashes.  This history is not seen as an excuse for present behaviour - Mickey in particular is almost grotesque throughout - but shows how human relationships can be crippled by them.  "What a bother we are to each other - while actually non-existent to each other, unreal specters compared to who originally sabotaged the sacred trust".

So a journey for Sabbath and for the reader.  Roth has enjoyed an Indian summer as a novelist which this sort of started but because of its difficulty is rarely lumped in with American Pastoral, the Plot Against America and the rest.

I really enjoyed this book but still am not sure if I would recommend it to anyone.  Maybe that is the best parallel that a novel can provide with real life.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hatful or Bona? : Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Product.  In the consumerist digital age there is an unquenchable thirst for it.  To counter the download culture every movie needs hours of extras for the Blu-Ray release.  Every piece of music needs a deluxe CD editon with gatefold cover and extra tunes that gives new meaning to the term B-side.  Even literature is not immune - any popular writer needs new "stuff" available:  annually if possible.  I think this is one of the reasons that novels with recurring characters (particularly crime )  are popular with publishers and bookshops: a new one with the same  people in it.

What then to do with Jonathan Franzen? - his two defining novels (out of four) The Corrections and Freedom each took the best part of a decade to write.  He even wrote a memoir in between and a bespoke collection of essays. Yet for the voracious marketing machines that surround books now this (shockingly) is pretty slim pickings.

Farther Away as a collection, I think, represents an uneasy compromise between writer and demanding markets.  Unlike How to Be Alone, the first grouping of essays, this is not a hermetically sealed piece of work but a fairly scattergun gathering of various writings in the last 15 years.

Much already published with an everlasting digital footprint - you can Google and get the full text of some of these pieces easily - in some ways this is like a tidying up, a filing of miscellaneous  by Mr. F.

And yet, and yet.  If this is all it was - a stocking filler for the fan of alienated American literature in your life - you would tell.  And despite it all this is still a powerful piece of work because, of course, the common thread is Franzen's writing itself.

Such is the strength of Franzen's "New Journalism" pieces  - represented in How to Be Alone and his memoir - that I had thought he would give up fiction for it.  Proved dramatically wrong by Freedom which fused his skills in this with the power of fiction.

The title piece here is an account of Franzen's self imposed exile in the aftermath of Freedom to an uninhabited South Pacific Island on his own.  Except he took some of his friend David Foster Wallace's ashes to scatter and Robinson Crusoe to read.  The work then becomes a fusion  of travelogue, reflection and regret over Wallace's suicide and  a history of the novel (Crusoe in some circles being considered the first ever novel).  It is an amazing piece of work and to be honest worthy of buying the book on its own - it was originally in the New Yorker.

Although the work is relatively ad hoc there are some common themes  - the death of Wallace in 2008 looms large in the later pieces as does the digital age and the creation of false identity.  The laugh out loud piece in the work "I Just Called to Say I Love You" on the horrors of mobile phone communication shows how much of a part humour plays in Franzen's writing.   Yet the two which are almost an ever present are Birds and Books.

A self-confessed obsessive ornithologist - here his tracking of bird hunters in the Mediterranean and his uncovering of a cult-like Chinese birdwatching group communicate his enthusiasm.  The latter piece on China stems from his attempt to discover where a puffin golf club cover was manufactured.Along with Farther Away these are the strongest pieces of work.

The power of literature is expressed throughout.  Unsurprisingly, as a number of these essays were introductions to re-prints of novels admired by Franzen.  He even has a good word  to say about Scandinavian Crime Fiction with his piece on "The Laughing Policeman" - series available in generic covers now!  His efffervescent prose on some writers almost makes you want to put down the book and go and seek them out immediately.  Following this I want to find some Alice Munro and Christina Stead in particular.  These are no identikit letters of reference but passionate advocacy from an avid reader.  That is infectious.

There are some off-cuts here - fairly short mostly - that you can pass over quickly but unusually these are the exception. On balance then this a worthy addition to my shelf of Franzen's writing.

Both the Smiths and Morrissey have released strong albums that were collections of work available elsewhere - the collection proved to be even stronger than the estimable single tracks.  Farther Away is not quite there but it is far from a Telstar Greatest Hits Collection, even if it is product.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Why Oh Why Oh Why Oh....Dostoevsky has a moan: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Bad holidays. We've all had them.  Indeed with cheap air flight and traffic gridlock the norm across continents a big chunk of even the most relaxing break can be taken up by a re-enactment of one of the levels of Dante's Inferno - probably one where those blooming suitcases on wheels keep banging into you.

It wasn't always thus the erudite (whoever they are) cry - the Victorian Grand Tour allowed the Elite to relax and wallow in the cultural dominance of the haute bourgeois.   Quaint boarding houses, civilised ocean liners,  lengthy steam train journeys.  Even  the Eastern Reaches of 19th Century Europe could enjoy this - intellectuals like Dostoevsky could partake.  Except er... it didn't quite work out like that.

In fact reading this slight and short work (which are not always the same thing) you almost imagine Dostoevsky with a hanky drawn over his emaciated skull moaning about the sun and the lack of decent vodka in the Montmartre.

For although this is ostensibly a journal of Dostoevsky's first trip to the West in 1862 - following his incarceration, limited freedom and prior to his writing took off fairly dramatically - that provides only a tiny portion of it.  I had an image that this is a book you could stuff in your pocket if you visited one of the cities mentioned sharing in FD's experience.  Well, nope it aint.  It is also very poorly structured,

Starting off in Germany he dismisses Cologne Cathedral "not very majestic" and Berlin because it was pissing with rain.  Then on a train he moans about French people (more of this later) and launches into a chapter  entitled "Which is Quite Superfluous"  - basically musings when he is on the train about Russia its literature and its relationship to the people.   This then merges into another rant about the French and a bit (which is quite interesting historically) about the preponderance of spies and the high level of security a tourist or traveller had to got through in 19th Century Party.

You could argue as some of the blurbs on this quite difficult to find work do that this is Dostoevsky making an important point.  He is indirectly (and actually in some passages quite directly) criticising the Russian intellectuals  who idealise the West  in particular the revolutionary France of Bonaparte and the development of literature and making his own case for the particular distinct nature of Russian Society and how outsiders are not really needed.

Though there is a partial truth in this overall the tone is of someone who doesn't really like to travel and who really (really) doesn't like French people.  Although there is some perceptive comments on Britain and its "half naked, savage and hungry population" and its drink culture - even 150 years ago!"Everyone is drunk, but drunk joylessly, gloomily and heavily",  Wha's like us!

Even in some of his comments on France he notices the dominance of the "bourgeois" and small businesses despite 1789 as we are in the era of the ludicrous Napoleon  III.  In doing this he criticises the notion of fraternity as impossible to be created in humans.  Man must be born with it or it will not be created - this would be synthetic and require compulsion.   But even this point seems like a notebook musing and not a fully developed idea.

The book then descends into more criticism of the French and then just stops.  An unreleased extra from Dostoevsky but for me more interesting for its tone (grumpy anti-French) than for much of its content.  As some of my journo pals would say needs a lot of subbing but this is only part of the problem.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The 60s Doing a Number on Us: Rabbit Redux - John Updike

As I read the next novel in the Rabbit Cycle ( I finished the first in the depths of winter) - the summer got unseasonally hot  - pardon the pun- and the American State was once again paralysed and exposed on race.  The murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of Neighbourhood Watch man - George Zimmerman on the basis of  self defence provoked protests and demos across the USA - even Obama had to comment that it could have been him.   Why this was so relevant is that this book outlines and exposes the same arguments and fautlines of racism in the USA amongst many other things though it was written 42 years ago.

Set once again in the fictional city of Brewer in Pennsylvania - it emerges in the novel that a film crew has chosen it as the epitome of the American Mid-West- which Rabbit never did run away from.  In fact 10 years on it is revealed he has hardly ever been anywhere else - never left the country or indeed visited any American city apart from military training in Texas.  But the world and its troubles have certainly visited Harry and indeed as an extension the sleepy Mid-West as well.

Set in the Summer of 1969 which was a tenser, troubled time than outlined in the god - awful Brian Adams song funnily enough.   A time of the Moon - which I will return to - but also of the immediate aftermath of 68 including race riots in York - another Pennylvanian city.  These were caused by the gunning down of a young black woman by white armed gangs.   The Trayvon issue - almost identically again. This is the world that Rabbit now lives in as his own domestic world falls apart, once again.

For this is a book - end to the first work.  The 60s have happened and what a happening they have been.  Whereas the stilted Cheever-esque world of the 50s that Rabbit tried to run away from had subtle cultural references intertwined in it and very little politics this novel does the opposite - turning up the colour of the politics and culture of the 60s till it is garish like a cheap colour tv.  We are only a few pages in and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is revealing his racist feelings towards the black population, an issue not mentioned at all in the first work.  The intervening decade was period of  a lot of internal migration in America from the South to the North.  Then he holds forth on a full blown nihilistic defence of the Vietnam War.  The news and culture of the time then are really a character themselves in the novel.

This is particularly true of the Moon Landings - these provide a narrative arc throughout the work - with quotes from Armstrong, Aldrin and the parallel Soviet mission Soyuz (also flown in 69) breaking up the chapters. This summer is one of the foundation myths of modern USA and I like how Updike used it here with it being background noise to the battles that were raging across the country at that time.  Rabbit like millions of other Americans has been forced to heed the wider universe and he doesn't much like it.  He has a desire for order and certainty - ironically given his attempt to escape from all that ten years previously.

In fact his wife Janice outlines Rabbit's raging against modern America in this way "he wants to live an old fashioned life, but nobody does that anymore, and he feels it".  His dabbling with rebellion in the previous decade was something very different to what was going on by 69.

In another way this book is a reflection of the previous work as Janice runs away in this one to her lover - again like Rabbit in the first work to the same city.  Her sexual awakening again are tied to the decade and the development of contraception and the women's movement.  Although here escape here although ostensibly radical in his politics proves to be as staid as Rabbit in some ways.

So it is Rabbit and Nelson, his son, now a teenage boy with all that entails who are abandoned in this work.  His baby daughter who died in the first work due to Janet's negligence is a ghostly presence too.  Rabbit goes into a form of disintegration with the only order being provided by his job as a typesetter in the printing industy and the TV schedules.  Yet the work and Rabbit's life take an unusual twist when he takes in an 18 year old rich-kid hippy runaway Jill - introduced to him by his black workmate in a transactional way at a night club.  He then becomes sexually involved with her despite her age and  her closesness to his son.   Then Skeeter, a black rebel, also is invited to stay by Jill in the semi-suburban home  despite his separatist views and his disdain for Rabbit and all that he stands for.

It is this part of the novel that a broader vista of American history is given with Skeeter ( a Vietnam Vet)  giving lectures almost every evening about how the USA developed.  He also makes his white audience read aloud from books - including Frederick Douglass.  This was actually quite enlightening with stuff I didn't know about the Reconstruction following the Civil War  and how in a sense an uneasy truce was made in the name of American Capitalism to allow for the continued ill treatment of African Americans if there was no interference in business.

A parallel could be seen here with the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy.  The King was allowed to return as long as he didn't mess with the merchants!  In fact Redux - means restoration and was used in a Dryden poem about that - I don't know if this parallel has ever been drawn.

Restoration also refers to Rabbit himself.  He is a cipher of a character at the beginning - racist, pro-war and not very aware.  It is always a risk of having such a person in the centre of the work (and most of the narrative does focus on him) - Jonathan Coe did this in his last work.  However the counterpoints to this are speeches from Janice's lover Charlie, Skeeter - even his son Nelson.  Rabbit seems to absorb them.  He becomes attached to his strange new family and the dope smoking attached to it (!) but there is no Hollywood moment when he confronts his racist neighbours or father.    Rabbit also has an attention to detail which Updike makes the most of.

In fact the climax of the work  is tragic like in the first - and it occurs at almost the same point in the novel. It is on a higher scale though but as in the first leads to a form of reconciliation and Janice leaves her summer lover and returns tentatively to Rabbit and Nelson.   Even though Rabbit is almost now completely destitute losing his job and his house.

What makes this work quite remarkable is that not only does it do all this but it is written with a narrative fluiditiy  - almost stream of concious-like which does not bog the book down or make it difficult to read.  It is similar I think to Virginia Woolf''s work particularly in Mrs Dalloway; so it is quite modernist.   It is also very funny in parts (honestly!) particularly in its dialogue.  I liked the pre-disaster family meal in the Greek restaurant.  Late 60s American cinema and tv is also an important part of the work - in particularly (and perhaps obviously) 2001  a Space Odyssey.   There is even a cameo  appearance by Eccles - the now lapsed clergy of the first work - who makes an important observation on Plato's cave.

The work has disturbing moments - Rabbit is violent to both Janice and Jill in quite an extensive way, the explicit sexual relationship between 18 year old Jill and Rabbit - literally twice her age and discussions of rape - perhaps date the work in terms of sexual mores.  There are passages that are quite difficult to read because of that.  But  the permanent racism of the white community is relentlessly mentioned  - Rabbit (though arguably this alters), his father, his neighbours in what essentially is a white-flight neighbourhood from Brewer thrown up quickly, and numerous other characters are sadly not as dated.

Updike's own political views were ambiguous but here he catalogues the sexual and racial tension endemic in the USA.  He offers no real salvation but I don't think I have read a better overview of America of that time.  I look forward to how the 70s hit Rabbit or if he hits them.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Locked on the inside looking in : Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Prisons have a strange status in modern society.   Most of us tend not to think of them yet Scotland (and England)  has one of Europe's biggest proportionate prison populations.   In the USA (a different league to the rest of the planet vis a vis prisoners) a massive industry has built up around incarceration - in some respects it now challenges Eisenhower's fabled military industrial complex.

The tabloid press whip themselves up into synthetic fury over so-called luxuries in prisons and the extension of the legal protection of human rights to convicts.  Even when the European Court of Human Rights argues for the right to vote ( a fairly fundamental right in a democracy)  to some prisoners - politicians from David Cameron to Jack Straw (admittedly not a very big spectrum) speak of their disgust. Even the SNP - out of step with European legal thinking - are not extending the franchise for next year's referendum: probably out of fear of a public backlash.

But for Dostoevsky prison was not a theoretical construct nor a place where you lock people up and throw away the key - it was for the 1850s his home.  As he explains the real hell of prison is  the theft of time and place which is critical to a human's liberty.  The existence of pool tables and Sky TV in cells 150 years later does not alter that.

For although as a society we may like to ignore them prisons have always been a recurrent setting for popular fiction - from novels to movies to TV serials we seem to be drawn to the darkness. Prison memoirs are also a constant phenomena - even Jeffrey Archer wrote one!  In fact the law has been altered across the whole of the UK (English and Scots Law) so prisoners cannot make money from any artistic work related to their crime or their time in prison.

This pivotal work for Dostoyevsky ostensibly has the structure of a novel - there is a perfunctory introduction explaining that the book is a recovered text from a convict settler's belongings who worked as a teacher prior to his death.  There is one other reference to this device but that is it.  This really is Dostoyevsky's own thoughts on his time inside.

It is unusual for such a traumatic life event for a fiction writer to be used in such a way.  Though not unique.  The Empire of the Sun by Ballard was  a real novel but it was based around Ballard's youth in a prison camp - though he changed several key issues in the fiction.  He later did write a memoir  - in fact his last original published work.  The House of Dead cannot really be called a novel in any sense - it is episodic and written totally from the unshaking gaze of a participant in the incarceration.  However you could argue that Dostoyevsky could not have written his master works - all of which followed this memoir - without this experience.  His view of the world and hence his fiction is sharpened, honed by his collective living experience amongst the Siberian convicts.  This he shares with Ballard whose fiction throughout his life was dominated by the Japanese war camps.

But perhaps more surprisingly in his characterisation and its outline of the hierarchy and dynamic of prison life   he creates a structure that has been followed by almost every prison drama since.  I was actually reminded more  of the underrated HBO 90/00s show Oz than I was of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich's time in the Stalinist Gulag.  This is because the writer is nearly absent he views all his fellow inmates and their interactions almost from a distance which is difficult because he is living almost on top of them.   It is like a cinema camera is omnipresent.

The different nationalities of the Tsarist Empire - the Tartars, the Poles, the Musselmesn (Muslims!)a solitary Jew are subjected to forensic examination: much as the various prison gangs were in the Oz penitentiary in Clinton/Bush America.
The absence of the narrator contrasts with his more traditional novel ( a weaker work that this) : the Humiliated and Insulted which he wrote around the same time as this where you can't escape the writer who is in nearly every scene.  For a fiction writer this was an important exercise in finding his voice.

The narrative structure dips in and out of various scenes over the writer's imprisonment - in the jail or the hospital prison which he admits he escaped to at every opportunity to escape the hell of prison.  These are mainly set pieces but some are beautifully written: the visit to the public baths, the Christmas Feast with its limited pleasures and happiness for the prisoners and the prisoners putting on an amateur dramatic  performance.  Arguably the Christmas episode (!) was part of Dostoyevsky's personal focus on the importance of religion but it fits well in the work.

One thread which runs through the work though is Dostoyevsky's alienation from the group.  This is not simply down to bullying or the fact  he was there for political activity not some of the brutal crimes which are outlined at different points in the book, particularly in one harrowing incident told as a story as one of the inmates in hospital.  It is rather a reflection of his "gentleman" status outside in the strictly delineated feudal structures of  Tsarist Russia.  Although prison is a uniform setting even that location cannot escape the class division.  This was a time of serfdom where even FD who was on the lower fringes of the system had a family that owned other human beings or souls.

This is outlined in a brilliant chapter : the Grievance.  This covers a limited revolt from the prisoners over conditions and food  where FD is told he is not welcome to take part (because of his background) and has to cower in the kitchen with the other aristocrats and various others (including the other nationalities) who do not want to participate.  In fact he outlines tremendously well the tensions of a collective action - the sort of people who don't take part,  how it begins in the first place, how it crumbles and its aftermath.  Yet more than anything it outlines the bizarre outmoded structure of feudalism (even for the 1850s) that crippled Russia and lead to a series of revolutions to remove all remnants of it.  It also shows the mindset of the peasant as well and how difficult it was to transform that - a problem Lenin and Trotsky wrote extensively about.

Dostoevesky was making a political point as well though - essentially criticising the early Left leaning aristocrats of Russia who thinks they could be part of the peasantry or be accepted.  However he is contradictory on this as his later works tend to idealise the peasantry.  I think it is also wrong to see this as a universal that people from one group will never accept another or be fully part of them - it is firmly grounded for me in the particulars of Russian feudalism.  It did show the problems facing Russian radicals at that time though - fighting to change society for a group that would not accept them or perhaps had no trust in them.

The horrors of prison life are written about particularly the use of torture, the whip and the birch but not extensively.  The real horror is the grind, the lack of human freedom and the enforced collective living - no solitude allowed.  Yet through this I think Dostoevsky by nature probably a bit of a loner learned much on human interaction.  He writes almost with a lover's eye on one of the Tartars from Dagestan (!) - Aley : or rather "my dear, dear, good Aley" .  His examination of the prison rulers - one corrupt, one effective is really strong. This means there is so much more in it than existential moans of "Woe is me" or "I shouldn't be here".

His voice or thoughts are not absent - there is commentary on all the characters and incidents but as all great writers do Dostoyevsky was absorbing everything.  Because of this there is even room for humour - not what you would think.  One thing tickled me " there were a few unquenchably cheerful souls, who for that reason enjoyed universal contempt"... You said it FD.

He cleared the decks with this work - following this all the classical titles followed.  This however is worth spending some time with - they don't make Oz anymore but this is still here.