Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hot in the City:Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky



I always have a trepidation of approaching work considered as a "classic".  Not that I would feel any compunction about saying er it's not very good but rather there seems to be too much history around it - particularly in literature.  I found this weight appeared more than usual with Dostoevsky's stand out book as it is related to law in the broadest sense, the area of human "knowledge" in which I work.  But sometimes all your worries are blown away and the term "classic" is completely appropriate as in this case.  A brilliant novel.

One good sign is that the book surprises you in lots of ways.  Even having spent the last couple of years reading the novellas/novels of  Dostoevsky I still have a picture in my mind of the setting being bleak, dark, wet, cold like Russian winter cold.  But this novel is hot - really hot set at the height of summer "early July, in exceptional heat" as the first line of the novel puts it.   The crime - a double axe murder which even now in these anaesthetised times is a shocking read - takes place in the smelly, cramped heating setting of a St. Petersburg tenement flat.

Like most of Dostoevsky's other works to this point it is also unarguably an urban novel .  People and cultures are living on top of each other in the city - interacting in lots of chaotic ways.  One of the characters is killed by being run over. Again touching on another common theme of Dost the tensions are clear between the strict feudal hierarchy of Tsarist dictatorship and the burgeoning urban life/squalor of Russia's biggest city.  Immigration is also a reality with many different nationalities mentioned in particular German landlords.   One scene has the accent and lifestyles of Germans living in Russia mocked - a very modern development as nation states interact through people.

In the midst of this world a  murder happens. It occurs early in the book and we know the perpetrator.  Raskolnikov - a drop-out law student  living in the archetypal garret room not even a flat.  By the end of the work he confesses to the police.  And that's about it as far as plot goes (apart some family developments with his sister and his burgeoning relationship with a prostitute Sonya).  This is not a who-dunnit or even why -duunit this is an exploration of human psychology, interaction and ideas.

This is not a sprawling family saga but a tight, rich exploration of humanity in a very contemporary (for 1866) setting.  I cannot really understand the phenomenal success of crime fiction - puzzle solving maybe -but everything that could be strong about a crime novel was covered here by Dostoevsky:  the thinking of a killer, the consequences of meaningless violence and the ending of human life.  Every crime book or the sub genre (apparently) psychological thriller since then that touches on this pales in comparison in my view.

Dostoevsky even creates  a bumbling intellectual detective Porfiry who solves the crime early on.   His interactions with Raskolnikov are excellent mind games .  Porfriry was apparently the model for legendary TV Detective Colombo (and the structure of each show was broadly based on this work too) which you can see.  In fact every cliched detective maverick with a brain (which he's not afraid to use!) has some roots in this little man - I'm thinking Cracker with his centre piece interviews/analysis with the criminals or more obscure  Frank Pembleton in Homicide Life On the Streets -  a forerunner of the Wire.

So plot is not really the thing but characters and ideas are.  This probably explains why three has been quite a few dramatisations of it  - not because of the story but the continuing power of Dostoevsky's creations.

Some of the ideas explored are pretty basic - why kill someone?  What affect does it have on a killer, any?  Although Raskolnikov seems to create a motive -  the woman he murders is a "hag" and a money lender - he can use the money for a greater good - to re-establish himself as a student (tuition fees were about then!) and help his widowed mother and sister.  Yet he ends up killing an "innocent" - the hag's half sister and never spends the money which he steals.  In a vague echo of Johnny Cash - is he killing her "just to watch her die" or to see what will be the impact on him.    Well it's not good - Raskolnikov retreats into his shell, but life goes on and his attempt to exist with his actions as the banality of life goes on around him is spellbounding to read.

Along with these fundamental questions there is also a lot of nineteenth century ideological debate.  Another powerful aspect of this novel is that the discussion of these concepts neither seemss dated nor contrived.  Often in fiction when the author is linking the novel with an idea it seems shoe-horned in.  For Raskolnikov makes an attempt to intellectually justify the murder of "lesser" people - it is discovered that he has written an academic article (which Porfiry has read, obviously).  He argues that exceptional people have the right to overcome their conscience as they have a higher and greater aim.   Indeed the greatest people in history have introduced new laws and systems which traduce earlier ones thus they are by necessity turning things on their head.   Napoleon is a recurring (and for the time current) example.   His greatness and plans allowed him to take endless lives.  It is still a symptom of psychiatric illness to believe you are the reincarnation of Napoleon or related to it.  This is part of Dost's attack on the Nihilists and Early Utopian Socialists - essentially ascribing Raskolnikov with these views.  The ends justify the means at one level but it is a bit more than that - the ends almost require these means.    Some have seen this as an attack on Marxism but that is very unlikely as Marx's work was only in limited circles by then.  But it is an attack on "modern" or "European" responses to the radically altering world in the nineteenth century.  Particularly there are many side swipes at "What is to be Done" - the Utopian Socialist Novel.

For the problem with Raskolnikov is that even though he may believe the great man can do what he wants philosophical action the double murder he has carried out is impossible for him to bear and maintain his grip on reality.  The dichotomy of actions that end in people's deaths - it seems easier to do this when ordered from a distance - like Napoleon or even Tony Blair.  Interestingly it is the detective Porfiry who outlines the argument from the article to Raskolonikov in another memorable scene.

Again that highlights the strength of the work it is not a dry academic analysis on the impact on human pschye of killing one or two people (although it is partially that) it is a fast paced work with memorable scene after memorable scene.  In many ways like a great piece of cinema.

There are dark characters found in the grottiest bars in back streets of St Petersburg - one called the Crystal Palace accurately enough.  Early in the book he stumbles into a bar-room bore drinking his family's money away.  He gives a brilliant monologue outlining the tedium, self indulgence and delusion of all drunks.  This is so strong I almost hoped it wouldn't be referred to again - just existing as a stand alone piece.  But there is a nod to the 19th Century novel plot and the fallen daughter which the drunk refers to becomes entangled in Raskolnikov's life - Sonya.

A true villain Svidrigailov also exists in the piece - although ironically we don't discover if he actually has killed anyone (though the murder of his wife and others is hinted at) where we do know that Raskolnikov did.  He is attempting to seduce and pursue Raskolnikov's sister which he almost does in a chilling scene near the end.  He also seems to be a peadophile - marrying a 15 year old in his fifties, grooming other children.  Again a very modern, nasty dark truth written about by Dostoevsky.  Svidirigailov also kills himself which Raskolnikov cannot bring himself to do.  The nature of suicide is something which obsessed Dostoevsky.

There is so much in this work (in fact it is a book you could get obsessed with in itself).  A disturbing scene where Raskolnikov demands Sonya reads Biblical passages to him.  The comical uselessness of Luzhkin - a clerk on the make who manages briefly to convince Raskolnikov's sister to become engaged to him.  And of course the creation of Porfiry. All of the work is of its time : St Petersburg 1866 - streets, events, people are referred to but also universal.

Dostoevsky really found his voice with this book - although he had written some strong pieces as I have outlined on this blog.  Literally - this is a third person narrative although it follows Raskolnikov almost through every page: he apparently rejected the version where he was the narrator.  There are two exceptions to this - near the end the narrative breaks from Raskolnikov to follow Svidrigailov - ending with his death. Also the Epilogue which has a strange distant tone - it follows Raskolnikov (or the criminal as it calls him) to his prison exile ( a la Dost himself) and his redemption through Sonya's love and (of course for FD) religion.  I am not sure about that ending but it follows Dostoevsky's spiritual belief - the truly dark figure kills himself.
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It is great when "classics" live up to expectations and I have not really done it justice.  In contemporary writers the balance of the very new with the universal is often attempted but never that successfully.  Old Dostoevsky shows how it is done.  Amazing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Music makes the people come together: Yeah, yeah, yeah: The Story of Modern Pop - Bob Stanley.

In the mid eighties I remember hearing John Walters (Peel's legendary producer - also sadly deceased) reviewing the first ever Q magazine and speaking about the quiz within it.  He thought it was a bit sad as it seemed like to complete it you needed O levels in Pop.  An intricate study of any cultural phenomena runs this risk. Rather than appreciate the joy of a comedy routine, a painting, a poem or  even a World cup goal  you are trying to find the strings, the work behind the moment rather than see it and enjoy it for what it is.  Pop music has an immediacy and a reliance on emotional response that means a clumsy approach to analysing  it could either be tedious or ephemeral - the song could just dissipate under the weight of the microscope.

Bob Stanley (Member of St. Etienne and music journo)'s musical history of Pop is certainly intricate - weighing in at 750 pages. It certainly skirts with over the top analysis - a mentioning of a key change in  a Big Fun (not missed at all 80s Stock, Aitken and Waterman glove puppets) track- but pulls back on the whole to offer a sprawling, argumentative, informative work.  Bits of it reminded me of a long afternoon/evening in the pub with mates dissecting music track by track as pound after pound gets stuck in the juke box.

Male friends, maybe?  One criticism could be that this type of book is just an extension of preparing lists or (in the old days, apparently) rearranging your records, tapes, cds in alphabetic order - an aspect of male repressed emotion or something.  Or even worse it could be a mass compendium of Mojo and Record Collector articles or two years worth of Friday night BBC4 documentaries,  a male heavy audience! Caitlin Moran has a pretty damning with faint praise review comparing the book with a London A-Z.  - interestingly on the cover (smacks a bit of a publisher worried about how to market it).

Some of these criticisms may be valid but I say what the hell just accept that and dive in.   Yet another immediate problem is presented by trying to explore the entire history of pop music  - where do I begin (as many pop lyrics have asked) and where to end and er.. also what to leave in and leave out.  Broadly Stanley has gone for a chronological approach - starting with the first ever pop- chart (another list) - with some years because of their significance (good and bad) meriting a whole chapter on their own e.g 1960, 1970, 1985, 1991. Though this means that epoch spanning artists have a chapter (Dylan, Beatles, Bowie) which cuts across times - this can jar a little.  But it makes for some compelling essays the ones on Dylan and the Bee Gees are very good.

But then we get another issue which great minds have grappled with for eons (time and space).  How do you summarise the work of artists who could  - and have been - subject to massive tomes themselves?  It ain't easy (another oft used pop lyric) but Stanley adopts a variety of approaches.  One "interesting" method is to explore the Beatles through one album - the relatively obscure {well compared to the muso greatest lists of all time}: A Hard Days Night and argue that all the tensions, musical skills and potentially revolutionary sounds can be found in that work - which is stretching the point to say the least. But  I like his ambition in attempting it.

Alongside the chronological journey genres of pop are thrown in at the time they appeared or became most significant with chapters of their own.  Again, the problems of limits are here:  when does pop become something else? Country Music has a chapter (set in the 70s period) mainly because he chooses to stick the Eagles in that genre but there is none for (pre-pop) Blues or Jazz.  You can see why because the book would have become something else and it's already bloody 750 pages long (as the writer may respond to critics).

Reading the genre chapters I also became clearly aware that this is in many ways an internet book.  Not because I read it on a Kindle or it has hyperlinks or anything horrific like that.  I dutifully read the hard copy dragging the massive slab of a book around on my various journeys - looking at various locations like a manic street preacher with the bible - note the lower case. But because with an internet connection you have an immediate link to all the music mentioned.  The music writer must now be aware of this - he is a  curator who can highlight various tracks to the reader.  This changes the skill from describing music (or dancing to architecture) to knowing you can find the song yourself - so puts it in context.  The downside for this is that it can lead to play - list itis.  There are a few chapters where there are 7 or 8 songs just mentioned for the reader to discover for themselves.  It is quite fun to do this but made me wonder about the nature of music books now. The downside is you can lose an evening searching for say Pentangle Bsides...

Devoting a chapter to each genre is pretty unforgiving.  Let's say some have not stood the test of time - I'm looking at you skiffle and San Francisco psychedelia.    But at its best Stanley's writing can lighten up a whole style of music that entices you to find out more - early rock and roll and American 60s garage have now become my current obsession due to this.

Another thing which is pretty unforgiving is Stanley's decision making which is controversial but inevitable given the length of the work.  Some artists simply don't make the cut.  This must be down to the writer's own taste but I guess he does this because they are not original enough so just to name 4 there is no significant mention of Japan, Pixies, Blur and er the Eurythmics.  I'm actually serious about that last one - I think the early albums were significant in 80s pop.  But you may be surprised at some of the gaps

He is also very dismissive of bands - which at parts is very funny (his dismantling of the Boomtown Rats, the Britpop Chapter) even where I don't agree with him - his curt description of Carter USM but also could be seen as a nod to his editor who must have been tearing her hair out .    Stanley also takes strong stances on some issues which are arguable but at least he doesn't approach it with a " wow isn't all music wonderful"  Q magazine type style. His favourite Beatle is Paul McCartney, New Wave from 1978-81 is almost completely dismissed as chancers hopping on the back of the lull after the initial surge of punk,  he goes into more detail than in humanly necessary about the Bee Gees back catalogue, New Romantics are stuck in with a movement he calls New Pop. from 1980 -3 which includes Adam Ant, ABC, Dexys, he also completely dismisses Band Aid (with his own aid of a Moz quote) - though I think he could do better than quote Neo- Liberal economist Moyo in defence of this postion.  I like all this because again it equates with a pub/coffee shop/17th Century Salon argument.

So I think I have explored the sprawling magpie (is that possible?) like approach of the work.  But overall it comes together.  He throws up gems of tracks - for example showing how the turn of the decade Kylie singles were her best work and pretty phenomenal pop songs.   He dissects throw away tracks like the Archies' Sugar Sugar - he won me over with that one.  There is a slight tendency a la Paul Morley or Bill Drummond to say a pretty unremarkable track is the best record every made. Morley said Fantasy Island by Tight Fit was better than Led Zep III for example. Stanley does this with a lot of songs - say a couple of Bucks Fizz tracks - notably My Camera Never Lies  - which you can sort of go along with.  The power of this disposable pop is one of the reasons that 80s music is so resiliant in my eyes.  Alongside this he puts forward a case for Public Image by PIL as the most important record ever made.  But he goes too far when he says an early 90s abomination of a  single by Slade(!) with UKIP cultural spokesperson Mike Read is "stellar" - this is it!  I suppose that I feel so strongly about this shows the strength of debate you can have over what is supposedly such a short-term form.

The history is also skewed.  Bob's own preferences shine through.  There is a detailed dissection of almost every element of dance music from 1980 onwards track by track - every element of Detroit techno minutiae to the growth of happy hardcore in Rotterdam(!).  Very informative and in Moran's terms encyclopediac but compare the discussion of 80s indie music over two pages (Morrissey's solo career 25 years old is literally covered in a footnote).  Debatable over which was more influential on pop but not in thie work.  There is an element of student dissertation here - he quite simply seems to run out of space so has to cram a lot in.  The ending is a bit unsatisfactory - the essential conclusion being that nothing new, original or listenable has been made since the turn of the millenium.  I am not clear if that is what he really thinks or if it just a question of time (as Depeche Mode -brief mention in work- said).  It also has a geographic bias - key Scottish and Welsh bands aren't really explored but my god he does a lot in the work.

A book to read, cross reference when searching you tube, spill coffee on and argue about.  Big, all encompassing - probably too much - and flawed.  And much better than 2 years worth of BBC 4 Friday night documentaries.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Money doesn't talk it swears: Rabbit is Rich - John Updike

1979.   It seems to loom large in my existence at the moment.  35 years ago it may be but the current Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 are from this year: great episode last week - Sunday Girl number 1 - and Bowie and Elvis Costello on! It was also the year of the first constitutional referendum in Scotland relevant in 2014 - a victory but a defeat for devolution.  Of course it also lives in infamy as the year of the first election triumph of Thatcher although the economic model she devastated society with had already a couple of years behind it having its birth pangs in Chile amongst other places.  So the end of an era or the beginning - or a bit of both.

Such contradictory times are an ideal setting for a good novel and the year 1979 is when Updike chose to set his third Rabbit novels Rabbit is Rich - a decade on from the racial tension of Rabbit Redux.  For although Rabbit has still not moved from Brewer the economic beginnings and ends over the Atlantic in Uk plc were global and Rabbit Angstrom was right slap bang in the middle of it - as the ambiguous title of the work tells us.

By this work Updike had decided that there was going to be four of these novels which meant there was always going to be an inherent danger that this being the 3rd it would fall in to a bit of a rut.  It could have just been a review of the 70s, popular references, fashions etc and lose its focus as a novel  But as a piece of work it never fell into any of these traps - in fact I think it could be the strongest of the three I have read so far.  One of Updike's skills as a writer of contemporary fiction writer I have found is that he can identify things about living in the era that are immediate but universal.  So, the observations of the time are neither kitsch or immediately dated.  Nixon  - a critical figure for the American  70s - gets a throw away mention on page 2 although the Watergate hangover arguably fuelled the dash to consumerism and the tone of the novel.

The other benefit of the Rabbit series is that we are in his head and know of major events that have crashed into him.   The narrative itself is almost exclusively from his perspective with a slight detour with his twenty something son Nelson, now a college dropout.   So the reader can hit the ground running or not (!) for I think you could enjoy it on its own mainly because of the period where the characters operate.

Ironically given the context Updike has really struck oil by setting the work at this transitional time of consumerist capitalism.  For Rabbit from the opening scene of him standing in his dusty car showroom where he works to the final scene settling into his heavily mortgaged "dream home" has the trappings of success defined by the wealth of American capital.  He is Rich... or is he?

Now back with Janice (they were reconciled at the end of Redux) almost totally - he lives with his mother in law (father dead) in her house, has a job at her dead dad's car dealership - notably a Japanese brand: Toyota.  Even his sexual proclivities - such a big part of the other novels are for the most part focused on Janice - with one fairly major exceptions.

The accumulation of wealth by Rabbit is outlined with unerring mundanity by Updike - the prose is full of figures and dollar signs, interminable conversations about car finance and investments.  But this is of the time and by that I don't just mean 1979 I mean 2014.  For the period of credit fuelled capitalism really sprang into life then - fuelling Thatcher and Reagan lets not forget too- and has never gone away despite the crunch 30 years later starting in one of the banks that Rabbit keeps his deposit box.

Those are just the trappings though for like the credit Rabbit's wealth seems based on sand - all in the hands of his wife and inlaws - who abandoned him in  Redux and who he sprinted away from in the first novel.  The world he lives in is as defining - the Iranian hostage crisis so critical to the petro-economy of the US buzzes away in the background, the oil price spike in the dog days of Jimmy Carter - even the young pope John Paul II's visit to the land of Mammon all seem to directly affect Rabbit in a way similar to the moon landings in the last book.  Disco - with the voice of Donna Summer - is the partial soundtrack as Harry tries to dissect the lyrics of Hot Stuff.  Tellingly most of this news arrives with Harry Rabbit on his car radio as he drives around burning oil.

The so called success and potential social climbing which Rabbit wants to indulge in is disrupted in many ways by the past in two ways.   Firstly Nelson appears with a girl in tow strangely determined to make it as a car salesman and drop out of Uni  and also the sight of a beautiful teenage girl makes him obsessed that she is his daughter from his 1950s scandalous tryst with Ruth.

The tension between this superficial belief in "wealth" and his struggle with his family real and imagined provide the real strength of this work .  Where does Rich - ness come from? . In the other two books there seemed to be a character that acts as a vehicle for monologues that contextualise the underlying themes of the books - Skeeter in Redux and Reverend Eccles in Run.   There is no one figure like that here although Rabbit's personification of success: Webb Murket - older with a very young wife does seem to represent consumerism and the trappings of wealth - this is more reflected in what he has rather than what he says.

The conflict really comes with his son Nelson who like all twenty somethings is simmering with rage about pretty much everything but again the reader has a good chance of knowing why he would be particularly angry with both his parents - having been abandoned at different times by each of them. The narrative arc of the work largely focuses on Nelson's return home with more than usual baggage - a pregnant girlfriend eventually emerges as does a curiously dated (even for 1979) shotgun wedding. Reflecting the essential small town nature of the Pennsylvanian city they live in.  Becoming a Dad at a similar age to Nelson Updike outlines brilliantly the gamut of emotions young fathers have - fear, pride, happiness, loss, gain - a bundle of contradictions.  Repeating his father's life in many ways although Rabbit with his eye on the consumerist prize hardly seems to notice - yet Nelson still maintains his independence.  I thought the antipathy and love of the relationship between father and son was particularly well written.

The other "family" story culminates in Rabbit meeting Ruth - a much altered yet at base similar person from 20  years before.  Ambiguities hang over this encounter which I thought was  a little unfulfilled  - perhaps Updike was setting this up for resolution in the last novel : it did feel a little contrived.

 The narrative style again is stunning in places with its ability to transmit human thought particularly male thought in a readable way.  I liked the interspersing of violent fantasy with banal thoughts - acts against Janice mainly - really exposing the underlying anger within Rabbit - the intermittent flashes of this along with crude sexual imagery is genuinely shocking in places.

The endless alcohol - Nelson's slightly older other half Prudence (Shamefully for Rabbit's bigoted mother in law a Catholic) drinks constantly through the pregnancy, Janice seems permanently sozzled- the social climbing of the country club, the nouveau riche trappings of the Murkett's home provide a real seventies flavour of the establishing U.S. middle classes.  Rabbit even manages his first trip overseas in his life to the Caribbean culminating in another 70s image - a night of  wife swapping swinging.  That scene has all the awkward sweaty details that you could imagine as does the aftermath and consequences.

As well as all this the novel is very very funny in places. The drawn out scene where Rabbit and Janice change their investment from Gold to Silver dollars (as recommended by Capitalist scion Webb) and move it across town is hysterical. As is much of the dialogue between Rabbit and his greek chorus of fellow social climbers.

Are the tensions and contradictions of this era resolved for Rabbit?  There is no real conventional plot as life began before the book started and goes on after it.  Yet movingly in his mortgaged up to the hilt house the last paragraph has him holding his newborn grandaughter "hardly weighing anything but alive".  Is this the Richness? or as the penultimate sentence put it "Another nail in his coffin".  Perhaps all will be revealed in the next decade and final book. Or perhaps not.


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...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.