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.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

And so I face.....The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

It's not like me I know but I thought I would begin this with a Moz quote.  "Even now in the final hour of my life  I'm falling in love again". (Life is a Pigsty).

This was a difficult book to read not because of its content or style but because it very nearly is the end.  Iain Banks announced at the start of April that he was terminally ill.  I posted the  interview he did 10 years ago with the Scottish Socialist Voice at the time.  Reading his latest (and last) Culture Novel which I was given for Xmas prior to all this  it was almost impossible to leave aside knowledge of the author.  Although I am sure in generations readers will be able to do this as it is a strong text.

This must also be true of Banks himself when writing it indeed without any knowledge of his health I thought Banks' last sci-fi was dealing with the issue of mortality.  So on a much bigger scale does this work indeed it deals with the ending of an entire civilisation in the Culture Universe - the Gzlit.  Well, in a sense not an ending but a "Sublimation" to a higher level where the consciousnesses of every individual will exist but they will leave behind the infrastructure of their society - planets, buildings, space ships etc.  It is sort of a non-religious heaven or the most advanced level a society can aim to get to.

Such a monumental event needs a big build up and indeed that is what it gets.  In another slightly ominous undertone each chapter has a countdown to the day.  But as Morrissey pointed out even in people's last hours emotions, feelings and events still occur.  The political machinations, military manouevres and inter-species politics of the Gzlit in fact reach almost fever pitch as the big day approaches.

How then are the Culture involved?  The Gzlit are not part of  the inter-galactic highest stage of communist society but they nearly were in its early days.  So the Culture have a pretty close watching brief on them and as the events of the last days of the Gzlit unfold they become even more embroiled within it.

Like in most of Banks' science fiction he outlines the detail of the fairly complex quasi militaristic Gzlit  he does this through the scheming politician Banstegeyn.  He has been the main architect of the Sublimation and does not want this threatened by anyone or anything.  This event seems to be threatened when knowledge is almost revealed by the remnants of another civilisation (already sublimed - hope you are keeping up!)  that the religious underpinning of the Gzlit society: the Book of Truth is er ...false.

So what?  Well the unique thing about the Gzlit society (and perhaps the reason they didn't join the Culture) is that every prediction and concept in the BOT actually happened.  However Banstegeyn and his military allies don't want this revealed as it would undermine the entire power structure of the society and its countdown.   This aspect of the book is quite interesting as Banstegeyn is not really motivated by money or power or being really villainous (although he does some nasty stuff) but by control and maintaining the edifice of his society.  For that greater good he is prepared to destroy a lot  - which is unusual in this fairly advanced society unlike sadly the human race we are part of.

But what drives the narrative and lifts the book from being an esoteric debate of the themes I have mentioned - a bit like the movie Solaris (the original!) - into the realm of slam bang sci-fi fun is the rogue element of the Gzlit (the Marxist -Leninist wing!) who have discovered the info and want to find out the full story.  To do this they reactivate one of their reserves Vyr Cossont - now living a  musician determined to master the playing of the ridiculously complex, almost unplayable and definitely unlistenable Hydrogen Sonata.  She has even grown an extra pair of arms to help master the only instrument in the Universe that can play it.  Prior to the M-Ls getting destroyed by Banstegeyn's forces Cossont escapes with her task to find the allegedly oldest man in the Culture QiRia who Cossont once knew.  He was involved in the discussions on the formation of the Culture and of the origins of the Book of Truth.  To do so involves her racing across the Universe pursued by a specialised military unit loyal to Banstegeyn.  So  a chase book in part integrated across a massive space opera backdrop - a form which Banks shows here he has ultimate mastery of.

The chase and destruction is where the Culture comes in.  Another thread is a meeting of Ship Minds - the highest power within the Culture where humans have passed over all functions apart from enjoying themselves to AI machines.  These conversations - a common theme particularly in the Excession novel - are witty and allow the Minds to display a character which perhaps is not very logical in the Culture universe but makes it more readable.  Caconym - an almost rogue Mind is the most cynical of the Gzlit and "humanoids" in general.  They operate also as a sort of Greek Chorus and control the intervention of their resources in this intra-Gzlit battle.  What is unclear (and not really dealt with satisfactorily) is why the Culture are so interested - albeit QiRia is one of their society,  In fact the last chapter puts the whole book and events in context for the multi-billion advanced beyond belief Culture as simply an anecdote to be shared  despite the destruction and impact it has had.

As you can see from the explanations you can get lost in books like this I guess that is the idea and there is lots more within it.  Music is examined in several critical and well written scenes.  Arguably his integration and repetition of several themes building to a climax is symphonic in nature which the title of the work nods to.  The nature of being a writer is looked at obliquely and the power you have to create and destroy.  Hedonism always a part of the Culture is also examined as a bit of an aside.  And as always much more which I could write thousands of words about.

It is a great Culture novel and a fitting testament to Banks if this is his last one but it is for fans I think maybe deliberately.  It is also a very individualised book all the protagonists are splintered from each other - there are no relationships everyone seems to be on their own.  Particularly QiRia who has lived so long he can't really relate to any other human. Cossont the "hero" who has her own doubts on sublimation has a pet and is atttacted to the avatar of a Ship! is really on her own.  Maybe this is a reflection of Banks own thoughts in his  last months - it does give the book a melancholy though.

The countdown has  a conclusion but no real resolution - a suitable allegory for human life.  A legacy, a strong brilliant legacy.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Licence to (Pub) Bore: Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson.

It is a bit of a cliche that repressed laconic Scottish men can only communicate mano a mano when discussing football.  The awkward silence can be ended with an endless discussion of the versatility of full backs or the necessity of playing two strikers when at home and so on  and so on forever.

Recently I would argue though that in Scottish football the debacle and implosion at Rangers, the continued downward spiral of the national team and endless debates on restructuring means that these have replaced discussions on tactics.  They  have fallen by the wayside or  rather put on the shelf and only dusted off occasionally maybe for Celtic's European matches or if eyes come across a Premiership game or the Champions League.  Indeed if you look at Strachan's interview and thousand yard stare post Scotland-Serbia tactical formations were probably the last thing on his or any other Scot's mind.

But this is as Jonathan Wilson's absolutely excellent book demonstrates is a very bad thing in modern football.  Ironically it was in the early years of association football that Scots led the way in developing any form of tactics when playing the game.  English Football slowly adapted to this but was always suspicious.  Indeed one of the reasons of lack of relative success in English football, he argues, is its inability to take on tactical and strategic innovation.

In giving an outline of the development of tactics in football Wilson essentially covers every major development in Wold Football in the last 150 years.  The title comes from the fact that when football began in the late 19th Century the emphasis was on total attack with 5 forwards  and 2 defenders - admiration of dribbling skills and standing off players was the norm.  A bit similar to rugby union - which was of course a posh offspring of football.

The history of football really though in Wilson's view can be looked at through the prism of this being turned on its head.  Indeed it ends (it was written in 2008) with speculation of playing with no clear attackers or strikers - the false 9 position. The ultimate inversion.  And yet the best teams seem to be adapting this system it  was really the formation that Spain used to win  the 2012 European Championship and Barcelona use every week.  It is pretty high risk though - Spain stuttered through the Euros drawing with Italy and Portugal until it all clicked in the final when they met Italy again and dismantled them 4 -0.  When off song Barcelona have lost to Celtic, Real Madrid and AC Milan playing that system.  Man United experimented with it a few years ago with Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs all playing in midfield really but now have reverted to a heavy reliance on one centre forward (R Van Persie).  Big Phil Scolari back as Brazil manager has also reintroduced a traditional striker Fred in his plans to win the World Cup.  And of course er Craig Levine tried it with Scotland away to the Czech Republic, we lost one nil.

See I have started again  most of those points aren't in the book - they happened after it was published. But that is part of the magic of the work it makes you look at football in a different way and go on and on about it. It's like a manual but readable and quite funny in places.  So through all the major events in football: the growth of the Hungary team in the 1940s and 50s, the Brazil team of the 1970 World Cup victory, the catenaccio system of Inter (defeated by Stein's Celtic), the England 1966 victory, total football of 70s Holland, the Saachi machine at Milan they are explained with the incremental changes of formations.  

It is not for everyone this book - who would guess that a discussion of the impact of the change to the offside rule in 1920s could not be universally enjoyed.  It has a lot of tables and charts  in it (!)  and the prose is pretty chunky:  "Aside from the negativity to which it leant itself, the major effect of the prevailing conception of the W-M was to shape the preferred mode of the centre-forward"... As I said not for everyone.

But as well as giving you a new way of looking at football there is loads here I didn't know about.  The significance of Austrian Football in the early days, the innovations of Soviet Football under Maslov and Lobanovskyi,  the fact that English Football through the  FA institutionalised their approach to football tactics (basically a disdain for the passing game) : incidentally explains the appointment of Erikson and Hodgson both of whom used similar methods in Scandinavian football for years.

Wilson is now my favourite football writer - not least because he can make me an even greater pub bore, if anyone was listening to me which they probably aren't... It allows me to nod sagely when Michael Owen announced his retirement - Wilson explains why Owen and his type of player have no future at the top end of football anymore.

I have a bit of a sad addiction to Talksport which endlessly dissects English football from a position of defiant lack of knowledge.  If one more pundit says "It doesn't matter what the boss says once the players step over the white line it's up to them."  I can throw this book at the radio.  Even when a Spanish manager who can't speak a word of English can come into Southampton and turn their results around with instilling a tactical discipline no lessons are learned.

A great book and luckily (from a Scottish perspective) one which the upper echelons of English football will always be dismissive of if they read it at all.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sad Reflections on life and politics: Iain Banks' Interview with the Scottish Socialist Voice from November 2002.

The desperate news that ground-breaking Scottish writer and all round excellent guy Iain Banks has only a few months to live inevitably leads to some reflection on mortality and time.  I reflected that I had been a fan of Iain Banks since I was a 15 year old at high school (and banned from writing a book review of the Wasp Factory!) when he was a very new writer.  In a sense I grew up with his writing (sci-fi and mainstream) an integrated thread of my own developments up and down in my life.  Banks is an incredibly prolific writer so since the 80s has more or less produced a book a year or 18 months or so.

Another quiet memory was an interview I did with him for the Scottish Socialist Voice which I managed to dig up from computer -  I can't find it online although I do have a hard copy.  It was in 2002 only a decade ago but politically for the Scottish Left it is a geological age.  The optimism of the (relatively) new SSP and the Scottish Parliament is here as is the growing movement against war criminal Blair which would result in the massive anti-war demonstrations a couple of months later.  Banks' latest book at the time was Dead Air - a direct response to the 11th September bombings.

Reflections on life led to me thinking about how sad the political position we are in now in when you read this.  In many ways the period of this interview was the time when the SSP was at its strongest attracting the support of all sections of Scottish society including the cultural wing, involved in the anti-war movement and industrial action (the firefighters were beginning a serious campaign of industrial action, left unity however precarious (the SWP were involved after all) seemed a reality not blind wishful thinking.  Again a few months later the SSP gained 128,000 votes and 6 MSPs.

Now that seems as remote as one of the colourful planets that Iain (M) Banks writes about.  The Scottish Left is generally a wasteground, the SSP disintegrated in the aftermath of 2 court cases  and things have been thrown back many years to way before 2002.  Personally I gave up my membership in 2011 after the Parly elections as the SSP struggled to cope with the post-court case (2010 model) terrain.  

As Banks says here: " the point is not - and never - to give up hope". There are some good signs : the Radical Independence Convention, the anti-bedroom tax demos.  But things are so much more complicated and patchy because there is no coherent left force in Scotland.  For a time there was though and Iain Banks was part of it.  Hopefully as he faces his next few months that will be a positive thought for him.  

He also turned me on to an Orchestra Baobab album which is still one of my favourites!

Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful fiction writers.  Dead Air, published a few months ago is his twelfth novel.  He has also internationally popular with his science fiction work where he has written  nine novels and created his own utopian society: the Culture. He is also, perhaps, the most famous subscriber to the Scottish Socialist Voice!  He gave his views on books, music, the world and politics to Nick McKerrell.

Dead Air seems to have caused a bit of a controversy touching as it does on  the events around September 11.  Did this surprise you?

Not really. Actually I was hoping it would stir things up a bit. A bit more, even (instead of dealing with the issues the book tried to raise, people seemed generally fixated on the fact the first draft was "written" in six weeks - it's true it was typed out in six weeks, however I'd mostly written the book in my head over the three or so months previously).

A lot of your recent mainstream novels seem to deal with a lot of topical issues is this your preferred setting?

I like the freedom of being able to write from a Science Fictional point of view, where you can deal with issues on any scale at all, but I do enjoy writing about the here and now too, because, well, that's where we all live, while still keeping the option of veering off into fantasy or magical realism or whatever, should the notion take me.

The main protagonist in Dead Air is a shock left-wing DJ  who lets rip at various points with his comments on America, the world and everything.   Did you use this to vent your spleen on the  way the world is going?

Definitely. Usually I allow myself just one obvious rant per book, but with this one I decided to make the rants more centre stage. I think since Dubya's non-election and the rightwards slide of New Labour (tm) there seems to be more to rant about.

On that theme  how do you think the world is going?

Badly, just now. The Right has been in the ascendancy since the early Eighties and has done its damnedest to persuade everybody that its way is the only way, but some of the chickens are starting to come home to roost now (the word "Enron" springs to mind, for some reason) and the point is not - and never - to give up hope. Capitalism has had it all its own way since about 1990 and the world is a demonstrably less fair, just and equitable place; alternative ways of running society need to be explored and I think more and more people are open to that idea.

How do you feel about the current warmongering of Bush and Blair?

I've never voted for New Labour and I don't consider myself a subject of the Crown, but I can't help feeling ashamed of what Blair is doing in my - our - name. What is being touted here is a war of naked imperialist aggression, an act of civilisational thuggery.

How do you think the Scottish Parliament has done in the last few years?

Not bad, so far. Not brilliant, certainly, but there have been some progressive measures (student fees, nursing care funding). The biggest scandal is the cost of the new Parliament building; were the planners/accountants from a military background? I thought only weapons systems cost eight times more than originally budgeted for.

What about the SSP?

Well, you get my vote, and I buy the paper... But stop fishing for compliments.

Would you call yourself a socialist?
I do if I bump into right-wing Americans (I don't know, there's just something about the sight of a wildly pulsing vein on the suddenly scarlet brow of a Republican-voting big-name SF author). But I'm rich*, so I'm not sure I'm really allowed to... (*This is rich in the compared-to-most-people sense, not in the Bill Gates or even Sir Paul McCartney sense.)

The Culture –Banks’s utopian universe– could be seen as a vision of a socialist society?

Yes, the Culture, which appears in most of the SF books, is socialist/communist/whateverist. There's no money, private property is synonymous with sentimental value, nothing and nobody is exploited and the opportunities for fun are pretty much unrestricted, so I like to think of it as a society that anybody could be happy in. Well, maybe not people of a determinedly miserablist nature, but they get to use really good, profoundly saturative VR, so even they're happy (relative term) too. Gee, all we need is too-cheap-to-ticket space travel and unlimited clean energy! What's stopping us?

Does it bother you that many people only read your fiction and don’t look at the sci-fi?

 Deeply. But, heck, it isn't compulsory.

Will your next book be science fiction?

 Yup. Though that's about all that even I know. It'll probably end up being a Culture story again because I just love writing about it and there's still a lot of stuff about the Culture I'd like to write about, however if I can think of a really spiffing non-Culture idea between now and this time next year when I have to start writing the blighter, I'll go with that instead (hint: I most likely won't).

How do you rate other Scottish writers?

Far too good. We're just a wee daft country; how DARE there be so many writers what are better than me. It's a disgrace. I may sue.

I know you’re a bit of a music fan.  What are you listening to at the moment?

 Red Hot Chilli Peppers: "By The Way". Or maybe Craig Armstrong: "As If To Nothing". 

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Circular Beginning of a Cycle: Rabbit, Run - John Updike

It's that time of the year again.  When the hibernation season is going on I am generally attracted to  20th Century American novels exposing the cracked reality of life inside the powerhouse of world capitalism.  This January I have begun the John Updike group of four novels examining the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom - one for each of the last decades of the last century.  I have never read any Updike but heard a lot about him when he died in 2009 and always remember his appearance on the Simpsons as Krusty's biographer- which Jonathan Franzen has also been on.

Rabbit is living in the past.   Although he lives in an apartment  with his wife and son,  a suburbof the "fifth largest city" in Pennslyvania (both places creations of Updike).  He has a job - selling the Magipeeler kitchen appliance.  This is the low -rent end of Cheever/Mad Men America - though this is set at the cusp of the 50s: 1959.  A long way from down -town Manhattan, Grand Central Station and pre-dinner cocktails, though alcohol does play a part.  He is very tall and moderately good looking. The birth of mass consumerism is here - televisions, second-hand cars, kitchen "machines that were modern five years ago" but Rabbit is a bit player in it.   And he wants to escape.

Partially that is to his past.  He was a basketball star at high school - feted by all.  But that was 10 years ago.  Rabbit is in his mid twenties - in current setting he would probably be about ten years older - I noticed a similar phenonmeon in Cheever's short fiction.  The novel starts with him jumping into a street ball game with sceptical teenagers.

So far so American.  Due to the domination of Hollywood and to a lesser extent T.V.  we are used to tales of American High School and sports stars and the faded aftermath.  It's as much an alien culture to us in Scotland as the Russian Peasants of Turgenev but its cliches and images seem to be stuck in our DNA like the annoying recurrence of a Grease Megamix.

What sets this novel apart though and raises it into a realm of universal literature, I think, is what happen next.  That is Rabbit Runs - his unhappy marriage to his pregnant Janice is put in sharp relief when he comes home after the ball game and she is drunk watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV.  He goes out for cigarettes for her and never goes back....

Except he does in a way.  His escape is complex and incomplete.  At first he seeks to drive away but in comical fashion and written with detailed geographical precision he seems to be damned to driving round in circles in the North-Eastern states of America despite a desire to go the Gulf of Mexico.  He seems to be held like a magnet and can't escape the diners and gas-stations.  He then drives back to the suburb - via his old basket ball coach he ends up living with Ruth.  She is a faded beauty who is outwith the traditional 50s America family structure.  But this is pre-60s sexual "revolution" and contraception  so there are hints of prostitution about her life and life style.  She is an interesting character but not as fully developed , I didnt think as the others.

Although living with another woman it is only on the other side of the mountain which is set bang in the middle of the suburb and gives it its name Mount Judge.   Again almost inevitably he does return to his wife and child  (when Janice gives birth) but he runs again then something tragic (and pretty shocking in the narrative of the novel) occurs and he returns and then runs again... or does he.

Though apparently the later Rabbit novels are more explicit with a running commentary of the America of the times this is a little more subtle.  All the trappings of consumerism which fail to alleviate almost any of the characters' sadness and Rabbit's feelings of failure are just there.  Like the early surf-rock music he listens to on his car radio when he tries to flee and the mention of the escape (significant I think) of the Dalai Lama from the Chinese Tibetan invasion of 1959 - the only contemporary event that is mentioned.  This says a lot about America but it is more centred on the alienation and lack of direction that Harry Rabbit feels.

He is fairly shallow though particularly when it comes to women.  The novel is pretty frank in its sexual language which was out in the same sort of era as Lady Chatterly's Lover.  Rabbit sees sex as a power weapon over the women in his life.  There are two particularly uncomfortable scenes - one with Ruth where he demands oral sex and one when he returns to Janice - which precipitates the tragedy in some ways.  They emphasise his selfishness and his personal obsession.

The novel is largely but not wholly written from Rabbit's perspective but not in the first person.  However there are a number of times when Updike shifts to a different character's perspective.  There is an excellent part dealing with Eccles, the minister for Rabbit's church  (a really well drawn character)- another part of suburbia, visiting Harry and Janice''s parents trying to reconcile the couple.  He, chronically thirsty throughout   is obviously struggling with his own faith - he justifies his job though as a social one trying to solve other people's problems: which causes him to be condemned by his wife (another woman Rabbit tries to make the moves on) and the Lutheran  hard line Protestant minister who says his only role is to be an "examplar of faith" not a "cop without hand-cuffs".

Powerfully, though, and in I think the best part of the novel, in the pre-tragedy scene he focuses on Janice as she descends into drunkenness as she thinks Rabbit has run again and causes the horrible event. It is a brilliantly written well measured scene and changes the tone of the last third of the novel significantly.  It is almost like a separate short story contained within a larger work.

Though this has ended up as part of a four novel set looking at the development of Harry Rabbit I am not sure it began like that because there is a lot here - a study of what being a man is, sex, America, religion, death.  The novel ends with the sentence.  Runs.  Literally Rabbit is pursued (not for long) by Eccles who tried hard to reconcile him to his life.   What will or can happen next?

A great book.  I intend to read the novels at different points throughout the year - I hope they are not like diminishing movie sequels but take up the themes that are explored here.