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.