Saturday, October 31, 2009

Van Gogh's letters

A new, six volume edition of Vincent Van Gogh's letters has just been published. At a mere £325, I can hope that Santa bags a set for me this Christmas.

I read a lot of his letters a few years ago (in the old Penguin edition) and they are a stunning portrait of the artist. We have this notion of Van Gogh as a kind of idiot savant - the old 'this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you' ideal - but it isn't accurate. He was a highly intelligent, thoughtful, insightful man. There's no question that God - his presence or lack - plays a part in the Van Gogh story, as he does in the stories of so many great artists. The constant questing for some sort of meaning to it all is what defines an artist and for people like Van Gogh, born and brought up in a strict religious environment, the struggle for understanding can be painful indeed. For the sake of his sanity, you might wish Vincent had simply seen sense and renounced his god, but then we might have been denied his artistic genius. That's a pretty selfish way to look at things, I suppose, but there you are.

60 second recaps

I can imagine a lot of people will disapprove of this, but it seems to me a brilliant way of getting young people into reading. The Boston Globe reports on a new website which offers sixty second video introductions to classics such as Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men and others. Geared towards the YouTube generation, they offer sound introductions to the works, and try to put them in a context which the young people will understand, and which will attract their interest.

How many young people are lost to the joys of reading because they're forced to read dusty old books that mean nothing to them? This sort of initiative seems ideal to me.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Defending your mother before justice

There has been much debate about fascism in the UK recently, what with the election of two British Nationalist Party members to the European Parliament and Nick Griffin’s appearance on a prime time television debate. I’ve previously mentioned, also, my support for the new Folk Against Fascism collective, which seeks to negate the BNP’s stated ploy of using traditional music as a means of promulgating their exclusive, insular, divisive beliefs.

Is it a real concern, or a momentary blip in public perception? Remember, the Green Party, in the nineties, won over a quarter of the votes in a previous European election, and yet they still do not have any Westminster representation to this day. That, then, would suggest little cause to worry – nothing but a protest vote, a transient expression of discontent. But is it?

Consider how environmentalist views have become mainstream in the past decade. Recycling is king; green is good; waste is bad. That nineties protest vote for the Greens has gone the way of all protests, relegated to the history books, but the election presaged a battle of beliefs, and no-one can argue that green ideas and ideals have not now embedded themselves firmly in our culture. Thus, may we anticipate, ten or twenty years from now, the views of the BNP, currently considered beyond the pale, becoming acceptable, even popular? It is not beyond the realms of possibility. Fascism feeds on discontent, on economic strife, on divisions in society. And these we can see in the UK today. It appeals to the disenfranchised, to those who perceive – rightly or wrongly – others to be getting more than their fair share, worse, to be getting part of the disenfranchised’s share: immigrants getting our jobs, single mothers jumping the housing queue to get the best homes, politicians with their snouts in the trough, while good, honest, law abiding folks have to stump up the extra taxes to pay for it all and get nothing themselves in return. For such people, the simplistic, binary rhetoric of fascism becomes seductive: we are right, they are wrong; we are good, they are bad; we are united, they are the enemy. We fight, they are destroyed.

There is a horrifying logic to this, and history gives precedents; Mussolini came to power by promising social reforms in an impoverished country; the Nazis grew from inconsequential thugs to a ruling elite in a very short space of time by manipulating the concerns of ordinary citizens. But that is not the whole story. The Nazis’ rise to power did not occur simply as a response to the fin-de-siecle economic and social despair experienced in 1920s and 1930s Germany: partly, yes, but not wholly.

Nazism drew on a kind of primitivism which was in response to the perceived ills of modernism. For them, modernism was a horror to be confronted if civilisation was to be brought back from the brink. Rationalism, that curse of the intellect, and its dangerous bedfellow atheism, the increased use of mechanisation and growth of technology, the growing materialism of society, all were to be abjured. The cry came for a return to earlier times, to a better world. And, to fill this gap, the Nazis began to construct a mythology of their own, a volkish folklore in which common values and decent principles were exalted. That such a time and such a state never existed does not matter: the Nazis created it, and in the culture they nurtured in the 1930s and 1940s it came to exist. And circling around the Nazis, increasingly seduced by this amalgam of populist theory and elitist prophesying, there was a growing band of malcontents. Not only the disenfranchised poor, but weary intellectuals, seekers after greater truths, religious freaks, pagans, earth worshippers, naïve folklorists, idealistic conservatives, people stuck in the past, hankering after the old days of the greater Germany, the anti-rationalists, the fundamentalists, scientific and biologist lunatics, those who sought to destroy modernity and return, Rousseau-like, to better ways, the racists, the haters, those people who saw violence as a means to an end and saw hate as a positive force. It was an unholy alliance. In matters of principle these disparate groups would have disagreed, except in one respect: the present was bad, backwards to the future, culture must be redrawn.

Throughout the Nazi era there was a gradual tightening of control on all areas of cultural life. Their promotion of Aryan art and deprecation of degenerate art is well known, of course, but in all other areas of cultural life there was a similar strangulation of dissent and restraint of alternative opinion. What happened is that culture became institutionalised. I don’t know whether or not artists in Germany did enough to oppose this, and I cannot say whether, in the same position, I would have had the moral and physical courage to object either. But a time will come when the same sorts of choices will have to be made again. What must be understood is that fascism is not merely a political philosophy. That is only its manifest appearance; underneath it is the cultural imperative that drives people to discontent with the status quo and to wishing for a return to a previous, mythical existence. The BNP cannot be defeated purely in terms of political debate. Indeed, to attempt to do so is to ensure its likely victory, because in the instant fury of argument, reasoned debate cannot counter rabble-rousing rhetoric. The debate must be held on a much wider level. It is the nature of society itself which is at stake, and which must form the basis of that debate. It is up to artists and people who care about our culture to lead that debate. Those malcontents who were seduced by the Nazis must not be allowed to be so again.

And so, if the BNP do rise to prominence in the UK, it will not be because of Nick Griffin. It will be because of the folk singer whose hatred of racism can only be argued in the abstract, not the concrete. It will be because of the politician who thinks Nick Griffin exists in a vacuum and therefore refuses to enter into dialogue with him. It will be because of the activist who cannot relinquish the sacred cows of her dogma. It will be because of the academic who thinks that authors and artists have nothing to tell society. It will be because of the archbishop who does not condemn religious intolerance. It will be because of the blogger preaching to the converted. It will be because of the conservative who lives in a past that never existed. It will be because of the neighbour who doesn’t speak up when she sees people around her being threatened. It will be because of the newspaper editor who peddles shoddy untruths about this year’s latest hate group. It will be because of the parent who doesn’t instil civility and decency and consideration for others in her children. It will be because of the schoolteacher who teaches a narrow curriculum and ensures her pupils learn facts but know nothing.

It will be because of the ordinary man you see in every street in every town, because no-one stopped to listen to him, because the folk singer dismissed him as racist, because the politician thought Nick Griffin wouldn’t appeal to him, because the activist got her opinions about him from books, not from him, because the academic was too arrogant to hear him, because the archbishop never met him, because the blogger didn’t talk to him, because the conservative hated him, because the neighbour was scared of him, because the newspaper editor wanted his money, because his mother couldn’t control him, because his teacher had targets to meet, because everyone thought he was just an ignoramus, everyone looked down on him, everyone had their own sweet opinions of their own sweet selves and everyone’s heads were so far up their own arses they couldn’t see the tidal wave of intolerance and hate and anger sweeping towards their culture and destroying it. It will be because of them. It will be because of me. It will be because of you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Heaven Can Wait by Cally Taylor


Something a bit different today. I don't often review chicklit on this blog, but I'm delighted to make an exception because this month sees the publication of the first novel by a former writing colleague of mine, Cally Taylor. Her book, Heaven Can Wait is a "quirky and enjoyable ghost story" and, to tie in with its publication, Cally has been undertaking a virtual tour, visiting various blogs and writing sites to discuss her book, her writing, her future plans and so on. And today she's dropped in on me, so I took the opportunity to ask her a few mostly craft related questions.

TC: We used to be in an online writing group together, Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp, which was strong on writing discipline and making sure you write, write, write every day. Did you find that useful when you were starting out?
CT: Absolutely! When I was writing “Heaven Can Wait” I wrote nearly every day and finished the (100,000 word) first draft in three months and three weeks. The good thing about doing that was that the story was always in my head. The downside was that it was exhausting and I had to give myself some time off writing afterwards to get my energy levels back up.

TC: And do you still do it? How much do you write/rewrite every day?
CT: No. I still do something to do with writing every day but it’s not always writing or rewriting because I’m so busy promoting Heaven Can Wait. There’s also quite a lot of admin to deal with once you get a publishing deal, not least all the tedious accounts, VAT and National Insurance stuff – and then there’s the not-so-small matter of my day job. Because I wrote Heaven Can Wait so quickly I didn’t really have a social life for four months. I wanted to achieve a healthier balance between my writing world and the real word when I wrote my second novel. This time it took me seven months to finish the first draft.

TC: One of the good things about Boot Camp was the group spirit, which encouraged you to write when you might otherwise not have bothered. Writing can be lonely. Do you still have any support networks like that, or are you on your own, just you and the novel?
CT: Yes, I’m part of some fantastic online support networks. One group, the Novel Racers, was set up by published authors Kate Harrison and Lucy Diamond and the idea behind it was that the writers could ‘race’ against each other to complete their first draft whilst also offering support via a weekly online ‘coffee morning’. The other group, A Story a Fortnight, I set up myself. We try and produce a short story a fortnight (aimed specifically at the women’s magazine market) and have sold over 50 stories in the last 18 months. My own short story output has been a bit lacking recently because writing and promoting my novels take up so much of my time but, hopefully, I’ll be a more active member again once novel two is done and dusted.

TC: One of the things Alex taught was ‘writing drunk’, letting the words and story flow without plotting. In your novel, did you sort out your plot in advance? How difficult was it to do that? How did you go about it?
CT: When I came up with the idea for Heaven Can Wait I knew immediately what would happen in the first seven or eight scenes. I also knew what would happen at the end. What I didn’t know is how the main character would get from A to B. In that sense I definitely wrote ‘drunk’ – I let the character lead me through the novel. It’s a much scarier thing to do for a novel than a short story because novels are so damned long and, if you’re not careful, it can end up meandering all over the place. But that’s what editing is for – tidying it up.

TC: We did a couple of Children in Need 24 hour writing marathons, where we stayed up all night and wrote a different story every hour, on the hour. Would you ever consider doing something like that again?

CT: I really enjoyed participating in the Children in Need 24 hour writing marathons and took part in two (though I didn’t write for the full 24 hours for either of them). I loved the adrenaline buzz knowing that the minutes were counting down and that I had to produce something, anything, to hit my target and get my sponsorship money. I also produced some flashes that really surprised me – stories I’d never have written in normal circumstances (and some of them not bad).

TC: How is writing a novel different from short stories? You often hear people saying that the short story is more difficult because it has to be so condensed, whereas you have more freedom with a novel. But then there’s the plotting thing I mentioned earlier, and maintaining the pace and so on. What is your experience of writing the two different forms?
CT: I find writing short stories much, much easier. I always write short stories in one sitting – I start writing, get carried along with the flow, and keep going until I get to the end. You can’t do that with a novel; you have to keep stopping and starting and hold what you’ve already written in your head for a long time. When you write a lot of short stories you develop an instinct for whether it’s working or not as you write it – with a novel you don’t have a clue until you finish it and read it through. Pace is definitely something that needs to be looked at when you’re editing a novel. It’s very easy for a character to become overly introspective and slow everything down.

TC: You’re now writing chick lit, which is very different from the sorts of things we wrote in Boot Camp. But the act of writing is presumably much the same, whatever genre you are using? Would you agree? Or are you using different skills for your new work?
CT: The act of writing is the same – of course – but the difference is I’ve found my voice by writing chicklit. When I was in Bootcamp I felt a lot of pressure to craft a perfect literary short story and I don’t think that came naturally to me. I write light, dialogue-heavy prose with lots of humour, a good dose of romance and some tear-jerking moments. It’s what I do best.

TC: Although we never knew who wrote what in Boot Camp because the stories were anonymous, I could often tell your stories because you had a distinctive, quirky style, with a lot of tart, even black humour. I seem to recall a story called Bookmunch was yours, and Six Uses for a Hedgehog. Is that element still evident in your writing? How would you describe your style?
CT: I find it hard to categorise my humour and find it interesting that you describe it as tart/black. Personally I think I can be quite puerile at times! As long as it makes people laugh I don’t mind what my humour is described as.

TC: I’m interested in how you approach rewriting, because it’s something I don’t do a lot of. Do you just go back to the start and begin again, reading and rewriting as you go along, or do you read it all again and look for problems, and then fix them? How do you do it?
CT: Funnily enough I didn’t rewrite many of my short stories. They either came out well-formed or they didn’t (and I’d ditch them). You don’t have that luxury with a novel. Unless you are very, very fluky – or you edit as you write – a novel is going to need a hell of a lot of work before it’s good enough to get published. I tend to take my editing in stages – an initial edit to fill in gaps, fix the structure and check the story/character arcs, then more specific edits where I’ll look at tightening up the prose, checking timelines/setting etc.

TC: I read today that Jeffrey Archer has just rewritten Kane and Abel, and in the process he rewrote 25,000 words but cut 32,000 words. Obviously, you’re a much better writer than Jeffrey Archer, but did you find the same thing? Did the rewrite get leaner or fatter? How many of your babies did you have to kill?
CT: The first draft of Heaven Can Wait was 100,000 words long and I edited it down to about 85,000 words before I sent it out. It was cut again – down to 80,000 words – after my agent asked me to work on making it pacier and then increased to about 82,000 words after my editor asked for more description. When I was editing it I killed a lot of the more introspective/reflective scenes because they really slowed the pace down.
I’m currently editing my second novel. Again, the first draft was about 100,000 words. It grew to 105,000 words while I was editing the initial scenes and has since slimmed down to 95,000 words (I’m 65% of the way through the first edit). I’m not sure what the final word count will be but I think it’ll be between 90-95k. Of course then I’ll have to do another edit where I specifically look at tightening up the prose so it’ll probably slim down even more.

TC: You got yourself an agent and, it seems to me, you got your first publishing deal fairly quickly after that. Is that right?
CT: Yes, I got my agent in September 2008 and she got me a two-book deal with Orion the next month. Foreign deals with Bertrand Brasil (Brazil) and Goldmann (Germany) followed quite swiftly and there have been a few more over the last year.

TC: How did you go about getting your agent? Any tips for aspiring writers?
CT: I got my agent by buying a copy of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and looking through the listings for literary agents who represented chicklit and/or women’s fiction. I drew up a shortlist of six agents who represented successful authors in the genre and sent them a cover letter, synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel (or whatever they asked for).
My tip would be to choose the agents you approach carefully – don’t go for a scattergun approach. Agents receive so many queries a day (the Darley Anderson Literary Agency receive 1,200 a month) that they appreciate it when you show in your cover letter that you’ve done your research and chosen them for a specific reason. If you’ve got short story credits to your name (print publications or competition wins) list the best ones in your cover letter – it’s proof that you’re a writer with potential.

TC: What’s next? I know you’re working on novel two at the moment. Any other ideas bubbling away?
CT: That’s right – I’m currently editing novel 2 but an idea for novel 3 is bubbling away. I’ve also signed up for a screenwriting course. I’m not sure if I’ll actually end up writing a screenplay but I’m a massive film fan and think there’s a lot novelists can learn from how films are written and structured.

TC: And finally, what book or story do you wish you’d written?
CT: There are so many but I’d think I’d have to settle on ‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell. The structure and story are fascinating and I don’t know a single person who’s read it and not enjoyed it.

Thanks very much, Cally. I notice that I am day thirteen of your blog tour, so I hope it doesn't prove to be unlucky. I was in my local branch of WH Smith today, and there was a copy of Heaven Can Wait on the shelves, so I put it on face-on display for you. I'll go back tomorrow to see if it's been sold... Meanwhile best of luck with it, and hope books two and three go well.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blindness by Jose Saramago


Blindness begins with a man inexplicably going blind as he sits in his car in the middle of a traffic jam in a nameless everycity. What follows is swift and horrifying. The white blindness is highly contagious and, one by one, everyone the man comes into contact with also goes blind, including an opthalmologist to whom he is taken for help and his entire waiting room of patients. Realising the imminent danger of an epidemic, the authorities quarantine the infected and their relatives in a disused mental asylum, where they are forced to live in rudimentary conditions. The situation quickly deteriorates. More people are struck blind and they, too, are forced into the asylum. The numbers increase. There are insufficient beds. There is insufficient food. Sanitation breaks down. Within a short period of time the inmates are living in squalor and filth, quite unable to fend for themselves. Illness is rife, made worse by hunger. Impotent, the authorities are left terrified. A group of inmates is shot dead while waiting for food, and the survivors have to bury them to prevent further outbreaks of disease. Chaos and disorder reigns. Meanwhile, on the outside the contagion is spiralling out of control. Ultimately, everyone – perhaps in the country, perhaps even the entire world – is struck blind. Society has collapsed.

All of this unfolds with a terrifying inevitability. Left on their own, unhelped by the authorities, unable to see and thereby to help themselves, the inmates have no defence. They do not even think of themselves as people: no-one is named in the novel and, when they are first gathered together and effect introductions, they call themselves ‘Number One’, ‘Number Two’ and so on. In such circumstances, hope, that most important of human emotions, withers. When they are confronted by a gang of blind men who effectively stage a coup in the asylum, installing themselves as de facto rulers and controlling the supply of food, they are helpless. They agree to the men’s demands for all valuables to be gathered and given to them in exchange for food. That suffices for a short period, but we sense already that it will not be enough. Eventually, inevitably, the call is issued for female inmates to present themselves to the ruling group, submitting their bodies in exchange for food for themselves and their menfolk. Shorn of hope, devoid of options, they accede, and the descriptions of sustained rape and brutality are harrowing in the extreme. This represents the nadir of the novel, the moment in which society disintegrates entirely, when barbarity triumphs over civilisation. What we do not realise at this stage is that outside the asylum the same thing is happening in the rest of the country.

This is, however, a novel of hope. Initially, it appears we are being confronted with a Hobbesian ‘condition of war of every one against every one’ but, gradually, an order of cooperation and mutuality develops. Among the patients is the wife of the opthalmologist who, alone, has not been struck blind. She finds the moral courage to commit an immoral act and, resulting from this, a group – largely comprising the initial victims from the doctor’s waiting room – makes an escape from the hospital. What they escape into, of course, is the same condition magnified: a country in ruins, populated by groups of blind people foraging for whatever food they can retrieve that has not yet rotted. Unable even to find their own homes, people live wherever they happen to be, and their entire consciousnesses are consumed by the need to eat, to survive. They have regressed to an animal state, and this represents an essential thematic element of the novel.

It is important, however, when talking of humanity and animalism, not to simplify Saramago’s message into a straightforward binary of ‘human good, animal inferior’. That is not at all what he is saying. He is referring, rather, to the consciousness, the ability to think objectively rather than entirely subjectively, which singles out humanity as a higher order. And, Saramago is telling us, man is in danger of losing that. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he wrote:

Blind. The apprentice thought, “We are blind,” and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow creatures.


The spiritual blindness which has befallen humanity is occasioned by loss of empathy, that ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of somebody else. In Blindness, however, despite the doctor’s wife’s immense courage and great morale stature, the character which best articulates those human emotions of empathy and compassion is a dog, the ‘dog of tears’ which attaches itself to the group of survivors and licks away their tears. It becomes a strong symbol of goodness, indeed it is one of the key characters of the novel. When it sees dead humans rotting in the street and being eaten by other dogs, it reacts in horror:

The dog of tears moves closer, but death frightens it, it still takes two steps forward, suddenly its fur stands on end, a piercing howl escapes from its throat, the trouble with this dog is that it has grown too close to human beings, it will suffer as they do.

Thus, animalisation is essential to the novel: throughout, the descent of the characters is depicted in animal terms – crawling on all fours or being described as pigs or dogs and so on. But here Saramago is not talking literally of the difference between animals and humans, but rather of the ability to show understanding and compassion and love. To have a grasp of these concepts elevates one above the mere animal. And it is the ‘dog of tears’ that best embodies this.

After their escape from the asylum, the group retrace their steps back into their previous lives, returning to their old homes as though in some way they might return to their pre-blindness condition. They cannot. Their homes are now mostly inhabited by other people and they have no connection with them any longer. Finally, they return to the flat of the doctor and his wife, which has been left untouched. The doctor’s wife finds food and the group settle into a vestigial approximation of comfortable normality. In small measures, a degree of humanity returns to them. Torrential rain, for example, gives them water to clean the dirt and encrusted excrement from their bodies, an act which is presented as being almost spiritual, a purification of mind through cleansing of body. It proves to be a turning point: the novel ends in hope, heart-wrenching hope. Some semblance of humanity is rediscovered.

Saramago’s style is challenging. He creates long, elaborate run-on sentences which meander from subject to subject and meaning to meaning, and dialogue is completely undifferentiated from narrative, to the extent that the words of different characters are not given separate lines but flow continuously on the page, separated only by commas. It takes time to get used to this but after a few pages it begins to feel natural and gives a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality to the writing. The resultant sense of confusion and disorder beautifully mirrors the emotions of the characters themselves, terrorised as they are in their white tombs.

Blindness is clearly an allegorical novel, a cautionary tale presenting a via negativa in which the reader is presented with a vision of the future that we – all of us – are in danger of creating. But what is Saramago’s specific target? Given that the novel is scrupulously neutral in terms of place, it is probably not political. Rather, it is operating at a higher level than mere politics: it is not the administration of human society that concerns Saramago, but its soul. Civilisation, the nature of humanity itself, is his subject matter. We are in danger, he is cautioning us, of losing sight – and here the metaphorical is made horrifyingly literal – of what it is that makes us unique, of what it is that civilises us. We are increasingly living isolated lives, trapped in our own solipsistic worlds, oblivious of the warp and weave of humanity around us, becoming resistant to love. This is what society is coming to: numbed, lost, insensate, blind. The main protagonists of the novel mostly represent a flawed humanity before blindness strikes them: the girl with dark glasses turns to prostitution and has cold sexual relations for money; the good samaritan who comes to the aid of the first man to go blind steals his car; the first man is in an unhappy marriage, unable to communicate effectively with his wife; and so on. Only by reflecting on truth, on compassion, on love, can humanity be restored. And, gradually, this is what happens in the novel. Trapped in blindness, the characters come to see. Written like that, this sounds trite and shallow, but such is the depth of Saramago’s vision and the warmth of his compassion, the reader is swept into the narrative and drawn inexorably towards his message. Only at the end, in a scene inside a church, is Saramago’s theme delivered in a heavy-handed fashion. This is a great pity, a clumsy, clunky, McCarthy-like intrusion of author into the narrative in order to force home a message when that message has already eloquently been explained. It is most clearly enunciated, near the end, by the doctor’s wife, when she says: ‘I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’ Again, taken out of its context, this could sound dangerously close to new age waffle but, coming from the mouth of this strong, humane character, it conveys perfectly the call for compassion and community that the novel so powerfully portrays. Blindness is a rallying cry for humanity, a beautiful and terrifying work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The editing process

This is a really good article on editors and the posthumous alteration of texts, usually without the permission of the deceased author. There are a surprisingly high number of examples. It's occasioned, of course, by two high profile examples - the newly published original versions of Raymond Carver's short stories, which I've written about on here before, and the 'new' Nabokov, the one we've known about for years, that Nabokov said should be burned. It's finally being published. Is that a good thing?

Probably not. If Nabokov wanted it burned it's probably because he knew it wasn't publishable. Maybe it could have been if he'd lived long enough to work on it, but he didn't, so it shouldn't. I don't think it should have been burned either, but it could easily have sat in whichever library has Nabokov's paper, available for researchers because there will be some insights into the author to be had from it, but not published and tarnishing his reputation.

As I said, it is surprising how many books were changed after an author's death. I didn't know that Billy Budd was unfinished, for example: it was finished by Melville's wife and editor. And I didn't realise that there are two versions of Tender Is The Night in circulation, in which the order of the three sections is different.

I can't help thinking there is a great movie in the Carver/Lish thing. Because writing is everything to a writer, Lish's radical cuts and Carver's dislike of them feel almost like a fight over the man's soul.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin


Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is a fascinating mess. It’s not a novel; it’s not travelogue; it’s not anthropology; it’s not philosphy, not political philosophy. It is some of each of these, a perplexing, intriguing gumbo, but in the end it becomes something and nothing.

In the novel, Chatwin is clearly attempting to enunciate the notions he has of humanity and civilization and the way we have evolved. He has a central thesis – that mankind is essentially nomadic and broadly peaceful – and he seeks, in the way of all poor science, to work from this notion backwards towards the proof. In the end, even his frustration spills over, and the last half of the novel is, frankly, bizarre. Perhaps brilliantly bizarre, but still bizarre.

The novel is a lightly fictionalised account of Chatwin’s investigations into Aboriginal culture in Australia. In it, ‘Bruce’ and his guide Arkady visit Australia’s interior, interviewing Aborigines and whites about songlines, the invisible (to non-Aborigines) tracks which represent the Dreaming, the way in which the land was sung into being by the ancestors. Part map, part history, part geography, part genealogy, part culture, the songlines are a complex weave of origin mythology, the link between man and landscape, between inner and outer worlds, between body and spirit, between present and past. The ancestors walked this land, step by step, looking left and right, and singing into creation every single feature – rocks, animals, plants – the entire fabric of the world. The songlines represent the journeys of those ancients, and each succeeding generation knows and remembers and perpetuates the songs, going on walkabout to retrace the journeys, meeting, helping, being helped by kin, those who share the same dreaming. And so the culture was created and so it exists and so it is handed on. It is dazzlingly written. Bruce, an enthusiastic outsider, is keen to understand, although he struggles to grasp the complexity of this hidden culture, thus taking the place of the reader as baffled seeker after knowledge. Chatwin also effectively counterpoints this culture with the current day, with the casual, ignorant racism of some of the locals, and with the clash between those who wish to help the Aborigines and those who don’t, and also the predicament of Aborigines today. Although ultimately he does fall into the trap, Chatwin initially works hard not to assume the traditional western approach of patronising the Rousseauian noble savages, and thus they are not presented here as innocent victims.

All of this is gripping, finely written, conveying a sense of the complexity of the culture while showing us, through Bruce’s struggles to comprehend, how utterly different it is from anything that the western mind can fathom. However, from half way through the novel disintegrates. It is taken over by fragments and snippets from the notebooks of ‘Bruce’ (clearly those of Chatwin himself), with quotations from philosophers and anthropologists, extracts from meetings with people like Konrad Lorenz, one- and two-line snippets of Bruce’s thoughts and so on, all of them dealing more and more explicitly with the theme that has clearly come to obsess Chatwin, his notion that mankind is essentially a migratory animal. And here Chatwin commits the anthropological solecism of seeking to compare one nomadic culture with another, and extrapolate from individual cultures general truths about humanity.

Thus, the novel’s focus shifts from a specific study of Aboriginal culture into wider theorising about nomadism. It feels completely disjointed. Susannah Clapp, one of Chatwin’s editors, suggests the novel ‘creaks in trying to make large statements’ and ‘the narrative of the book comes apart and is never put together again in an entirely satisfactory way’. It reads to me as though Chatwin, focusing too intently on his grand theory, lost a sense of intellectual perspective, grew tired of trying to thread the theory into a fictional narrative and just gave up all pretence, throwing in an accumulation of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ in its raw form, trusting that the reader will be as awed as he was, and will come to the same conclusion. It would be like, to take a ridiculously anachronistic example, Shakespeare breaking off before Act III Scene II of Julius Caesar and throwing in relevant quotes from Machiavelli and Hobbes and Robespierre et al on the politics of power instead of giving us ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen...’ At least Melville devotes entire chapters in Moby Dick to the histories of whales and whaling, essentially writing discrete essays on the subjects, rather than three line fragments of his own and other people’s thoughts. It is as though Chatwin either loses confidence in his own ability to articulate his thoughts in fictional form, or simply loses patience. Be clear, we are not talking about a couple of epigraphs: the bulk of the remainder of the novel is given over to these musings. However, in fairness to Chatwin, this is not to suggest that they are random or unconnected. They do cohere into a logical – though not necessarily convincing – argument. It is simply that the argument does not fit within the novel that preceded it and, finally, emerges from its shadow to reach its conclusion.

I can see why many people love this book. I can also see why many – especially anthropologists – dismiss it. There is certainly much to discuss in it, and it posits an interesting theory on the origins of man, that we are essentially nomadic and peace-loving. But selective presentation of other people’s arguments does not a thesis make.

Two headlines

Two headlines:

Children's books 'ousted by DVDs' - BBC website

Booktrust survey reveals a greater enthusiasm for reading (Opens as PDF) - Children's Services Weekly

You know where I'm going with this, don't you? Yes, these widely different headlines refer to the same report. If you want to see the original research, to decide which report got it right, you can look here. To my mind, Education Publishing's version is spot on, and the BBC's article is another example of what a grubby, sensationalising, tabloid organisation the BBC is becoming.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Maurice Sendak

According to The Guardian, Parents who think the new film of Maurice Sendak's picture book Where the Wild Things Are is too frightening for children have been told by the author they can "go to hell."

Good on him. Well done for speaking out against the legion of well-meaning numbskulls who, in fearing that their children are unable to distinguish between fiction and fact are actually demonstrating symptoms of that very malaise themselves. Well done for speaking out against this constant drive to smother children in niceness and refuse to expose them to anything that might be construed as difficult. Well done for refusing to employ schmaltz in his work. Well done for being Maurice Sendak.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller


A Canticle For Leibowitz is an apocalyptic cautionary tale from 1960 which describes the – apparently inescapably – cyclical nature of time. It begins six centuries after nuclear devastation has destroyed our current civilization, following which there has been an age of Simplification, in which learning or understanding or progress were savagely repressed:

after the Deluge, after the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helpd to make the Earth what it had become. Nothing had been so hateful in the sight of these mobs as the man of learning.

Scientists and scholars, then, were blamed for what had happened and were killed; all evidence of their work – books, machines, any object of progress – was destroyed. Only a few dedicated priests carried the flame of knowledge through these dark centuries, men who acted as ‘bookleggers’ burying the sacred texts in kegs in the southwest desert and ‘memorizers’ committing ‘to rote memory entire volumes of history, sacred writings, literature, and science.’ They lack the knowledge to interpret these writings, but ‘it mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now.’ Thus, they puzzle over a fragment of text left by their Saint, Leibowitz: ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – bring home for Emma,’ and spend their lives ‘handcopying ... algebra texts and illuminating their pages with olive leaves and cheerful cherubim surounding tables of logarithms.'

Slowly, there is a rebirth of knowledge as the arcane keys to the knowledge of the ancients is uncovered and remembered. The second section of the novel moves forward a further six hundred years and new, secular searchers for knowledge are leading civilisation towards re-discovery. And then, in the final section, the novel slips forward another six hundred years and we find ourselves, once more, on the verge of nuclear devastation. ‘Are we helpless?’ the Abbot asks. ‘Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?’ The answer, unequivocally, appears to be yes.

A Canticle For Leibowitz is an extremely funny book which wrestles with important questions. It is a study of the exchange of power in both the secular and religious arenas; it examines, as Douglas Texter points out, ‘the relationship between power and knowledge; and it asks questions about human responsibility – both personal and societal – and notions of original sin.

Edward Ducharme suggests that the novel deals with the conflict between the scientist’s search for truth and the state’s power. Michael Alan Bennett extends this to include the clash between scientific speculation and religious doctrine. It is significant that the keepers of the flame of knowledge are monks. In this way, as Jeanne Murray Walker explains, ‘Miller portrays religion as the caretaker of human society’, and its struggles to maintain for civilisation the knowledge of the ancients is a noble act. In the first section of the novel, the state has turned to barbarism, and knowledge and learning have been outlawed. This condition lasts for centuries, but finally, gradually, the renaissance begins. Men of science begin to unlock the secrets of the past. Thon Taddeo, a brilliant scientist, leads the way. And yet, he is beholden to his patron, the evil Hannegan, who is intent on an imperialistic war. Taddeo is well aware of this, but chooses to ignore the fact, because his scientific discoveries, he believes, take precedence. He cannot fight Hannegan, so he gives the appearance of supporting him, and in this way gains his patron’s support, which he justifies by claiming that it permits his scientific research, from which ‘mankind will profit’. As Bennett explains: ‘It is this compromise that Miller condemns.’ In the third section, the outcome is starkly presented: the state, unchecked, exercises power and manipulates its authority through deliberate shaping of individuals’ thoughts and beliefs, creating a highly volatile condition which, ultimately, it cannot control. It slides towards disaster. Power and knowledge have conspired to ruin civilisation once more.

The second section of the novel also describes the tension between science and religion, rationalism and faith. They have the same object – the renaissance of learning – but in the language and postures they adopt they appear incompatible. Abbott Dom Paulo and Thom Taddeo both want the same thing, they both want a route out of darkness, a renaissance. But although they have the same goal, they cannot agree. Thon Taddeo, outlining his theories, offers:

“a brief outline of what the world can expect, in my opinion, from the intellectual revolution that’s just beginning... Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man... Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind the throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth.”

Dom Paulo, however, points to the compromise Taddeo must make to serve his patron. This is dangerous, he explains: “you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over Nature. But who will govern the use of the power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check?” He goes on: “To serve God first, or to serve Hannegan first – that’s your choice.” Taddeo is unrepentant: knowledge must come first. ‘ “I have little choice then,” he says. “Would you have me work for the Church?” The scorn in his voice was unmistakable.’ The Church, he feels is an impediment. It is hoarding knowledge, not applying it. “What you really suggest,” he says, “[is] that we save it all up for the day when Man is good and pure and holy and wise.”

And, of course, in the third section, the hubris of Taddeo is exposed and civilisation suffers the fatal consequences. The corollary would appear to be that men of science, in their unchecked search for the truth, lose something, some spark, some element of spirituality, which is essential to the nature of man. This is a popular notion among reactionary thinkers, the idea that the Enlightenment has brought with it an impoverishment of humanity and that an unbending emphasis on the rational operates at the cost of our spiritual wellbeing. Quoting Lewis Mumford, Douglas Texter explains:

While Mumford argues that the scientific method liberated the Western mind from the religious tyranny under which it had labored for a millennium, a type of intellectual catch-22 accompanied this liberation. Scientific observation threatened subjectivity itself: “For the better part of three centuries, scientists followed Galileo’s lead. Under the naïve belief that they were free from metaphysical preconceptions, the orthodox exponents of science suppressed every evidence of human and organic behaviour that could not be neatly fitted into their mechanical world picture.” Mumford concludes that scientists like Galileo had “in all innocence surrendered man’s historic birthright: man’s memorable and remembered experience, in short, his accumulated culture. In dismissing subjectivity, he had excommunicated history’s central subject, multi-dimensional man.”


This links to those questions about mythos and logos, to the spiritual world which we lose sight of when we focus on reason and logos and dismiss mythos as incredible and superstitious. And, Miller appears to be suggesting, the result of this will be annihilation. This is nonsense. It is a logical non-sequiteur to imagine that because scientists follow reason and eschew God, their efforts are bound to result in evil. There is simply no justification for assuming this, no proof whatsoever. The work of scientists has certainly resulted in evil acts – the shadow of Robert Oppenheimer looms large over this novel, for example – but to suggest this is inevitable is dogmatic scaremongering. Creating a binary opposition in the way that Miller does between science and religion is simplistic, and to suggest that critical examination, in the way of reasoned scientific discovery, is somehow innately dangerous, is blinkered.

It is clear that A Canticle operates on a religious level. Thus, the fascinating questions it poses about the nature of responsibility are ultimately lost to Christian guilt. Bennett suggests that the primary theme of the novel is one of individual responsibility. Miller’s message, he suggests, ‘is that if nuclear holocaust occurs, the fault will lie with each individual who did nothing to prevent it.’ This is powerful and provocative stuff. Humans will not take responsibility for their own actions, Miller is saying. Even at the end, as the nuclear holocaust approaches, the official government spokesman cannot reveal the truth of what has happened and is happening. Nothing is ever our fault. In a powerful speech as the novel draws to its end, the Abbot says to the doctor:

The trouble with the world is me. Try that on yourself, my dear Cors. Thee me Adam Man we. No “wordly evil” except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies. Blame anything, blame God even, but oh don’t blame me. Doctor Cors? The only evil in the world now, Doctor, is that fact that the world no longer is...

There is much truth in this, of course, on both an individual and societal level. The blame game appears to be a natural human instinct. And yet some of the power of Miller’s message is lost because of his adoption of religious guilt. Note that the ‘worldly evil’ is introduced into the world by man. Literally, that may be so, as there is no deus ex machina to have concocted it and nature itself cannot be inherently evil. But here Miller is taking the position of original sin. In an earlier passage, he writes:

the burden was there, had been there since Adam’s time – and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, “Man!” at man. “Man!” – calling each to account for the deeds of all since the beginning.


This is an interesting passage. There is a strong degree of sophistry here. As presented, it is hard to argue: as we have seen, Miller’s message in this novel is that we must take responsibility, we must not look away, we must not privilege our own endeavours over the requirements of society or humanity, and it would be difficult to argue with that. But this is a step away from saying that each is accountable for all since the beginning. Accountable to all, I would certainly accept, and responsible for all, likewise, but to suggest that each is accountable for all is to infect truth with dogma. This is how religions begin: we fetishise truth.

Bennett misunderstands this very point when he describes the immortal Jewish hermit Benjamin’s realisation that ‘each individual man is responsible, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of all men.’ But this is not what Miller is saying. Responsibility is not the same as accountability, and Miller is trying to suggest that each is accountable for all. That is an unsustainable position occasioned by the Christian Church’s understanding of original sin. To have established a moral code, as Christianity has done, on the basis of universal guilt, is no basis for a fair and decent and progressive civilisation. And in suggesting that, because of original sin, men of science are in some way pre-ordained to oversee the annihilation of mankind, Miller is responsible for an untruth greater than any of those he abjures in the course of his novel. This is a fine work, and it presents an interesting thesis, but ultimately it is smothered by its own prejudices.

Friday, October 16, 2009

No Country For Old Men query

Here's a question from No Country For Old Men:
[speech by Ellis]
Bell didnt answer.
I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didnt. I dont blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.
You dont know what he thinks.
Yes I do.
He looked at Bell. I can remember one time...


The question: who says 'I always thought when I got older...'?

I alays assumed it was Bell. Most people do. It's Bell in the film. But I don't know, now.

Firstly, it says above, 'Bell didnt answer', so why does he then immediately answer? I could understand 'Bell paused' or 'Bell waited', but not 'didn't answer'.

Secondly, "Yes I do" actually sounds more like the kind of certainty you get from Uncle Ellis than the vacillation we have come to expect from Bell. He seldom admits to knowing anything much.

Thirdly, on p. 283 we get this, from one of Bell's monologues:

One other thing he said. You'd think a man that had waited eighty some odd years on God to come ino his life, well, you'd think he'd come.

That sounds to me like he is directly putting those words into Ellis's mouth, not his own.

I'm curious.

The point of novels

A couple of quotes from Ronald Suckenick, from 1974:

Well, how can I put this? – one of the reasons people have lost faith in the novel is that they don’t believe it tells the truth anymore, which is another way of saying that they don’t believe in the convention of the novel. They pick up a novel and they know it’s make-believe. So who needs it – go listen to the television news, right? Or read a biography… Nobody is willing to suspend disbelief in that particular way anymore, including me.

I don’t think that people trust novels anymore. I don’t think that students go to novels now in the same way that they used to in the fifties – with the sense that they were going to learn something about their lives, the way that people used to read Hemingway, say. I think that in its realistic forms it’s just lost its credibility.


I don't know. Is that the case? There's a difference, surely, between the news and truth. The news is a subset of truth which is focused purely on the matter-of-fact events of the day. Truth is wider. Truth asks the questions. You don't get that from the news, or from television, I would suggest. There was an enormous amount of gloominess in the sixties and seventies about the state of the novel. Ironically, this was a time which was rich with memorable novelists. I don't think our current age is so rich in talent, and yet I still do not see any need to worry about the future of the novel, or of ideas, or of people using the former to help shape the latter.

Or am I being naive?

Political religions

“Whoever exalts a race or a State or a particular form of State or the depositories of power… whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God…”
Walter M. Miller. A Canticle For Leibowitz


A full review of this to follow in a day or two, but (apart from the last five words) I like the sentiment of this. I've talked a lot recently about political religions, and how systems like Nazism take on the mythology and rhetoric of religion, in order to give profundity to their beliefs. I think this is the point Miller is making here.
Leibowitz is a fascinating book: half the time I'm shouting yes, yes, yes! and the other half I'm shouting no, no, no!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yearning for darkness

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, [mankind] could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they – this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness.
Walter M. Millar. A Canticle For Leibowitz


When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?
The Road

Saturday, October 10, 2009

David Aaronovitch

Went to another session in the local literature festival last night, this one featuring Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch, discussing their new books, on the paranoia of the nineteen-seventies and conspiracy theories, respectively. Both were excellent.

Aaronovitch made the point that conspiracy theories are possibly the inevitable result of the human mind's need for narrative. He gave the example of Princess Diana, around whom some hysterical conspiracy theories have been woven, mostly suggesting that it was Prince Philip who had her bumped off. Hers was a classic fairy tale: beautiful young girl romanced by a (sort of) handsome prince; they marry and live beautifully, have beautiful children and everyone adores them. In a traditional story arc we have swept up to the zenith. Then bad things happen, and the story arc begins to fall back down again: there are rumours of unhappiness in the marriage; Andrew Morton writes his book; the rumours are confirmed; they separate; there is the Panorama interview. It is all compelling stuff, wonderful drama and then

SPLAT

she dies.

End of narrative arc. End of story. It isn't good enough. We want more, we want better, we want a proper story, with a proper ending. So we start inventing it, and conspiracy theories are born.

It's an interesting notion. I'm not sure it works for all conspiracy theories, though. The moon landings, for example: that seems a perfectly reasonable narrative arc, without the need for artificial stimulation, and yet conspiracy theories abound.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo


The Body Artist is a curious, unsettling novella in which nothing is clear and the normal channels of human communication are faulty. For the characters there is confusion and uncertainty, and this ambiguity is replicated for the reader also, through DeLillo’s postmodern playing with narrative, such as when he says: ‘Every time she had to bend and reach into the lower and remote parts of the refrigerator she let out a groan, but not really every time ...’ We are on shifting sands. We cannot be entirely sure what is happening.

The body artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, a performance artist who contorts herself into a series of poses in shows which are long and challenging. She is married to a fading film director, Rey Robles, and the first section of the novella, deliberately claustrophobic, centreing on small details and mundane conversations, gives a first taste of the confusion of communication which forms the heart of the novel. This couple hear each other, but they are not listening. Disaster ensues.

In the remainder of the novel, Lauren, now alone, struggles to acclimatise to the new circumstances of her life. She is alone and lonely, reduced to watching a live internet feed of a two-lane road in Finland, preferring to view in the early hours when the road is quietest, and listening to her telephone answering machine, its voice, its words. Investigating a noise in an empty upstairs room she discovers someone sitting on a bed, an escaped lunatic or a vagrant or a ghost or a foundling or someone, whose voice is remarkably similar to that of her husband. Indeed, he even seems able to repeat whole conversations that Lauren has had with her husband. Lauren and the man, whom she calls Mr Tuttle, begin a series of conversations, which Lauren records and re-plays, trying to understand. He is a mystery. He knows little of the ordinary interactions of human beings. In some way, he is a representation of Lauren’s confused state, and together they grope towards a common understanding of something, anything, ultimately, of Lauren herself: what it is to be Lauren, who she is, her identity, the way that identity shifts in time, through moments. This becomes the obsession of the novel, and it is duly replicated by Lauren in her performance art – literally so, as she appears to shape-shift on stage, to become someone else, somewhere else.

All of this uncertainty underpins the novel. It is a philosophical meditation on time, human consciousness, our perceptions of ourselves and others and how we interact. It is a melancholy piece, made strange by DeLillo’s technique. Perhaps that strangeness is too great: ultimately, I’m not certain what message I am meant to take from it.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee


The K of the title alerts the reader immediately to the nature of this book: for all Coetzee’s realistic language, we’re in Kafkaesque territory, where the aspirations and needs of the individual are subordinated to the imperatives of the state: a study in power and powerlessness, in the way that all of our individual ideals are eventually buried by the impersonal nature of modern life. And so this novel takes place not in South Africa, but anyplace, not during the war but any war, not now or then but anywhen. And Michael K, sunk into silence, is no one. This is the human condition, the human state. Help us all.

Through the novel, Michael K, a man of limited intelligence, finds himself in a variety of prisons, real and metaphorical, enforced or self-imposed. Initially, he and his mother are trapped in the city, where the incessant bad weather is ruining her health, but because they cannot obtain the appropriate passes they cannot return, as his mother wishes, to her childhood homeland, a mere five hours or so distant. Michael seeks to break free by fashioning a carriage for his mother from a wheelbarrow and carrying her home. She dies before they reach their destination and Michael is left alone. He is picked up by the military and pressed into physical labour, clearing blockages on the railways. Later, he is interred in a camp for homeless and workless people, another distinctly Kafkaesque establishment which they are ostensibly free to leave, but to no avail because within a few days they will almost certainly be rounded up and returned. All of this is narrated from a neutral point of view, but adopting the limited comprehension of Michael, a soul lost in a world not of his making or his choosing or his understanding. It is bleak, pitiful, helpless.

Cynthia Ozick, in her much quoted (and, indeed, plagiarised) contemporary review, describes the novel as Huck’s insight, from Jim’s point of view. I don’t agree. Huck observed American society detachedly, seemingly accepting its conventions (the treatment of blacks, for example) while, almost unknown to himself, even in spite of himself, utterly subverting them. There is a sort of unknowing knowingness about Huck, an innate sense of decency that he could neither articulate nor even, probably, identify in himself. (And it is this sort of stuff that saints should be made of, but that’s for another discussion.) But the key is that he did this while living in the world of men. He made mischief from within. Michael K, on the other hand, is empty. Where Huck is a distorting mirror, reflecting the vicissitudes of society tempered by a back-lit softening layer of humanity, Michael is a blank piece of paper. And, as any writer knows, the blank piece of paper is one of the most frightening things there is, because a beautiful thought cannot always survive the process of composition. Michael cannot explain his feelings or justify his actions; he simply responds to whatever it is that triggers his need, permanently, to escape, to find solace in the solitary companionship of nature. He is, almost, Rousseau’s noble savage, beholden to nothing and no-one.

That, however, is only part of the psychology of Michael, for there is still the matter of his mother. The doctor in the hospital cannot unravel Michael’s connection with her, but comes to see her (or her memory) as some sort of malign influence, eating away at Michael’s psyche. It is interesting that Coetzee chose a mother here, and not a father, thus shutting off any Oedipal interpretation. We are not looking at dominance, usurpation, victory; we are nourishing. Michael’s mother must be interpreted, I feel, in the same sense as the earth which so transfixes him: each takes hold of Michael, and he submits to them in turn, asking for nothing from either, but devoting himself entirely to their well-being. And so just as he selflessly bears his mother home so she can flourish and revive in the healthier atmosphere of the veld, a punishing journey from which he receives no reward, he later nurtures food from the dry, unpromising soil, but once it has grown he does not even eat it. It is his mission, his duty, and he fulfils it because he must. Not for nothing does he first of all bury his mother’s ashes in that very soil, and then later, fretting that this is insufficient, dig them up again and instead scatter ‘the fine grey flakes over the earth, afterwards turning the earth over spadeful by spadeful. This was the beginning of his life as a cultivator.’ This, then, is the motherland, the source of it all. In one beautiful passage, Michael’s thoughts are revealed thus:

So what is it ... that binds me to this spot of earth as if to a home I cannot leave? We must all leave home, after all, we must all leave our mothers. Or am I such a child, such a child from such a line of children, that none of us can leave, but have to come back to die here with our heads upon our mothers’ laps, I upon hers, she upon her mother’s, and so back and back, generation upon generation?


It is during this middle section of the novel, with Michael living a wild existence alone in the veld, unencumbered by civilisation or its wars or its prisons or its prejudices, that Michael comes closest to living Rousseau’s ideal existence. He becomes part of the earth – almost literally so, creating for himself a burrow in the ground in which he hides himself from all outsiders – in order to continue his silent commune with mother earth. But, just as Rousseau himself explained, such a noble savagery is not possible: once civilisation has been established it cannot be denied. And so reality intervenes, and Michael’s idyll ends. Firstly, he nearly succumbs to starvation; and then he is captured by government troops and mistaken for a rebel fighter. Once more, Michael is imprisoned, sent to a military hospital where he refuses to eat or even communicate, where his starvation becomes almost total, fatal, before, like a wraith, he disappears once more to a final freedom.

So what is Coetzee’s message? The novel is firstly a meditation on power and corruption and civilisation, from which Michael K chooses to abdicate himself. But, more than that, this is an eco-pastoral novel, part of a cosmic-realist strain which has been emerging over the past forty years or so, in which man is merely a participant in the affairs of the world. There is, in much of this writing – McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, David Guterson et al – a strong dialectic, an Apollonian/Dionysian struggle between Rousseau’s ideal state and Nietzsche’s struggle for an overgoing, a way forward. Coetzee, it seems to me, presents an essentially hopeful view of humanity. There is in us a seed, something good and worthwhile, and it will be nourished and it will bloom. There is much to be deplored in the world – all the things that Michael K rejects – and while, unlike Michael, we cannot simply turn our backs on them, Coetzee still suggests that the power of humanity can prevail. Initially, I found the novel heavy going and Michael’s extreme passivity by turns infuriating and unconvincing, but as it progressed I came to understand him and appreciate him and even, just a little bit, love him.

[There, I hope an even-handed review of Coetzee. Regular readers of this blog will know I am not always charitable about him...]