At the Hôpital X

July 21, 2014

Numéro 57’s eyes were still open, his mouth also open, his small face contorted into an expression of agony. What most impressed me, however, was the whiteness of his face. It had been pale before, but now it was little darker than die sheets. As I gazed at the tiny, screwed-up face it struck me that this disgusting piece of refuse, waiting to be carted away and dumped on a slab in the dissecting room, was an example of ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany.

This is from ‘How the Poor Die,’ George Orwell’s essay on his experience in the ‘Hôpital X’ where he was treated for ‘an exceptionally fine specimen of a bronchial rattle’ that drew ‘as many as a dozen students queuing up to listen to my chest.’ I thought of his article when reading much of the recent debate on assisted dying. What’s new here is that major religious leaders like George Carey and Desmond Tutu have come out in support of the proposed law. Others are opposed. Justin Welby and many other faith leaders signed a statement ahead of the Lords debate on this:

The bill raises the issue of what sort of society we wish to become: one in which life is to be understood primarily in terms of its usefulness and individuals evaluated in terms of their utility or one in which every person is supported, protected and cherished even if, at times, they fail to cherish themselves.

This is from Cranmer’s blog, which adds: ‘Opposition to ‘do anything which is destructive of life’ is one of the few general rules which unites all of the world’s religions.’

Assisted suicide is a difficult and troubling issue. It troubles me because it is only raised in certain contexts. Take a man of twenty-five with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia who has been in and out of prisons and psych wards his whole life. He wants to kill himself and has no job, no friends and no prospects. The natural response would be to shout ‘Don’t do it’ – it would even be the natural response to a suicidal 25 year old with terminal cancer and a prognosis of six months – but when a 75 year old falls into a painful illness the question of ‘assisted dying’ does come up even though if he recovers the old man could live another 20 years.

It is also the case that people do conspire to have their elderly relatives ‘got out of the way’ – today just as in Orwell’s time: ‘In the bed beyond that a veteran of the war of 1870 was dying, a handsome old man with a white imperial, round whose bed, at all hours when visiting was allowed, four elderly female relatives dressed all in black sat exactly like crows, obviously scheming for some pitiful legacy.’ Even the eugenics Godwin has some weight behind it. There is no idea so insane that it cannot be hammered into respectability by bourgeois intelligentsia in free countries.

So assisted dying troubles me and there are good arguments against it. However I could do without the drone of sanctimony that always seems to accompany these arguments. After George Carey surprised everyone by supporting the Bill, the Plymouth Herald responded with ‘Two bishops in charge of the largest Christian denominations in Plymouth have spoken out to defend the sanctity of life’ – as if no one else on the planet was aware or has ever spoken up for this sanctity, as if anyone who disagreed with them was axiomatically a misanthrope and hater of all things. I go on Twitter, and I see Marko Attila Hoare, a man I respect, complain that ‘When will atheists begin to show the same respect as religious believers for the sanctity of human life?’ Well, some of us are ahead on that, Marko – we’re not the ones slaughtering people in Iraq, at any rate. Not that this is even an issue of religious versus secular. I was at the Harrogate crime festival over the weekend, and the highlight was a discussion with the great psychological suspense writer Sophie Hannah. One thing Hannah said stayed with me: ‘The most dangerous people are the ones who think of themselves as the good guys – the people I really fear.’ The attempted monopoly on virtue, the scramble for the moral high ground – you cross the road to avoid these people, and if they are waving a placard that says ‘PRO-LIFE’ you don’t even check the traffic first.

So let’s go back to Orwell’s para. Looking upon the unfortunate man dead in the Hôpital X, he thought to himself: where did we get the idea that ‘natural death’ was even any good, let alone the best way to go?

There you are, then, I thought, that’s what is waiting for you, twenty, thirty, forty years hence: that is how the lucky ones die, the ones who live to be old. One wants to live, of course, indeed one only stays alive by virtue of the fear of death, but I think now, as I thought then, that it’s better to die violently and not too old. People talk about the horrors of war, but what weapon has man invented that even approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases? ‘Natural’ death, almost by definition, means something slow, smelly and painful.

Orwell didn’t get to be old, but his lifetime encompassed two world wars and he himself was almost killed in the Spanish Civil War. Maybe his attitude reflects a time when getting old wasn’t guaranteed. For most of human history we have been preoccupied with quantity of life. As Carson McCullers had it: ‘Life could become one long dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive.’ Now that we’ve outlived conscription and killed the smallpox the emphasis is on how we sustain ‘quality of life’ in the long difficult years that follow retirement. Perhaps Orwell in his sickbed saw the future: pampered generations that have annulled or at least limited all the things that murder human beings will still have to confront the fact that ‘However great the kindness and the efficiency, in every hospital death there will be some cruel, squalid detail, something perhaps too small to be told but leaving terribly painful memories behind, arising out of the haste, the crowding, the impersonality of a place where every day people are dying among strangers.’

At the end of the day, people don’t want to die screaming and rotting, they don’t want to have their savings eaten up by corrupt care homes and that is why provision for ‘assisted dying’ in certain cases will probably be made. As the great man said: ‘it is a great thing to die in your own bed, though it is better still to die in your boots.’

deathisntcruel

(Image: Buzzfeed)

Through the Dark Glass: S J Bradley’s Brick Mother

July 15, 2014

brickmotherWelcome to the locked psychiatric ward of the Cedar Hospital Heathley. It’s much like any other secure psyche unit. There’s a guy called Andy who’s just been sectioned at a train station for ranting mad things at the departures board. There’s Ahmet the Middle Eastern refugee who’s okay if you don’t turn on the TV news when he’s in the room. In fact the only person who seems halfway  normal is Nathan Rivers, a former prisoner coming off six years. Nathan is charming, funny, peaceable and causes no trouble for patients or staff. In Brick Mother two very different ward workers are drawn to him.

There’s little that’s romantical about mental distress and S J Bradley shows this well. The scattered vignettes of ward round give small insights into ‘cruel, uncontrollable minds': people stealing sugar packets, crying hysterically, eking out a crossword into days. Only slightly less desperate are the lives of their guardians. Brick Mother may be one of the best novels written about work. In it Bradley focuses on two members of staff, art therapist Neriste and ward nurse Donna, and through them encapsulates the fulltime grind: antisocial hours, sleeping on the bus, unreliable bank staff, limited resources, mindless bureaucracy, top-down priorities that swing like weathercocks in a gale and managers who are never seen in the building after four. The tone of the narration is like the floaters that live in tired eyes – like the beige and loam of Nathan’s abstracts.

Neriste is a committed and creative soul who is breaking under the weight of the misery she deals with. Donna is a middle aged lone parent with the understandable desire to be young and free again. Both are drawn to Nathan in different ways: while Neriste tries to draw him out through art, and make him accommodate the possibility of change, Donna falls under the lunatic’s spell. As Nathan flirts and plays her, Donna begins to almost transform: she loses weight, her skin looks brighter. (At the novel’s messy conclusion, we see a photograph of Donna: ‘an overweight woman with a doughy face, and unflattering dark hair’ – a subtle allusion that the transformation wasn’t real, or was only real to Donna.’)

At first glance this is pure kitchen sink. The tone is made out of damp, wet clothes, missed appointments, unhappy relationships, lack of money. But this miasma of mediocrity gradually resolves itself, through Bradley’s intricate and unseeable skills, into something absolutely horrifying. Brick Mother is a cautionary tale and a portrait of institutional rhythms, but it is also an examination of how closely we can become involved in other people’s lives. There is a fine difference between people who are high functioning and not, and some of us hide beneath the radar, and there is like a wall of glass between the many many people whose lives have collapsed and the rest of us who can still walk and talk and put on a front: the distinction is fine, evasive and mysterious, but the barrier is transparent and we see through this glass, darkly. The only suffering you can escape, Kafka said, is the act of turning your back on the suffering of the world, but Bradley’s debut demonstrates that the choice is not necessarily irrevocable.

Lindsay and Scarlett

July 10, 2014

Two interesting cases caught my eye this week.

The actor Scarlett Johansson has successfully sued a French novelist, Grégoire Delacourt, for writing her as a character into his novel, La Première Chose Qu’on Regarde. Johansson argued that the portrayal constituted defamation and that Delacourt’s book ‘fraudulently exploited her name, her image and her celebrity’.

But, according to the Guardian, this wasn’t a huge victory for the actor.

The Guardian quotes Delacourt’s publisher, Emmanuelle Allibert of J-C Lattès:

All of Scarlett Johansson’s demands were rejected except one thing that was seen to be an attack in her private life over two relations that she never had.

All her other demands, including damages of €50,000, were rejected, notably that there should be a ban on the book being translated or made into a film. We just have to cut out the bit about the affairs, which is just four lines[.]

Delacourt himself claims that the Johansson character is not really Scarlett Johansson, just a model who looks like her. But he implies that the character is modelled on Johansson because Johansson for him is ‘the archetype of beauty today’.

So – it appears – Delacourt lost his case only because he based a fictional character on Scarlett Johansson and his fictional character had committed adultery. The charge that the author ‘fraudulently exploited her name, her image and her celebrity’ does not seem to have been reflected in the judgement.

Which brings me to the case in New York where actor Lindsay Lohan is trying to sue the makers of Grand Theft Auto for ‘allegedly using her image, likeness and voice without permission.’

Lohan’s case is that GTAV features a character called ‘Lacey Jonas’ in a mission included in GTAV. You can read the full complaint here. Lohan’s argument is that, even though GTAV didn’t use Lohan’s name, Lohan is the ‘intended referent’ because ‘her likenesses, portraits and voice’ were used ‘to advertise the game for trade purposes’ and the mission narrative is ‘substantially similar to places, locations and events’ in Lohan’s life and that Lohan’s right to privacy was violated ‘by including her portraits and ‘screen persona’ in the game. The complaint also says that GTA explicitly advertised the ‘Lacey Jonas’ character as a ‘Lindsay Lohan’ lookalike in its promotions, although I haven’t seen this online. (I’m not a lawyer: I’m feeling my way along here.)

The violation of a ‘right to persona’ is an interesting angle. The idea that an image of yourself can become a commodity that criminals can unlawfully trade off. That we have a right not just to the exercise of self expression and individual freedoms but to a unique and self created image.

As I understand it, if I self publish a series of hack novels called ‘The Russell Brand Time Machine Adventures’ customers would potentially buy my product purely because of the Russell Brand name and because they made a wrong assumption that the books were by Russell Brand or authorised by him. I could then be said to be unlawfully profiting off Russell Brand’s name recognition and therefore leave myself open to charges of ‘right to persona’ violation or even defamation (depending on what I had Russell Brand doing in the books).

Lindsay Lohan’s complaint even argues that ‘Multiple people in the general public have reached out to the Plaintiff [Lohan] believing the character was the Plaintiff, creating consumer confusion in the market place.’

However I think to the general public Lindsay Lohan although she has big name recognition, she doesn’t have a unique persona in the same way Russell Brand does. GTA’s attorney says that the character is just a ‘generic troubled starlet’. Lohan has become the generic sexy but screwed up celebrity, just as Johansson has become the archetype of the beautiful and sophisticated actress. It’s not fair, but it’s how people’s perceptions are shaped. Journalists, presenters, gameswriters, PRs, spinners, propagandists, and also hack writers, screenwriters and dramatists, exist to turn human beings into archetypes. That’s why good writing is so rare, and so important. But by the same token Lohan’s case (at least if it was heard in the UK) could open the door to any writer guilty of lazy characterisation being sued into the poor house.

Novelists have featured real people in their books since the form begun. Don DeLillo’s Cold War song Underworld has famous historical personalities wandering in and out of his narrative like confident ghosts. And who could forget Princess Margaret’s turn in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope? Fiction should be able to intersect with the real. Some characters just happen. They walk into our lives more or less fully formed. It’s a spooky and remarkable thing. But also like most people, writers become people through constant exposure to other human beings. And so most writers will consciously or unconsciously base fictional characters on real people. Contra Philip Roth, when a writer is born into a family, it’s not just that family that’s doomed. It’s anyone and everyone that writer meets.

However most novelists tend to avoid putting real people in novels who are identified explicitly with that person or too perfunctorily disguised. Anthony Burgess was sued after his 1961 novel, The Worm and the Ring, after a secretary at Burgess’s old school saw herself in its pages: the book was pulped, and revised editions had passages removed. Scarlett Thomas, in her masterful Monkeys with Typewriters, writes that ‘Again and again I see students trying to write the actions of someone whom they know in real life. It’s limiting, embarrassing and also, of course, morally dubious. So let your characters develop as a part of you. Ask yourself what you would do in this situation if you were this person.’

The doubt I have about this is that it turns characterisation into thought experiment, because not everyone reacts to similar situations in the same way. The characters in, say, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go react in realistic ways, but they cannot be said to have persona. You don’t physically see them. The characters with persona are inexplicable spectres, and you know them better than your friends.

lohan

(Image via Dazed Digital)

Ozymandias Edits His Wiki

July 8, 2014

This story is now available at WordLife.

Also, at fantastic new reviews site Shiny New Books: me on the new Mark Danielewski.

Update: I forgot that this was online – me on short stories and mental illness, at Oval Short Fiction.

Perfect Bombing Weather: Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida

July 7, 2014

hotelfloridaCould there be a war in which a sensitive but noble spirit could truly fight on the side of the angels? Not Vietnam, not Korea, not even WW2, compromised by Hiroshima and Dresden. In fact only one conflict of the twentieth century comes to mind. In 1936, a broad liberalish-socialistic coalition was elected in Spain. This was in February. In July, buoyed by the success of Hitler and Mussolini elsewhere, General Francisco Franco invaded the Spanish mainland. Franco headed an anti-liberal reaction of the religious and political right, which considered subversive the idea that a democratic system might throw up a result they disagreed with.

With no help from the democratic countries, defence of the Republic fell to disparate and bickering groups of militiamen, journalists, drifters, artists, spies and intellectuals. They lost. Against peak European fascism they couldn’t not lose. Not that this killed their passion. Maybe it even added to it. Perhaps four thousand Britons picked up guns and went to Spain. Orwell took a bullet to the throat. John Cornford was killed in Córdoba a day after his twenty-first birthday. None was more keen than Ernest Hemingway, who roared to an audience at Carnegie Hall that ‘When men fight for their freedom of their country against a foreign invasion, and when those men are your friends… you learn, watching them live and fight and die, that there are worse things than war.’ As the title of Amanda Vaill’s study suggests, the war had a salon feel. Even as the falangists closed in there’s an air of hard drinking, laughter and song, bohemian infidelities (‘I suppose Ernest is busy again helping Miss Gellhorn with her writing,’ Pauline Hemingway remarked, rather acidly, to a friend after the novelist and Martha Gellhorn began an affair in Spain). Vaill’s access to private papers give a ‘what a lovely war’ tone to all this. Orwell said he came to Spain to fight against fascism and for ‘common decency’. Or as Sara Murphy said: ‘It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young.’

The great powers watched all this with interest. Then (and as now with Syria and Iraq) the democratic countries sat on their hands. France and Britain arranged a non-intervention pact. Neither an Axis victory nor a communist-backed Republic appealed. Let the two totalitarianisms fight it out in microcosm. The Soviet Union was technically on the Republic’s side. After all, a Fascist victory in Spain would leave Hitler free to attack Russia, so probably best avoided. But if the Republicans won outright, Germany would be heading east anyway. Vaill sums up Stalin’s thinking: ‘A continuation of the conflict, however, would deflect attention from Stalin’s own ongoing purge of old Bolsheviks; and it might even make possible a world war that would consume Germany, Italy, France, and Britain, leaving Russia unscathed and dominant.’ Let the Spanish destroy each other and then pick the bones. For his generosity with materiel Stalin took Spain’s gold reserves. The gold was flown to Moscow in October 1936. Stalin had a dinner party to celebrate. Raising his glass to an appreciative (and perhaps terrified) audience, Stalin toasted ‘the Spanish gold… which for the Spanish people would be like the ears on their heads: they would know it was there, but they would never see it again.’

Realpolitik adds a spooky underlay to Vaill’s portrait. People just disappear, and not all of them because of fascist bullets. The writer and engineer Arturo Barea, bitching to an anarchist companion about a problematic friend, was startled when the anarchist said that ‘People sometimes disappear here in Valencia… They’re taken to Malvarrosa, or Grau, or the Albuféra, get a bullet in the neck, and the sea carries them away.’ Hemingway went to parties with Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda’s representative in the Republic. He regaled Hemingway with a story of having to poison Russian tank officers before Franco took Madrid. Wasn’t that tricky, Hemingway asked. ‘Not when you always have the cyanide with you, [Koltsov] said, showing them the little vial tucked into his cigarette case. And laughed again.’

Vaill’s book is not a history of the war, more a study of the relationship between fiction and propaganda. Koltsov gave a keynote speech at the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, to denounce a book by André Gide, Retour de l’U.R.S.S., which had dared to point out that ‘all wasn’t perfect in the Workers’ Paradise that was the Soviet Union’. A Dutch communist filmmaker told Hemingway: ‘Simplicity is what works… The Nazis lie, the Russians tell the truth.’ But nothing was simple. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, intended as a dispatch from the front, ended up a discursive study of truth and propaganda in which the germination of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be discerned. If the Stalinists had got Orwell, they would almost certainly have tortured him to death, as they did the Catalan leftist Andrés Nin. Except for Nin’s deviationism even death by torture wasn’t enough. The NKVD staged a ‘fake escape’ with mock Nazi soldiers and then put it out that Nin had fled to the Axis.

Hemingway had little time for grand ideologies. He just wanted to write ‘one true sentence’. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for a time where leftist intellectuals did positive things about the state of the world instead of organising pointless demos and appearing on Russia Today – but I felt Vaill was a little hard on Hemingway. He was bombastic, arrogant, insecure – what is there that we didn’t know? I went on thinking that until I read Hemingway’s line, in an angry letter to the novelist John Dos Passos: ‘Do you know where Nin is now? You ought to find that out before you write about his death. But what the hell.’

Where truth and fiction and propaganda intersect – that’s the terrain of Vaill’s book, along with the villages and roads and cities of Spain. The actual Hotel Florida is long gone. But reading Vaill feels just like being there.

Furious

June 26, 2014

This long story is now up at the brilliant Minor Literature zine.

Also at 3:AM: a short piece on Luke Brown’s ‘I just can’t even’ debut.

Enter Alter Ego

June 24, 2014

anyothermouthHow autobiographical is Anneliese Mackintosh‘s debut? Reading it, I kept hoping: not very. Her protagonist Gretchen was gang raped at eighteen. Her father died young and her mother attends orgies in Soho dungeons. She failed a PhD, almost died of a renal abscess, became an alcoholic, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had a string of relationships with predatory and inept males. You keep thinking: it has to be fiction. No one can be that screwed up!

But I’m making the book sound like a misery memoir, which Any Other Mouth certainly is not. Studying in America and getting so drunk she falls asleep on the steps of Capitol Hill, playing lovers off against each other in a vegan commune in Lenton, travel, sexcapade and laughter – Gretchen’s is despite everything a life well lived. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories, of formative moments that make us into the person we become – interwoven, yet standing alone, everyday and universal, and yet unique. The style is contemporary, and discursive. Look at the chapter titles. ‘Google Maps Saved My Life’. ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This’. ‘Your Alter Ego Does Not Exist’. The pain is worn lightly, even played for laughs, as in the twelve-step plan ‘How To Become An Alcoholic Writer': ‘Keep writing those haiku, and after each 5/7/5, don’t forget to take a big old swig. The sort of swig that makes your stomach lining burn, and that screaming in your skull into more of a grim whisper.’

It’s also worth watching Mackintosh’s interview with the writer Socrates Adams:

AM: No one would publish my novel about a girl who gets in a lift at Tesco’s and ends up in the prehistoric era… No one would publish my novel about a character who wears glasses and takes the glasses on and off at significant points in the novel.

SA: Was that the main plot development?

AM: It was called ‘Glasses’.

In Manchester writers there is a healthy sense of the ridiculous allied to an easy replication of the human music people make when they talk. (I should say that I met Anneliese on one or two occasions, she came to the city as I was leaving.) It’s well placed in the here and now, But there is also an exactitude and an economy to these stories that resonates. This is from ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This':

On the way to work, I sometimes think: what if this is it? What if this is the world? Just this strip of space I can see on the way from home into work, and from work back home – what if this is everything? These are the only streets, the only cafes, the only job centres, the only canalside gastropubs, the only churches. And these are the only people.

Most of the time, I find this thought reassuring.

Notice the style: not one unnecessary or extraneous word. The candid existentialism informs all of these stories. The economy is maintained throughout the collection no matter how bizarre the content. It’s personal, but never self-centred. The chapter ‘Someone Else’s Story’ is told as her parents as young lovers; the final chapter imagines Gretchen becoming old and having children of her own and waiting at the door on weekend nights, a great final story, elegiac and moving. Any Other Mouth is not flawless. There’s an occasional lapse into cliché (does anyone still wear shellsuits, or use zimmer frames?) and a certain tweeness that for some reason most Manchester writers have. But this is a superb piece of work from a genius of the personal who nevertheless understands that personal is not the same as important.

Children of the Damned

June 23, 2014

The twist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is visible from the opening page. The story features a group of teenagers at a boarding school. It’s a positive atmosphere, the characters gossip, mess around, generate thrills and happy memories. The twist is that the characters are clones, second-class citizens created purely as support systems for healthy organs which will be harvested, one by one, for donation to natural born humans. It’s a dystopian horror, full of undertones and grisly shadows. Stephen King or Ray Bradbury would have done this in five thousand words. Ishiguro spins it out into a novel.

Not that it fails as such. I particularly liked the way that some of the teachers looked at the characters with fear and revulsion – the way people react to big spiders in the house towards late August, an instinct towards life you feel shouldn’t exist but somehow does. Another fine detail is in the artworks and pathetic trinkets that the clones collect. A cassette tape counts as a big find. The book is supposed to be set in the late nineties, but feels like rationing-era. A hinterland of long empty roads and disused hostels. The only sign of life is a billboard of an idealised office environment, the kind of thing you see in temp agency literature. It could be that all clones get is fishheads and barrel scrapings. Or it could be that, in this world, despite medical and technological advances, there’s nothing going on and no one’s particularly happy.

Which brings us to the science. What is this place? Like any respectable literary novelist having a go at science fiction, Ishiguro is non-specific. There was a ‘war’, a ‘scandal’. Keep it general, you hear him saying as he types. It’s only the hacks who get into names, places, dates. But Ishiguro doesn’t seem to realise that designers of systems go for efficacy. If you can grow replicate people purely as to generate healthy organs surely you can just grow the organs in a petri dish and avoid all the expense, hassle and tedious debates on The Moral Maze? Science tends to make things easier, and less painful. (Would you rather attend the clap clinic in 2014 or 1914?) And surely no government would ever sanction such cruel and mindless butchery of… ah, but then you come up against Leonard of Quirm, casually designing ‘a weapon of such destructive power, it would render war meaningless, as no one would ever dare use it.

The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s other big novel, also chronicled empty lives, but there was glamour there. I didn’t realise this on first reading, but Stevens loves the glamour of submission. Burnish, great import, matters of global significance – Stevens throws away his life, his love, his family for this rush. It is the rush of submission that moves the great wheels of power as surely as the tyrant’s desire to crush the human face beneath his jackboot. But the clones of Never Let Me Go don’t seem like they want to submit in the formalised (and yet somehow passionate) way of Mr Stevens. They just want to continue their little lives. However – and this is made explicit – it can’t happen. The narrator Kath is only in her early thirties and all her friends are dying and nothing’s going to change that. ‘Poor little creatures,’ says the clone boss. Exactly! Ishiguro is almost sadistic in this. He’s like a children’s author in this intent to make his readers cry. If you want the blue bird of happiness to take a shit on your head – Ishiguro’s your man.

What Ishiguro demonstrates in this book is there’s no great spark, no divine breath that animates the empty flesh. Life is matter, that’s the glorious truth, but in this novel it makes the sadness unbearable. The ‘deferral’ that Kath and Tommy ask for won’t be granted to us either. For no matter how many good memories we experience, how many cassette tapes we collect (or MP3s, come to that) we all end up on the table sometime. We’re the children of the damned, and playtime is over.

(Apologies that the science is so wonky in this. I’m a literature graduate: I don’t have to know how things actually work.)

from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Image: Bookmania)

Dictatorship of the Average

June 14, 2014

klimaThis place’ll be a paradise tomorrow. And in every department there’ll be a supervisor with a sub-machine gun.

- Alabama 3, ‘Mao Tse Tung Said’

There’s a famous saying upon revolution, the origin of which I forget, that goes something like: the revolution doesn’t come when the dictatorship is at its worst and has everything locked down. The revolution comes when there is a loosening, a relaxation, of state power, where there is a space, to breathe – to get perspective.

Ivan Klima, the Czech writer and playwright, was thrown into Theresienstadt as a child and was just thirteen years old when the war ended. ‘This is merely speculation,’ he writes, ‘but whatever the reason for my survival, I can take neither credit nor blame for it. In this abominable lottery, I had drawn one of the few lucky numbers’.

Among many other horrors, the twentieth century introduced the phenomenon of ‘survivor’s guilt’. Why should I live, the survivor asks, when many good and brave people died? When the question should be: why did these terrors even occur? Klima doesn’t ask it. His aim is to give an accurate record of a time where life was easily lost. There is a stoical feel to the prose.

Theresienstadt was not the only tragedy of the writer’s life, although it took the young Klima a while to realise it. Klima’s father was a doctrinaire communist who welcomed the Soviets as a liberating ally. Whenever friends or neighbours pointed out Stalin’s abuses, he raged and spun about English and French colonialism. Inevitably he was dragged in front of a people’s kangaroo court, accused of sabotage, double-agenting and all kinds of scoundrel things, and kept in solitary confinement for nine months. Instead of fighting the charge, he spent years trying to become ‘rehabilitated’. His son comments: ‘They certainly gave you an idiotic excuse.’

After Stalin’s death came the loosening. The 1956 Communist Congress brought something amazing: criticism of Uncle Joe’s legacy. The Klimas huddled around a radio in shock as Krushchev detailed Stalin’s murder lists and torture of prisoners. Klima’s aunt, who spent many years in the Soviet Union, began to speak:

When she was working in Czech broadcasting at the Moscow radio station, people she was working with would be there one day and then gone the next, and no one dared ask where they were or what had happened to them. No one dared even pronounce their names. And if one of the disappeared had happened to write a book or an article, not a word of it could be cited, and the book was immediately removed from the library and destroyed. Merely cracking a stupid joke or just laughing at it was enough for the security forces to come for the unfortunate person. Sometimes the police would come that very night and sentence him to ten years in a camp in Siberia. Or he would disappear completely, and at most his family would receive a package containing his clothing.

Why didn’t you tell us this, Klima asked.

Because I lived through it, the aunt said.

Klima’s main phase as a writer came at this time of slight loosening. The dictatorship had lost its peak and knew it, they couldn’t go back, but at the same time the authorities could not embrace total liberalism, and freedom of expression, because that would mean the unravelling of everything they had worked for. We think of censorship as something grand and inquisitorial. But the corrupt, sclerotic and exhausted satellite states, in their monitoring of writers and artists, could only manage a mediocre literalism where fictions were crafted by committee. The historian Keith Lowe writes:

One of [Klima's] main themes is the huge gap between the way the state portrayed the world and reality as he experienced it. The much-vaunted youth brigades – groups of young pioneers sent to work the fields – turn out to be a bunch of disillusioned, depressed teenagers, whose only ambition is to get drunk and escape to the West. Party functionaries portray themselves as dedicated idealists, but all they do is travel the country chasing women. Construction workers spend their days drinking and playing cards, while state-approved authors are put up in an 18th-century chateau, where they eke out their days pretending to write.

Or as Klima puts it: ‘In all branches of human activity, the average has always prevailed over creativity or even genius, and there has never been a dearth of proficient frauds.’

Writers today pursue the perfect conditions for writing, through expensive courses and retreats; debates are had on how to balance the writing life with commitments to day jobs and families. Klima’s situation, where he needed to produce good work without getting arrested or murdered, was an even trickier balancing act. His play The Castle is about an elite who live in a fabulous castle ‘cut off from all hardships and worries. They hold empty conversations about the people they serve and the work they do, although it is clear they do nothing at all.’ One day a corpse appears on a table, and a stranger appears to investigate. The strange man summons a doctor who in turn calls in the police. The play is a sort of Czech An Inspector Calls and was performed at the Vinohrady Theater. It took a week for the authorities to catch on and the council banned all advertisements for the play, not understanding ‘that such a prohibition was the best kind of advertisement, and the play was always sold out’.

‘And yet there is something distant, almost dreamlike, about this book,’ Lowe says. ‘The Europe we live in today feels so different to the Communist world he describes: it seems almost inconceivable that totalitarian regimes like this were still in power, in the heart of Europe, a mere 25 years ago.’ But perhaps this dreamlike distance is something contributed by the reader – our sense that all this is ancient history and can never happen again.

Can’t happen again?

Can’t happen here?

You think.

You Know This Is Permanent, Right?

June 12, 2014

There’s a piece by Bidisha circulating on Facebook. In it she complains about tattoos. ‘Nearly all world cultures have had tattoos,’ she writes. ‘They represent adulthood rites, warrior marks, artistry and beauty, tribal identification, victories won, journeys undertaken. They have represented both belonging and marginality; individuals on the edge, pillaging, hustling, grifting.’ Now? Now everyone’s got them. Footballers. Vulgar people who smoke tobacco out of roll bags. Tattoos is over. Because The Guardian said so.

There are two literary clichés about tattoos. 1) People get drunk and get tattoos which they later regret. 2) People get tattoos of Japanese characters that turn out – arf! – not to mean what the people think the characters mean. This article is in fact a study in cliché. It is contained within the Guardian cliché subgenre of ‘This popular thing, that you thought was cool, is actually stupid and/or evil and this is why.’ There is yet another cliché – the cartoon of future nursing-home residents comparing ill-advised body art. Says Bidisha: ‘My generation will be at the NHS at 80 getting our gammy legs seen to while doctors try to find a vein under the faded, stretched, misshapen detritus of our unartistic body art; a postmodern mash-up of badly translated Chinese words, bungled Latin quotes, dolphins, roses, anchors, faces of favoured children or pets, and Japanese wallpaper designs.’

Oh I don’t know. I think my generation will have problems enough in fifty years without fretting over a badly dated anklet. God knows what the world will be like by then. And really, if a permanently painted area of your skin surface is your biggest regret, you’ve done pretty well (or badly, if you look at it another way). It could be that what you want now won’t be what you want in ten years. But have we not demonstrated that the fantasy of the perfect body is like the fantasy of the perfect society – a lie, a glammer, something destructive. Who leaves a beautiful corpse these days? Who survives a world of UV rays, dust particles, sharp edges, long hours and junk food? Learn to love one’s imperfections. Particularly the self-inflicted ones.

‘Our bodies are coinage,’ said the poet Stephen Dobyns. ‘Spend it. Fling the coins upward, hear them jangle on the street.’

tattoo

‘It took fourteen hours! I fainted three times’


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