Archive for February, 2014
Comprehensive existence is not easily rendered on the page. The biographies of even the most fascinating man or woman, told cradle to grave, become saggy and overlong: the song of a life crushed beneath a sashweight of names, places and dates. Berel Lang takes a better approach in his Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, with short chapters that are thematically arranged.
An appropriate method. The one thing everyone knows about Levi is the eleven months he spent in Auschwitz. We’re so far away from that experience that it takes that extra effort to understand the impact that had on him. The imaginative leap gets longer. The tragedy of a survivor is that the evil thing he or she survived, rape or torture or unjust imprisonment, becomes in public eye the defining feature of a life and cancels out all else. Evil is defeated but still leaves its mark.
How much was Levi touched by the camp? When he committed suicide, at sixty-seven off his apartment landing, fellow survivor Elie Wiesel said that ‘Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.’ A Turin rabbi judged his death ‘delayed homicide’ (Jewish religious custom prohibits burial of suicides in Jewish cemeteries) and his camp number, 174517, was carved into his tombstone. Levi grappled with the camps all his life as a novelist. In 1960 he dedicated a poem to Adolf Eichmann, condemning the SS killer to ‘live longer than anyone ever lived./… sleepless five million nights,/And may you be visited each night by the suffering of everyone who saw.’
And yet as Lang argues, to define Levi by the camps alone is to diminish him, and the forty-two years of life he enjoyed after, his success as a chemist and a novelist, the quieter victories of marriage and fatherhood. Levi himself resisted such definition. (On Elie Wiesel, ‘[a]ware that Wiesel’s writings on the subject of the Holocaust were, at least initially, much more widely known than his’ Levi said that Wiesel ‘chose a different path from mine, but in my opinion his personal history justified him… I do not find any artifice in his keeping faith.’ As Lang says, this is literary judgement by way of evasion.) He had suffered from depression for a long time (describing it as ‘in certain respects… even worse than Auschwitz’) and had numerous physical complaints. When he explicitly linked suicide and the camps, it was not the expected link: Levi argued that self-slaughter was impossible in Auschwitz because it required ‘sufficient freedom to allow a person to step back and consider whether he or she wishes to continue to live’ – not an option in the environment where the instinct, the intellect, every thought and muscle was engaged in a scrabble for the next greenish crust of bread. Lang points out: if Levi had dropped dead from a standard cardiac arrest, it would ‘only confirm the pattern: stress from the Lager was exacting its toll forty years later.’
A testament to Levi’s survival skills is how little the camps changed him. He graduated as a chemist in 1941 and became a professional chemist after the war was over. Others in the camps got religion, and no disrespect to them. (Wiesel: ‘I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.’) Levi wrote that ‘I entered the Lager (Auschwitz) as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day.’ There follows an anecdote:
I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death… naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.
He wrote that ‘Chemistry led to the heart of Matter, and Matter was the ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy.’ His writing was in part a rebellion against the high style of dictatorship: ‘since the political values of fascism and totalitarianism,’ Lang writes, ‘force, imperative, repetition, hyperbole – imposed themselves on all the expressive forms: on writing and rhetoric as markedly as on architecture, painting, or music.’ Leni Riefenstahl, the Berlin Olympics, the Thule Society, Gabriel D’Annunzio – Levi’s mild and sane voice cut through all of autocracy’s petty glammers.
That does not make him any less an artist. He did not believe in a Berlin Wall between the ‘two cultures’ of science and art: for him they overlapped and complemented each other. (As Michel Houellebecq said: ‘All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal.’) Nor was he a terse and bitter New Puritan kind of artist. Although Levi always dismissed his time with the Piedmont partisans as of little account, his novel If Not Now, When?, about a Jewish partisan army, has the same sense of fun and adventure you get from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. His favourite writer, little known, was Rabelais, and he had a friendship, in the 1980s, with Philip Roth. Lang’s style is dry but you come away with the impression that Primo Levi had a sense of fun. Because of his circumstances, he had to conceal it better than most men do.
Every Breaking Bad fan I have spoken to can pinpoint the moment that they lost all sympathy for Walter White, the show’s ruthless protagonist. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday the struggling chemistry teacher is hit with a shocking diagnosis – terminal lung cancer – and has subsequently reinvented himself as a manufacturer of crystal methamphetamine, ostensibly so that his family will be able to support themselves on drug money after he’s gone. After various misadventures Walter pulls off his biggest score to date – £1.2 million in exchange for a consignment of his trademark ‘blue meth’ – but there’s a problem. His business partner, unruly twentysomething stoner Jesse Pinkman, is entitled to half the cash, but Walter is reluctant to hand it over as Jesse has recently entered into a chaotic, heroin-fuelled relationship with beautiful relapsed addict Jane Margolis. ‘I will not finance your overdose,’ he tells Jesse, but his girlfriend Jane has other ideas, and tells Walt that she will expose him as a drug dealer if the money is not delivered forthwith.
Walter delivers the money as promised, but later on that night breaks into Jesse and Jane’s home – to talk, we don’t know. The young couple have fallen into a restless, dope-addled unconsciousness and, as Walter approaches the bed, Jane begins to overdose in her sleep. Automatically Walt tries to go to Jane’s aid before realising that this is the perfect out for his problems – if Jane is dead, there’s no blackmail threat. And so he watches her choke on her own vomit. The scene is harrowing because of the facial torment Cranston projects. You see Walter’s pain and indecision on his features – he’s still human enough to be affected, but degenerate enough to ignore his human instinct.
The show begins almost as sitcom pitch – bumbling suburbanite decides to break into the drug game – and the first two seasons have a light comedic feel to them as Walter and Jesse attempt criminal enterprise and street negotiation in their inept middle class way. By the time we’re on seasons three and four, things have grown tense as Walter’s transition into the terrifying gunslinger Heisenberg kicks in, his success builds, the risks are higher and the people he’s up against more serious. Series five shifts the tone way past the crime mode, into a kind of gothic horror.
By this point a meth kingpin with no competition, Walter becomes Caesarian, almost Ozymandian in his criminal grandiosity; the montage where he has ten witnesses murdered in three different prisons within the space of three minutes is especially chilling. In the second half of series five, characters are openly referring to him as ‘the Devil’. The man’s very appearance inspires dread: waiting in a restaurant, the businesswoman Lydia Rodart-Quayle shows visible terror when Heisenberg’s grizzly shadow appears in the doorway. Stephen King is a great fan, and no surprise, for the show is perfect for an aesthetic such as his. Cartel sigils appear among the hopscotch grids on the sidewalks. Take a vacation and men will break into your house and concoct mysterious potions. The hide in plain sight. The horror in the suburbs. There’s an opening scene where Walt, having been on the run from a national manhunt, returns to his family home. It is a blackened husk with ‘HEISENBERG’ sprayed on one wall in gaudy graffito. It has become a haunted house.
‘Chemistry is a process of change,’ Walter tells his students in the very first episode. The new wave of serious US dramas – Mad Men, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under – were mainly about changelessness: protagonists who refuse to change, or strive for change and fail. As Brett Martin put it in Difficult Men, his study of the HBO era: ‘Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels: he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted.’ Conversely, Walter does change, but most of the changes are negatives – he crosses every moral line he ever knew, until Breaking Bad is a world where the poisoning of a child becomes a viable business strategy. There is a telling flashback when Walter remembers a younger, better version of himself, explaining to an old flame the elements that make up a human body. He recalls this while cleaning up the remains of a rival dealer that he has reduced to blood and bone through a bathtub of hydrochloric acid. From outlining the chemicals that comprise the human form to… uncreating a person.
Tony Soprano, despite his crimes, always came off as a genial, clubbable fellow – his relative liberalism, his love of family, his indulgence in good food, designer suits, wine and women always made the big man seem all too human and loveable. We are also inclined to judge Tony less harshly because he was born into the mob – it’s all he’s ever known, and circumstances have conspired to keep him there. Walter by contrast gets into the high end of his own volition, and ignores repeated opportunities to get out. He lives a frugal lifestyle and, while he enjoys the odd glass of whisky, displays almost no interest in the luxury trappings of the drug tycoon. In particular, Walter’s appearance and wardrobe – the zero-shaved head, goatee beard, and interchangeable array of pastel shirts, bomber jackets and slacks throughout the series create the impression of a focused, ascetic and obsessive personality. Walter White doesn’t need cocaine, bottles of Kristal or Swedish callgirls – the buzz of criminal adrenaline is more than enough. He has the zeal of the convert. ‘I feel awake,’ he tells Jesse at the beginning of his journey. ‘Because I felt alive,’ he confesses to his ex-wife Skyler at journey’s end.
‘Your characters do not have to be likeable,’ the writer Tom Fontana was once told by an HBO exec. ‘But they do have to be compelling.’ And isn’t there something compelling about Walt’s restless and compassionless new nature – something that stirs a strange beast in all of us? Walter is arrogant, pedantic and bullying. He is a near-genius who could have made a contribution to the world but instead chose to sell crystal meth, an evil drug even the most passionate legalisation advocates would struggle to make a case for. And yet part of us warms to the crafty old devil: he displays true ingenuity and spontaneity, he’s always got a plan, he has a certain style. (I have met women who confess a mild sexual attraction to Walter White. ‘It’s the voice,’ they say. ‘And he’s kind of enigmatic.’) The story becomes increasingly horrific but we follow Walter into the abyss because we have so much invested in the characters and the narrative.
HBO drama is preoccupied with masculinity (‘A man provides. Because he’s a man’) and after a lifetime spent in compromise and counted cost, Walter White embraces his frustrated aggression and a simplistic, shoot-first solution to life’s inconveniences and problems. If, as Martin suggests, people watch The Sopranos for the vicarious thrill of watching someone do the things they’ve dreamed of but would never dare do – then with Breaking Bad they are watching someone who has escaped that vicarious dream. It is the call of the abyss, as hollow and tempting as the New Mexico desert that defines the show as much as its characters. It is the deadly curiosity that we feel when we walk across a high bridge. It is what King called: ‘the lure of emptiness and the pleasures of zero.’
Walter’s colleague Gale Boetticher – an intellectual dreamer, like Walter himself without the aggression – explains that he got into the meth business because he was sick of the straight academic world with its petty vendettas and shallow intrigues. He recites Walt Whitman’s ‘The Learned Astronomer’:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
That is Walter’s story – and also the story of the American new wave of TV writers who took risks on slow-burn, complex stories with deep character development and narrative values. If publishing were prepared to take such risks, we might again see the novel as a popular art.
Zoe Pilger‘s debut novel starts messy and gets worse. Her protagonist Ann-Marie is a Cambridge dropout with almost no sense of boundaries or self awareness. She steals, propositions and attempts suicide at random intervals. Working as a ‘door bitch’ for a Soho restaurant and hanging around on the fringes of the hipsterati art scene, Ann-Marie’s chaotic life develops some coherence when she meets Stephanie Haight, a second-wave feminist name who makes the younger woman into a test case, and tries to cure Ann-Marie of her one conviction: that falling in love will save her life. Pilger said in an interview: ‘Ann-Marie is obsessed with Beyoncé and desperately wants to fall in love, whereas Stephanie is determined to re-educate, to undo the brainwashing that has taken place, albeit through her own form of brainwashing (which is equally destructive).’
Eat My Heart Out has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis, Kathy Acker, Lena Dunham’s Girls and early Amis, but transcends all these influences. Contra Fay Weldon, literary fiction has little time for people born post 1980, let alone people born post 1990. There is a world of struggling emergent youth out there that is simply unrepresented. Despite their first-class education Ann-Marie and her contemporaries are fighting for service jobs and floor space in a rigged game. Pilger started young – she is 29 and began writing this novel in late 2010 – and so is able to capture parts of London life that don’t even register on the establishment literary radar.
The art world takes a kicking. Ann-Marie’s housemate Freddie – think a younger Montague Withnail with a coke problem – has Ann-Marie star in a recreation of famous female writer suicides (an actual 2013 spread by Vice, pulled after an internet firestorm) and is also working on a show called Making a Racquet: ‘It all centres around an emerging bee-artist who has some issues about bees. He’s going to hit them with a racquet – plus they make a noise. They buzz.’ It is one of many, many fantastic lines. Of all the difficult things to do in writing a story, the most difficult thing is dialogue. I could spend the rest of the review listing examples. ‘Freddie, when you’ve done loads of drugs you look like a frightened horse.’ ‘Do you know what a message in a bottle is? It’s sent in faith, Vic, faith. Do you know what faith is?’ ‘Because even though people are from the same blood buffet, it doesn’t mean they’re the same type of sick gangster. What she did was frigidaire.’ The back and forth, the human music that people don’t know they make.
‘I don’t want to be free,’ Ann-Marie says. ‘I feel trapped anyway, in all this freedom.’ Stephanie Haight has a chapter that ends: ‘our fixation with love is caused by the opposite – it is caused by agoraphobia, by too much space.’ The prose has occasional lapses into faux-Hogarth scenes of sordid nights out in the big city – ‘To my left, a man was selling fake celebrity-endorsed perfumes to a crowd of tourists, who spritzed themselves liberally with the testers so that the toxically sweet scent conspired with the pollution to make the air unbearable.’ Eat My Heart Out could be seen as a satire on the dark side of the sexual revolution – the normalisation of rape in casual discourse (Ann-Marie’s boss prior to a busy shift tells her ‘that I was going to get slammed hard from all directions tonight so I better fucking enjoy it’) and, more existentially, about the terrors of freedom: because freedom is scary, freedom to fail, freedom to fuck up. Pilger’s prose is like grease in the night air, a leaden drunken feeling after a day spent asleep, what Ann-Marie calls a ‘ghost of experience.’
‘The party turned against the girl,’ Haight writes. ‘She was gang-raped by men who were flower children.’ The novelist Linda Grant described the 1970s as ‘a climate in which sexual exploitation by older men like Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile could flourish. These men, born in the 1920s, were a product of more repressive times and they were taking advantage of the sexual revolution, regarding all younger women as easy meat for exploitation.’ To illustrate her point Haight forces Ann-Marie into a tryout for a strip show that serves up objectification under the fig leaf of burlesque. The problems with post-liberation and ‘ladette’ culture have been chronicled by talented feminist writers, notably Natasha Walter in Living Dolls. Yet all this shades into an old and familiar authoritarian critique. ‘We were a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’
How refreshing it was to see intelligent and articulate women stand up to the furtive, bullying, inadequate, misogyny of so many middle aged males. The Everyday Sexism project, Hollaback and the SlutWalk demos, Reclaim the Night, the activism of Caroline Criado-Perez and the activism of Laurie Penny: it was a fresh inclusive moment, what Hunter S Thompson in another time called ‘a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ It’s depressing therefore that the new feminist movement imploded in endless Twitter outrage parties carried out in the argot of intersectionality: ‘the jargon-filled language of the intellectual left,’ Nick Cohen calls it, ‘which ordinary people cannot understand, and know without needing to be told are not meant to understand either.’ When a conference at Barnard College descended into narcissistic infighting, disappointed Nation writer Michelle Goldberg reported that ‘the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.’ Goldberg does not exaggerate. A friend of the blogger Phil Dore was attacked on Twitter last year with online feminists repeatedly accusing her of transphobia. Dore writes: ‘Unfortunately one of her hidden oppressions was an anxiety disorder, and the Twitterstorm triggered a relapse.’
This isn’t a political problem so much as a human nature problem. Like all political movements, the fourth wave of feminism had become a purely social thing defined by codes, language, in jokes, rites, rituals and rules. The tragedy of social activism is that groups begin with universal goals and end up fixated, through organisational dynamics, on petty personal and political difference. It’s not an environment in which creative outsiders like Ann-Marie can thrive. Pilger said that: ‘I don’t have a political message I’m trying to put across. I just wanted to open up the space of talking about feminism in a way that was accessible. A lot of academic feminist ideas can be very intense and impenetrable, which is a shame because feminism is about people’s real lives and is something all men and women need.’ With her empathy and sense of perspective, Pilger demonstrates that it’s better to spread this consciousness through fiction.