In my absolute favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year, the mysterious Señor C has no doubts about calling his collection of fragments an thoughts Strong Opinions. “The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany,” he explains to Anya, his soon-to-be-typist. “Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to say their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better. Six eminent writers pronounce what is wrong with today’s world.”

But as the book progresses, Señor C finds his hard and firmly-fixed opinions wavering slightly (is it the influence of Anya? A softening ‘woman’s touch’? Does he really believe what he says, does he really have the right to ‘pronounce’ on anything?), and even the editor himself vacillates about the title — “He is still wavering between calling these little excursions Meinungen or AnsichtenMeinungen are opinions, he says, but opinions subject to fluctuations of mood. The Meinungen I held yesterday are not necessarily the Meinungen I hold today. Ansichten, by contrast, are firmer, more thought out. In our last communication he was tending to prefer Meinungen. Six different writers, six different personalities, he says: how can we be sure how firmly wedded each writer is to his opinions? Best to leave the question open.”

Words like Meinungen and Ansichten that trickle down to us English-speakers from other tongues are wonderful, because they’re layered with shades of meaning in a single compressed word — whereas English often tends to need two, three, four words to express the same thing. Strong opinions; soft opinions — in the final analysis, the book does not offer a judgement on which might be preferable from an ethical standpoint. (After all, when did Coetzee’s books ever offer an answer? But there’s a clue in that itself; their very refusal to decide one way or the other seems to me a way of saying that soft opinions are better in a world where nobody can really speak with authority.)

What Coetzee has never shied from saying unequivocally, however, is that strong or soft or hard or weak, opinions have a right to be held and freely expressed. In 1996 a selection of essays and interviews was published called Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, in which Coetzee examined the nature of censorship, the ethics of ‘giving offense’, the effect of censorship on art and writing, and so on and so forth. Growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa meant knowing all too well what it means to live under apparatuses that stifle expression and regulate thought. In the very first essay of the book (‘Taking Offense’), Coetzee romps through the various forms censorship can take (regulation for moral, religious, or political reasons; internalized censorship, institutionalized censorship) and the psychology behind ‘offending’ and ‘censoring’ respectively. Taking offense always has powerlessness at the heart of the matter, because censorship – not believing in the inherent power of certain representations to win out over others – springs out of the need to limit what is represented — and therein is its de facto admission of doubt. But there is one particularly interesting point at which Coetzee looks at Mill – and draws an important distinction:

To Mill, freedom of speech includes immunity from censorship, specifically from prepublication censorship, but also freedom from societal pressures, “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Mill conflates censorship with social pressures (sometimes called censure) in ways I am reluctant to follow. Censure, as Frederick Schauer points out, is not strictly speaking a free-speech issue. Social intolerance is different in kind from official sanctions back by the force of law: people have a choice not to follow orthodoxy. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J. M. Coetzee

He does not pursue this line of examination further in his essay; but I think I will, here, because it’s important right now more than ever in the wake of what happened in Paris last week, and in light of the way the world has reacted.

The shootings were rightly met with unequivocal condemnation and horror: to be gunned down like that because you took up a pen, a pencil, to draw some pictures — well, if it was not true and horrible, then it would have been unthinkable and ludicrous. That it was an attempt to silence and censor taken to its very fanatical extreme is also undeniable, and the event has rightly become a reiterated defence of an intrinsic and basic freedom that I believe in, the freedom of speech. I say all this now because words (like any representation) are vulnerable things, perpetually exposed to the possibility of misunderstandings, misreadings, misinterpretations, and can cause a great deal of anger in their own way; it’s important to be absolutely clear that the shootings were terrible, that the shooters were terrible, and that the deaths of 17 people is incredibly tragic (any death is and it’s no different in this case).

But a rejection of censorship does not constitute an inability to censure and question and doubt (I prefer soft opinions myself, both to hold and in others), and this is what interests me now; a society that defends so loudly the right for anybody to hold and express any opinion, any thing, should be the very last to stop thinking about what the opinions themselves really mean.

To me, Coetzee’s words above on the distinction between ‘censor’ and ‘censure’ echo those of Teju Cole published in the New Yorker just last week, in what I thought was one of the best pieces on the whole Charlie Hebdo situation ever written; Cole writes about ‘Unmournable Bodies‘ in the context of very mournable ones, and in the aftermath of a veritable media frenzy over the attacks; he says,

But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.

On the one hand, I see the media frenzy as understandable — I can even empathize with it. In an age where the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been repeatedly disproven and holds not much currency, the events in Paris came as a stark reminder that pens and pencils – though not, ultimately, any defence against guns – have not lost all their potency. There is a perverse kind of reaffirmation for those who write, draw, create and comment in all this – our words do matter; they do have power; and ideally, let’s use that power to do good and make the world a better place. (Generally this has always been the idea; no writer or artist has ever sat down with pen in hand to consciously try and make the world a worse place, regardless of how divorced the effects may be from the intent.) A slew of cartoons came out after the incident depicting pens and pencils doing all sorts of glorious things — from resisting to tyranny to creating harmony; terrorists cower in fear at the sight of a small pencil. Of course they are meant to highlight the ridiculousness of what happened, and of those who held the guns — how can you possibly kill for something like this? — but at the same time there’s no looking at any of these without remembering the above-mentioned idiom.

Title page of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'

Title page of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

But on the other hand, Cole’s piece was a refreshing and welcome reminder that rejecting censorship and defending free speech does not mean we have to celebrate all that is said and done in the name of free speech. Papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian have taken a beating over the past week for refusing to publish some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves — they have been called ‘cowardly’ and accused of failing to safeguard free speech. But such accusations are mistaken, and stem from that confused idea that we have to echo the views of others in order to defend their right to hold them; this is not true. The NY Times and the Guardian can very well defend the right to free speech while disclaiming their willingness to depict some of the things Charlie Hebdo did. In doing so they’re simply reiterating that they do not hold such views; not that others should not. This is a point everyone should be questioning: of course anybody can hold and express whatever they want, but can’t we query and critique those views too?

Although Charlie Hebdo calls itself a ‘satirical’ magazine, I saw some of the ‘contentious’ cartoons they had published and saw nothing satirical about them; they are acts of defiance plain and simple – we will draw this in defiance of your injunction not to draw this. That is worthy of defending in itself, of course, in the name of free speech; but it is not tantamount to constituting a constructive social critique of anything. If reading piles of 18th century satirical fiction and treatises on the nature and purpose of satire has taught me anything, then that is what satire does — and the 18th century is not a bad place to look to if we want to remind ourselves of satire’s function in society and the media; Swift and Pope are not bad masters to learn from. “Satire is a sort of glass…” Swift began once — and it is crucial to remember this. Satire deals with the real and the current; it magnifies real absurdities and so of course there is mockery — but there is also an urging towards some sort of political or social change. Without this key ingredient, what intends to be ‘satire’ becomes simply mockery, and while we can defend anyone’s right to mock in a free society, I would value the two things somewhat different. It is important to remember the distinction between the two (satire and mockery) for this reason alone.

Am I Charlie? No — for one, the battle for free speech – though it seems axiomatic in most developed Western societies — is actually very far from won, either in those places very explicit about their control of the press and media or not (and this is true even of the ‘developed Western societies’; I can say there might certainly be degrees of freedom around speech, but is it absolute anywhere? I’m not sure!). For another, I don’t know if I’d particularly like to be — satire I can get behind; but mockery? It’s not for me. It can be for others; mockery is certainly not to be censored (as nothing should be), but it’s not beyond censure in its own way.

Alvin Lustig's original dustjacket cover for West's 'Miss Lonelyhearts'.

Alvin Lustig’s original dustjacket cover for West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ (1933).

The world is all abuzz because of the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – & why not? One of the world’s best-loved novels, and it promises to be a grand spectacle if nothing else: a cast of stars so big & bright mine eyes dazzle; a soundtrack of songs so anachronistic and out-of-place and kitsch you wonder if it’s a stroke of modernizing genius, or the contrivance of a mind confused beyond redemption. Either way, this particular juror has to reserve judgement until 16th May. The point really is that everybody’s currently a-flutter over Mr. Fitzgerald, because there’s really nothing like a hyped-up Hollywood blockbuster to make folks scramble to their book collections in search of dusty, well-thumbed tomes. And in a slightly related coincidence, I recently read one Mr. Nathanael West for the first time, whom Fitzgerald once called “a potential leader in the field of prose fiction”. They were good friends, Fitzgerald & Nathanael West: they were both brilliant writers mucking it out as screenwriters in shallow Hollywood (which they both despised), slaving away under tyrannous studio heads to churn out sub-standard treatments, script revisions, etc etc. Dreams of bringing literature in all its glory to screen dashed; but never mind, they had the last laugh after all, when they put Hollywood in their books & poked fun at it. More bizarrely, Fitzgerald and West both died within hours of each other; in fact, the rumour-mill has often asked (but has it ever answered?) whether Nathanael West crashed his car that day because he was so distraught at learning that his good friend F. Scott had passed away the night before.

Nathanael West: literary legend or underrated genius? I can’t decide on this one. He strikes me as belonging tragically to the latter category, but his long list of famous fans and the extensive biographies/critical studies almost suggest the opposite – from Dorothy Parker to W. H. Auden to…er…Johnny Depp? (Yes!)…to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West has been duly admired. “Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West”, said Dorothy Parker, which is high praise indeed from this woman of biting words. Auden perhaps was less enamoured – he didn’t like the hollow, satirized religiosity of Miss Lonelyhearts, and so refuses to see West as satirical (“Satire presupposes conscience & reason as judges between the true and the false, the moral and the immoral…but for West these faculties themselves are the creators of unreality…”). But he engaged with West deeply enough to coin a whole malady out of the man: ‘West’s disease’, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of wishes into desires”. A sad view of the man & his work indeed – wishful but without enough gumption to actually desire and long (there’s something more invested and caring and serious about desire as opposed to wishing); thwarted and otherwise than what one wants to be, because one has to be so in order to be wishful in the first place. But hey, despite all this, I’m still going to go out on a limb and say that West is overshadowed and underdogged; when one thinks of great American literature from the ’30s, one does not necessarily hear West’s name listed, though it should be. Perhaps it was his misfortune to have his star out-shone by those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and other Americans-in-Paris types, all burning through and out at the same time.


Sadly I can't find the original source for this image, despite running loads of reverse-image searches. Either way this image was found here:

(Sadly I can’t find the original source for this image & if it’s in the public domain etc, despite running loads of reverse-image searches. Either way this image was found here. If this is a villainous act of appropriation & infringement, do let me know.)

When one is enamoured of a certain period or place, it makes sense to obsess over it through as many mediums (media?) as possible. So my current mania for classic Hollywood film & particularly the ‘Golden Age’ (the ’30s!) led me to Nathanael West, supreme critic and satirist (they say) of all that was simultaneously glitzy & glamorous & seedy & ugly & godawful about LA, Hollywood, and the movies. After all, the screen was a sanitised and falsified representation of what this world was really all about   – you only see the beautiful and the successful, the made-its and sometimes the has-beens. The literary types of the age knew this; “This may come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,” Dorothy Parker once said, a dose of her typical searing, wise-cracking wit (Mr. Goldwyn is the ‘G’ in MGM), “but in all history which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.” (We could tell saccharine Disney the same thing!). It’s this curious mixture – of utmost pessimism & cynicism, alongside that biting, dancing wit which makes you laugh in spite of yourself & in spite of all the doom & gloom – that strikes me as the hallmark of these writers, West and Parker and more besides I’m sure.

I began with The Day of the Locust (1939) – it worried me, having more than a slight resemblance to that famous Heinlein sci-fi novel, The Day of the Triffids. And I don’t like sci-fi…West didn’t sound like the kind of guy to write about a dystopian LA overrun by a locust invasion, & yet…the discomfort stuck. Fortunately the novel is not really about locusts (save metaphorically), and it isn’t sci-fi. It’s about a graduate from the Yale School of Fine Art (Tod Hackett) trying to make it in Hollywood, learning about costume and set design. This contrasts oddly with his fine art sensibilities; his is a world of “Goya & Daumier”, and yet his setting is that of a godawful LA, where the streets are filled with people whose “clothing [is] somber and badly cut, brought from mail-order houses” and the houses (built in Spanish, Mediterranean, Japanese, Egyptian, Tudor styles) are ugly beyond kitsch. No little social circle of artistic intellectuals surrounds Tod either; his companions are a ‘fake’ wannabe actress (Faye Greener) whom he’s violently (and I mean, really violently) attracted to; a violent, vicious, sleazy dwarf; a successful screenwriter who enjoys frequenting brothels to watch blue movies (I guess the standard A-list fare gets boring after a while); Faye’s sick-but-still-wantingtobe ex-vaudeville father; and a host of others (brutal cowboys & their Mexican friends, and the quiet, scared, unprepared Homer Simpson*). Silver screen fame & fortune is on almost everybody’s minds; little else defines them.

Glamour? Nope. Disillusionment and seediness a-plenty? Yep. It isn’t a world of romance or love as you’d traditionally know it – Faye Greener, for one, puts “love on a special plane, where a man without money or looks couldn’t move”. (Ah, the shallow trappings we try so hard to dissociate from ‘love’ & ‘romance’ etc – but Faye is disarmingly honest at least.) (Now I hate to reference Green Day in anything I write, but…) West literally gives us a Sunset Boulevard of broken dreams, the ugly behind-the-scenes of decaying hucksters and talentless but beautiful starlet-wannabes, of the disillusioned and overworked and insatiably restless masses (the ‘locusts’ of the title, one can only assume), and of the ruthless and violent. Tod Hackett and Homer Simpson are the odd ones out – Tod because he’s clever enough to stand at a distance and watch, and Homer because he might be the only person in the novel without an ounce of violence in him. (He sits on his porch and watches a lizard creep after flies, & Homer is “on the side of the flies.” “Occasionally the lizard would miscalculate. When that happened, Homer would laugh happily.”) He’s sweet and the most sympathetic of all the characters (insofar as West allows this…there’s an odd sort of psychological closed-offness about all his characters, and even when we’re looking through their eyes and reading things alongside them, we never really do feel like we know them). No place in this sunny, sweaty rat-race for folks like Homer, though, and he’s the ultimate victim of various sorts of torment. There is room, even in West’s alienating (and alienated?) portrayal of a wicked, whimsical world for sadness – either the sordid is the sad, or West suggests that there is room for sadness of almost classical proportions even amidst all the sordidness. And so we watch, confused, as just another movie-premiere in Hollywood descends into violent anarchy and chaos.

‘Watch’ is not a bad verb to apply to West’s novel; one of the most interesting questions that came up when I was doing a film studies module was whether or not, and if so how, the birth of cinema changed the way we conceive of narrative in literature.  How cinema changed books, in essence, and our relationship to language. Maybe West has an answer to offer in both The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts: the moving image is a form in love with the surface, amply attested to by old films’ adoration of the facial close-up, and sometimes it almost says that this surface is enough. Reading West often feels like an exercise in the sufficiency of the superficial – it is so difficult to scrabble into his words for a deeper psyche, motive, meaning, or message. In a letter to Edmund Wilson he writes:

I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught, the epic Thomas Wolfe, the realistic James Farrell……I’ve never had the same publisher twice – once bitten etc. – because there is nothing to root for in my books & what is even worse, no rooters.

This last line stumped me a bit: does he mean ‘to root’ as in ‘to dig’, or ‘root for’ as in ‘to cheer on’? I’m going to go with former meaning, but whichever interpretation you favour, it still holds true. There is nothing to root for (& indeed, there are no rooters). This is perhaps the biggest difference between West and his more famous contemporaries (Fitzgerald & Hemingway et al) – where they offer the comfort of depth and meaning (whatever those two words mean and entail; another debate in itself), West refuses. Maybe West just doesn’t care; maybe West is nihilistic to the point of thinking there’s nothing to root for. One of Miss Lonelyhearts’ suffering readers, an old cripple who has spent all his life working at reading gas-meters and is perpetually harried and worried and cheated-on by his wife, writes him a letter:

I am a cripple 41 yrs of age which I have been all my life and I have never let myself get blue until lately when I have been feeling lousy all the time on account of not getting anywhere and asking myself what is it all for. You have a education so I figured may be you no.


It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.

This is West’s million-dollar question: what is the whole stinking business for. And this is the question he repeatedly fails – or refuses – to answer. Perhaps the whole stinking business is for nothing at all, and how do you put that down in words? Mr. Doyle’s question is the same one that the masses at the movie-premiere in The Day of the Locust have in the back of their minds, probably – what is the point, what else is there, what’s this all for, what’s it all been for all these years anyhow?

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks & counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine & oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there?

Their boredom becomes more & more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked & burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds & bodies. They have been cheated & betrayed. They have slaved & saved for nothing.

These parts of the novels are excruciating, because they’re so painfully true for so many people I’m sure. (Maybe not the specifics of going to California à la Joni Mitchell, but the boredom & the violence & all that. That is what the movies & newspapers feed us, with ever-increasing greatness of CGI and whatnot; & probably a lot of life is whittled away by 9 – 5 working hour slots. Oddly coincides with the sentiments behind this Vampire Weekend song I’ve been listening to lately.)

Alvin Lustig cover for 'The Day of the Locust'. Lustig's work is REALLY amazing, so everyone should go check out more of his stuff on his website.

Alvin Lustig cover for ‘The Day of the Locust’. Lustig’s work is REALLY amazing, so everyone should go check out more of his stuff on his website.

For a pretty short novella, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) packs a punch; it rips down everything. It rips down God (Miss Lonelyhearts’ religious hysteria is of no use to him in his growing madness, just as his repeated religious lectures are no good to the suffering readers of his column); it rips down love & sex (the former seems impossible and the latter is unfulfilling in all its various forms); it even rips down artistic idealism, which is pretty uncharacteristic of authors – artistic idealism is ripe & all-sustaining throughout college, West says, but then really boils down to a bunch of horrible, bored, miserable guys casually discussing gang-rape in a bar while getting drunk:

At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money & fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

There’s no floating log for this drowning man, the obsessive-compulsive sympathetic post-religious Miss Lonelyhearts, to cling on to. Everything is meaningless; nothing is sustaining. It’s all deeply sordid and deeply sad once again (reading the letters Miss Lonelyhearts gets and answers on a daily basis is harrowing enough for a one-time reader; little wonder he breaks down horribly!).

But I don’t mean to make West sound like a vale of tears, because he’s not. Deeply pessimistic, horribly cynical, filling his novels with misfits and misanthropes and madmen – yes, he is and does all that. But he’s also terribly funny at parts (albeit in dark, sarcastic, deadpan ways). It probably fits perfectly under the rubric of ‘black comedy’: isn’t there something wildly wrong and mildly amusing, after all, about the fact that ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ (the only name we ever know this strange protagonist by) is always accompanied by a masculine pronoun or possessive? It jars. Or what about that ridiculous chain of biographies-of-biographers in The Dream Life of Balso Snell, where Miss McGeeney writes the biography of one Mr. Samuel Perkins (biographer of E. F. Fitzgerald, biographer of D. B. Hobson, biographer of Boswell, biographer of…well, Johnson!). And Miss McGeeney is undertaking this loopy biography in the hopes that – well, “…someone must surely take the hint & write the life of Miss McGeeney, the woman who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of Boswell.” But naturally.

To cut what could otherwise go on for a long, long time slightly shorter – Nathanael West is wonderful.  It’s heartbreaking to think that he died so young & in such horrible circumstances (he was only 37); if he had lived longer, I suspect he would have only grown and grown and grown to write even more amazing books, and that he would have found the fame he so richly deserved (& didn’t quite get) during his lifetime. To compare West & Fitzgerald is perhaps an exercise in futility, but it’s one worth carrying out anyways – not so much to decide on the relative merits of each (they’re both wonderful and amazing), but rather to see why it might be that where Fitzgerald went down in canonical history, West has lingered around on its edges like one of his outcast misfit characters.

Fitzgerald’s novels sort of strike me as the literary equivalent of Hollywood: all glamour and sheen and sanitised philosophizing (though whether Hollywood had much philosophizing back then is another question and not for me to answer; sat in the future, I’m definitely less critical of films from that era than West or Fitzgerald were – in fact, I love them. But.) Even in Tender is the Night, a book so monstrously soul-addling that it kept me in despair and frenzy for days on end, there is a sort of glossing over of certain things the book describes: Nicole’s schizophrenia, for instance, or her incestuous experience with her father. All is obtuse, refracted by words, vague. And when things get refracted by words too well, they’re almost aestheticized beyond being able to impress their full horror on the reader. One has to scratch and scratch to figure out what’s actually happening sometimes (what does Nicole do in the bathroom that so horrifies the house-guests?!) – but scratch one can, and does. And no matter how cruel the ‘careless’ Toms & Daisies of the world, who “smashed up things & creatures & then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”, The Great Gatsby is still a book almost inseparable from the gloss of 1920s New York glamour and wealth and privilege. It’s a book that chokes on and at it, but sometimes to do even so much you go too far into the very things you reject. (Can there be any wonder, then, that Baz Luhrmann has seemingly gone in for overwhelming spectacles & eye-blinding glitter-glitz? Nah – because Fitzgerald does that to people. He submerges them in so much atmospheric redolence & gentle whiffs of ‘beauty’ & ‘prettiness’ – the prose, the picture, the people – everything! – that it’s easy to forget all the many things he’s actually saying.)

Then you have West: West offers the reader no moral and no meaning: there’s almost no solution, and his novella resolutions are famously…unresolved. Perhaps it’s a symptom of his own inability to let us readers root, or to let his confused wanderer characters root. There are no villains that he tells us about – everyone just is. Lonelyhearts and lonely-hearts, Shrikes and messiahs, artists and actresses and hucksters and pimps. That’s all. And his worlds are ugly – if The Great Gatsby is sordid in its liaisons and adultery, it hasn’t got a thing on West’s LA or even West’s suffering column-reading New York. Cruelty and violence abound – & unlike Fitzgerald, West has no qualms about calling it out for what it is: violence. This isn’t carelessness – it’s violence and it’s cruelty. It’s simply sordid; there’s no glossing or glitzing or glamorizing, indeed there can’t be, since West’s project even more so than Fitzgerald’s was to rip down all that was phony and fake about the worlds he lived and moved in. (In a way I can’t quite explain, West strikes me as amazingly American in his writing: he has that incredible ability to fuse humour and horror the way writers like Joseph Heller & John Irving do; in his almost-vicious depiction of and exposé of the fake tinsel that adorns Los Angeles, he seems like the literary forefather to J. D. Salinger and his ‘phonies’. When I say ‘amazingly American’ I don’t mean to state the obvious; I mean that I can almost see a literary lineage that emerges from West and his style down to these other guys.) West’s characters are imagistically obtuse: we see them, we see their hands trembling or convulsing uncontrollably, but we never know them. And at the end of West’s novels, we’re left spluttering like Mr. Doyle at Delehanty’s: but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.

Perhaps that’s where the final knock comes. No matter how critical Fitzgerald is, he gives us a moral compass to read (& perhaps even live) by; no matter how cruel his Toms & Daisies, he gives us a beautiful book, with luscious sentences and glamorous 1920s visuals. With West there is no comfort – nobody in West’s novels can find it, though so many are looking (& even they’re satisfied with platitudes sometimes, but we know better, living inside Miss Lonelyhearts’ head). With West there is no beauty: words aren’t refracting all the unpleasantness or all the suffering, but are brought (like Miss Lonelyhearts’ daily handwritten letters) irremediably in the tongue of suffering itself; broken down, misspelt, misshapen little letters. There is something more timeless and more universal, I feel, about West – something uncircumscribed by the moment or place in which his stuff was written. But it’s just too sad, and sometimes just too grittily sordid to be as glibly digestible as Fitzgerald.

Related Links

* Homer Simpson from The Simpsons….totally sort of named after West’s character! Having that sort of allusion really puts a whole different spin on The Simpsons for me now, though. Is Homer really a misunderstood, gentle, kindly, non-violent man who is the victim of a vicious and mind-numbed society!? Ahhhhh!!!

** Those intrigued by Nathanael West are pretty much in luck, because the splendid Project Gutenberg has actually got the whole text of Miss Lonelyhearts up over here. Happy reading!

*** I also have a new little side-blog now, where I spam quotes & links & videos & songs extensively without (sometimes!) dropping even a word from my own big mouth about it. (So basically it’s like a Tumblr but it’s not.) I put up a massive quotes bank from West’s The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts there, so anybody interested in more pearls of Westian wisdom can check it out here.

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

Warning: This post will involve both spoilers and some pretentious philosophizing, so if either of things tend to make you ill, reading further is not advised. 

The Childhood of Jesus
by J. M. Coetzee
Random House

Coetzee’s latest book, The Childhood of Jesus (what a tantalizing name!), came out just last week, on the 7th of March. Now the problem with reading too many dead authors is that you never have the glee and fun of looking forward to a new book, and you can seldom experience the adrenaline rush of running to the bookstore ASAP to acquire a just-released title. I’m happy to say that for the first time in many many years, I’ve now had this adrenaline rush. But what did surprise me was that this book – by a double-Booker winner, by a Nobel-winner, no less! – came out in relatively muted circumstances. No fanfare, no mass media coverage. No reviews in the NYRB or LRB or New York Times yet. I could only find reviews in British publications, and those too had to be specifically hunted down, didn’t seem to have many readers, and sometimes were downright mocking.

Maybe this is because this book could be considered, as a commenter in The Guardian put beautifully, “minor Coetzee”. I like the idea of ‘minor Coetzee’ and ‘major Coetzee’, as if his novels were symphonies of a sort, playing at different pitches of value and importance. But is it ‘minor Coetzee’? I’m not sure. It’s definitely not his ‘best’ work (both subjectively and technically speaking) – as an allegory-parable, it’s not quite Waiting for the Barbarians or Life and Times of Michael K. As a philosophical interrogation of different things… well, I still prefer Diary of a Bad Year. As ‘political commentary’ (a tricky description to apply to any Coetzee book – but there you are – stuff like Disgrace and Age of Iron are more easily, more discernibly ‘about’ South Africa than others) – nope, it’s not. At least not explicitly. But there’s no doubt that within the wider Coetzee-oeuvre, it’s an important and valuable culmination of ideas and questions that Coetzee has been steadily interrogating for the past few years. Perhaps in this sense, it’ll be of more interest to the academic world than it will to the general public. (Cough cough.)

A brief summary of the plot: A man named Símon and a young boy called David arrive in a Spanish-speaking town called Novilla (armed with nothing more than a rudimentary beginner’s Spanish, which nonetheless seems good enough to conduct lengthy philosophical discussions in!), after having spent some time being processed in a ‘camp’. Símon is emphatically not David’s father, and they are looking for his “real” mother (Símon is sure that he’ll ‘know her when he sees her’, intuitively, despite the fact that her name is not known to him or the boy, and despite the fact that neither of them knows what she actually looks like). They settle down into their life in the weird Novilla – a place and whose people Símon finds deeply unfulfilling, sexually and otherwise. “Complacent” might be a good word to describe this town and the people in it; “apathetic” might be another (though ever-so-slightly off the mark, I guess). Nobody desires anything, and life just goes on. Various encounters later, Símon and David meet a lady playing tennis with her two brothers, and (surrealism ahoy!) Símon is sure that he has seen David’s mother. “Will you take him as your son?” he asks Inés. Not adoption; no, as her ‘real’ child. Bizarre though the request is, she accepts. The rest of the novel details their interactions – David, Inés, and Símon’s – and the development of the child. He’s a rather naughty one, and gets into trouble at school; when they try and place in his a school for “special” children, Punto Arenas, David runs away after a short while and the over-protective (?) Inés decides she would rather run away from Novilla, and start a ‘new life’, than risk having her son taken away by the authorities again. So Inés, Símon, and David escape in a car to a ‘new life’. This is more or less how the novel ends.

Not that anybody could – or should – go into a Coetzee novel expecting easy hand-outs in the sense of narrative or thematic resolution, but even with that in mind this book is extremely reserved and guarded about what it is trying to say, or show, or mean. It’s called The Childhood of Jesus, alright, but it defies even an attempt to read it as any sort of straightforward allegory about the origins of Christianity. (Although I can’t discount the possibility that Coetzee is implying, with his tongue firmly in cheek and a twinkle in his famously-untwinkling eyes, that Jesus was perhaps nothing more than petulant little boy who refused to adhere to the established systems around him!). The title definitely exists outside the world of the novel, which makes it all the more fascinating – because, of course, when you pick up a book called The Childhood of Jesus, you somehow keep trying to read the narrative that follows in light of that external knowledge (“This is about Jesus, somehow!”). And with more than a little mischief, Coetzee deflects (or at the very least, thoroughly complicates) all attempts to do so.

Both David and Símon are hugely interesting – and difficult, always! – characters. Símon is a man of needs and desires, constantly yearning for the something more of life, whether it be in his sexual relations or in the work that he does (stevedoring – carrying bags of grain off cargo ships) – I think it’s a feeling we can all probably empathize with. Can’t there be something more meaningful, more relevant for me to be doing than this? But this persistent yearning after some sort of feeling, or sensation, or meaning-to-life that Símon can neither name nor articulate coherently is at odds with the way of life and the way of thinking people have in Novilla. As Elena (a secondary character) firmly tells Símon one day, “This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking we are well rid of, in my opinion. Nothing is missing.” I don’t quite know enough philosophy to understand precisely what this exemplifies, but no doubt there is an interrogation of Platonism here – Novilla might very well be Plato’s cave, as all aspects of life there seem to strike Símon as nothing more than (unsatisfactory) shadows on the wall. (David later watches a TV show about Mickey Mouse and Plato, which sounds like a damned fine show…) Símon is constantly reaching for something beyond the image; the real, one might almost say, just like he tries to reach David’s ‘real’ mother. (Weirdly, her ‘realness’ as David’s mother ultimately doesn’t matter; in performance she is accepted. I wonder what Coetzee means by that?)

A happy confluence: sometimes you’re reading about something else, but what you find there is illuminating and deeply pertinent to something entirely unrelated. When I was reading about screwball comedies, I came across this from the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and it seems to sum up the distinction between Símon and the rest of the Novillans pretty perfectly (next blogpost, or, alternatively, a PhD. thesis: On the intricate relationship between the works of J. M. Coetzee and 1930s romantic comedy films. You heard it here first!):

Put otherwise, the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs.

If Símon belongs to former camp (those who believe that happiness/fulfillment lies in a somehow-deeper satisfaction of needs and desires), then Elena and Álvaro belong to the latter camp (it’s not that needs need satisfaction, but rather that your understanding of those needs requires transforming – needs are not everything, they’re not even anything). There is only what is, and to yearn after the what-isn’t – the ineffable realm of ideas and something-more – is futile and rather strange to Novillans. At the free education Institute in Novilla, people are again concerned only with the philosophical questions of the real and the qualities that make ’em – the chairness of chairs, and the pooness of poo (an exchange in which Símon is unclogging the toilet in Inés & David’s apartment throws up lines like “Toilets are just toilets, but poo is not just poo…There are certain things that are not just themselves, not all the time. Poo is one of them.”) (As some reviewers have pointed out, this book is surprisingly – and weirdly – humorous. Not in any conventional sense, but certainly in some sort of bizarre, muted, ironic sense.)

But then it’s difficult to pinpoint Símon as an idealist, too – because when David decides to live in his own world, literally rejecting the systems of rationalization (mathematics) and communication (language) that make up ‘reality’, Símon is not impressed. “Because that is the way the world is,” becomes an almost-constant refrain in his lectures to David. To me this almost seems slightly at odds with Símon’s earlier insistence on the something more, and his didacticism towards David echoes that which he himself earlier received. In David, Coetzee’s recent preoccupation with systems of rationality and communication as arbitrary (? – or at the very least, artificial systems of imposition) comes to the fore. Two exchanges between Símon and David:

“I know all the numbers. Do you want to hear them? I know 134 and I know 7 and I know” – he draws a deep breath – “4623551 and I know 888 and I know 92 and I know -“

“Stop! That’s not knowing the numbers, David. Knowing the numbers means being able to count. It means knowing the order of the numbers – which numbers come before and which come after….”

* * *

“…You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading. For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your fantasies. You have to stop being silly.”

Símon propounds an almost-fatalistic adherence to the way things are (bizarrely: isn’t that Elena and Álvaro were trying to tell him earlier?), and this embodies the education system that David soon enters, too. These exchanges between David and Símon reminded me of one of my favourite parts from my favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year. It’s one of the essays that the mysterious Señor C of the novel writes, “18. On Zeno”, which begins with a description of how we can teach children to count (relevant!). More generally, it is a meditation on the nature of numbers, and the writer of the essay makes particular reference to a little philosophical fable by Jorge Luis Borges,

…about a man to whom the counting rule, and indeed the even more fundamental rules that allow us to encompass the world in language, are simply alien.

Borges’ kabbalistic, Kantian fable brings it home to us that the order we see in the universe may not reside in the universe at all, but in the paradigms of thought we bring to it. The mathematics which we have invented (in some accounts) or discovered (in others), which we believe or hope to be a key to the structure of the universe, may well equally be a private language – private to human beings with human brains – in which we doodle on the walls of our cave.

I do not know that Coetzee ever resolved (or resolves) – either in Diary of a Bad Year or in The Childhood of Jesus – this question that is posed first by Señor C, and then exemplified in the battle, almost, between Símon (and almost all of Novilla) and David. Is this order, the purest form of which is manifested in mathematics, something invented (and therefore artificial, arbitrary) or discovered (and therefore inherent)? Does it matter, if either way we’re going to have to live with it “because that is the way the world is”? Who is right (if anyone), David or Símon? Are they even really at odds? And what does this have to do with Jesus, really? My favourite review of the book, in the New Statesman, links these questions further to Elizabeth Costello, and Elizabeth Costello’s brief digression (?) on Srinivasa Ramanujan, “widely thought of as one of the greatest intuitive mathematicians of our time” (in Costello’s words). It’s worth reading that review to get a clearer sense of how Costello’s brief digression on Ramanujan could be linked to The Childhood of Jesus, and further, how it perhaps functions along with it as a questioning of rationality and reason as the be-all and end-all. As indeed it often seems to be….

Snippet from 'Diary of a Bad Year' - quoting from Borges.

Snippet from ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ – quoting from Borges.

There are probably a million more things that could be said about The Childhood of Jesus than I have traced out here, but I didn’t really want to write an(other) essay on it (ha! Not so sure I succeeded, though!). Either way, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t really understand it – but then, I don’t think there’s any Coetzee novel or essay I can say I’ve properly understood, so that’s nothing new. The plot is sparse, and it’s all the more to its credit then that it still manages to be extremely interesting. The way the characters speak is a little stilted and artificial – inevitable, I suppose, when almost every conversation seems to have some philosophical underpinning – and some reviewers have pointed this out critically, but I don’t think it matters. Nobody reads Coetzee for realism/naturalism, of dialect or otherwise, and as such, these criticisms are largely immaterial. More than it is a novel of technical brilliance, this is a novel of ideas (Símon would be pleased), and although it’s Coetzee’s first allegorical(ish)/parable-esque narrative in a long time (his most recent works have been things like Diary of a Bad Year, Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello – none of which are quite like some of his earlier works, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and TImes of Michael K.), I do believe it’s an explicit continuation of issues Coetzee has interrogated, briefly or otherwise, in his recent works. It’ll be extremely interesting to revisit works like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year properly and delineate exactly what preoccupations Coetzee carries forth with him into this book – equally, I think its best qualities are probably going to be lost on people who don’t look at it within this context of oeuvre.

It’s a good book. Not his best (whichever rubric you use to determine the ‘best’), but a good one. Coetzee devotees will enjoy it, though I’m not sure about others; it might strike some people as a bit stuffy. I’m going to be scratching my head over it for a while, and I’m sure others will too. I hope it gets more coverage than it has done so far, because the silence that seems to surround it is both unwarranted and surprising.

"You mean y'all STILL confused about what gender is????"

“You mean y’all STILL confused about what gender is????”

One of my favourite books of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In my opinion, it doesn’t really get half the attention or nearly as many accolades as it deserves – people seem to prefer The Waves, which came out soon after, for some reason. Maybe this is partly because Woolf herself didn’t take the book too seriously at first (she describes it in her diary as “an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered. I want to kick up my heels & be off.” – The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. III, p. 131). It is, by and large, a light-hearted novel – fantastical, fanciful, and blithe almost. But it is still profound, I think, in what it has to say about gender and society. And what it said then – in 1928 – is still (sadly!) so relevant to us today. Since today is Valentine’s Day, and also the day of the big One Billion Rising event, I thought it would be a nice time to write about Orlando – a tribute and a delineation, if you will, of a brilliant book.

When the novel begins Orlando is a young nobleman, and lives the grand and exciting life that only rich young man could. So far so good. Orlando is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador for King Charles II, and it is here – after a riotous party of some sort – that Orlando falls asleep, and when he wakes up… “he was a woman”. Simply put: no explanations needed or given, no attempt at justification. One day Orlando was a man, and the next day he was a woman (I love the syntactic awkwardness between pronoun & noun in this sentence…). The scene of Orlando’s transformation is bizarre in itself – three figures enter the room of the sleeping (still male) Orlando, the Lady of Modesty, the Lady of Chastity, and the Lady of Purity. Three things that still bedevil women everywhere (see E. J. Graff’s excellent post-Delhi piece on ‘Purity Culture‘).

But Woolf’s real brilliance in this book, I always feel, comes from her simplicity of expression – she says it, and she says it pithily, quickly, precisely. What does it mean for Orlando to wake up a woman one day?

Orlando had become a woman there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.

Pause: analysis. The narrative device of having a man transform (bodily) into a woman is clever – it drives a rift between the self and the body. The body is sexed (as male or female, man or woman), but the self – “identity” – is not. This pretty much the mantra, after all, of feminists and gender equality activists everywhere today: gender is a social construct; our identities/selves have little, if anything, to do with our bodies (this is the great evil of ‘Essentialism’, though this lexicon was not available to Woolf in the 1920s). But Woolf’s Orlando exists, after all, in society – so never mind that Orlando’s ‘self’ remains fundamentally unchanged by this change of sex — (now) her future is irrevocably altered. For women and men cannot follow the same paths through life, not because they are ‘different’ in any identity-based sense, but simply because. Because society; because the world. The social critique is so quick, so parenthetical, that it’s almost easy to miss – but it’s there. And it’s brilliant.

My absolute favourite bit in Orlando comes, however, when after living outside Western civilisation on the hillsides of Turkey with some gipsies for a while, Orlando decides to return to England.  In narrative terms, Orlando moves from being outside society to society, and socialization. Until this moment, “it is a strange fact, but…she had scarcely given her sex a thought.” – again, again, subtly – Woolf suggests that gendered identity, even consciousness of one’s sex, is something foregrounded and enforced only by society, socialization, social mores… what you will. (‘Society’ here obviously refers to the Western one Orlando is returning to; my belief is that the interlude with the Turkish gipsies is meant to serve as a taste of what it would mean to exist outside of ‘society’, as it were.) Orlando dresses in women’s clothing (obviously), and boards a ship bound for England (the “Enamoured Lady” – already the construction of gender has begun!).

And because the few pages that follow are so wonderful, so breathtaking in their precision about what it means to be ‘gendered’ in and by society, I must reproduce them in full, with due apologies to Woolf, copyrights (if any), readers who don’t like long posts, etc.

…At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck, that she realized with a start the penalties and the privileges of her position.

But that start was not of the kind that might have been expected. It was not caused, that is to say, simply and solely by the thought of her chastity and how she could preserve it. In normal circumstances a lovely young woman alone would have thought of nothing else; the whole edifice of female government is based on that foundation stone; chastity is their jewel, their centrepiece, which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of. But if one has been a man for thirty years or so, and an Ambassador into the bargain, if one has held a Queen in one’s arms and one or two other ladies, if report be true, of less exalted rank, if one has married a Rosina Pepita, and so on, one does not perhaps give such a very great start about that. Orlando’s start was of a very complicated kind, and not to be summed up in a trice. …

(For Orlando’s experience of womanhood now is underlined and informed by his/her experience, previously, of manhood: s/he remembers the social freedoms (?), privileges etc. of being a man with those of being a woman now. Only, s/he soon realizes, that the demands made of women under the rubric of socially-appropriate ‘femininity’… are actually quite difficult, because women aren’t naturally like that at all. Orlando knows, because Orlando ‘inside’ is still the same Orlando who was a man. But I’ll let Woolf do the talking….)

‘But what used we young fellows in the cockpit of the “Marie Rose” to say about a woman who threw herself overboard for the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket?’ she said. ‘We had a word for them. Ah! I have it…’ (But we must omit that word; it was disrespectful in the extreme and passing strange on a lady’s lips.) ‘Lord! Lord! she cried again at the conclusion of her thoughts, ‘must I then begin to respect the opinion of the other sex, however monstrous I think it? If I wear skirts, if I can’t swim, if I have to be rescued by a blue-jacket, by God!’ she cried, ‘I must!’ Upon which a gloom fell over her. Candid by nature, and averse to all kinds of equivocation, to tell lies bored her. It seemed to her a roundabout way of going to work. Yet, she reflected, the flowered paduasoy–the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket–if these were only to be obtained by roundabout ways, roundabout one must go, she supposed. She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing,’ she thought, ‘that alone will take an hour of my morning, there’s looking in the looking-glass, another hour; there’s staying and lacing; there’s washing and powdering; there’s changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there’s being chaste year in year out…’ Here she tossed her foot impatiently, and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. ‘If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were among her chiefest beauties. And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realizing for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood.

I love, love, love this section in Orlando. So much of it still needs to be reiterated, time and again, today: “women are not…obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature” – indeed, women are not anything by ‘nature’. There is only society, its demands, and “tedious discipline”. Having seen both sides of the coin, Orlando realises this now.

And further – the scene with the accidental display of ankles and skin! I could wax lyrical on this for the rest of my life. The past few months have shown us precisely what kind of views are held – all over the world, but my specific example is going to be India – by men and women alike on the matter of displaying skin. “…[T]he sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support [so] I must, in all humanity, keep them covered.” In another world and time and place, this same statement or injunction takes on a different form – “I must keep my legs covered” or “I must keep my arms covered, because to do otherwise would mean imprisonment or death for an honest fellow (no doubt, also with a wife and family to support), lest I tempt him into violent actions towards me.” Sacrificially, Orlando takes the responsibility for the sailor’s fall onto herself (today we call it, pithily, “victim-blaming”); sacrificially, today, women are being demanded to take the responsibility for violence towards them onto themselves. Woolf is satirizing, of course; pointing out how stupid it is that “humanity” is demanded of Orlando for the sailor’s stupidity. A lot of people realise how stupid it is that this sort of “humanity” is demanded of women today on the behalf of rapists, sexual abusers and assaulters. But thus it was – and thus it is, still, unfortunately all too often. 

And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong–‘To fall from a mast-head’, she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats. and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of creation.–Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of us–what fools we are!’ And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in. The comforts of ignorance seemed utterly denied her.

It’s been about 85 years since Orlando was published; possibly a few more since Woolf began to write it. But it strikes me that we can still wring our hands with poor confused Orlando, empathize with him/her, and take Woolf’s story – and Orlando’s feelings – to heart. There is an important lesson here, but it remains (by and large) to be learned.

Most of these thoughts will not be mine (fortunately!) – I’ve just been reading a whole bunch of different things on- and offline, and because I found such a delicious collection of interesting, illuminating quotes I felt I must collect them together in one place.

Susan Sontag weighing in on ‘Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky’, succinctly. (From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980)

Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.

A little anecdote about a boy called Dmitry Merezhkovsky who wanted to get an ‘expert opinion’ (from D. himself!) about whether he had any promise of literary talent. Merezhkovsky goes to Dostoevsky with his father, and reads him some of his verses… (As described in Helen Rittelmeyer’s piece, Two Ways to Deal with Aspiring Writers’, 18/01/13)

Blushing, turning pale, stuttering, I read my childish, paltry verses. He listened silently, with impatient annoyance. We must have been disturbing him. “Weak, bad, worth nothing,” he said at last. “In order to write well, one must suffer, suffer!”

“No,” said my father, “let him not write any better, only let him not suffer.”

(Of course this has to come, sooner or later….)

J. M. Coetzee on Dostoevsky’s obsessive gambling, in an essay entitled ‘Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years’ (published in Stranger Shores, Essays 1986 – 1999).

Though Dostoevsky did not excuse his gambling, he was prepared to condemn it only on his own terms: as a manifestation of his tendency to go ‘everywhere and in everything….to the last limit’. (p. 225)……Frank refrains from asking the properly Dostoevskian question: if the devil in Dostoevsky was not his own, if he was not responsible for it, who was?

I can’t really add much to this (and there would have been more to be said, had I chosen to quote on…). These views fascinate me, as Dostoevsky fascinates me.

There’s only one thing I really think when I read him, and that’s – Well, here’s someone who’s not afraid to stick his hands into the mud and muck of humanity. How? How is he so unafraid?  I think that is probably a true observation, if not very informative. I read recently that Dostoevsky lost a young child – a three month old son? – perhaps whence his injunction to “suffer”. For how can you go through something like that unscathed?

I find my stance now very ironic; for years and years I (privately) denounced the Russian greats as being too depressing (“grey”) and avoided them. But really I realize now I was probably a bit scared, because they cut a bit too close to the bone.


A cover image for Oxford World Classic’s edition of ‘Evelina’, I think, by Frances Burney (a chastising feminist critic has informed me that it is belittling and demeaning and sexist to call her ‘Fanny Burney’ :( which is unfortunate, because it’s SUCH a catchy name.)

When I find myself in times of trouble (or general bleakness, as it has been with incessant thunderstorms, grey skies, and flooding here in KL), I always turn to the same person for comforting/soothing: Jane Austen.

For reasons I can’t quite figure out (because this really surpasses being just an ‘enjoyable read’), she makes me incredibly happy. It could be the happy endings her books more or less always have – and who can’t love that? (Especially after the despair and hopelessness I’m left with in a lot of modernist/contemporary works!) Some people probably accuse Austen of some sort of saccharine falsity in these perfect endings, but I’m not so sure — after all, life is plenty happy. So why shouldn’t books be, too? Why should there always be tragedy, or if not, some irrevocable strain of regret that taints anything remotely good?

Or it could be that she still teaches me so much, immeasurable amounts and with each time I re-read her works, about patience and virtue. It could be her characters: the ones we like, like Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot  – Emma is the sole exception here! – are always somewhat poorer, or less glamourous, or less fortunate, in their initial lot in life than the grand old ladies we often dislike. But they bear their crosses with ‘Patience’ and ‘Virtue’ (18th/19th century buzzwords), and that’s sort of inspiring. In a very saccharine way, I know. I almost feel lame for admitting it. But whatever. IT’S TRUE.  (It’s important though to note that they’re ‘good’ without necessarily being boring or flawless, which would be something of a boring lecture from Austen indeed. I think this is why she goes far beyond Richardson, whose two-dimensional view of women as ‘paragons of Virtue’ is really insufferable sometimes, in both its depiction and in the length of that depiction — WE GET IT. PAMELA’S SO VIRTUOUS WE COULD DIE WALLOWING IN THE DEEP POOLS OF HER VIRTUE. PLEASE CUT SHORT YOUR NOVEL BY APPROX. 200 PAGES, PLEASE.) 

But she inspires not just through her characters, but in and of herself (and here I taint my readings with biographical knowledge somewhat); I can never pick up an Austen novel and read it without thinking, once twice or thrice, about how she wrote them. And then I always return to these words in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

…the middle-class family in the early nineteenth century was possessed only of a single sitting-room between them…If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain, – “women never have half an hour…that they can call their own” – she was always interrupted. … Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. ‘How she was able to effect all this,’ her nephew writes in his Memoir, ‘is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, & most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any persons beyond her own family party.’ Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. … To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice. Yet Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in. And, I wondered, would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if J. A. had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors? I read a page or two to see; but I could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. … If J. A. suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her. It was impossible for a woman to go about alone. She never travelled; she never drove through London in an omnibus or had luncheon in a shop by herself. But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not.

This is at the heart of Woolf’s point in the essay, but nothing about that here – I can’t get over those words. “But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not.” Probably it was, and it is immeasurably chastising to me to be reminded of this, because I am always wanting what I have not. And then I consider how much harder life has been for others worse hemmed in than me; and how much better they have borne it. (That is a very pretentious sentence, but I am reading so much Austen & co. right now that I have basically started addressing thoughts to a “Gentle Reader!”, so this is hardly the worst it can be…). It is a miracle that anyone was able to write such brilliant novels in conditions such as those. I’ve made a couple of pilgrimages to the British Library’s permanent exhibition room, and they have Jane Austen’s writing desk on display there: I always scrutinize it worshipfully, and (like Austen herself, I always think) it’s an unassuming and plain object. I always have to stifle squeals when I remember this passage from Woolf, because I can just picture this desk – it’s so small! – being pushed aside hastily, hidden under cushions maybe? –  when visitors come in.

So um. Yeah. J. A. is pretty inspiring in herself, & I have firmly determined to stop listening to Harper Simon & feeling blue about stuff that isn’t worth being blue about, stuff that I wouldn’t feel blue about if I wasn’t such a mass of bored self-pity and inactivity right now.

I cannot worship Jane Austen enough – although, funnily, I was never ever able to write an essay on her novels whilst at uni. I just couldn’t think of what to say. There’s a sneaky simplicity to her style that belies any easy understanding of what exactly she does and how. I could never figure it out, and perhaps I didn’t really want to – regardless of what others may say, there are books that’re work, and there’s books that’re pleasure, and Jane Austen will never ever become a chore to me.

I am not reading Austen right now – I am reading Fanny Burney instead, and in her I have found someone almost like Austen, almost as lovely & nice and interesting, and I am very much in love with her too. She is also sharply incisive and critical of social foibles; she displays the same incredible powers of observation that Austen does. She seems vastly underrated in comparison to Austen, which is a pity because she is really very good. The brevity of her Wikipedia pages do not do her justice; the scarcity of period dramas made in her name is offensive. Her novel Cecilia is apparently what inspired Pride and Prejudice (this was confirmed to me when I saw the words “PRIDE and PREJUDICE” splayed across some page). Not many authors make me laugh, but Fanny Burney has kept me in fits all night (until 4 am, too). Definitely something people must check out, if they like long 18th/19th century romance novels at all. And OH it makes me miss London so much: so much of Burney’s work is concerned with depicting women from the country coming to the grand metropolis for the first time, and the walks they take (in the Mall and in gardens), or the places they go (to the Opera & the Pantheon & Haymarket – where I watched my first play in London!) all just serve to remind me how much I miss London, and how much more exploring there is to be done there. (I’m not sure what the modern equivalent, or where the site of the Pantheon lies today, but I intend to look it up.)

* * * *

But what sort of paean to Jane Austen would be complete without a mention of innumerable glorious period dramas/films? Because I have been watching them at a furious rate, and unfortunately neither Hollywood nor the BBC have made enough to satiate me. (I have been avoiding a lot of the Andrew Davies stuff, but might have to succumb soon….)

The best Emma hands-down I’ve seen now is… (and I can’t actually quite believe this) — Gwyneth PaltrowI’ve seen Kate Beckinsale be Emma too, but Gwynnie plays her with an awesome wickedness and vivacity which is – I think – just right. Because Emma is wicked and misguided and snobbish, even if her intentions are all good and we still like her despite the dumb stuff she does (and this sounds to me like a really hard balance for an actress to keep, but Paltrow does it!). (Ewan McGregor features in this 1996 Emma too, and I couldn’t believe it either, and didn’t know it till I saw the credits! — it came out the same year as Trainspotting, so I guess he wasn’t quite so famous when he made Emma; he has a surprisingly small role, even for Frank Churchill.)


Before she’s mean to Miss Bates :(

Then I swallowed up Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which was interesting (it’s interesting too that Ang Lee started directing it without even reading/knowing about Austen when he got into it; I recently started thinking that actually, some of the social conventions depicted in these old novels aren’t dead – I feel them quite heavily existent in certain aspects of Asian life, my own included!). It’s got a really famous cast (Kate Winslet! Emma Thompson! Hugh Grant! Alan Rickman! Hugh Laurie! Phewwwf), and I haven’t really seen Emma Thompson (shamefully!) in anything but Love Actually which I hate, so it was quite nice to see her actin’. Apparently she wrote the script, too, which was well done indeed – like a steak – (though not quite as cinematically innovative as Emma up above). Also — it has Hugh Grant! Who, whatever else you may (and probably should) impute to him, is incredibly hot and visually perfect for a Jane Austen period-piece. Well, so I thought – and he didn’t disappoint, visually, but I thought it was a shame he was a bit boring as Edward Ferrars. I don’t really know if he’s a great actor or not, but it would have been nice to see him in a role with a bit more spice. But the problem with Sense and Sensibility is, I think, that not many of the ‘good’ characters do have much ‘spice’, except for Marianne who has too much. O well. Eye-candy anyways.

I’m afraid I have watched every Pride and Prejudice TV, film, etc. adaptation that exists, and so haven’t approached that one yet – but maybe the most recent Keira Knightley adaptation deserves a re-watch, inferior though it can only be, to the great BBC mini-series.

I would love to go on about how I would make sweet (but ardent and genteel) love to Jane Austen were she alive now, but – I will resist. I’ll content myself with despising the callous people who, in online forums, casually dismiss these film adaptations as “SO boring I could DIE”. Fools. FOOLS. (I don’t think they’re being dismissive of the adaptation but the original itself, which is so affronting!). I stumbled upon this article in the HuffPost a few days ago, on the experience of editing Emma, and it points out that “Henry James once tartly noted, [that] Austen often inspires her champions to defend her as if she were a personal acquaintance” which struck me immediately as being – weirdly and oddly true. I always feel so offended if someone has the insensitivity to be mean about Austen. It’s like demons picking on an angel. Maybe my defensiveness stems from what I’ve constructed of her mentally (what with the Woolf and all), but – it’s there nonetheless. Insulting Jane Austen hurts me. People shouldn’t do it.

I remember ending the Bach post with that quote from a novel, which says (approx.) that we ought to be grateful for life, because on the day we’re born we get the music of Bach as a free gift, unasked for. Well, I would say the same of Jane Austen – a gift all the more astonishing, because not only was it unasked for, but history tells us that it was actually discouraged; it was a gift that grew in times hostile to it. It makes me all the more grateful.

‘Monaco, Monte-Carlo’, by Alfonse Mucha 1897. Art nouveau tribute to the French Riviera, & one of my favourite paintings. (To think that they made advertisements this beautiful back in the fin de siècle!)

The last few days have been a sad, depressing blur: I don’t know if I’ve so much lived my own life as that of Dick and Nicole Diver; I don’t know if I’ve been in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or in the French Riviera. Because this book, which I finished last night, has driven me insane with sadness — it’s the first thing I think about depressedly when I wake up in the morning, and the last thing before bed. I suppose in some twisted way this is a tribute to just how powerful and moving — powerfully moving, in fact (hendiadys?) — this book is. (My monomania is nothing to worry about, though; it’ll pass, as always!)

Like any good and mildly-susceptible reader, I get sucked in (if the book is good enough!) – I usually identify the appropriate villains, the characters I’m meant to like, feel sad at the right moments, and rejoice wholeheartedly at happy endings. So far so good: I am an ideal reader, satisfactorily moved and engaged! But — there are a couple of books out there which have sent me into spirals of despair, rendered me nigh-mad, with their irrevocability. In these cases I feel a bit like a Miltonian God, all-seeing and omniscient, but absolutely unable (though Milton’s God is unwilling) to intervene or affect the outcome in any way. Nothing makes me more fatalistic or unhappy than such books – though I love them, too.

One of these was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or more accurately (if one really wants to distinguish between the books in the series!), Good Wives, where Jo rejects Laurie (!!!!!!!!) and Laurie marries that cretin Amy instead (!!!!!!). This disgusted me and upset me so much I was never able to continue with the series, or indeed, read Good Wives ever again. Even Little Women was somewhat tainted with foreknowledge. Another one was Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in an age-old favourite series of mine (the Anne of Green Gables one!). So depressing and awful was this ending that I actually used the little space between the end of the page and the final paragraph to re-write the ending, which had some character that had died mysteriously springing back to life and knocking on the door. (In my defence: I was 13…) It’s been a long time since I found a book that awful and despair-worthy, even though I routinely shed a drop or two at some of Woolf’s more dreary works. But a few days ago, it arrived, in the guise of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Woe is the word of the day….

Tender is the Night is the story of a love, a consequent relationship, and its ultimate dissolution. Apologies to those who are sensitive to spoilers – but the book is almost a hundred years old, so I feel I can’t be too delicate about these things. Dick and Nicole Diver are first encountered as the shining stars of the French Riviera 1920s expat scene – the suns that everybody else plays merely satellite to. Beautiful, absurdly wealthy, charming, polite, throwing parties that could give Mrs. Dalloway a run for her money – they’ve got it all. (Indeed, I do suspect that Fitzgerald was strongly inspired by certain scenes and sentiments in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both of which preceded Tender is the Night.) They seem perfect, enviably so. Now, you can tell where this is going….

Cue Rosemary Hoyt, Hollywood blooming starlet, through whose eyes we’ve been seeing this glamorous couple. Rosemary falls in love with Dick at first sight, and proceeds to declare her love for him with no qualms whatsoever about the fact that he’s married (and seemingly happily so). Rosemary is the sort of Fitzgerald character people familiar (and most are!) with The Great Gatsby would recognise; sort of selfish, sort of naïve, sort of self-centered. Her mother Mrs. Speers blithely encourages her to proceed with this ‘love’, and Dick realises (maybe too late, and certainly to no effect) that “no provision had been made for him, or Nicole, in Mrs. Speers’ plans…She had not even allowed for possibility of Rosemary’s being damaged – or was she certain that she couldn’t be?” — Rosemary and Mrs. Speers are slightly Daisy & Tom Buchanan in their inability to consider, or care for, the consequences of their actions. But for reasons unfathomable to me, Dick Diver eventually reciprocates this cretin’s love and their time in Paris ends with a few kisses and some rather stranger events.

Whereupon we move onto Book 2, which tells the even stranger story of how Dick and Nicole met, fell in love, and got married – Nicole was actually a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia, developed an attachment to Dick, etc etc. (Lots of people say that Dick ‘married his patient to save her’ – now from what I understand this isn’t strictly true; she was neither his patient, nor did he really intend to marry her to save her from her illness, although save her he does!). I’ve read somewhere that some versions of the novel actually have it differently – instead of a Book 2 with historical flashbacks, the history of the Divers actually comes at the start; this version was actually arranged by Malcolm Cowley and published posthumously in 1951, because the critical reception of the book as originally published (non-chronologically) had not been great. This is a great shame, and I’m so glad my version used the 1934 text as it is, because the flashback adds a whole lot of gumption to the story; you see the Divers seem perfect, realise that actually it’s not all perfect given their history, and then actually see that history take its toll on their relationship in the present (Book 3).

The introduction to my Collins Classics version and Wikipedia say, rather simplistically and in essence, that the novel represents a sort of transference of states of being – she starts off as weak and dependent, while he’s strong, and by the end of the novel they have swapped places – she is strong and able to move on, while he becomes increasingly dependent on drink and consequently erratic. This view makes Nicole seem sort of parasitic, and I’m not sure that she is — or rather, I’m sure I see the book being as critical of the way Dick’s life has tapered down to social façades as anything else. (And then there’s that poor, poor choice of Rosemary, who really provides the catalyst to Dick’s downturn: what on earth can justify that?!).

It’s well known that Tender is the Night provides one version of the F. Scott-Zelda Fitzgerald relationship, a troubled one (the other version is provided by Zelda’s Save the Last Waltz). Like Dick, F. Scott became a raging alcoholic (and unfortunately died prematurely from it at the age of just 44); like Nicole, Zelda constantly felt like she was ‘playing planet’ to F. Scott’s ‘sun’ (a phrase Nicole uses), and became schizophrenic towards the end of her life. She died in a fire at the mental institution wherein she was housed. It’s a sad story, and reminds me that even the glamour of the Jazz Age had its darker underbelly… I’ve heard that F. Scott was very much in the habit of plagiarising his wife’s diaries and letters for material, and I wonder how much of this is present in Tender is the Night (Nicole’s letters, and that strange time-compression in the middle).

It’s easy to read this novel in a very, very biographical light, and I did – but what was most interesting to me was the way in which Fitzgerald managed to maintain a consistently critical distance from all his characters. (The artist, however much he might draw on personal experiences, obviously must – otherwise it stops being craft!) It seems to me like a lot of people read this to see if Fitzgerald apportions blame on Zelda for the destruction of his life, but I don’t think he does (at least, not straightforwardly). Again – there is no easy ‘villain’ or ‘hero’, no easy determination of exactly whose fault it is that the Divers’ marriage breaks down. Maybe Nicole and Dick bear equal responsibility. Perhaps Rosemary bears some. So — well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, although many critical assumptions made about the book are done in light of the author’s biography, one has to be careful, because these assumptions clearly have their limits.

What is it about the book that has made me so sad? I’m not quite sure. Partly perhaps it is just the hopeless romantic in me: Dick and Nicole are finely-crafted characters, and finely crafted for each other, so (à la the Jo-Laurie debacle) it’s upsetting to see their relationship dissolve so tragically. There is the fact of their love, as contrasted with the fling with Rosemary – Dick’s love for Nicole has been “a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colours into an obscuring dye” – but even that ain’t strong enough? It’s tragic to see Dick, who is bright and lovely and charming and beautiful and clever, devolve into something less brilliant than he ought to have been. But above all, and perhaps this is why I find the original structure of the novel so important, it’s because the other characters in the novel aren’t the only ones who initially see ‘the Divers’ as something indestructible and necessary – we do, too.

“…it’s a mutual thing, and the fact of The Divers together is more important to their friends than many of them realize. Of course it’s done at a certain sacrifice – sometimes they seem just rather charming figures in a ballet, and worth just the attention you give a ballet, but it’s more than that – you’d have to know the story.”

This sacrifice proves too much for Dick, ultimately, of course — but for me, the fact of The Divers was necessary and beautiful, just as much as it had been to Rosemary or Abe North or anybody else at the start of that book. Maybe I am going crazy or something, but the dissolution of this entity is deeply, deeply upsetting. I found this book so much more upsetting and tragic than The Great Gatsby, though I realise I am in the minority here. I’m not sure why – I don’t think it’s as ‘tight’ or as precisely-constructed a novel as Gatsby is, and yet it has infinite amounts of pathos.

The book’s name is a bit of a clue as to the world Fitzgerald is representing – it isn’t all blithe and beautiful under the sun; it’s rather about the night, and about a sort of fundamental loneliness I can’t possibly describe here. The book’s name comes from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which has its speaking voice bemoan the mortal world and its woes; the poet then ‘flies away’ on poetry’s escapist wings. It’s a sad poem, about a place which the lights of heaven (and perhaps even the smile of any benevolent god) don’t reach and where time’s effects (as Fitzgerald shows all too well) are destructive and tragic — perhaps where Dick and Nicole both find themselves at the end of it all.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
    What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
                And leaden-eyed despairs, 
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
        Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, 
    Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, 
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
    Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 
Already with thee! tender is the night, 
    And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 
        Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; 
                But here there is no light, 
    Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
        Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.