J M Coetzee – Elizabeth Costello 

Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.

Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.

In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.

There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.

The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.

“I am a writer, and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible, one of many secretaries over the ages.”

JM Coetzee, in Elizabeth Costello, citing Czeslaw Milosz’s concept. 

Two hours – Ed Caesar 

Wow! What a book. I don’t know anything about marathon running or runners but I loved this.

It’s the author’s ability to tell a gripping story that does it. He traces the aspirations of a small group of elite modern day marathon runners intent on running a marathon course around a city in less than two hours. As he points out, it’s insanely fast, and the amount of training and dedication required to get anywhere near it is all-consuming.

To bring the story alive he follows in particular Geoffrey Mutai, an incredible Kenyan runner who is among the top athletes in the sport. We get to see up close his frustrations as individual runs don’t come off and he’s left knowing he could have done better.

He shows, too, that Mutai is more than a runner, he’s the source of a local economy in Kenya: because the rewards from sponsors and race organisers are so high, he – like the many other Kenyans who excel at the sport – supports his family, friends and neighbours as well as himself in the village where he lives.

Ceaser explores the success of Kenyans in particular in the sport, and what comes through is the complexity of reasons for their dominance: ancestry, upbringings involving a lot of distance on foot, high altitude villages, traditions of running, scouts, hard training, diet… so many things.

This book, well, it’s just great writing, great reporting, on a group of people who are doing amazing things.

“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

When we examine the state of democratic politics in all of the countries where right-wing populism has made serious inroads, we find a striking similarity. Their growth has always taken place in circumstances where the differences between the traditional democratic parties have become much less significant than before… and in each case consensus at the centre has been established.

Chantal Mouffe, On the Political 

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a lyrical novel, rich with accurate metaphors, and a gripping story with a social conscience.

It tells the story of the interweaving lives of twenty-somethings Harry, Becky and Pete. Harry, with her best friend Leon, is a high end dealer; Becky is an inspiring dancer who funds her aspirations through massage; Pete is Harry’s brother, struggling with finding direction in his life.

Pete and Becky are together, though their relationship is falling apart because of Becky’s job and Pete’s jealousy, but Harry and Becky fall for one another separately. Harry and Leon end up being set up in a drug deal and doing a runner with bags of cash an drugs. Becky’s Uncle, it turns out, is the dealer’s muscle, and everything comes to a head in the excellent chapter ‘Everybody Down’ (also the name of an album by Kate Tempest), where all the issues collide at Pete’s surprise birthday party.

The characterisations are excellent and because they are given such attention have a high level of complexity. Though there is a romanticisation of youth culture and an unbelievably high level of coincidence, the plot is gripping.

The absolute strength of the book, other than the evocative writing, is its ability to show how these three characters’ personalities and lives are shaped by a mix of social situation and pure luck. If goes back into third parents’ lives and how they affect their kids, with all experiencing tough upbringings – Becky especially – that make them sympathetic, believable and real.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for god reading!

A damning indictment: Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss

This is the kind of book I love, a mix of continental philosophy and biography that covers radical ideas and action around the 1960s. But, though it was well researched and written, the overall judgement of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries just didn’t feel right.

The book primarily covers the four original Frankfurt School figures: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Jeffries covers their radical critiques of capitalism well, traces their origins in Hegel, Marx and Freud, and looks in detail at their lives, and how they were shaped by their upbringing and events, especially the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from which they and their families fled.

Despite ending the book with the view that we need the analytical approach of critical theory to understand what is going on in our one dimensional, capital-driven society, in fact much of the tone of Grand Hotel Abyss contradicts that.

He regularly offers a quasi-Freudian criticism of the Frankfurt School as rich kids rebelling against their self-made industrialist father’s whilst, at the same time, relying on them for money. This feels like a bit of a cheap attack on some of the most far thinking theorists of the twentieth century.

More significantly, Jeffries presents the Frankfurt School as ivory tower intellectuals who – apart from Marcuse – refused to enter the fray of the political even during the upheavals of 1968.

Adorno in particular comes out badly in the book, not only for his ‘negative dialectics’ but as a fusty reactionary who doesn’t see the radical potential of the student movement to such an extent he opposes it. This may be true to some extent, but nothing is ever that simple and the lives and works of Adorno and the rest of the School are testament to them being engaged intellectuals who developed independent research and a school of thought that challenges capitalism in a way that still resonates.

Walter Benjamin comes out of the book most positively, primarily I think because he died young and therefore did not mellow in the way that the others did, or face a choice in the 1960s.

It’s a shame. I liked the subject matter, the style and many parts of the book, but ultimately it leaves you thinking that the Frankfurt School was a well-meaning but elitist project rather than forward thinking intellectuals offering a critique of capitalist society that gets more relevant by the day.

“Things were not going well. It was August, and my tree from the previous year’s Christmas still lay in a heap of brown, dead pine needles in my dark, unused dining room. I was ashamed to take it out to the trash, not wanting my neighbors to see how far I’d fallen, how utterly paralyzed I’d become by my years of excess. Eventually, my wife and I would make a heroic effort to dispose of the incriminating object – chopping it up like a dead body and stuffing it in plastic bags before lugging it in the dead of night a few floors down and leaving it near a known coke dealer’s doorway. Let him take the rap, we figured.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

“Becky’s in the front, her legs are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she’s biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire.”

Kate Tempest, The bricks that built the houses

Both tried to gain authority over their audiences by a two-stage rhetorical process – first, professing their own weakness and thus identifying with the weak recipients of that message; second, stressing their status as one of the chosen few whom their listeners could join if they would only submit to their authority. To be a successful Fuhrer or charismatic radio preacher, Adorno argued, one be what he called the ‘great little man’.

Stuart Jeffries on Theodor Adorno, in Grand Hotel Abyss

Can’t see that approach at work anywhere at all now. Nope, not anywhere.

 

Ian McRay’s Writings on Psychogeography: vol 1

To be frank I’ve never fully understood what psychogeography means, but Ian McRay’s collection of his writings helps.

This small book contains exerts from his books and longer articles. It largely focuses on the areas of East London, especially Dalston, though covers London more widely and branches out to rural New Forest in the final chapter.

Psychogeography is the exploration of the way that geography – the city and buildings in particular – shape the way we think. It comes originally from the ideas and actions of Debord and the Situationists in 1960s Paris. It offers a way to critically analyse the city and a way to get a different perspective on the consumerism and conformism it reinforces.

At the heart of psychogeography is the ‘derive’ – a walk without purpose, spontaneous, that allows you to see things you wouldn’t normally see, defy the consumption and homogenous behaviour the city inspires, and transgress the private property rules that abound.

Some of this book is just history on a super micro level, but it also mixes in the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and extensive discussions of dance culture and how that challenged the norms of work-leisure time and building usage, but struggles to do so know as the mass media and the city appropriate the radicalism of dance and youth culture in order to commodify and control it. In this way it’s sociology, anthropology, history, critical theory and more.

In doing this McRay highlights a range of phenomena I’ve not noticed before, most interestingly I think about Radio 1. He points out that Radio 1 plays a role in containing youth, insofar as it constantly reinforces serious work time – Monday to Friday afternoon – and party time at the weekend, encouraging people to party but only at the right times for the good of social order – a clear contrast with the dance culture of rave.

The book also contains a fantastically erudite put-down (of a work called Transborderline)!

“This is bargain basement radicalism that reveals the paucity of meaningful ideas at the heart of so much contemporary art. As the art critic Peter Fuller once warned, ideas alone do not make great art, and this isn’t even a very good idea.”

Milan Kundera on the value of the novel

“The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.”

“[The] common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.”

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think’. That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers.”

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

Milan Kundera’s assertion of the value of the novel is strong, and, though I’m not sure I’d make a moral judgement on this basis, I agree fully that what sets a novel apart is it’s ability to convey the complexity of life and reveal, in the process, hidden aspects of being.

Everyday surrealism in Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars

There is something captivating about a book of poems that begins with a sperm whale explaining that he is “attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force”, who has a brother, Jeff, that “owns a camping and outdoor clothing shop in the Lake District” and who notes, simply, “I keep no pets.”

The sperm whale is bluntly accurate, too, in why he was ‘christened’ with this name:

“The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”

From The Delegates which tells of two Professors skipping the Conference of Advanced Criminology to go shoplifting, to The Experience, in which the narrator Terry finds himself out grave robbing with Richard Dawkins, Seeing Stars is a fantastic book of vignettes, poems, micro stories, none more than two pages long.

What form of writing this is exactly I’m not sure, but it packs a significant punch, making surprising contrasts and surreal yarns in order to reveal the ridiculousness of aspects of life which sometimes go unnoticed or unquestioned.

The inner thoughts of jaded but intelligent animals is not a major device in the book but one that works well. Like this from The Last Panda:

“Unprecedented economic growth in my native country has brought mochaccino and broadband to where there was nothing but misery and disease, yet with the loss of habitat the inevitable consequence; even the glade I was born in is now a thirty-storey apartment block with valet parking and a nail salon.”

The panda, not surprisingly, is nostalgic for better times, like so many others, adds:

“The sixties did it for everyone, I mean EVERYONE, and what people fail to grasp about Chairman Mao was despite the drab-looking suits and systematic violations of basic human rights he liked a good tune as much as the next man.”

“Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman on the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’”

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

A brilliant paragraph, and one that sets off a train of thought about how far the shortage of bread, the most basic staple, has been at the start of moments of political unrest the world over.

“What happens formally in Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Plot is an obsessive circling of the subject. Many positions are inhabited relative to a line of enquiry. It’s like one of those mirrored rooms where the spectator sees the same thing repeated in different variations and from different angles.

“Didn’t feel it the first time? Here it is again. We don’t get there by saying it once. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment.

Claudia Rankine interviewed in the Paris Review, Winter 2016.