Catch 22

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So on we go, ploughing through the novels first read about a million years ago. Like with Death Of The Heart, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 has been an Audiobook experience, listened to up and down the motorway between London and Cornwall the last few months.

As usual, credit to the inexhaustible narrator, this time @mrtrevorwhite. Boy, did he have his work cut out. But his subtle depictions of Colonel Cathcart, Aarfy, Milo, Yossarian and all the rest are truly memorable, and worth way more than the ticket price.

Anyway, on to the book. It’s a reminder of so many things. Firstly, the sheer incomprehension of the nature of war, as memorable now as ever it must have been since first publication in 1961. The skilful elision of brute and inhumane bureaucratic process with the daily imposition of death. The fantastical but probably not as unlikely as one might think speculations on the potential for the Great American Dream (in economic terms) to invade the military machine: remember, this was published in 1961 and joked about Milo Minderbinder bombing his own troops because the diktats of the market required him to do so – hmm, what might Richard Branson’s Virgin empire be prepared to do in the name of privatising previously publicly-owned assets?

So if anything, the novel pleased me more than I might have hoped, the endless repetition of key dialogue tropes – “You bastard!” “What? I can’t hear you?” “I said, You Bastard!” “I still can’t hear you.” ad delightfully infinitum – creating a compulsively dream-like world where horror and humour live together. Snowdon, the dying rear gunner who features so strongly in the film version with Alan Arkin memorably as Yossarian, here features more profoundly as a brief and horribly tragic ghost.

It is, without question, one of the great novels. Inevitably it must have been a collaborative process with Robert Gottlieb’s editorial team at Simon and Schuster working long hours with Heller to shape the final version. And in many ways, the final published novel could still have been edited further, with its payoff at the end of the revelation of Orr’s escape to Sweden and Yossarian’s frankly weak final commitment to escape himself delivering a watered-down ending to such a magnificent work.

But it’s there. And in the week when Phillip Roth died – could he have even considered Portnoy’s Complaint had it not been for Heller? – it’s worth both remembering the greatness of Catch 22, its author Joseph Heller and the importance of paying appropriate respects to a 20th century masterpiece.

The Death Of The Heart

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The Death Of The Heart is another novel I treasured in the 1980s. Elizabeth Bowen wrote it just before WWII and the fragile neuroticism of its London-based characters reflects the fear and anticipation of a world coming to an end. So I was looking forward to re-engaging with it and this time round heard it as an audio title with the wonderful Katherine Kellgren narrating.

In many ways, it didn’t disappoint. Bowen is an extraordinary writer, relentless in her picking away at the layers of artifice each of her characters displays. She is equally good when dealing with the ascerbic and disappointed Anna as she is with the rough and ready hearty Dickie. There is no delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wing resulting in some indication of emotional mood which she does not spot and pin to a board with almost cruel efficiency. She is entirely unemotional in her language and it is precisely her forensic descriptive skills which overwhelm one with the knowledge of unspoken emotional horrors.

But in some ways it does fail. She concentrates so much on being so non-judgemental of her characters, choosing instead to let their words and actions speak for themselves, that too often her characters simply refuse to live. The rascal Eddie, the doom-laden husband Thomas, even the annoying central character Portia all somehow fail ultimately to feel real to us. And in the final scene, which consists of the stream of consciousness of housekeeper Matchett, I think Bowen reveals her desire to go beyond the formal narrative novel and to play with more modernist ideas like her fellow countryman Joyce. That scene fails and makes the ending a disappointment which I suspect she knew.

That apart, wouldn’t you give a lot to have even a touch of her talent? She really is remarkable.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

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What a film. Saw it last night at the BFI in London. Two glorious blood-spattered hours of extraordinary cinema. But actually, despite the remarkable levels of violence and the number of deaths, this wasn’t a gore fest as we’ve come to know them from ironists like Tarantino. Unlike his work, where you struggle to find any content below the surface, this was all about remarkable depths: the significance of the landscape, the threat to tranquility of life posed by the arrival of capitalism and, perhaps most important of all, an astonishing depiction of how death can be part of life. With the exception of the by-now-corrupted Pat Garrett, who has chosen the path of avarice and is afraid of death, most of the characters live freely alongside death, welcoming it tenderly as an integral part of life. Time and again, Billy (the brilliant Kris Kristofferson) shows such delicate grace after yet another killing that he gets beyond conventional morality: the deaths are neither good nor bad, they just are. There is no inauthenticity in his life, which contrasts with Garrett (the equally great James Coburn) who is visibly corrupted by his own choices. The Kid, meanwhile, retains his beautiful, soft-skinned baby looks right to the end when Garrett finally raises his pistol and shoots him. Unforgettable.

Stick it to the man

Two new books out, one just yesterday (Bartlett) and the other (Peterson) now a couple of months in.

Ostensibly, they tackle different subjects. Bartlett is a Demos think tank journalist who investigates tech and his book follows on from his excellent BBC documentary a year or so ago, The Secrets of Silicon Valley, in which he cautioned about the increasingly anti-democratic outcomes of the tech revolution. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who has some renown now as a Sam Shepherd-lookalike eloquent exponent of the necessity of personal responsibility and civic duty.

Bartlett’s is a brief and breezy whizz through a central argument: that the practices of the new tech economy – from Facebook through to Uber – have an underlying authoritarian impulse which do not consider the notion of democratic participation to be either particularly useful or even valid. He’s a good journalist: when he unearths that Trump’s election-winning victories in Michigan and Wisconsin were on the back of intensive social media activity in those two areas which combined heavy Facebook advertising, Cambridge Analytica consumer identification and carefully crafted daily messages aimed at real individuals, he doesn’t wail and cry, Not Fair. Instead, he points out how successive Democrat politicians have increasingly used consumer marketing techniques to identify and persuade voters. The only difference this time is that Trump’s team did it better.

That they were able to do it better points to the central core of his argument: tech structures including Big Data both provide the tools for the tech owners to interfere forensically in the daily lives of individuals and simultaneously provide sufficient diversionary environments to ensure those individuals become increasingly placid about being poked at in this way.

The only solution, he suggests, is for citizens to remember that they are citizens and should use old-fashioned concepts such as politics and debate to protect themselves from the encroaching power of the digital autocrat, perhaps perfectly encapsulated in the character of Eldon Tyrell in Bladerunner 2049. Let’s get to it, says Bartlett, before we find Dr Tyrell has already won.

Peterson’s book is a more personal and psychoanalytic volume which, at heart, has a similar concern: society is becoming increasingly fractured and fragile the more that we as individuals refuse to accept personal responsibility for our actions. For Peterson, the contemporary tendency to identify reasons outside of ourselves for the pattern and outcome of our lives – what my daughter very smartly calls the insistence upon an external locus of control – is leading to widespread depression, social conflict and a tinderbox environment of potential catastrophes.

Both books are thoughtful, challenging, excellent researched and meditated, and provide a strong canvas against which to think and discuss our contemporary world. In their very different approaches to the same plea – do not give up your personal and political responsibility to shape the world around you – they strangely do have echoes of those chants from 50 years ago: the personal is political, stick it to the man. Both writers, I suspect, would agree that the Counter Culture of the ’60s failed to do anything to halt the decline in civic values and finally morphed into the post-Hippy authoritarianism of Silicon Valley. Now it’s our turn.

It’s winter
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save

Gil Scott-Heron

The Brothers Karamazov

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Having just finished all 911 pages of Karamozov, as part of the continued project to explore novels I read 40-odd years ago, I was right a few posts back about its likely impact: it is without question the greatest novel I’ve ever read. It has been such a joyful experience to read, to be made aware that one person could create such an astonishing mix of artistic brilliance and humanistic concern.

On the first, the great Joyce Carol Oates is very good on the novel here.

As she says: “What has made Dostoevski so highly esteemed a writer is, perhaps, not his understanding of human nature or his ability to work intelligently with ideas, but rather his fluid demonstration of the art of writing—the splendid unpredictability of the writer as writer, who can leave nothing unsaid, whose imagination is so nervously rich that characters and ideas multiply themselves as if by their own volition.”

She is so right about that. He plays constantly with the notion of art and of writing, so that by the end we are simply awed by the confidence of a writer who recognised no barriers in his approach to form and structure. His much-commented-upon omnipotent narrator form evolves and transforms constantly: at one point, he is a real person in the courtroom watching Mitya’s trial, at others he is entirely invisible, lost in the consciousness of the characters. This is a writer who is so confident of his art that he can show you, the reader, how he is speculating about form without losing the grip of the story.

Oates too points well to his psychological insights. Freud adored this novel, as did many others, and he was inevitably fascinated by the notion of patricide which lies at the core of the book. But she also points out the fascination with doubles, or in Jungian terms, the shadow. So many of the characters have their own double or shadow, and even talk about them, with poor demented Ivan at the end realising his with his summoning of the devil in his room. Even the ghastly rivalry between father and son for the alluring Grushenka is a terrible internal play about doubles and shadows.

Some critics see the precocious schoolboy Kolya as another double for Ivan, but he read to me as an ironic self-reference, an amused sketch of self-criticism by an author whose curiosity was limitless.

There is so much in this novel that one can understand those who keep returning to it; Wittgenstein loved it so much he could recite whole passages by heart. There is no character too minor to be taken seriously by the author, to have their psychology explored, their lineage analysed.

It has been a privilege to discover it again.

Wise old owls

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This short-eared owl, photographed by Nick Dibben (@NicDibNick) lives in Dorset. I was looking out for owls in France last week when I drove around on my motorbike. Didn’t see one but I did pause and watch an eagle with a pale-coloured collar and chest munch through what looked like a mouse on the ground in Burgundy. She looked like she’d just swept down and caught it and was entirely unimpressed by my presence.

Sadly I also wasn’t too impressed with poor old Jack Kerouac and Dharma Bums, which I did get through. While I remain very fond of him and like to indulge in his romantically sentimental take on Buddhism, as a writer he was just so lazy: what he grandly termed spontaneous prose is what an editor like Maxwell Perkins would have criticised as merely a first draft. And the terrible misogyny is just too difficult to stomach any more; Jack’s umbilical cord was never threatened until his dying day.

Ah well. On to Dostoevsky.

Next up: Dharma Bums

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As part of my latest project, to revisit novels I remember as being significant to me in my ’20s, I’m about to start Dharma Bums. I think I first read this as a teenager, which is when I guess you should read it, so it will be fascinating to see if there are any ghosts in its pages 40 years later.

I just finished wading through Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I used to keep close to me in the early London days in the 1980s, thinking it contained triggers of lucidity which would shine a comprehending light on the chaos of my life. Reading it now has been a bit of a chore. I can imagine the excitement when it first came out in 1938 but, good grief, it’s laboured going now. That’s because it’s not really a novel at all, it’s Sartre’s thinking couched in novelistic terms. Because he was such a clever bastard, to use Ian Dury’s excellent phrase, he was easily capable of creating a novelistic structure and even a stab at character, but the whole thing is constipated by his brilliance. The final payoff, which I’d forgotten, where the narrator sees the potential for redemption from his existential nausea in the idea of writing a novel, actually made me groan.

After Kerouac is Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov. I’m slightly nervous that I will like that so much on re-reading it that it will spoil everything else for me, but we’ll see.

Jonathan Swift’s Word Machine

75dfa2819ca68a724611bad9d34c83f1I’m fascinated by this. The satirist Jonathan Swift imagined something called The Engine in Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726. What The Engine did was to create texts; it was Swift’s ironic barb, suggesting that a mere machine could compete against and even overcome the words of contemporary authors. Let’s leave aside the obvious thought today about the idea: that in our Bladerunner world, machines might begin to create stories with which to soothe us to sleep. Let’s pretend that’s actually not going to happen.

Instead, I’ve been playing with a contemporary version of The Engine created by Dr. Kenneth I. Laws and Raphael Großmaß here: The Lagado Machine. What their machine does is to take inputted text and to allow for a random machine resampling of that text.

I chose the first three paragraphs of my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. Here are Ford’s first three paragraphs:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

I don’t mean to say that we were not acquainted with many English people. Living, as we perforce lived, in Europe, and being, as we perforce were, leisured Americans, which is as much as to say that we were un-American, we were thrown very much into the society of the nicer English. Paris, you see, was our home. Somewhere between Nice and Bordighera provided yearly winter quarters for us, and Nauheim always received us from July to September. You will gather from this statement that one of us had, as the saying is, a “heart”, and, from the statement that my wife is dead, that she was the sufferer.

Captain Ashburnham also had a heart. But, whereas a yearly month or so at Nauheim tuned him up to exactly the right pitch for the rest of the twelvemonth, the two months or so were only just enough to keep poor Florence alive from year to year. The reason for his heart was, approximately, polo, or too much hard sportsmanship in his youth. The reason for poor Florence’s broken years was a storm at sea upon our first crossing to Europe, and the immediate reasons for our imprisonment in that continent were doctor’s orders. They said that even the short Channel crossing might well kill the poor thing.

What fascinates me is that, each time I input those three paragraphs into the Lagado Machine, I get different opening sentences to compete with Ford’s famous opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

Here’s a few:

“The reason for his heart.”

“I don’t mean to keep poor thing.”

“But, whereas a good glove’s with many English.”

“But, we knew nothing whatever.”

In their different ways, the Machine’s opening sentences compete admirably with Ford’s. There is a chilly resonance blowing through, as though Ford were woken from his sleep to fight off this new competition. Where this might take us, heaven only knows.

Vietnam and Trump

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Midway through the epic 17-hour documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, you get the sudden realisation how America ended up voting in Donald Trump this year. The lies and dissimulations of the Democrat Lyndon Johnson regime – otherwise lauded for many of its socially aware domestic policies – allowed for a whole generation of poor, working class men to be sent to die in south east Asia and to commit appalling atrocities upon the Vietnamese people. That generation could never forgive a political system which committed such a barbaric crime upon it. It’s a wonder it took them so long to seek their revenge.

Daphne’s secret

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The stone building on the right of this picture is the original inspiration for the boathouse in Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel of love and betrayal set in Cornwall. If you haven’t read the novel, I won’t give away the ending by revealing what goes on in the boathouse so do get yourself a copy: it’s an excellent story.

The house is set right on the beach in south Cornwall and looks out towards the English channel and the Atlantic. It’s part of a much larger estate which du Maurier leased for 30 years, living with her family up in the big house which itself was the inspiration for Manderlay in the novel.

Du Maurier, of course, is exactly the kind of novelist one is not meant to mention in polite literary society in London. She is, my dear, quite beyond the pale. Really not someone anyone with any kind of literary sensibility could bring themselves to mention. Terribly popular, you see.

Like Jeffrey Archer, Jilly Cooper and other brilliant storytellers, du Maurier is forever cast into the outer reaches by the literary type. This distinction between “good” writing and “bad” writing became entrenched in the English-speaking world around the middle of the 20th century as the professionalisation of literature took over and universities stopped teaching classics and started educating their students in book snobbery.

Metropolitan literary types love revealing what they call their guilty secrets over a glass of Picpoul: a secret stash of Jilly Cooper books, an irresistible desire to buy a Harold Robbins in the airport bookshop. But their gleeful sense of guilt is entirely misplaced.

The urge to write should always be encouraged and its achievement in whatever form celebrated. The commoditisation of art begins when those who should know better start differentiating between the intrinsic worth of one book against another.