Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

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Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

June Is All About Celebration!

June has always been my favourite month: not just because it contains my birthday (and now also my younger son’s birthday), but also because in my childhood it meant the end of the school year (with all the resultant parties, shows and sports days). Plus. it’s the month of Midsummer, long days, nice weather even here in the UK, gardens looking their best…

So I’m determined to ignore any negativity currently haunting the fringes of my life in the shape of one single misguided person and keep June light and giddy with joy! As you know by now, joy usually accompanies cultural events in my case, so this is what I’ve been up to lately.

On the 1st of June, I attended a graduation show at RADA 3 Winters  by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play has been described as ‘a  family drama that moves between three alternating time periods and four generations of one Croatian family. From the 1945 victory of Tito’s communist supporters, to the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia, to 2011 and the brink of EU membership – the fortunes of the Kos family are entwined with that of their country as political upheaval mirrors familial struggles. I found the content very moving and the young actors were pretty amazing, it goes without saying, but I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman who was graduating in technical theatre, and specifically in lighting. She was taking notes throughout – that kind of professional dedication just fills me with joy!

I also had a funny experience at the interval. The people behind me were wondering loudly about the historical events mentioned in the play, they didn’t understand the allusions to the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s. It turned out that most of them had been born after that war had started (or even ended). So I couldn’t resist turning around and explaining things to them – a womansplainer, I believe that might be called? To be fair, it was more of a Q&A session, and the young people were genuinely interested (and shocked) and wanted to find out more. Then, at the end of the play, an older lady, who had heard me talk to the audience members at the interval, asked with awe in her voice: ‘Are you the writer?’

On the 11th of June, I had the great pleasure of attending the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition. Six finalists, three men and three women, showed us their dancing skills in a classical pas de deux followed by a contemporary solo. I thought the women in particular were hard done by with the choice of contemporary pieces, so it was not surprising that a man won: Daniel McCormick. He was, however, very gifted, and his leaps in the Le Corsaire pas de deux reminded me of Nureyev. My favourite ahead of the show was the Romanian ballerina Francesca Velicu (McCormick’s partner in the pas de deux) and she was certainly formidable in both her fast spins and the perfect balance in her slow pirouettes. During the show, I also fell in love with the cheeky charisma of Fernando Coloma (who reminded me of my younger son, so my friend was amused to hear me calling him ‘Cutie Pie’). Above all, it was delightful to see all their friends and colleagues, lots of young dancers, out in force to support them.

I’ve also been busy writing (not my poetry or fiction, unfortunately, but better than lazing around). The story of my inspirational grandmother Troy was published on the Women Who Made Me website.  If you haven’t heard of this initiative, I would encourage you to have a mosey on that website, as it’s all about hearing the hidden ‘herstories’ and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I could equally well have written about my other grandmother, the one I am named after, matriarch of the family, mother of seven, who had both German and Soviet soldiers  during WW2 bayoneting the hay in the barn searching for my grandfather (who happened to be the mayor in the village). I used to lap up their stories when I was a child and think that my own life would seem very tame and boring in comparison to my grandchildren. But then I took part in a revolution… So hey-ho, you never know what life will throw at you.

My beloved grandmother in one of my favourite places on earth, the Vienna Woods.

I’ve also recently reviewed the historical novel Savage Liberty (set in pre-Revolutionary America) and Baby Blue (set in post-austerity Athens) on the Crime Fiction Lover website, and my first batch of #20booksofsummer books on this blog. I’ve written an article for the Asymptote newsletter, comparing translations of one of my favourite books Tales of Genji (I had to cut it to half the original size, as I can waffle on endlessly about this topic and own five copies of the book). If you want to subscribe to the free fortnightly newsletter, you can do so here. Even better, do join the subscription-based Book Club to receive a monthly delivery of high-quality fiction in translation. I think it would make a perfect Father’s Day gift [and that’s the only mention of Father’s Day that you’ll get from me this year].

Entirely gratuitous headshot of Aiden Turner here – to turn heads.

The celebrations are set to continue over June and July, both via writing (I am writing three features on: German crime writers, Deadly Summers and When Detectives Go on Holiday, all for CFL) and by attending events. Next weekend, my actual birthday weekend, I’ll be partying in Berlin with two of my oldest and dearest friends who live there and who are also celebrating the same milestone birthday this year. I’ll be seeing the gorgeous and talented Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, going for a gin-tasting with my local friends, chalking the White Horse at Uffington with a former colleague and our ex-boss, seeing a bilingual version of Tartuffe to celebrate the 14th of July, attending the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (I’ll be volunteering, to keep costs down) and going to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on my way to a course in Warwick. Interspersed with lovely meals and conversations and cosy World Cup games viewing with my youngsters and cat – and life couldn’t be better!

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Atelier is another word for creative space

Everybody should have a space where they can be as creative as they wish, or messy, or crafty, or simply relaxed. Here are some ‘atelier’ spaces for many different types of creatives, proving that they don’t always have to be messy…

Jewellery makers at Atelier Messia, Paris.
The achingly trendy Swedish design studio, from bo-laget.se
Modern and with everything in its place, from Pinterest.
Sometimes I feel like… somebody’s watching me! From ateliervk.com
Lots of light here, perhaps too much in summer. From Miriambarrio.com
Whimsical conservatory workshop, from wherewomencreate.com
The dreamy space that belongs to Celestine Bouton.

The WB Chronicles: Court Battle

Your Honour, we were students, not in the money
for a wedding, anticipated trouble, so my then-honey
and I kept our nuptials secret from our parents,
only informed them a good while after the events.
By then mine had bought a flat for me alone,
or so they thought. Its value soared like a drone,
so we got our next house, and the next. Twenty years later
we’ve had many more donations from the pater…

Mr Judge Sir I protest…
This woman thinks she’s the best,
but she kicked me out less than three years after she found out
that I’d had moments of joy with another. But I called her out,
‘cos it was her lack of uncritical admiration
and the general sense of deprivation
that I could not rule with absolute decree
which drove me to the arms of Gina, Becky, Lee.
She expected me to be apologetic – more like apoplectic
wouldn’t cook or do my laundry while I was texting
the latest mistress I was sexting.
Now I have to pay a massive rent to get a house of similar size –
so what if the kids only spend 6 days here a month – in their eyes
it’s got to be attractive, have room to fit 88 inch TV and Playstation,
while she complains of boiler repairs, lording it in the old location.
That’s the state of our nation.

His salary is high, his pension secure,
why do we have to drown in manure,
when it’s clear as day, eat or pray, doom and gloom,
the boys are mainly spending time in my room?
I feed and clothe them, know all the ins and outs of school…

Your Honour, it’s time to overrule. Food bills are such a drag
why bring up the subject? I don’t mean to brag
but the science the boys get from me
are worth 3 of your books, theatre or history.
Just admit it, you’ll never be as good
as my mother tells me I am. That’s understood.
They’re boys, they need a father to set an example or else
they’ll end up as unhappy as I was
when she made me pick them up from school while she was travelling.
All the while my social life was unravelling,
couldn’t go out for beers more than twice a week.
I’ll teach them to be manly not so weak.
I spend as much on my children as she does, or does she believe
that holidays chasing solar eclipses come through charity relief?
Cinema tickets, theme parks all cost money,
so curb your spending on socks, shoes and school trips, honey!

And if you don’t know, now you know…

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Cabinet Battle in Hamilton, which inspired this.

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 13 June 2018

I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

For review:

Carol Fenlon: Mere

Not ‘mere’ as in ‘mother’ but as in Windermere, it is a cross-genre novel set in rural Lancashire. Part family story, part crime, with elements of ghost story, it is about the destruction of the landscape, death of farming and the revenge of nature as well as about the human beings living there.

For leisure:

Ali Smith: Autumn – progress on this one has been slow, as I put it down to read something else and haven’t really returned to it. I rather like it, but clearly it does not grip me.

Finished:

For review:

John Berger: G.

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, I’ll be doing a brief write-up of it for Shiny New Books Golden Booker special. It will never be a popular or highly readable book, but I found this retelling of Casanova or Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century a lot more fun than I expected.

For leisure:

Marian Keyes: The Break

I was in the mood for a little mid-life crisis and man-bashing, and Keyes is always brilliant at observing couples or parent-child dynamics. However, it did feel rather long and unedited, a bit self-indulgent for both the writer and the reader.

Next:

For David Bowie Book Club:

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason – halfway through June and I still haven’t read the choice for May – don’t know why I hesitate about picking up this book, perhaps fear that it will make me rant about politics once more?

For leisure (and next on my #20booksofsummer list):

Belinda Bauer: Snap

Not sure if maternal abandonment is a subject that will cheer me up, but at least this book should have me reading well into the night, knowing the author. Not many books have done that lately!

 

#20BooksofSummer: Sicilian Lions, Single Mums and Lots of Books

It’s been a very busy, tiring and emotionally draining start to June, so I eased myself into the #20booksofsummer with some lighter reads.

Mario Giordano: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, transl. John Brownjohn

Not perhaps the most exciting or coherent of investigations, a lot of the detective work relies on coincidence or sheer nosiness, and there is something rather implausible and artificial about the whole story within a story set-up (narrated by the Auntie’s nephew, but as it is told to him by the woman herself). Nevertheless, this is a charming cosy crime caper set on the beautiful island of Sicily, stuffed to the gills with comic characters, some of them loud and obnoxious ones, others more than a little shady. And Auntie Poldi bridges the gap between Italian and German culture beautifully: an independent, candid woman with a passion for uniform and a lust for life that I can only hope I will have when I get to her age.

Janet Hoggarth: The Single Mums’ Mansion

This was not quite the fun read I was expecting and when I heard about the origin of the book as a blog about a difficult divorce, it made perfect sense. There is a lot of bitterness and genuine sadness mixed in amongst the obligatory chick lit references: drinking and taking some recreational drugs, lusting after men, supportive female friends and some silly mistakes as they finally move on from the broken wreckage. There were at least two things that annoyed me about this book: the unrealistic way in which these women didn’t seem to have to worry about money, feeding and clothing their children or losing their houses (OK, one of them moves in with the main character for a while, but few of my friends have houses big enough to take anyone else in). And yet they all seemed to have freelance jobs that don’t pay that well: photographer, writer, yoga instructor…

Secondly, none of them seemed to have any other interests other than getting drunk or laid.  Granted, it’s not easy to go out when you have three small children – so why not make the going out count? Or am I the only one who’d far rather have gone to a show or exhibition or a salsa class instead of drowning my sorrows in some expensive bar? Or is that the age difference talking?

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm

Not a systematic discussion of children’s literature, but simply an idiosyncratic and very personal memoir of the books she grew up with. I seem to be of a similar generation to her, as there is a considerable overlap of our books. Lucy Mangan is witty and charming, but you can’t help but notice quite a gap in her reading culture (probably not through any fault of her own, but simply a reflection of how little else was available in English at the time). She mentions Struwelpeter (giving her nightmares) and the colonial excesses of Babar, but no Moomins, no Asterix and Obelix, no Little Prince, no Pippi Longstocking, no Robber Hotzenplotz… It makes me realise how lucky I was to grow up with 3-4 languages and cultures all around me (and many more influences). She admits she was not a very adventurous reader, that she liked her world to be contained and safe, but there was something just ever so slightly too nostalgic about Enid Blyton and P. G. Wodehouse which didn’t sit comfortably with me. And yet there was so much about her account of growing up bookish that I could relate to…

I think for the next batch of #20books I might need to turn my attention to those that have been on my Netgalley shelf for a long, long time.