A nice profile in the FT, of a writer that I’d never come across, Denis Johnson, who died last May. Sounds like his stuff is worth a try, but I’m quoting his description of a writer’s life here. A lyrical ode to his modus operandi. Sounds kind of fun, and blogging is, perhaps, its pale imitation:
“Writing. It’s easy work . . . You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
One thing is true about contemporary politics in the UK, the EU and the USA – it’s not boring. Not only the facts, the events, the personalities, but also the conversations. The internet has liberated all of us, and for every crank theory there is an intelligent analysis that you won’t get in the mainstream media. It’s brilliant. A lot of it is also very funny/entertaining, though hardly ever emanating from the more left inclined end of the spectrum, where humour is suspect.
Whether or not we’re currently getting good government, we’re certainly benefiting from the theme of John von Kannon‘s wonderful quote “If you can’t have good government, at least have entertaining government.”
A rising star in 2017 is Thomas Wictor, whose biography is pretty extraordinary, and who has a dedicated bunch of followers on Twitter, waiting for the next in his series of long threads, centring around government, lefties, war, the military, pictorial analysis and flamethrowers. Yes, flamethrowers. In fact, with respect to the latter, read the genius thread starting here.
He’s an erudite man, and a terrific writer. Here is his series of tweets creating the ‘Trump is Leiningen’ meme. A sheer delight. You don’t have to be a Trumpkin to enjoy the point.
I have in the past lauded Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online, for his remarkable ability to marshal facts, argue his corner and knock out umpteen witticisms in extraordinarily concise and punchy prose. Possibly his most famous knockdown was his commentary on the now annual State of the Union address, but it’s one of many. Here’s the opening:
The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.
It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.
He had, too.
That was more than three years ago, and this week Brendan O’Neill (1, 2, 3 ), hero of free speech and independent thinking courtesy of Spiked Online, has his say in the Spectator, on Blair’s possible Brexit comeback. It has a similar ‘oomph’. Here’s the opening:
Here they come, Tony Blair and his tragic chattering-class army. The former PM, whose rictus grin and glottal stops still haunt the nation’s dreams (well, mine anyway), is on the march with his pleb-allergic mates in business and the media. Blair and the Twitterati, linking arms, united in their horror at the incalculable stupidity of northerners and Welsh people and Essex men and women and other Brexiteers, their aim as clear as it is foul. They’re here to save us from ourselves. ‘Tony Blair is trying to save Britain from itself’, as one report put it. Excuse me while I pop an anti-nausea pill.
Yes, Blair, the political version of Michael Myers, the nutter in the Halloween movies who just cannot be slain, is back. Again. Remember when PMs were dignified and would bow out into their cobwebbed corner of the Lords when it became clear the British public had had a gutful of them? Not Blair. He’s considering a return to the frontline of politics, according to reports, because he wants to halt Hard Brexit. He feels so ‘passionate’ about this, he says, that ‘I almost feel motivated to go right back into it’ — ‘it’ being politics, public life, our daily lives. Make it stop, please
I doubt that he’s the sort that would accept a knighthood, but if he maintains this standard (he will)……
If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.
The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.
1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (1, 2 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.
That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversialHV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.
Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again. So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.
There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend the stairway to the royal tombs and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:
In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.
**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)
Having just finished – and loved – War and Peace, and having also battled through/enjoyed Don Quixote, Bleak House and the like, I can state that I do like the long breathed mighty literary classic. “Battled through” can be the issue though. You have to pace yourself, something greatly aided by Tolstoy and Dickens pitching their chapter lengths perfectly.
However, I am grinding to a halt with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1152 pages), although I don’t think I’ve given up. Yet.
There is something to be said for the intrinsic advantages of the short novel. I don’t mean the short story. I’m not sure if I mean the novella either. Despite people bragging about knocking off Tolstoy in a long weekend, I mean the kind of book you can genuinely complete in a day or two, easy to carry if you’re travelling, and possibly just as satisfying as one of the behemoths.
As a comparison, here’s what I mean. I finished the ten on the right in less time than it took to do the bottom left. At my age (middlish) I’m not going to even get close to reading all the books I own (or listen to all the music I’ve bought).
The work of medicine can be grim. Death, pain, madness, addiction, mutilation, indignity are all around you at times. How one copes with it as the objective medical practitioner is hard to define**. I personally feel that the ancient rite of passage of the dissection room in first year had considerable merit in this regard. Its abandonment in most UK medical schools means that current and future generations may be missing out on something other than knowing anatomy. Likewise, the cosseted world of the junior doctors’ contract and hours regulations means that the fruitful maxim, ‘they can always hit you harder’, becomes less true by the year.
Doctors, then, are changing. Their work by and large stays the same in its broad themes. You have to be able to cope with the dark side, which includes a significant attrition rate amongst our own – illness, fatigue, family crises, scandal etc.
Some of our coping mechanism comes from our personality and our background, some is learnt. Some relates to personal beliefs, often religious. Either way, you have to acquire it in order to function. Here is a vignette from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a mini masterpiece of selfish young man nihilism, written long before trite pale imitations like American Psycho. The hero, Pechorin, is preparing for a duel in the Caucasus mountains, seconded by his worried doctor friend, Werner:
“Why so sad, doctor?” I said to him. “Haven’t you seen people off to the next world a hundred times with the greatest indifference? Imagine that I have a bilious fever, and that I have equal chances of recovering or succumbing. Both outcomes are in the order of things. Try to regard me as a patient stricken with a disease you have not yet diagnosed–that will stimulate your curiosity to the utmost. You may now make some important physiological observations on me . . . Isn’t expectation of death by violence a real illness in itself?”
This thought struck the doctor, and he cheered up.
A true and shrewd observation, which most medics will recognise: the awfulness of illness and death is mostly genuinely fascinating, and can be its own reward, in a strange way.
**As an afterword there is a good quote from Russian/Armenian/American author Vera Nazarian, the parentheses are my own contributions:
“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side (doctors who can do the job, but who get out into management etc ASAP).
You can go around it.
You can dig under it.
You can fly over it.
You can blow it up.
You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there (usually become Public Health ‘experts’ in the UK).
You can turn around and go back the way you came (doctors who don’t cope and drop out of the tough specialties) .
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home (the frontline doctors of any challenging specialty who stick it out).”
[I’m still working on career analogies for the middle four *]
It was an erstwhile leftie** – albeit a privileged and well educated one – George Orwell, who wrote the classic guide to good writing, Politics and the English Language. The whole thing is great, but here is the distillation:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
It is quoted continually, and I would say that it’s an excellent basis for anyone who enjoys writing – bloggers, for example. A more recent teacher, from the other end of the political spectrum, would be Simon Heffer, in his Style Notes.
Sadly, lefties have fallen far from grace in this important area. Here is (non-leftie) Douglas Murray critiquing ‘Jack’ Monroe and ‘their’ employer, the Guardian:
Soon afterwards, even the award of “Woman of the Year” to someone with a penis seemed passé as a far-left blogger and “anti-austerity activist” called Jack Monroe came out as “nonbinary transgender”. A few days later she accepted a “Woman of the Future” award, which was not merely undeserved but (if Monroe were to be taken at her word) singularly inaccurate.
Or not. For although Monroe has announced that she is “trans” she expressed herself unwilling to do anything about it. Indeed, she demonstrated even less skin in the game than Caitlyn Jenner. Personally, I slightly admire people so sure they are stuck in the wrong body that they go through the terrible operations necessary to change sex cosmetically. But I feel reluctant to go through the necessary language hurdles if they won’t do anything other than “declare” themselves something. And what hurdles! In reporting Monroe’s desire to “transition”, Pink News adopted the new house style which makes pronouns for trans people not only non-gender specific but also plural. So we read, “Writing on their blog, Jack said . . .” Also (lovers of our delicate and beautiful language look away now), “The Guardian columnist and poverty campaigner changed their name to Jack when they was younger.” The new newspeak is the old illiteracy.
That ‘they was’ hits you hard at the end of the beautifully written paragraph.
Which brings me to my main reason for writing this post, which is to find an excuse to quote Rod Liddle, who is a unique political mix of left and right, and extremely funny with it. Here he is in the latest Spectator, on two of his bêtes noires (permitted, as I can’t think of an English equivalent):
Let me mention a couple of names to you: Alan Rusbridger and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. One is the former editor of the Guardian, the latter a columnist at the Independent until it went digital, and read by almost nobody, anywhere. Between them they are or have been honorary visiting professors at four universities — Nuffield Oxford, Queen Mary, Cardiff and Lincoln, and possess honorary doctorates from four more. I know this because I hate both of them and regularly check what they are up to.
Limpid, direct prose, perfectly expressing his point. Orwell would have been proud.
When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.
1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them
2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.
3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.
5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.
6. Having recourse to a map and historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)
7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.
8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright: Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?
9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.
10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).
Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):
For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.
You’ll find it at various points:
Vol III Part 1 ch I
Vol III Part 2 ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part 3 ch I; II; V
Vol IV Part 1 ch IV; V; VI, Part 2 ch I; II; XVIII; XIX Part 3 ch I; XVIII; XIX
Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword
You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done, with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.
Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.
11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight
12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)
13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.
14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.
15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.
16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.
He may have been a unique and supremely gifted martial genius, who bequeathed the Code Napoléon to the world, but even his fans would concede he could be despotic, with ‘ego issues’.
Here’s a few extracts from The Memorial of St Helena, quoted in War and Peace after the complex and depressing stalemate of the Battle of Borodino. Bonaparte is reflecting on the faltering Russian campaign and his own grandiloquent scheming:
It was a war for a great cause, the end of uncertainties and the beginning of security. A new horizon and new labors were opening out, full of well-being and prosperity for all. The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.
Satisfied on these great points and with tranquility everywhere, I too should have had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. Those ideas were stolen from me. In that reunion of great sovereigns we should have discussed our interests like one family, and have rendered account to the peoples as clerk to master.
Europe would in this way soon have been, in fact, but one people, and anyone who traveled anywhere would have found himself always in the common fatherland. I should have demanded the freedom of all navigable rivers for everybody, that the seas should be common to all, and that the great standing armies should be reduced henceforth to mere guards for the sovereigns.
On returning to France, to the bosom of the great, strong, magnificent, peaceful, and glorious fatherland, I should have proclaimed her frontiers immutable; all future wars purely defensive, all aggrandizement antinational…
Of course, in this new Europe without borders, a sort of 19th century Schengen (how’s that going?), everyone is equal, except:
Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of the nations!
The old rogue was an infinitely greater man than Hollande, Juncker et al, going all the way back to their dodgy prototype Jean Monnet, but in the final analysis, just as deluded.
’tis the season of War and Peace in the UK**. Despite its Russian setting, it’s very much a European novel in many ways. One of its primary characters (a vividly sketched Napoleon) was a talented megalomaniac Western European who spent years trying to bring the different countries of Europe under one banner, mainly for his own nefarious ends, which does seem vaguely familiar. As I write, Dave is in Paris, sucking up to the intransigent Francois Hollande.
Here is Tolstoy describing a multinational war cabinet arguing before putting their plan to Tsar Alexander, with Napoleon’s Grand Armee breathing down their necks (book 9, ch 10):
A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.
At best it does sound like a group of irreconcilables. A modern Tolstoy could have a field day with the absurd unelected peacocks of the current EU. We’re light years from the noble ideals of Monnet, Schuman or even the nonagenarian Jacques Delors.