Helen Dunmore won first prize, John Stammers came third, and our winning poems will appear in the spring issue of Poetry Review. The judges were Daljit Nagra, Ruth Padel and Neil Rollinson.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Helen Dunmore won first prize, John Stammers came third, and our winning poems will appear in the spring issue of Poetry Review. The judges were Daljit Nagra, Ruth Padel and Neil Rollinson.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
“The first person to call me a self-hating Jew was my father,” Mike Marqusee writes in this taboo-busting memoir-cum-manifesto. Delving into the lives of his father and grandfather, both left-liberal, civil rights-supporting American Jews – he argues that they committed “a colossal historical error” in supporting the Zionist atrocities of 1948. As the historian George Antonius observed in 1938: “No code of morality can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another.” The book tries to explain – setting out its case clearly and rationally – why for some Jews, Israel has ceased to feel like a just cause. This change of attitude is attributable in part to a generation gap, but also to Israel’s evolving history. “Mainly, what turned me into an anti-Zionist was just following events,” Marqusee says, “and finding the pro-Israel narrative and its underlying Zionist claims unsustainable in the face of the evidence.” His father came round to his way of thinking after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “OK,” he said, “you were right. They’re bastards.”
Sunday, March 21, 2010
1 September 2001 has to be the defining moment for my generation (with the Great Recession a close second). I was being interviewed for a job at the London Review of Books when the first plane struck. I was perched on a wobbly stool with the rather intimidating Mary-Kay Wilmers and her team seated in a semi-circle around me, when I first became aware of mobile phones being checked (I didn’t have one in those days). Nothing was said at the time, and I left the LRB offices and went to a nearby pub. People were staring up at a TV screen, watching what I thought was a disaster movie. It took a while for me to realise it was the news. I lived in a studio flat on the Blackstock Road, not far from the Finsbury Park mosque, and I have to say the feeling in the kebab shop I stopped off at on the way home was very much that America had it coming (a line the LRB also followed). I didn’t have a TV, so I spent the evening in the Arsenal Tavern watching the same footage of the World Trade Center collapsing over and over again, on a big screen usually reserved for football matches.
So, here are ten items from my old Critical Eye column that are connected to 9/11 in one way or another . . .
And no, I didn’t get that job at the LRB.
In Orientalism (1978) Edward Said wrote that “Nobody is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to [Orientalism] called Occidentalism,” but Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have done just that in Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism. “The climacteric of 9/11 has produced a great deal of mediocre analysis and bathetic reflection,” noted Niall Ferguson in the Telegraph, “this essay is one of the best things yet to be published on what . . . has become known as the ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Johann Hari in the Independent on Sunday thought it “thrillingly bold . . . Buruma and Margalit brilliantly identify a pernicious, infectious mindset. Some soft-headed types who want to imagine that victims are always morally pristine will find it as enraging as itching powder.”
In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America Roosevelt loses the 1940 election to Charles A. Lindbergh, celebrity aviator, isolationist, anti-Semite and Hitler fan. Christopher Tayler in the Sunday Telegraph was prompted “to scour the novel for hidden commentary on recent events”, but concluded that “it’s not that kind of book”, although “Roth dwells sardonically on Lindbergh’s flight suit and laconic public style”, which might remind some readers of a certain president. “Roth has said quite explicitly that this is not a ‘9/11 novel’,” observed Erica Wagner in the Times, but it “casts light on the present through the window of the past”. David Flusfeder in the Telegraph thought it “a minor addition to the Roth canon”, although “Roth’s lesser works are better than many others’ masterpieces.”
In Specimen Days Michael Cunningham “uses the tripartite technique he employed, to great effect, in his previous novel The Hours,” explained Philip Hoare in the Sunday Telegraph. “But does the trick work second time around?” Yes: it is “an ultimately satisfying, richly rewarding and deeply enjoyable book”. “This is less a novel than a linked trio of moving, bizarrely lyrical novellas,” announced Jane Stevenson in the Observer, “meditating on Descartes’s argument for the essential separation of mind and body, which makes of the perceiving individual a ‘ghost in a machine’.” “Specimen Days is also concerned with the greatest perceived threat to the American dream,” observed Peter Parker in the Sunday Times. “Women jumping from a flaming building in the first section are clearly meant to invoke 9/11, as are the suicide bombers in the second story and the ‘post-meltdown’ landscape of the third . . . Intricately conceived, stylishly written and admirably ambitious, this absorbing novel lingers in the mind, but never quite coalesces there.”
“Siri Hustvedt is refreshing when it comes to the excesses of political correctness and hard-line feminism,” wrote Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph, reviewing Plea for Eros, an essay collection by Mrs Paul Auster. “In her view, feminist discourse fails to take account of the erotic, and much of what is erotic is so precisely because of fantasies of transgression and submission. The eroticism in her relationship with Auster, she argues, is sustained not through intimacy but through distance. The attraction remains because there’s something about him she can’t reach.” “The essays are an odd bunch,” noted Serena Davies in the Observer. “They veer from literary criticism to the connotations of corsetry, from gender confusion to the desolation of 9/11.” Hustvedt herself “strides across these pages: a 6ft-tall Amazonian New Yorker by whom we are at once riveted and faintly disconcerted.”
“The first few chapters of Jay McInerney’s The Good Life brim with ambition, promising a bold, panoramic view of the effects of the 9/11 attack on the American psyche,” wrote Stephen Amidon in the Sunday Times, but “once the towers come down, McInerney’s vision contracts radically, until it focuses on the mid-life crises of two privileged New Yorkers who appear to view 9/11 as little more than an opportunity to rearrange their elective affinities . . . catastrophe is never more than a backdrop for their affair.” “The Class A witticisms for which McInerney was celebrated have been replaced with stodgier tastes,” noted Daniel Swift in the Telegraph. “This book – a hit list of chic commodities and pricey daydreams – is single where it hopes to be plural, specific in the face of the general, static where it longs to be fluid.” “There’s no whiff of international politics,” objected Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer, and “with its obeisance to the glamour of money, The Good Life is much less of a break from his earlier work than Jay McInerney might like to think.”
“Terrorist aims high. This is John Updike’s post 9/11 book, tackling big, relevant topics . . . But it does not work,” said Caroline Moore in the Sunday Telegraph. “Indeed, for all its pretensions to bang-up-to-date, state-of-the-nation contemporaneity, Terrorist seems, like its hero, oddly dated and out of touch. When did you last meet an 18-year-old without either a mobile phone or access to the Internet? These are the staples of communication for teenagers – and, of course, for terrorists . . . This is a last-minute Rabbit pulled from a very shoddy hat.” Updike’s teenage protagonist Ahmad “feels no more real a person than his unscrupulous imam, who is reduced to the contrasting status of movie-villain Muslim”, noted Stephen Abell in the Times Literary Supplement. But Lionel Shriver in the Telegraph declared that “Ahmad is an impressive achievement, a truly fictional creation and no authorial proxy . . . This may be Updike’s finest novel for some years.”
“From the moment the book opens, one senses a writer of confidence and maturity, expansive, sure of her ground and savouring her own sonorous prose,” said Katie Owen in the Sunday Telegraph of Claire Messud’s Booker-longlisted The Emperor’s Children. “If on philosophical and political levels the novel fails to resonate as one suspects is intended, with 9/11 functioning as little more than a dramatic plot device, The Emperor’s Children is still worth reading.” “This novel carries a lot of weight,” noted Lucy Hughes-Hallett in the Sunday Times, “five fully developed, emotionally complex characters; a glittering city, described from the perspective of blasé insiders and from the viewpoint of those newly arrived and lonely; a historic calamity; an audaciously acknowledged pantheon of literary models that includes not only the Russians but also William Empson, the James brothers, Musil, the Book of Genesis and Napoleon’s journal. It is a heavy load, but Messud’s book is so broadly based, so resiliently humorous that it easily sustains it.”
“Five years on, and the 9/11 books begin to mount up,” wrote Ian Sansom in the Spectator, citing Roth’s The Plot Against America, Updike’s Terrorist, Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, McEwan’s Saturday, “and now, Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance. You can already hear the sound of university critics drawing up the reading lists for their ‘Post-9/11 Fiction’ courses.” However, “Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties.” William Skidelsky in the New Statesman described it as “one of the best attempts so far to engage with the post-9/11 world . . . Having devoted his career mainly to non-fiction, Raban is becoming one of our most insightful novelists. Surveillance is a work that confirms him as one of the most original commentators on the times in which we live.”
“Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World is brutally wise, viciously funny and at times unflinchingly cruel,” declared Lisa Hilton in the Sunday Telegraph. “The sense of connection between Shriver’s characters never flags, and this long novel is strengthened both by her capacity to evoke the plenteous smallness of everyday life and to absorb reactions to major outside events: Princess Diana’s death or 9/11.” “Shriver is a remarkably skilled explorer of a character’s interior life,” agreed Siddhartha Deb in the Telegraph, but she detected a “mismatch in the novel between its internal events, which are rendered with nuance, and its awkward signposting of larger events such as the death of Diana and the attacks of September 11, 2001 . . . Yet this is not so much a weakness in this novel as it is a symptom of how difficult it is for contemporary Western fiction to accommodate larger events.”
“The New Granta Book of the American Short Story illustrates just how brightly the form is flourishing in the US,” wrote Tobias Hill in the Times. “Edited by Richard Ford, it is the latest in a distinguished sequence of similar anthologies published in the last 15 years . . . . It is striking that there has been no comparable anthology of British short stories during the same period.” Tim Martin in the Independent on Sunday called it “a laudable collection”, but noticed that the newest stories were “unmediated state-of-the-nation stuff, the badge and blazon of creative writing courses that tell you to write what you know. They’re stories with Issues – Aids, alcoholism, integration, 9/11 – and despite the multiplicity of voices, there’s a certain family resemblance between some of these machine-tooled first lines and the artful fade-outs.” “Richard Ford knows a good story when he reads one,” said Thomas Jones in the Sunday Telegraph. “But he has his prejudices. All the stories here belong to the same genre, each of them conforming more or less to the constraints of literary realism; there is nothing, for example, by one of the greatest short story writers of the second half of the 20th century, Philip K Dick.”
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by Jeane Daive, translated from the French by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck)
Under the Dome is a record of a friendship; an impressionistic memoir recalling conversations (both profound and inconsequential) and encounters – lunch dates, walks – between 1965 and 1970, from which emerges a composite portrait of Paul Celan. He was a good listener, apparently, and spoke in a “neutral, toneless voice”. He also made wonderfully gnomic pronouncements: “Use the colon. It syncopates.” “Passage still takes place in language. That’s all I have left.” “Heimat is an untranslatable word. And does the concept even exist? It’s a human fabrication: an illusion.” They talk about the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, about Kafka (“a poem is always a letter to the father,” says Celan), Heidegger, Tarkovsky, Adorno.
Iterative, fragmentary and suffused with an atmosphere of Paris in the late afternoon, Under the Dome precisely evokes the insistence of memory. Daive recalls Celan’s dirty fingernails, his conviction that Rimbaud watched over him while he translated “Le Bateau ivre”, and the way he could turn even a burnt omelette into a bad omen. He remembers the poet doing his laundry in the bare apartment he occupied on the Avenue Emile-Zola after separating from his wife Gisèle. He recalls the cave-like courtyard in the Rue Tournefort where “Paul went out of his mind” and was taken away by the police; and he remembers visiting him in a psychiatric hospital. He muses upon Celan’s failed suicide attempt and their terrifying last phone conversation, but most of all upon the poet’s sudden disappearance (he probably jumped from the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine), Gisèle’s description of the poet’s body in the morgue, his funeral, and the desk and bookcase Celan left behind in Gisèle’s apartment on the Rue de Longchamp.
One of the most striking moments in Under the Dome occurs when Celan comes face to face with the slogan “We are all German Jews”, during the riots of May 1968. It is almost obscene, prompting a mocking smile from Celan.* “Celan’s plunge into the Seine has the sense of crossing a threshold,” Daive writes of the death of the author of “Es war Erde in ihnen” ("There was earth inside them"). “It’s because heaven is no longer open to man that man plunges into the waters and digs the earth.”
* I am grateful to Stephen Menn at McGill University, Canada, for contacting me: “A point from your TLS review of Jean Daive’s Under the Dome – a book I haven’t read. But you speak of a moment in the book where Celan ‘comes face to face with the slogan “We are all German Jews”, during the riots of May 1968.’ The way you put it – and very likely this is what Daive and even Celan himself thought – suggests that the protesters were comparing themselves to the victims of the Holocaust, and naturally Celan would have been appalled by this. But I am almost certain that this is not what they were doing. Rather, they were responding to a right-wing newspaper which had described Daniel Cohn-Bendit, blamed as a foreign troublemaker, as a ‘German Jew’. The protesters would have been declaring their solidarity with Cohn-Bendit. I believe that Cohn-Bendit describes the incident in his book Le gauchisme, remède à la maladie sénile du communisme, although it has been almost 30 years since I looked at the book.”
He is quite right about the Cohn-Bendit connection. I suspect Celan probably did interpret it in a broader sense, and perhaps the slogan resonates on two levels. However, to add a further twist, Cohn-Bendit was a German Jew, whereas Celan wasn't. It just struck me as a powerful moment: Paul Celan meets the riots of 1968.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
“Sometimes unpopular ministers redeem themselves with a principled resignation,” wrote Michael Portillo in the Sunday Times, citing Robin Cook as an example. But Clare Short “made a mess of quitting” and her new book An Honourable Deception? is “her attempt at rehabilitation”. She comes across as “genuine” and “passionate” about politics, added Portillo, while providing us with “a disturbing insight into a government where Blair seems to take every decision”. “Her critique is compelling,” agreed John Kampfner in the Observer, as Short details “the concentration of power in a small, largely unelected cabal” at Number 10. “The only major players to come out of this sorry narrative well are Kofi Annan and Hans Blix.”
“Peston has written a book which everyone interested in serious politics – the politics of ideas – should read,” declared Roy Hattersley in the Observer, reviewing Brown’s Britain by Robert Peston. “Blair by the end comes across as some sort of Iago figure” and Brown “a credulous Othello”, noted Anthony Howard in the Sunday Telegraph; it is “the portrait of a victim rather than a hero”. But Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times disagreed: “Reading this apologia-cum-manifesto, I see that Brown is not just the victim of spin but its most adept practitioner.” “The book’s biggest weakness is its one-sidedness,” complained Peter Riddell in the Times. A major source for Peston was Brown’s confidant Ed Balls, which prompted Riddell to suggest that “the book could equally well have been called Ball’s Briefing”.
In 2003 Peter Hyman left his job as Head of Tony Blair’s Strategic Communications Unit to become a classroom assistant at the rough Islington comprehensive to which the Blairs declined to send their children. In 1 Out of 10: From Downing Street to Classroom Reality he reveals what it was like. “He is frank about how his experiences have challenged, if not changed, the perceptions of education he had as a strategist for the Blair ‘project’,” noted John Kampfner in the Observer, but Francis Gilbert in the Sunday Telegraph recoiled from Hyman’s clichéd adulation of Blair (“his ‘great speeches’, ‘powerful ideas’, his ‘star quality’ and so on”); nevertheless, “buried behind all the New Labour platitudes . . . is a serious critique of this government”. “Tony, despite what amounts to Hyman’s own pretty damning critique of government educational policies, can do no wrong,” objected an equally horrified Chris Woodhead in the Sunday Times. “Tony this, Tony that. Ugh!”
“I would like to report that this book is unreadable, being the fake, ghosted ‘diaries’ of an egomaniac,” wrote Andy McSmith in the Independent on Sunday of Piers Morgan’s Insider: the Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade. “I would, indeed, report that,” he added, “if it were not so grippingly readable.” “These scurrilously entertaining diaries . . . confirm [the fact] that we live in a tabloid world,” lamented Andrew Anthony in the Observer. “Never has the line between high politics and low celebrity looked so flimsy. Blair, Beckham, Mandelson, Jordan – the whole sorry lot merge into one great farce of behind-the-scenes briefings, boozy get-togethers and topless photos. It surely says something . . . about our media-saturated culture that the topless shots in question are not of Jordan but the Prime Minister’s wife. Morgan elects not to publish them but gallantly reassures the First Lady that her breasts ‘looked fantastic’.”
“This book is substantial, a brutal study of a brutal topic, mendacity in British politics,” thundered Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times of Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying. “The chief targets are Blair and his courtiers, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell [who] made ‘Blairism’ synonymous with deviousness and spin.” “Blair is not exactly lying,” argued Stephen Robinson in the Telegraph. “It is more that he has created around him a little zone of subjective reality.” As for Mandelson and Campbell, they were “driven by a zealous self-righteousness and indifference to truth which they thought was justified by the higher need to defend the Project.” In the Sunday Telegraph, Gordon Brown’s former press secretary Charlie Whelan accused Oborne of being “obsessed with New Labour . . . Did you know that, according to Oborne, Margaret Thatcher only ever lied once?”
“Christopher Meyer’s DC Confidential reveals no state secrets,” announced Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times, and he was not alone in wondering what all the fuss was about. “This book is the story of Blair,” he said, and how “Blair’s total susceptibility to American flattery . . . turned his head and induced in him a rhetorical crescendo of unconditional support.” “The book does provide some valuable insights into British-American relations,” noted Cal McCrystal in the Independent on Sunday. “The chapters on 9/11 and on the Iraq War are totally absorbing and often quite moving. The account of Blair’s bonding with Bush after 9/11 is wonderfully – if a trifle gushingly – laid out.” “The book falls short as an ambassador’s memoir, because it fails to address properly how our diplomatic service has been so degraded since 1997,” argued Stephen Robinson in the Telegraph. “And it fails as a piece of political gossip because Meyer is not indiscreet enough . . . We do not need to be told that Jack Straw is second-rate or that John Prescott cannot speak in sentences.” “Meyer’s observations are important for a single reason,” observed Steve Richards in the Independent. “They explain vividly how Blair became trapped. He records how Blair and his entourage were intoxicated by their closeness to Bush [and] after reading this book, no Prime Minister will seek to be so uncritically close to the United States again.”
“There is enough in these diaries to convince me that they will become one of the classic records of our times,” said Steve Richards in the Independent of The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries. “This is a riveting, compelling and genuinely revelatory book,” agreed Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times. “The remarkable thing, though, is that he thinks that what remains isn’t damaging to Labour. It is, very.” “Although Campbell excised many of the most sensitive episodes, he paints a picture of men who are self-absorbed obsessives, who combine doses of narcissism, aggression, self-loathing, laddism and homoeroticism,” wrote John Kampfner in the New Statesman. “The psychological flaws famously ascribed to Brown are evident in Campbell throughout this narrative – solipsistic but lacking in self-knowledge, the bully who sees himself as a victim.” “The awkward truth is that Campbell comes across as a thug,” noted Anthony Howard in the Sunday Telegraph, “and Blair as something of a weakling.” “Unwittingly perhaps, this is a brilliant, absorbing account,” said Matthew Parris in the Times. “Vivid, direct, immediate, and honest in its way, the diary draws you into a world for which ‘evil’ is hardly too strong a word . . . If Bill Sykes’s bull terrier had written an autobiography it would read like this: a snarling, compelling, gut-wrenching splicing of loyalty with faithfulness . . . This is the diary of a dog, a sort of devil-dog.”
“One feels like a not-so innocent bystander asking Robert Harris if he really ought to put the boot in quite so venomously, while one’s inner self is cheering him on,” said Nicholas Blincoe in the Telegraph, reviewing The Ghost, an unflattering portrait of a fictional ex-prime minister not unlike Tony Blair. “The setting up of the first New Labour leader for a war crimes trial (‘aided, abetted and facilitated’ torture) is a singular plot, even faintly believable,” noted Cal McCrystal in the Independent on Sunday. “It is a commentary on the Blair era,” wrote James Naughtie in the Sunday Telegraph, written by “a New Labour supporter for whom it has all gone sour . . . The bitterness is unmistakable.” “This is not the novel about the Blair years many had hoped he would write,” said a disappointed Denis MacShane in the Financial Times. “In fact, there is as yet no adequate fiction on the Blair years . . . Harris still has within him a big novel about the British politics of his generation. One day he will write it.”
“Martin Amis’s verve as a writer is such that in many places this book certainly provides enjoyment and moments of illumination,” said Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Telegraph, reviewing The Second Plane. “What it does not do, given its patchiness in argument, is command any consistent intellectual respect.” “Buy the book,” urged Philip Hensher in the Spectator, who was fascinated by Amis’s interview with Tony Blair in his final days as PM. “It reads almost like a dream of wish-fulfilment, so exactly realised is the character of Blair. Somehow, too, Amis’s own political positions, which can often be described as those of a clever undergraduate, don’t diminish the allure of the portrait but enhance it . . . What the author of Dead Babies is, rather unexpectedly, turning into, is an old-fashioned defender of truth, beauty and the values of literature against the massing dark. There is something noble about this book, and even when it is wrong it is never deplorable.”