Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, by David Marquand

One has only to think of the House of Lords, our first-past-the-post electoral system and our unelected head of state to realise that Britain is not yet a true democracy. This masterly analysis presses the point home, beginning with demands for parliamentary reform in the 1640s and ending with a new epilogue on the “crisis of polity” of 2009. From the “bottom-up defiance” of the Levellers, the British Jacobins and the Chartists to the “top-down reform” of whig imperialists, tory nationalists and democratic republicans, there has never been a single vision of democracy in Britain, Marquand says. A major question in this book is how can “the democratic promise of political equality be squared with the economic inequality inherent in capitalism”? Blair-Brown, emerging from Thatcher’s “monstrous shadow”, couldn’t square the circle, and Marquand is disappointed by Brown’s “coy constitutional initiatives”. This book’s real virtue lies in its clarity and the reminder that democracy can never be taken for granted.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Paul Celan

On this day in 1920 Paul Celan was born, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. To read Celan is to understand what poetry can do. To borrow a phrase from Antonin Artaud, no poet has more successfully dug through “the shit of being and its language” . . .

“There are very few English poets who seem to have any sense of history as something happening in me and you and all around us all the time,” Christopher Middleton once objected. “They’ve steered off into a parochial corner of the universe and have lost their historical sense.”

The reasons for this might be geographical and historical, but also the influence of the dreaded Philip Larkin (“Foreign poetry! No!” Larkin once told the London Magazine).

But Celan had this historical sense and he admired it in others, notably Osip Mandelstam, with whom he felt an uncanny affinity, although they never met.

“I know scarcely any other Russian poet of his generation who was in time like him,” Celan said of Mandelstam, “thought with and out of this time, thought it through to its end, in each of its moments, in its issues and happenings, in the words that faced issues and happenings and were to stand for them, at once open and hermetic.”

This is, of course, a perfect description of Celan’s ambitions too.

“For a poem is not timeless,” he said in 1958. “Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time – through it, not above and beyond it.”

Buy Paul Celan’s poetry in English translation here and here and this biography is essential...

You can also hear Celan reading his poems here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel

On this day (on alternate years) Mr Earbrass begins writing his new novel, having chosen its title at random from a list he keeps in a little green notebook. For a full account of this process, I highly recommend The Unstrung Harp or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by the late great Edward Gorey.

One of my favourite moments comes when Mr Earbrass attends a literary party:

“Among his fellow-authors, few of whom he recognizes and none of whom he knows, are Lawk, Sangwidge, Ha’p’orth, Avuncular, and Lord Legbail. The unwell-looking gentleman wrapped in a greatcoat is an obscure essayist named Frowst. The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gilles Deleuze: An Encounter

On this day in 1995 the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze committed suicide, throwing himself from the window of his Paris apartment. He was 70.

Today I wanted to mark his passing by posting a letter. At least, if I give it a virtual existence, it will always be around, in the public domain, even if one day my garden office burns down. But first, some context is required.

Looking back over my old journals – always an uncomfortable experience, meeting a younger self – I can just about piece together the chain of events.

In autumn 1994 I had completed a year of working towards a PhD on Deleuze and literature. However, all that was about to end.

‘The British Academy turned me down – again!’ I wrote in September 1994. ‘That’s the second time and it’s becoming a regular event. People will queue up to see the disappointment of Pindar. What I don’t understand is, having shown a willingness to fund myself for a year, why was I not even on the waiting list as I was last year? My ideas are so much more certain, my – oh! this country! this shitdish of a country! Christ what a planet!’

Around this time I must have reviewed Paul Patton’s English translation of Deleuze’s Différence et Répétition in the Times Literary Supplement.

My PhD supervisor had written to Deleuze a couple of times, never receiving a reply, and I thought I’d have a go. I sent a photocopy of my review, accompanied by a letter in which I pointed out that someone I knew had been driven almost suicidal by reading Différence et Répétition.

I also explained that although I admired Deleuze a great deal, the word ‘fan’ implied fawning gratitude, so I was content to be an ‘anti-fan’, an idea that set up a little resistance between us, I thought. Then, as an afterthought, I rather blew my cover by asking for a signed photograph.

‘Feel incredibly tired this morning,’ I wrote in my journal on 7 December 1994. ‘Yesterday evening I felt an overwhelming sense of not being wanted or needed by anyone.’ And then the postman passed by and an envelope dropped through the letterbox (this is no longer my address, so no mail please).

In my journal I called it ‘probably the most exciting letter in my short life: from a M. Gilles Deleuze.’ Here it is:

The handwriting is in places almost illegible, but I didn't know then that Deleuze was seriously ill, having undergone a tracheotomy. He had lost the power of speech and considered himself to be ‘chained like a dog’ to an oxygen machine.

The full text of the letter reads:

Dear Sir,
The worst thing that can befall a book is for it to induce in some way a state of death. Your letter gave me a lot of joy, and I will need readers like you. Thank you for your review of
Différence et Répétition, which is nice. How nice to have an anti-fan. But would a photo matter to an anti-fan? Happily, I don’t have one, and I don’t keep any with me. Don’t hold it against me, and believe me sincerely yours,
G. Deleuze

I think it shows that Deleuze had a great sense of humour, even when seriously ill, and that thoughts of suicide could not have been further from his mind at the time of writing.

For me, at that miserable time in my life, it was an early Christmas present.

'The whole letter calms me in a way I can't explain,' I wrote in my journal. 'Astounding. A happy day.'

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

Searching for Howards End one day in her seemingly infinite Gloucestershire farmhouse, the novelist Susan Hill encounters a mountain of unread Booker prize winners and Richard and Judy recommendations. She resolves thenceforth to stop buying books for a year and to explore her own voluminous bookshelves instead.

It's a purely personal exercise. After a year, Hill has drawn up a list of 40 titles that "I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life". This is not a list of the 40 best books ever written. It has essentially the same quality as an inventory of favourite puddings, and is similarly comforting. Trollope and Wodehouse have two titles each on the list, which tells us something about Hill's tastes, as does the absence of any European authors. What we are left with is a mind-map of a novelist in her late 60s who has spent her life reading and writing books.

That this is not a list of the best new writing is apparent from her conservative poetry choices: late TS Eliot, WH Auden (whom she studied at A-level) and the Heaney-Hughes anthology The Rattle Bag. "I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new," she admits. "I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don't and that's that. Perhaps I don't need to. I can recite the whole of 'The Lady of Shalott', after all."

Eliot and Virginia Woolf are, in fact, subversive Modernists who have somehow made it under the radar of Hill's traditional tastes. She doesn't like it when "linguistic or stylistic obscurity is a hindrance to understanding". She opts for To the Lighthouse rather than The Waves, because the latter "always reminds me of the sort of highbrow radio play they used to broadcast on Radio 3".

Hill's old farmhouse is a major character in the book, with its aged wood beams and elm-wood stairs, "the Aga in the kitchen, the wood burner in the sitting room". It's a snug, warm, relaxing place where one might open a random volume and find a Christmas card from Penelope Fitzgerald. She excels at creating an autumnal, "throw another log on the fire" atmosphere; a cosy world of "doing crosswords and answering quizzes at Christmas". Meanwhile, lurking about the house is the shadowy presence of the "Shakespeare Professor", her husband Stanley Wells, whose bookshelves include long-forgotten Elizabethan plays with intriguing titles such as An Interlude called Lusty Juventus. Hill gives these a wide berth.

The autobiographical elements in the book are often delightful — Hill devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf while reading English at King's College London — and it is hard not to agree with her when she waxes lyrical about the Oxford World's Classics series ("printed on fine paper and published in demy octavo") or the Observer books of Moths, Birds' Eggs, Churches; or the beauty of some typefaces (Hill is a publisher too, and appreciates such things). There are also touching reminiscences of Charles Causley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the dying Bruce Chatwin. Hill's novelist's eye perfectly captures E. M. Forster in the London Library ("He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable").

This might have been a smug and indulgent book, but Hill manages to keep it charming, aided by the quality of her writing. Her legion of fans will love it; the rest of us might also enjoy its gently whimsical, self-effacing tone, even if, lurking beneath, are the steely prejudices of Middle England.

Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin

James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) is a masterpiece, but the real Samuel Johnson has long been overshadowed by Boswell’s brilliant construct. Far from being an irascible arch-Tory roaring bon mots at his quailing opponents, Johnson was “a man wracked with self-doubt, guilt, fear and depression”, says Peter Martin in this sympathetic biography. What Boswell doesn’t tell us is that Johnson was “one of the most advanced liberals of his time”, who opposed slavery and “freed” and educated his black servant, then left him his estate. Johnson also “treated women as intellectual equals and promoted their literary careers”. Johnson’s “mental distress” at Oxford is nicely handled, as is the lasting effect on him of his young wife’s death. Recent scholarship continues to chip away at the authority of Boswell’s Life, and what with the recent arrival of David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson there are now multiple lenses through which to view the Great Cham. Although, as Martin readily admits, “The best way to get the measure of Johnson is to read him.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, by John Gray

First published in 1998, False Dawn pretty much predicted the current economic crisis, and Nassim (Black Swan) Taleb has even declared it “a prophetic book”. We can now read sentences such as “How would America’s fractured society cope with a collapse in the stock market such as occurred in Japan in the early 1990s?” with a sense of proleptic irony. In a new Foreword John Gray reminds us that “America’s position is much worse than that of Japan in the 1990s” and insists that globalisation has undergone “an irreversible collapse”. Given his prescience in the past, his predictions are well worth reading: with the US in permanent decline, a period of “disorderly globalisation” has begun, complete with “resource wars” (oil, water, land) and accompanied by the rise of the far right everywhere. And then, with a nod to James Lovelock, he concludes that all this will eventually be “derailed by a backlash from the planet”. All humankind can do now, says Gray, is prepare for a “sustainable retreat”.

The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, by Tariq Ali

Pakistan offers rich pickings for conspiracy theorists. Who killed General Zia in 1988? The Soviets? The CIA? Mossad? Who was behind the group that kidnapped and killed the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002? Was Benazir Bhutto shot in 2007 or did she fracture her skull on the sunroof of her car, as claimed by Scotland Yard? Did Washington tell Musharraf “we’ll bomb you into the Stone Age” or did he exaggerate to promote his memoirs? Pakistan is not a failed state, says Tariq Ali in this lively account of the nation’s history, but it is a dysfunctional one, largely because of US interference, which has shaped Pakistani policy for decades. Afghanistan – occupied by the Soviets, then by the Americans – plays a major role in Pakistan’s future. Pakistanis need stability there before they can address their own history of brutal military dictatorship and political corruption. An unhealthy reliance on dynastic politics has also resulted in the current “medieval charade”, says Ali, whereby the “venal and discredited” Asif Zardari became president, with the full support of the US.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives, by Brian Dillon

Charles Darwin suffered from terrible flatulence, varying from "slight" to "considerable", "baddish", "sharp" and, on bad days, "excessive". We know this because he kept meticulous records of his bodily state. The pianist Glenn Gould (another flatulence sufferer) also generated "voluminous archives of his symptoms", from blood-pressure statistics to pulse rates.
Hypochondriasis, Brian Dillon tells us in this ingenious and intriguing book, is characterised by an intense scrutiny of the body. We should all listen to our bodies, of course, but the nine people examined here were hypersensitive, possessing a heightened awareness of having a body and of being embodied in the world.

Dillon accepts that hypochondria is to some extent a chimerical illness, but there are enough similarities and convergences to just about string these disparate lives together, although clearly Daniel Paul Schreber – who experienced "divine miracles" and was convinced that he was turning into a woman – was insane. As Dillon observes, there is something rather impressive about Schreber's delusions and "the prodigious unreality of the mental world he inhabited", although in his classic 1911 case study, Sigmund Freud saw only a paranoiac who could not admit his homosexuality.

In Tormented Hope Dillon looks beyond the comic stereotype of the hypochondriac to the tragicomic reality. He also makes a strong case for there being a link between "health anxiety" and creativity, following the philosopher Gilles Deleuze's observation that many great artists have frail health, the idea of the writer or artist being simultaneously the médecin and the malade of a civilisation. Charlotte Brontë's hypochondria, he shows, was displaced on to Lucy Snowe or Jane Eyre, and Proust's was an essential aspect of his art. Dillon is a self-confessed hypochondriac and his conclusion that "the power of imagination . . . is in itself a kind of pathology" has profound implications for literature.

A major theme here is seclusion or, more accurately, reclusion. Darwin was a semi-invalid for much of his adult life, although the nature of his malady remains a mystery. His debility had its advantages: "It meant that he could retreat from the world," says Dillon, "the better to pursue his scientific inquiries." Florence Nightingale's illness was similarly undiagnosed, but like many Victorian women she probably welcomed a stay in the sickroom: "The invalid fled into an interior world, a kind of secret garden from which she had so far been barred by convention."
In her essay "On Being Ill" Virginia Woolf wondered why the sickbed has not been among "the prime themes of literature", and indeed, as Dillon shows us, Marcel Proust's bed was "a well-provisioned craft in which he set sail on a darkened ocean" (a far cry from Heinrich Heine's Matratzengruft or "mattress-grave").

A morbid fear of illness often conceals a fear of death. "A Hypochondriack fancies himself at different times suffering death in all the various ways in which it has been observed," wrote James Boswell, "and thus he dies many times before his death." An exception to this is Alice James (Henry James's sister), who was perversely happy at being told she had breast cancer because her "career as an invalid" had reached its apotheosis.

Dillon quotes from a 17th-century thesis which observes that hypochondriacs can suffer spasms as a result of "sudden Outcry, or the very opening of a Door". When Andy Warhol's silver wig was snatched from his head at a book signing, he complained that "It hurt. Physically." A more extreme example is Gould's response to being patted on the shoulder by a Steinway employee in 1959. He recoiled, muttering: "Don't do that; I don't like to be touched," and later claimed that this incident had resulted in a problem with his left hand. It was the excuse he needed to withdraw from public performances, and his recording studio, like Proust's bedroom, became a refuge, "a technological cocoon that finally satisfied his urge to separate himself physically from his public".

Warhol's obsession with his red nose is reminiscent of another of Freud's famous patients, the so-called Wolf Man, who became convinced that his nose had been disfigured by electrolysis. The problem that hypochondriacs wrestle with on a daily basis, according to Dillon, is the imperfectability of the body. They unreasonably expect their bodies to be perfect (and in Warhol's case, unattainably beautiful) and are disturbed when they don't match this ideal. "The hypochondriac's historical mistake is to imagine a condition of bodily being that is physically and psychically null or neutral, a state of simultaneous (therefore impossible) vigour and inertia." They seek the achieved body, but our bodies are dynamic systems susceptible to decay.

Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944–1945, by William I Hitchcock

“It was rather a shock to find that we were not welcomed ecstatically as ‘Liberators’ by the people,” wrote a British corporal in his wartime diary. “They saw us as bringers of destruction and pain.” Other soldiers also found the French peasants “sullen and silent”, and in this important but provocative book William I Hitchcock has given himself the difficult task of looking at the last year of the war in Europe from the point of view of the civilians whose cities were bombed or loved ones were killed in the name of liberation. Nazi brutality cannot be denied, he says, but the “harvest of innocent life by the liberators” also needs to be addressed, along with “the indeterminate nature of liberation, its paradoxical joys and miseries”. Liberation is a useful antidote to the usual triumphalist narrative of grateful citizens cheering on our boys. Similarly, Hitchcock shows how Allied soldiers were disgusted and repulsed by the “ape-like gibbering skeletons” they liberated from the death camps, and could not relate to them as fellow human beings.

For Love and Courage: Letters Home from the Western Front 1914–1917, by Lieutenant Colonel EW Hermon, edited by Anne Nason

Edward William Hermon (1878–1917) wrote some 600 letters to his wife in the two years before his death at the Battle of Arras. This well-edited selection begins in 1914, with Hermon looking forward to “the game” or “the show”, and pausing during nights of calm to write words of heartfelt love. He still manages to get letters and newspapers in the trenches, but early on he is most preoccupied by food parcels: tea, jam, Oxo, Bovril and “Gentleman’s Joy”. It is quintessentially English (“After tea the Germans had the lip to start shelling us”), the quaint language (“what ho!”, “capital”, “top-hole”) evoking a lost era. While he cannot conceal his joy at mixing with fellow officers who know about hounds and hunting, Hermon has a high regard for his men, and is surprised to find them sharing their rum, cigarettes and even breakfast with German POWs. His loving good-humour cannot survive the constant noise and squalor, however, and his last letters are tense and weary. It’s a touching record of one man’s experience of war.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

It's a myth that the Romantic poets were fundamentally anti-scientific; they were more usually inspired by the scientific discoveries of their day, argues Richard Holmes in this magnificent group biography. It makes no sense to talk of romantic subjectivity versus scientific objectivity in an age when scientists were poets, and poets were well-versed in science. Wordsworth might have accused scientists of murdering to dissect, but he also envisaged Newton as "a Mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone", thereby contributing to the romantic image of the scientific genius. Keats might have grumbled about Newton reducing the rainbow to a prism, but he also celebrated William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer". An accomplished biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes is the perfect guide to the "second scientific revolution" (the phrase is Coleridge's) at the end of the 18th century, when artists and scientists were united by their capacity to wonder.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bugs and the Victorians by JFM Clark

Insects have antennae, powerful mandibles, six legs and, sometimes, wings. Science fiction writers often turn to them for inspiration, from the lifecycle of Ridley Scott's alien to the Tritovores and Vespiforms in Doctor Who; and, as JFM Clark explains in Bugs and the Victorians, it was the "utterly alien morphology" of insects that fascinated 19th-century naturalists. The very lack of any point of analogical comparison to humans enthralled these early entomologists, many of them closet atheists seeking to challenge Christianity's anthropocentric worldview. Men such as Raphael Meldola ("Darwin's entomological bulldog") openly discussed the theory of natural selection at a time when other professions remained more circumspect.
But if weird, freakish insects don't obviously resemble us physically, the behaviour of the so-called "social" insects (all termites and ants, some wasps and bees) has for long been regarded as instructive and, indeed, exemplary. Virgil, Horace and Pliny all sought analogues for human social organisation in the insect world, presenting ant nests and beehives as model societies. In Victorian Britain it was especially apposite to talk of a "queen" bee, one 19th-century apiarist even observing "the Tory loyalty of all her subjects". More offensive than the idea of Tory bees was the use of ants as a justification for slavery. "I found the rare Slave-making Ant," wrote an excited Charles Darwin to a friend, "& saw the little black niggers in their Master's nests." As Clark points out, Darwin supported the anti-slavery movement, but the idea that a species of black ant was enslaved by another titillated the Victorian imagination. "More notice has been taken about slave-ants in The Origin than of any other passage," Darwin ruefully observed.

Entomologists were regarded as harmless amateurs by their peers, says Clark, but their moment of glory came during the days of the British empire, when insects became public enemy number one. Once the link between mosquitoes and disease was understood, entomologists were granted greater respect, and were called upon to draw up taxonomies of "the mosquitoes of empire". Just as reviled as the mosquito was the humble house fly ("NOW IS THE TIME TO STRIKE THE FLY" declared one Victorian poster), which brought diarrhoea and typhoid at home, and decimated armies abroad (in "The Defence of Lucknow" Tennyson included the "infinite torment of flies" in his harrowing list of what a soldier suffers). Identification of the house fly with the wartime enemy was complete when for a period they were known as "winged Huns". When the entomologist Harold Maxwell Lefroy – scourge of the house fly and founder of Rentokil – choked to death on a gas insecticide of his own invention, his last words were: "The little beggars got the best of me this time!"

If insects are still too disconcertingly non-human to be loved by everyone, entomologists themselves have not wholly escaped suspicion. Clark cites one case in which a passion for butterfly collecting was regarded as an obvious sign of lunacy. He also observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes his villain an entomologist in The Hound of the Baskervilles, although he neglects to mention that Sherlock Holmes in retirement took up beekeeping and even wrote a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. We may never completely overcome our entomophobia – epitomised in films such as Them! and The Swarm – but this intelligent and enlightening book shows just how much insects can teach us about ourselves.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Monsters: History's Most Evil Men and Women by Simon Sebag Montefiore

At first glance this roll-call of despicable people seems an odd project for a historian of Montefiore's standing, but it's a companion volume to his Heroes (2007). The preface takes a high-minded, lest-we-forget tone, but in presenting us with 101 mass murderers and serial killers Montefiore is really catering to our appalled fascination with evil. Wikipedia-style potted biographies are interspersed with idiosyncratic sidebars on loosely related subjects such as voodoo, kleptocracies, psychological profiling and, er, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Expect all the usual suspects - Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Torquemada, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin - the 20th century contributing by far the most nasties. Montefiore even brings us bang up to date with Mugabe, Saddam, Milosevic and Bin Laden. Some of the lesser-known monsters have wonderful names: Basil the Bulgar Slayer, Godfrey of Bouillon, Pedro the Cruel and Selim the Grim. It's grim stuff, sure enough, and if on a one-night stand you spot it on the bedside table, get out of there immediately.

The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster by Richard J Evans

This is not a book about the second world war or the Holocaust, but about a specific regime created in Germany by Hitler and his National Socialists. Having charted its rise in The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), and revealed how it took control of the German psyche in The Third Reich in Power (2005), Evans now completes his impressive trilogy by showing how Hitler's imperialist ambitions saw the Third Reich evolve into "The Great German Reich", starting with the invasion of Poland in 1939. For Evans, 1943 is the crucial year when devastating allied air raids turned ordinary Germans against Hitler's regime. A minority, such as the White Rose resistance movement, stood up to Nazism, while Evans observes that "the majority of Germans felt uneasy [sic] at the mass murder of Jews and Slavs, and guilty that they were too afraid to do anything to stop it". The history of the Third Reich, he argues, shows us "the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us".

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1 September 2009

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

and darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

W. H. Auden, '1 September 1939'

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts's publisher agreed to this history of the second world war provided that the author found out something new, and he has indeed unearthed a couple of nuggets of overlooked evidence at the Ian Sayer Archive, Britain's largest private archive of unpublished second world war material.

The first, with which this book begins, is a tetchy note to Hitler from the head of the army, General Werner von Blomberg, reminding him of their secret pact to secure his claim to power. As Roberts reveals, Hitler swiftly disposed of this irritant and seized control of the army. The Nazis were adept at smear campaigns, and Blomberg was forced to resign when it was revealed that his wife had posed for pornographic photographs.

"I shall never understand why the German army did not finish the British army at Dunkirk," Churchill observed. Hitler could have captured more than a quarter of a million prisoners of war and held the British government to ransom, but instead he ordered his panzers to halt outside Dunkirk. It is thought that perhaps the Führer hoped to make peace with Britain, but Roberts has found a handwritten note from Hitler's operations chief, Alfred Jodl, suggesting that the Nazis never wavered in their determination to destroy the allied army.

Hitler's halt order was his first strategic blunder, says Roberts, but as this impressive history reveals, it would not be his last. The big question Roberts asks is whether or not Hitler's Nazism was responsible for his downfall. The unsurprising answer is yes: "Hitler's antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust, was central to his Nazism but it did nothing to aid Germany's chances of winning the war, and possibly a good deal to retard them."

The surprise success of his blitzkrieg aside, Hitler's military incompetence is everywhere attested to, especially his willingness to trust his "gambler's instinct" rather than actually consult a map. If Hitler hadn't taken control of Germany's armed forces he might have won the war, but if invading Russia was his greatest error (an ill-fated plan "buried so deep within the Nazi DNA that it could not be stopped", Roberts writes), then his second major gaffe was underestimating America.

Roberts has been something of a hit in the US. His A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 resulted in an invitation to the White House in 2007, and one critic dubbed him "the fawning court historian of the Bush administration". Roberts doesn't make it easy to like him. A devout Thatcherite, unwavering in his support for the Iraq war, he blames President Clinton (not the laissez-faire economics of Thatcher and Reagan) for the global credit crisis (and for the rise of al-Qaida), while a lecture at the Springbok Club earned him the accusation of being a white supremacist.

Fortunately, that Andrew Roberts is not in evidence here. The Storm of War is a great achievement, an immensely readable, nicely paced feat of historical condensation. There is an enormous amount of material to organise, and one cannot be an expert on all fronts, so this book naturally owes a debt to other historians. Ian Kershaw, Antony Beevor and many more have all been absorbed. It's a conservative history, and Roberts is proud of "Last Hope Island" as he calls Britain, but for a man who almost seems to model himself on Churchill, he is not uncritical of our wartime leader.

Nor is Roberts dewy-eyed about US-British relations. "There was nothing inevitable about the wartime alliance between America and Britain," he says. "There had been much rivalry between Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, exacerbated by ignorant stereotyping on both sides."

He even quotes a former US military attaché to London as saying, "The English feel about us just the way we feel about a prosperous nigger." His American admirers will not enjoy having the US army's record of raping civilian women compared to that of the Red Army, even if Roberts concedes that the Russians were the more determined violators. He also exposes racism in the US army, observing that 79 per cent of those executed for rape were black, when blacks made up only 8.5 per cent of the US army in Europe.

America's crucial contribution to the war is not overlooked, but Russia's self-sacrifice and heroism is ultimately the dominant theme. "It was the Russians who provided the oceans of blood necessary to defeat Germany," he writes. "At the heart of the Second World War lies a giant and abiding paradox: although the western war was fought in defence of civilisation and democracy ... the chief victor was a dictator who was as psychologically warped and capable of evil as Adolf Hitler."

The second world war claimed the lives of 50 million people. That's six killed every minute for six years, says Roberts. The methods by which they died - the gas chambers, being rounded up and shot, being beheaded by the Japanese navy - turn the stomach. His chapter on the Holocaust is measured and compassionate, and there are plentiful asides on the human cost of war.

Roberts is also dismissive of Hitler apologists such as David Irving, and this excellent one-volume history of the war stands as a principled rebuttal to their claims that Hitler was in any way a genius.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition, by Richard Holloway

Sex and violence are primal forces in nature, and in this well-intentioned book the former Bishop of Edinburgh wants us to contemplate how these forces have used us in our own lives. There’s a strong feminist slant courtesy of Andrea Dworkin, and rather too much WH Auden, so with its mix of poetry, fiction and philosophy it’s a bit like Radio 4’s Something Understood. There’s a touch of trendy vicar (God is a bit like a radio broadcast), but the serious message is that cruel people lack imagination and don’t empathise with the suffering of their victims. A capacity to feel is our salvation, says the ex-bishop, although he cannot offer us heaven, just a nicer planet. Religious myths still have worth because they elicit our pity, especially the crucifixion story. Yes, religion can make us violent, but so can football, nationalism and politics. Perhaps this slim volume will encourage some of us to act in a more saintly manner, although the sort of monsters he describes are unlikely to pick it up.

The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, by Justin Marozzi

Historians tend to be a bit snooty about Herodotus, just because he hammed it up a little to keep his audience entertained with tales of dog-headed men, gold-digging ants and flying snakes. Cicero dubbed him the “Father of History”, for which historians ought to be grateful, says Justin Marozzi, even if Plutarch later called him the “Father of Lies”. What Marozzi most admires about Herodotus is his “life-grabbing energy”, which he shares. On his travels through Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Greece clutching his copy of the Histories, his enthusiasm is everywhere apparent. He even occasionally cries “Eureka!” – once when the semi-legendary Patrick Leigh Fermor invites him to lunch at Kardamyli, and again when he finally tracks down his lost Moleskine notebook at the feet of a statue of Pythagoras. We never really learn from history, says Marozzi, although in wartorn Iraq he observes how one of Herodotus’ favourite literary devices in the Histories is the wise adviser, popping up regularly to counsel against war (“Haste is the mother of failure,” etc.). Every leader needs one.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey through Asian Britain by Ziauddin Sardar

The balti was invented in Birmingham by Pakistani and Kashmiri restaurateurs to appeal to the tastebuds of their white customers, but it is now an authentic dish in its own right. So too, argues Ziauddin Sardar in this thoughtful study, British Asians have had their distinct identities formed in Britain. Unpacking the "British Asian experience" is a mind-boggling business, and Sardar does justice to its complexities, albeit with a post-7/7, British Muslim emphasis. Asia is a vast continent ("The generic Asian exists only in the mind of Anglo-Saxon folk," observes one wry academic), so the term "British Asian" only serves to obscure multiple ethnicities. The quest at the heart of this book is to find identity within difference. While some on the right call for forced integration, Sardar more elegantly slips into the role of disciple at the feet of Lord Bhikhu Parekh, whose redefinition of multiculturalism makes one wish everyone possessed his calm logicality. In sum, there is no static, fixed Britain, but a dynamic, never-ending process of becoming-Britain.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

Earlier this year, the American columnist Amity Shlaes wrote an article for Bloomberg.com under the heading "Cheering for Obama stimulus buys into 1930s myth", and it's hard not to see this revisionist history as a sideswipe at the Obama administration's efforts to tackle the recession. The myth Shlaes proposes to bust is that government intervention dug America out of the great depression. In fact, she argues, Obama's - sorry - FDR's Soviet-inspired, New Deal philosophy of redistribution and state control actually prolonged the depression through over-regulation and punitive taxation (her previous book was called The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It). FDR should have trusted in the market to right itself, she argues, while she eulogises the forgotten men (or small businessmen): those rugged individualists who funded FDR's government activism but were scapegoated by him for their trouble. The Forgotten Man was a bestseller in America, although Shlaes has been accused of being economical with the economic facts.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harry Patch (1898–2009) i.m.

So farewell, then, Harry Patch . . . Thus far, I have yet to see or hear a news report that mentions what Mr Patch really thought about war.

"I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves," he said in The Last Fighting Tommy, "instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder."

Sentiments the Prime Minister and the royal family oddly ignored in their TV tributes.

Here's my review of The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, the Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Trenches from June last year.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, by Jonathan Steele

What if the US had withdrawn from Iraq a year after invading? asks Steele. There would have been no armed insurgency, he argues; Iraq's political class would have formed a real - not a puppet - government, and countless lives would have been saved. Occupiers are always unwelcome, and while reporting from Iraq between 2003 and 2008 for this newspaper, Steele watched a gulf open up between Iraqis and the occupation forces. This excellent book explains why, filling in a back-history of smouldering resentment towards foreign invaders that the White House and Downing Street stubbornly ignored. "If an inquiry into the quality of the British government's pre-war analysis is ever held," he writes, "the results of my interviews with senior officials suggest it will uncover grave lapses, both at expert level and by the prime minister and his staff." Tony Blair's "blithe self-confidence" is everywhere attested to - "a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour". At the Iraq inquiry, let's hope he testifies under oath and in public.

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris

There was a time when revisionist historian Benny Morris was unemployable because of his supposed pro-Palestinian bias. Now he is a professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, and last year this book won the National Jewish book award. What happened? In part, Morris and other New Historians reshaped Israelis' understanding of their past. But Morris has changed, too, and today he is a disappointed liberal Zionist. In this impressive military history, written with admirable clarity, he remains sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs expelled from their homeland, but adopts a harsher tone towards political Islam - what he calls "the jihadi impulse" underlying Arab hostility towards Jews and Zionism, a religious intolerance, signs of which he detects in 1948. The first Arab-Israeli war was not simply a nationalist war over territory but a war of religion, he now claims. Consequently, he is bleak about any possibility of reconciliation for as long as the Arab world remains unstable, oscillating "between culturally self-effacing westernisation and religious fundamentalism".

Friday, July 17, 2009

Good news everyone

I am pleased to announce that I have received the Arthur Welton Award to assist materially in the composition of my third poetry collection.

OK, so my first two collections have yet to be published, but I’m grateful to the Arthur Welton Foundation – and the Society of Authors – for this act of faith.

Wealthy benefactors can make donations to the Foundation here.

I also have a long poem in PN Review 188 – out now, I think.

The image above is the obverse of a Chinese poem coin, btw, the four-character inscription of which means "good fortune, emolument (official salary), longevity and happiness".

Saturday, July 11, 2009

We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars, by Martin Pugh

The British left was out of power for most of the period covered by this book -- 1918 to 1939 -- but as Martin Pugh points out, it dominated the literary and cultural scene, with works such as George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier shaping our perception of the era. Yet as this revisionist history shows, it wasn't all doom and gloom (provided you didn't work in industry or agriculture). Many people saw their disposable income rise, and during the interwar period we became a nation of "obsessive consumers". Orwell described the age as "restless", and so is Pugh as he examines in detail every aspect of the times, public and private. It's an impressive performance. This was an era in which women had more freedom than ever before, although divorce was difficult and infidelity indulged ("Men get these attacks like kiddies get measles," advised Woman's Own). The first world war politicised people and, quietly, in the wings, the main political trend of the time was the rise of the Labour party, preparing the way for the electoral landslide of 1945.

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe, by Timothy Snyder

In the interwar years Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg (1895-1947), the subject of this biography, frequented homosexual brothels in Paris, having lost his dream of becoming king of Ukraine with that nation's dissolution in 1921. This is an engaging portrait of a little-known and puzzling character. Wilhelm was a "cosmopolitan fascist" (before Nazism made a blood cult of nationalism), but also a "monarchist of the left", adopting the hammer and sickle emblem and confusing everyone by promising much the same as the Bolsheviks. Ukrainians seem to have genuinely loved their dashing Red Prince, who wore a peasant shirt under his uniform. Snyder, who has a talent for startling observations ("Every national revolution, like every bout of lovemaking, owes something to the one that came before"), tells the story of how a seemingly timeless European dynasty sought an accommodation with the rising tide of nationalism, and lost, while reminding us that monarchy was once a serious rival to totalitarianism. Wilhelm was eventually captured and died in a Soviet prison.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

This is Paul Theroux's contribution to what he calls "the literature of revisitation", his own prose version of "Tintern Abbey" or "The Wild Swans at Coole", as he recreates the journey he took by train from London to central Asia in 1973 (as recounted in his bestselling book The Great Railway Bazaar). Travelling makes him feel like a ghost, he says, and "memory is a ghost train". Written in his characteristic aphoristic prose, Ghost Train is an enjoyable read, a meditation on ageing and change. The young Theroux regarded the world as his immutable playground, but this time around he encounters "an undependable world that was visibly spoiled" (although the now-famous Theroux does get to call in on Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami and Arthur C Clarke). Ghost Train has an elegiac tone, as Theroux proves the truth of Heraclitus's dictum that nothing is permanent but change. Young people are boring and deluded and shallow, he concludes, whereas "only the old can really see how badly the world is ageing and all that we've lost".

Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy

"What's it all for?", Marcus du Sautoy was asked by a promising student who had decided to abandon higher mathematics to work in the City. This, and his impending 40th birthday, plunged him into a mild existential crisis. Why had he spent his life studying group theory and the problem of symmetry? Finding Moonshine answers that question. He once revelled in the unworldly nature of his subject, but now feels impelled to emphasise its relevance to our understanding of nature. The "non-mathematically sensitive" should probably avoid his discussion of the Monster (a huge symmetrical object first constructed in 1980) and moonshine (a modular function) - especially his mindbending observation that you can "see the moonshine glinting on the Monster" - and instead head for discussions of maths in music (Bach, Mozart, Xenakis). Maths is a "tribal" subject, Du Sautoy writes, and we are introduced to some eccentric members, one of whom hates being touched and mumbles "ooze" under his breath until he has cracked a problem.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife, by Brenda Maddox

Why do we still refer to Marian Evans as George Eliot? After all, the Brontë sisters have long since ceased to be known as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and contemporaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau proved that being female was no impediment to literary success. The short answer is that Evans wanted it that way. But as Brenda Maddox points out in this lively biography, the irrationality of maintaining a male pseudonym was obvious even in her lifetime. So why did she and her common-law "husband" GH Lewes strive "to keep up the fiction of George Eliot's maleness"?

Because, as Maddox explains, around the time when she first chose the pseudonym (inspired by the example of George Sand), Marian was living with Lewes, a married man, and had been ostracised from society, losing all her female friends. It was not her gender that she worried might harm sales of her books, but her reputation as a "fallen" woman. "The word for such a woman was unprintable," Maddox says, and indeed gossiping letter writers described the notorious Marian Evans as "a -----". She has successfully effaced herself ever since.

And what about that face? "I have no photograph of myself, having always avoided having one taken," she lied to her many fans. She was famously unattractive, and people were openly cruel about her appearance, which contributed to her lack of self-confidence. As she observed in Middlemarch: "We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us." Henry James called her a "great horse-faced bluestocking", but he also noted that "in that vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind so that you end as I ended, falling in love with her". There was something about Marian. The man she finally married, John Cross, 20 years her junior, jumped into Venice's Grand Canal on their honeymoon to escape consummating their marriage. Yet he remained her most devoted disciple and, when the 61-year-old novelist died six months later, he became her first biographer.

Some will find Maddox's interest in Marian's sex life unseemly; others will be offended by her thesis that Marian was transformed into a great novelist through the love of a good man. Others will deprecate her interest throughout in just how much cash the George Eliot brand generated: in one year alone, The Mill on the Floss brought in £271,000 in today's money. Maddox's analysis of the novels is minimal. Instead, she focuses on Marian Evans, the great woman behind George Eliot, a woman who learned to relish the role society forced on her of, in her words, "heathen and outlaw". For not only was Marian Evans the "first great godless writer of fiction" in England (as one contemporary put it), but she was also "a -----".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday One and All!

"Miss Dunne clicked on the
-- 16 June 1904."
Ulysses ("Wandering Rocks")

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Semi-Invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis by Julian Evans

Semi-invisible because he "was absolutely dead against publicity" - a risky tactic that might have worked for JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon but sadly backfired for Norman Lewis (1908-2003). Yet Graham Greene once described him as "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century". Though he wrote novels, he is best known for his travel books, such as A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China, Naples '44 and Voices of the Old Sea. In this authorised biography, Julian Evans, Lewis's friend and editor, compares the author's diaries and notebooks with the writing to show how he often embellished the truth - a process of "creative recollection". This is an erudite, slightly self-conscious biography by a man who feels the weight of his responsibilities, so you might want to discover the writer himself before tackling this well-written and exhaustive life. Lewis, a restless, randy character, never lost his contempt for his native Enfield, and brilliantly personified what Baudelaire called la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage.

Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China by Simon Winchester

There's a certain intimidating grandeur about a book that takes a lifetime to write. Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China occupies 24 volumes - the first appeared in 1954 and more are planned, even though he died in 1995 - and he typed it all with only two fingers. Simon Winchester's account of how this magnum opus came into being (no one volume should be "too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath", Needham reasonably maintained) is just as enjoyable a read as the remarkable tale of how a married Cambridge academic's affair with a young Chinese woman in 1937 diverted him from studying biochemistry to chronicling China's 5,000-year history of invention and innovation. The Chinese, it seems, invented almost everything before us, yet despite Needham's tireless research, sinologists still don't know why they stopped. Did totalitarianism stifle China's inventors and entrepreneurs? The story of Needham's eccentric life - not least how he became persona non grata in the US - is gripping stuff, even if we are never likely to open his life's work.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Letter to D: A Love Story by André Gorz, translated by Julie Rose

In this short book (a surprise bestseller in France in 2006) the social philosopher André Gorz declares his love for his wife Dorine, while also outlining his own intellectual trajectory, from his critique of capitalist society to his work in political ecology. It was love at first sight when Gorz and Dorine met in Paris in 1947: he an Austrian Jew, she an English rose. They married in 1949 and she encouraged him while he laboured for six years writing a long manuscript that not even his friend Jean-Paul Sartre could get published. “Your life is writing,” said Dorine, encouragingly. “So, write.”

In Letter to D. Gorz wants to extract the “poison” from his previous depiction of Dorine in his first published work, The Traitor (1957), where she is “mutilated, totally misrepresented, humiliated”. That book was supposed to affirm the transformative power of love, but actually represented love as a weakness. Gorz portrayed Dorine as needing him more than he needed her, whereas the reverse was true. To set the record straight, the fragile, clingy girl of The Traitor is replaced here by an intelligent, vivacious woman on whom he is totally dependent: “You opened up the richness of life for me and I loved life through you.”

Now that they are both in their eighties, Gorz feels that he hasn’t properly lived his life, having developed only one side of himself – his intellect – whereas Dorine has “blossomed and grown in every dimension”. In 1973 she was diagnosed with a degenerative disease and Gorz applauds her principled refusal of aggressive “medical technoscience”, preferring yoga and alternative medicine. “Only one thing was essential to me: to be with you,” he writes, and he has no desire to be present at her funeral. The book’s conclusion – knowing that a year later Gorz and Dorine committed suicide together – is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh

The stated aim of this impressive history is "to demystify and deglamorise terrorist operations". Michael Burleigh sets out to belittle terrorists as "morally insane", attention-seeking, resentful nobodies (Osama bin Laden, for instance, is "a millionaire loser harbouring delusions of victimhood"). His compelling account of various strands of terrorism - from Russian nihilists to the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang - ends with the emergence of al-Qaida. Here, Burleigh really warms to his theme, lashing out at asylum seekers, Britain's lax judicial system, credulous left-liberals, multiculturalism, human rights lawyers and the London School of Economics. The conclusion he would like us to draw is that modern Britain is a ticking time bomb. There is undoubtedly an unsavoury Daily Mailishness about many of Burleigh's asides (he describes himself as a "conservative realist"), yet while analysing the mindset of the terrorist over the past 100 years, Burleigh has also exposed the mindset of Middle England today.

A Daughter's Love by John Guy

If it hadn't been for his eldest daughter Margaret, Sir Thomas More - author of Utopia, uncompromising lord chancellor, and Catholic saint - would have been "just another footnote in history", claims John Guy in this gripping double biography. It was Margaret who published More's collected works; she even rescued his boiled and tarred head (and was buried with it when she died in 1544). When More was imprisoned in the Tower prior to his execution, Margaret was his main channel of communication with the outside world. Guy shows how she comforted More in those dark times, and their clandestine correspondence is moving, some of More's letters written "with a coal". Guy maintains that More's fictionalised dialogue with his daughter - composed while he was in the Tower - was in fact a collaborative effort. After all, the Margaret Roper presented here is a courageous, highly intelligent, enterprising and accomplished scholar, despite her proud father's uneasiness about - and sometimes zealous opposition to - the idea of a woman putting pen to paper

Friday, May 22, 2009

Save Salt

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Here’s Chris Hamilton-Emery’s message:

“As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three-year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business. Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.

Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store [UK and International/USA] and help us keep going.”

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped The World by William Bernstein

Primates share food, but only Homo sapiens trades, William Bernstein says in this fascinating and well-written history. We merely traded blows with the Neanderthals, but after that we quickly grasped the concept of handing over something we had a surplus of in return for something we lacked. Early farmers, for instance, gave grain to hunter-gatherers in exchange for animal skins. And when you're used to hot and heavy animal skins or scratchy wool, just imagine how wonderful silk must have felt, Bernstein explains. He shows how trade has adapted to shifting tastes over the centuries, bringing consumers silk and spices, sugar and tea, but also opium, tobacco and slavery. And because trade requires control of shipping lanes it has also been a constant source of conflict and war. Plus it gave us the Black Death. In fact, trade always makes someone unhappy, concludes Bernstein. "Although free trade benefits mankind in the aggregate, it also produces losers who cannot be expected to passively accept the new order." He predicts crises ahead.

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews's Russian grandfather Boris, a senior Communist party member, got on the wrong side of Stalin and was executed in 1937. Boris's wife was imprisoned for 11 years. In this bittersweet family memoir, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian first book award, Matthews tells their story. He also reveals what happened to their daughter, his mother Lyudmila, who was only four when her parents disappeared. A robust, intelligent woman (who sensibly prefers Daniil Kharms to that "incorrigible show-off" Vladimir Nabokov), Lyudmila fell in love with Welshman Mervyn Matthews in Moscow in 1963. When he was suddenly deported they were separated for six years, during which time they exchanged daily letters of love and longing. With hindsight, it was the happiest period in their relationship. Mervyn sacrificed a successful academic career in his battle for Lyudmila's emigration to the west, but when he finally succeeded and they married in 1969, the romance faded. "I thought I would be deliriously happy when I got her out," he told his son, "but I wasn't."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry by Stephen Burt

Anyone familiar with Stephen Burt’s reviews in the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books will know that he is one of the best poetry critics around. This excellent essay collection from Graywolf Press doesn’t disappoint and is highly recommended. There’s no index, sadly, but you can’t have everything. Anyone interested in getting to grips with modern poetry – especially American poetry – should get hold of a copy.
You can read the book's “sheepish introduction” here and Stephen Burt also has a blog.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Is it harder for a writer to face death than for anyone else? If writing is a means of evading mortality, then do all writers cry out in the night, as Julian Barnes has described, at the prospect of their inevitable dissolution? The main theme of this raw and personal account of Susan Sontag's death in December 2004, written by her son, is that "she died as she had lived: unreconciled to mortality". As David Rieff points out, his mother's fierce desire for more time to write was a major factor in her refusal of death. This finely nuanced meditation on "the brute fact of mortality" perfectly captures the oddly disembodied experience of receiving bad news, as well as confused feelings of filial gratitude and guilt. When a parent dies there is always something left unsaid or undone, as Sontag's last words to her son would seem to testify: "I want to tell you ..." Burdened with the choice of where to bury her, Rieff wisely opted for Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, "the most literary of cemeteries".

Hitler's Empire : Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe by Mark Mazower

It was always a source of puzzlement to the Nazis why the British didn't support their imperial ambitions. After all, as Mark Mazower reveals in this impressive history, the British empire was held up as a model by the Nazis. "Hitler's reading of how the British ruled India showed that what counted for him at bottom was force," says Mazower, adding that "a stance of such crudity was not unknown among the British themselves". Mazower also detects similarities between the "racial authoritarianism" of European colonial administrations of the past and Nazi treatment of the Untermenschen. However, Mazower's greatest achievement is to show how the Nazi project, which ended in a programme of racial extermination, began as an expression of narrowly defined nationalist ambitions. As he puts it, how a war for Germans became a war against Jews; how the concept of a Greater Germany evolved into Hitler's policy of Lebensraum, then was hastily recast - after a run of military successes that surprised even the Nazis - as a plan for a whole New Order for Europe.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Field Guide to Melancholy by Jacky Bowring

Melancholy, said Wordsworth, is a "luxurious gloom of choice". Unlike depression, we choose to be melancholy, paradoxically deriving pleasure from feeling faintly sad. "Melancholy slows things, allows for percolation, facilitates solitude and solace for imagination," says Jacky Bowring in this dispassionate defence of the malady, madness, affectation - melancholy has been called many things over the centuries, but somehow eludes definition.
It is not strictly grief or sorrow or mourning, explains Bowring, but a complex constellation of moods. In modern times, psychiatrists have diagnosed it as "abnormal bereavement" or "psychotic depression", inelegant solutions for something that Bowring seeks to reclaim as "a rich dimension of human existence".

She is an advocate of melancholy, convinced of "the benefits of the pursuit of sadness". She rejects the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing by health professionals and sidesteps concerns about a global increase in mental illness by insisting that melancholy is not depression. Only once does she ask the pertinent question: "Is the increase in melancholy an authentic response to the pressures of contemporary existence, where it might be considered a pervasive mood?" Could it be that the politics of fear creates a media-induced state of national melancholy? And if so, to what end? Bowring mentions several philosophers, but a notable omission is Spinoza, who regarded melancholy as evil, because it reduces our power to act.

Is melancholy a sickness of the west, something we bequeathed to the rest of the world, like smallpox? Not at all, says Bowring, who reveals that melancholy is universal. Alongside the more familiar ennui of the French and Weltschmerz of the Germans, she looks at the Chinese bei qiu, the Japanese kanashii, the Portuguese saudade, the Russian toska, the Spanish duende and the Turkish hüzün. It appears that every culture knows what melancholy means, even if it's hard to pin down in any one language.

In the arts, it would seem, melancholy reigns supreme. Thanks in large part to the legacy of late romanticism, a questionable connection between melancholy and literary genius continues to this day. It became a feigned literary affectation as early as the 16th century. "Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir, your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir," says Jonson's amateur poet in Every Man in His Humour. "I am melancholy myself divers times, sir, and then do I no more but take your pen and paper presently, and overflow you your half a score, or a dozen of sonnets, at a sitting."

In film, Bowring singles out Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky as notably melancholy; in art, Edward Hopper, and Rachel Whiteread's Ghost; in popular music, Tom Waits and Nick Cave; in classical music, Hildegard of Bingen, Messiaen and Górecki. She also discusses the highly effective use of decayed film stock in avant-garde movies such as James Elaine's Melancholia and Bill Morrison's Decasia, as well as the unique kind of melancholy evoked by literary works which employ grainy black and white photographs to evoke a mood of loss and yearning, such as André Breton's Nadja and WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.

This thoughtful and sensitive book remains a survey of the scene rather than a definitive study. However, Bowring has succeeded in her aspiration to create something like an Observer's Guide to melancholy. Melancholy assumes many guises, she explains, each anatomised here: religious melancholy, love melancholy, the melancholy of nostalgia or of boredom (acedia), and a whole tradition of "heroic melancholy" of which Batman is a recent exemplar. There is even what Walter Benjamin called "Left melancholy", whereby a leftist with a mournful attachment to a dead idea becomes an in-activist.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson

Think of the worst conflicts of the first world war and you are unlikely to settle upon the 12 battles of the Isonzo, each covered in gory detail in this excellent history. As Thompson observes, "the ratio of blood shed to territory gained was even worse than the Western Front", because the proto-fascist General Luigi Cadorna forced wave upon wave of ill-equipped Italian peasants to advance along the Isonzo valley, only to be mown down by Austrian machine-guns. The Italian campaign ended in defeat, while the postwar settlement soured relations with the Allies sufficiently for the emergence of Mussolini. Thompson's reading of the Italian political scene makes clear how the war discredited democracy and led to the rise of fascism. He also discusses in some detail the poetry of the war, from the "psychotic" fascist propagandist Gabriele D'Annunzio (once hailed by Proust and Joyce as a genius) to the moving war poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti, and the febrile verse of Marinetti, for whom the war was "the most beautiful Futurist poem".

In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming

We all need to affirm our legitimate strangeness, but eccentricity for its own sake is an unedifying spectacle. Genuine eccentrics are unaware of their condition; the remainder desperately seek eccentricity. For every truly inspired English eccentric like Sir Isaac Newton or Henry Cavendish there's another who dresses as a baked bean or has a hedge shaped like a whale. England is famous for its eccentrics, says Hemming, who unearths several from our distant past, such as Cull Billy and the Green Man of Brighton, but we live in an era of meddling officiousness and today the great English eccentric is in danger of becoming an endangered species. Hemming keeps up a stream of comic patter, dropping in quotes from Hazlitt, Orwell and, er, Paxman along the way, but somehow his interviews with various English eccentrics, including Chris Eubank, Vivienne Westwood and Pete Doherty, only serve to dampen one's enthusiasm for the type. Are English eccentrics so great? After all, the French have the Marquis de Sade and surrealism; we have the Marquess of Bath and Edith Sitwell.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Jack Spicer heard voices. “The poet is a radio,” he declared in one of his late poems, picking up transmissions from some “thing from Outside”, which he sometimes called a ghost or even a Martian. Often these voices were sinister and threatening, as in the poem “Magic”, which begins, “Strange, I had words for dinner,” and ends “Stranger, I had bones for dinner.” This in itself picks up on a pun (“Po-etery”) from a previous poem, but it spooked Spicer. “When ‘Magic’ came I was terrified,” he admitted. The voices came best of all when he was drunk. “Giving yourself to poetry,” he announced, “is like giving yourself to alcohol – most people can’t or are afraid. I’ve given myself to both.” Before he died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 40 in 1965, his last words to his friend Robin Blaser were: “My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.”

Wesleyan University Press have done much to rehabilitate Spicer. They gave us the troubled, unlikable figure that stumbles through Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998) by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, seemingly hell-bent on alienating everyone around him. It is a detailed and compelling portrait that never quite accounts for the humour and charm of the poems. Wesleyan also published the four lectures that Spicer gave shortly before his death as The House That Jack Built (1998), edited by the poet Peter Gizzi. Now Gizzi and Killian have teamed up to produce My Vocabulary Did This to Me, a definitive, one-volume introduction to Spicer’s work. It should ensure that Spicer is once again regarded as a major figure in the post-war San Francisco poetry scene.

Although the early poems are interesting and cast light on Spicer’s later development, it is the San Francisco section of this book, the serial poems beginning with After Lorca (1957), that really matters. Here we see Spicer developing his own unique tone: a halting lyricism, tinged with loneliness and ambivalence towards poetry itself. This mature style is probably best exemplified by the haunting, pessimistic poem that begins the “Thing Language” section of Language (1964).

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

Spicer is also a master of the throwaway opening. “Heros eat soup like anyone else” is how one poem starts, while another begins

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.

Spicer has sometimes been regarded as a satellite of Robert Duncan, his fellow poet in the so-called San Francisco Renaissance. The Spicer-Duncan relationship was painful and provocative, and Spicer has been described as Caliban to Duncan’s more urbane Prospero. Certainly, Spicer knew how to curse, dropping the occasional “Fuck / You” or “Screw you” into his verse. Both were open-form poets, Spicer conceding that Duncan was the better craftsman. Yet he also observed that “Robert became a whore”, because he sought publication and networked. “Damn it all, Robert Duncan, there is only one bordello,” he mocks in “Dover Beach”, a good example of his taste for literary allusions and borrowings.

Spicer was deeply conflicted about making money from poetry (a problem few poets are forced to wrestle with today, admittedly). Fiercely regional, and living most of his life in the Bay Area, he regarded the publicity-seeking Beat poets as enemies on his turf and refused to prostitute his art by selling his small-press published books in the City Lights Bookstore (until the very end of his life, when he was desperate for the cash). “Number one, don’t sell out as a poet,” he insisted in the last of his lectures. My Vocabulary Did This to Me includes the recently discovered poem “Golem” (1962), in which Spicer accuses the Greek poet Pindar of being “a publicity man for some princes”, putting a postmodern spin on the poet’s dilemma

The very words I write
Do not purify. Are fixed in the
language evolved by thousands
of generations of these princes –
used mainly for commerce

Spicer’s mature poems – especially Language (he was a researcher in linguistics at UC Berkeley) and Book of Magazine Verse (1965), which perversely consists of poems composed for magazines that had rejected his poems – proved an important inspiration for a younger generation of Language poets. His work anticipated a new attitude to language as no longer a means of self-expression but a vast, impersonal inherited network of signs that speaks through us. Yet Spicer’s last poems only point the way, emphasising the materiality of language and the loss of the poet’s ego through dictation from Outside; they do not deliberately court unreadability like some Language poetry. Spicer’s verse resists assimilation into the mainstream and is uncompromising, but for all his talk of expunging the ego it remains deeply personal. As Gizzi and Killian point out in their introduction, Spicer was interested in “the blurring of letters and poems”, a poetics of “correspondence”, and many of his poems take the form of urgent and arresting arguments with lovers, ex-lovers and friends. A Spicer poem often begins with a lyrical statement and ends in anger, as if reflecting his own yearning for conversation and a companionship that never comes or never stays for long.

There is an essential melancholy in Spicer’s work. “Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry,” he says in After Lorca, an attitude undoubtedly informed by his sexuality. “Homosexuality is essentially being alone,” he declares in the poem “Three Marxist Essays”. If a poem, to borrow William Carlos Williams’s phrase, is a machine made out of words, and the poet, following Spicer’s lead, is a machine receiving voices from Outside, there would seem to be little space left for human experience. Yet in the poem “Sporting Life” Spicer seems to acknowledge the limitations of his carefully cultivated machine aesthetic, observing that “The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios / don’t develop scar tissue.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chasing the Flame : Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power

With his tailored suits and tanned good looks, Sergio Vieira de Mello was sometimes compared to James Bond, but a Bond steeped in Sartre. Studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, he was beaten by riot police during les évènements. He joined the UN in 1969, immersing himself in war zones in Cambodia, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. This Pulitzer prize-winning biography leaves one in no doubt as to his bravery and dedication. Yet as Samantha Power makes clear, he was also willing to compromise with some unsavoury characters if it meant saving lives. He was fiercely anti-American, and it is a testament to his pragmatism that he agreed to leave his elevated position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to become UN envoy to Iraq, especially as America had previously scorned the UN in the run-up to the invasion. In 2003 the 55-year-old diplomat was killed by a massive truck bomb in Baghdad. Could he have made a difference in Iraq? We will never know. As a devastated Kofi Annan observed, "I had only one Sergio."

Arcadia : The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England by Adam Nicolson

At first glance this book looks like an exercise in stately home fetishism as Nicolson (who lives at Sissinghurst Castle) waxes lyrical about the Pembroke estates at Wilton from the 1520s to the 1640s. Yet Nicolson is not wholly in thrall to the English ruling class, and sympathises with the yeomen, husbandmen, labourers and shepherds who led lives of intense hardship, making regular payments to the lord of the manor for the privilege, while the landowning classes pursued fanciful dreams of Arcadia, a lost world of ease and contentment, beauty and bliss. He even reminds us that the trespassing menfolk of Washern were hunted and slain like animals by the 1st Earl of Pembroke in the very park where Sir Philip Sidney later fantasised about Arcadia. Rich in detail and atmosphere, with some lush nature writing, Arcadia is destined to sell well in National Trust bookshops throughout the land, but it is not so much the strict, hierarchical know-your-place conservatism of the Arcadian ideal that fascinates Nicolson as its fragility in the face of an implacable, levelling modernity.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books Received: Odes and Elegies by Friedrich Hölderlin

My main question concerning this new translation (which has been highly praised by Harold Bloom, no less) was: can it be any better than Michael Hamburger's excellent Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics, 1998)?

Comparing the two translations side by side, it seems to me that sometimes Hamburger has the better approach and sometimes Hoff. As is often the case, I found myself wanting a little bit from each translator -- a line here, a line there -- my own remix.

To show you what I mean here's a brief example from Hyperions Schiksaalslied (Hyperion's Song of Fate), the final lines -- which, incidentally, are inexactly quoted in the original German at the end of Samuel Beckett's Watt (Beckett read Hölderlin very carefully):


But we are fated
To find no foothold, no rest,
And suffering mortals
Dwindle and fall
Headlong from one
Hour to the next,
Hurled like water
From ledge to ledge
Downward for years to the vague abyss.


Yet it's our lot
To wander homeless;
Suffering men fade away,
Fall blindly
From one hour to the next,
Like water thrown
Year after year,
From rock to rock,
Down into the great unknown.

Hamburger is a little arch, but "Downward for years to the vague abyss" is a more striking conclusion than "Down into the great unknown". On the other hand, Hoff's "Suffering men fade away" is wonderful. I would suggest we need both translations -- the consciously "poetic" Hamburger and the more modern and spare Hoff -- if we are to get any closer to this important but difficult poet.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan

Look at the booming economies of China, Russia, India and Japan, and despair, thunders Robert Kagan in this studiedly alarmist tract. Francis Fukuyama's declaration of the end of history proved to be post-cold war wishful thinking, he says, and we are now on the verge of a new showdown between rival nation states. Unfortunately for Kagan, the economic engine driving his whole argument has stalled. Every country he identifies as a threat to US dominance has been crippled by the economic crisis, as has America. In fact, many western economists are counting on China's stymied but relatively strong (and less debt-ridden) economy to help kickstart a global recovery. This is very much a pre-crunch, pre-Obama book. Yet for all Kagan's neocon scaremongering, his message that the world's democracies must organise and work together rings true. Market capitalism may be a busted flush, but keeping our hopes for democracy alive - not only in Russia and China, but closer to home - is more important than ever.

Human Smoke : The Beginnnings of World War II, The End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker

All history is selective, but Nicholson Baker's novel (and novelistic) method takes the art of selective quotation to new levels. We are offered chronological vignettes, a paragraph or two, surrounded by white space. It's an indirect way of getting one's argument across, but the episodic nature of this provocative book is cumulatively more powerful than any conventional narrative, as Baker weaves together a mass of quotations from speeches, newspapers, diaries and other sources. Trust a novelist to invent a new way of writing history. Human Smoke is dedicated to those American and British pacifists and humanitarians who failed to prevent what Baker regards as a wholly avoidable war. With the luxury of hindsight, the allies are presented as only marginally less monstrous than the Axis Powers. Baker is not wrong to agree with Hitler's assessment of Churchill as a warmonger, but he is naive to take at face value Hitler's publicly stated desire not to continue the war in July 1940. As Chamberlain discovered to his cost, word and deed rarely coincided where Hitler was concerned.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shaping the Day : A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800 by Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift

Mechanical clocks have ruined our lives. In medieval Europe the first mechanical clocks appeared around 1270; they were not widely available until the 17th century, when an explosion in clock and watch ownership - the so-called horological revolution - changed for ever our perception of time. The remorseless ticking of those treasured timepieces transformed the way we worked, ushering in a new era of rigorous time-discipline and synchronised, soulless routine, almost totally obliterating the seasonal rhythms of a more humane, pre-industrial age. From that moment on we laboured under the tyranny of clock time.

The argument that clock time was the harbinger of industrialisation - enabling the creation of factory production lines and destroying the culture of working life in 18th-century England - was convincingly set out by the historian EP Thompson in his influential paper "Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism" (1968). But as Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift explain in this scrupulously researched study, Thompson was wrong.

Glennie and Thrift refuse to blame mechanical clocks for all the ills of the industrial age. The horological revolution was significant, they admit, but a working knowledge of clock time was a routine part of daily life for ordinary people long before industrialisation. Thompson, they say, seriously underestimates "the publicness of clock time" in late-medieval England, where public clocks loudly emitted their distinctive "time signals" or "soundmarks" throughout the day, telling people to go to work or school or market or church or to attend a public meeting. And at night the curfew bell (9pm in winter, 10pm in summer) told everyone to drink up and go home.

The earliest clocks were alarm clocks, designed to wake monks for nocturnal prayer. Medieval monks used water or mercury clocks at first, but many monasteries had mechanical clocks as early as the 13th century. The counting of hours in a monastery began at dawn, but although this time-discipline was all about God rather than money, it was as standardised and coordinated as in any factory.

Rural communities - so easily idealised - were just as disciplined. There were set times for harvesting, grazing, gleaning and moving livestock, as well as ancient bylaws and regulations using natural markers such as sunrise, noon, sunset and various subtle distinctions of daylight. There was also a well-established working week: 6am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday (Sunday and Monday were the weekend). Another Thompsonian myth busted by Glennie and Thrift is that clock time was a masculine preserve and women had little grasp of it. Women were just as clued up about time as men, generally getting up earlier and going to bed later.

This impressive volume is a massive undertaking - 12 years in the making - examining the entire "temporal infrastructure" of a broad historical period. Glennie and Thrift have delved into the archives, studying timekeeping in diaries, court and inquest records, ocean navigation and a host of other sources to gain a fuller understanding of what time meant to the pre-industrialised masses. Thompson deserves respect as a pioneer in his day, but the wealth of information uncovered by Glennie and Thrift makes his paper look narrow and presumptuous.

The underlying moral of this book would seem to be: don't patronise the past. We should never underestimate our forebears. As well as taking Thompson to task, the authors devote a whole chapter to showing how Dava Sobel, in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, exaggerated the intellectual isolation of the clockmaker John Harrison, who played such a key role in chronometry. Harrison's Lincolnshire was not an almost clock-free environment, as Sobel suggests, and Harrison was in touch with a vast network of horological debate and discovery. The idea of the untrained outsider served Sobel's uses well, argue Glennie and Thrift, but at the risk of ruining a good story it is far from historically accurate.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field

The importance of pies in English culture can never be overestimated, for without pies there would have been no Kit-Cat Club. Publisher Jacob Tonson founded the club in the 1690s, inviting authors and rich patrons to dine on mutton pies at the Cat and Fiddle tavern, owned by pie-maker Christopher "Kit" Cat. As Ophelia Field reveals in this brilliant account of the club's 20-year history, the chit-chat at the Kit-Cat was far from idle. When they weren't toasting beauties, carousing and drinking to excess, the club's members skilfully monopolised literary patronage, while in politics they were instrumental in shifting power away from the monarch and towards parliament. Concentrating on a "literary quintet" that includes Congreve, Addison and Steele, Field shows how the Tatler and the Spectator ridiculed the Tories and successfully promoted a Whig version of Englishness. She also shows how, without Tonson's efforts, Milton's Paradise Lost might never have been accepted into the literary canon.