Reading the age: hominids, women, war and the well of the self
Several years ago, I resolved to write a short response to every book I read. Partly out of respect for the author’s effort, partly to fix it in my memory. Never quite managed it yet, but I came close in 2020. More novels than usual, I think—perhaps a COVID reaction: reaching for literature while life´s on hold—but some other matters, too. So, here goes:
James C. Scott, “Against the Grain” (2017)
More A+ stuff from the anarchist-leaning Yale political scientist. With scholarly rigour, but also due respect for other fields, he explores recent developments in archaeology and challenges the ‘Enlightenment’ philosopher, Thomas Hobbes’ long dominant idea of the state providing an escape from lives that were previously “nasty, brutish and short”.
On Scott’s reading of the evidence, those famous adjectives better apply to the enslaved subjects of early states (in southern Mesopotamia). They would flee at the first opportunity to return to nomadic lives, which afforded a more varied and reliable diet for much less work, and greater protection from the zoonotic diseases that were entering the human population in settlements with domesticated animals, and where grain stores provoked an explosion of vermin. Rulers’ control over the grain supply was the principal means of oppression, yet settled agriculture also exposed populations to famine when harvests failed, while in some cases a combination of deforestation, monocropping and irrigation led over time to ecological disaster, resulting in state collapse. An early hint, one might say (Scott doesn’t), of the ecological crisis coming to a head in our own times.
In an interesting aside, Scott considers the idea of the “Anthropocene” (as a geological age in which human activity is the main influence on the global environment). If this makes sense, he suggests, it should be seen as starting not with the smokestacks of the industrial revolution but some 400,000 years earlier, when hominids began to control fire, and thus the ability to “landscape the world”. This is neatly illustrated by his account of a cave excavation in South Africa:
At the deepest and therefore oldest strata, there are no carbon deposits and hence no fire. Here one finds full skeletal remains of large cats and fragmentary bone shards—bearing tooth marks—of many fauna, among which is Homo erectus. At a higher, later stratum, one finds carbon deposits signifying fire. Here there are full skeletal remains of Homo erectus and fragmentary bone shards of various mammals, reptiles and birds, among which are a few gnawed bones of large cats. The change in cave “ownership” and the reversal in who was apparently eating whom testify eloquently to the power of fire for the species that first learned to use it. [p. 37]
Manipulating the environment, it seems, was a Homo trick even before we became sapiens.
The rebuttal of Hobbes is little more than incidental to the book but deserves drawing out. The claim that centralised government, the Leviathan, is a necessary condition for civilised society, was not based on any evidence. It depended, rather, on what Hobbes reasoned, a priori, must surely be the case. This sufficed to further embed a distinction between “civilisation” and “savagery” and to buttress nation state formation, setting up rival Leviathians to compete in the subsequent “civilising” missions of modern empire. What strikes me is how enduring this kind of a priori reasoning has proved. As recently as 1968, Garret Hardin claimed in an influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, that common ownership of resources must inevitably result in overexploitation and environmental destruction, and that this could only be prevented by privatisation of land tenure. Hardin appeared to regard as inadmissible all evidence that nomadic, pastoral and forest peoples had lived sustainably in their environments for thousands of years. His model of rationality required that they be anathematised and herded into settlements, from the Tibetan plateau to the Amazon basin. Oh, what a piece of work is Homo economicus. And hats off to Elinor Ostrom, Femina economica, for refuting this nonsense in her “Governing the Commons” (1990). But by then so much damage had been done.
Might a new period of archaeological revisionism undo some our Enlightenment hubris? I take heart from Scott and also from shifting attitudes to Neanderthals. The recent discovery of some cave paintings, just down the road from where I am, is being taken to show that they did have “culture” after all, and now some weird experiments on fossilised ears appear to show that they probably communicated in grown up language, not just grunts and whacks about the head. Wow. By slow degrees we approach the thought that we might not be the one and only pinnacle of creation.
Pat Barker, “The Silence of the Girls” (2018)
This makes an excellent companion to Simone Weil’s superlative 1939 essay, “The Iliad, Poem of Might,” written in the shadows of World War II. Weil wrote of how violence enslaves even apparent victors, turning them into “things” that will be destroyed in their turn. Barker turns her attention to the literal, human “things” in the Trojan wars: women and children, who were the chattels of men and prizes of battle. In particular, she recounts the experience of Briseis, wife of the heir to the throne of Lyrnessus. After sacking that city and putting its men to the sword, the Greeks award her as a concubine to their greatest warrior, Achilles.
In lesser hands, this could slip into anachronistic outrage, and some reviewers have indeed read the book as a “feminist” text, but Barker avoids any 21st century lens. The women bewail their fate, and some choose suicide rather than endure it—an option Briseis also toys with—but they are not protesting against patriarchy. Those who choose to live adapt pragmatically, within the codes of the time. While the men argue over camp politics and strategies to appease the gods, the slave girls pour the wine, keeping their silence.When Achilles’ close companion, Patroclus, is killed in battle, Briseis mourns his death as “one of the dearest friends I ever had”
Leonard Cohen, “The Favourite Game” (1963)
When I first read this, 46 years ago, I loved its lyrical intensity and sense of endless quest (cf. Kerouac’s “On the Road”, another teen must-read of the time), while also feeling primly unsettled by its relentless engine of sexual desire. Re-reading now, I feel much the same, but find more to notice and admire than I recall from the first time.
For one thing, the strength of conflicted Jewish identity (about which the teenage I knew nothing). A yearning for spiritual beauty (whatever that might be; I’m not sure) struggles against the affluent hypocrisy that mimics and degrades it, in a city whose communities are divided by religion, language and class. As in the Cohen songbook, spiritual yearning becomes entangled with sexual desire, but neither can be sated. A nostalgic catalogue of abandoned loves and friendships amounts to an elective unbelonging that is refracted in a secondary character: an unloved, evidently OCD, summer-camp child who eschews group activities in favour of counting blades of grass.
Yet there is also the ambiguous, unifying power of song. Cohen’s attentive ear is evident in such simple things as “the back and forth of tennis balls” in a park below the window. (“Back” and “forth” being exactly what proficient ball hitting in an affluent club sounds like, from detached distance). Then comes this, from the elective outsider, on singing together:
That’s how we are beautiful . . . that’s the only time, when we sing. Storm troopers, band of crusaders, gang of stinking slaves, righteous citizens—only tolerable when their voices rise in unison. Any imperfect song hints at the ideal theme. [p. 202]
Hardly necessary to point out the cracks in everything.
Fernando Aramburu, “Patria” [“Homeland”] (2016)
This is a gripping study of political violence and its fracturing of community. It is set in the Basque country during the ETA insurrection, but I found myself also thinking of Northern Ireland, the Balkans . . . so many places. It is doubtless this universality that has made the book an international success, translated into several languages and now versioned into a TV series.
The novel’s bedrock, however, is the portrait of two families, initially close friends, with rather ordinary, hardworking lives and pleasures, strengths and weaknesses. We have no trouble seeing them as real people brought to grief by ideas that are little more than slogans, and by the nationalist community’s herd mentality, both of which are shamelessly reinforced by Basque Catholic clergy. One of the main characters sees no contradiction between having once mourned the death of Franco (who had banned the use of the Basque language in public) and later supporting her son’s decision to take up arms as an ETA operative. Loyalty to family and community trump everything, yet to the detriment of both. We are also left clear that there is no short cut to redemption. Two generations are severely damaged; recovery will be slow.
Aramburu lays this out in 125 short, well-crafted chapters that switch between time, place and perspective but mange to sustain an atmosphere of tension even when the outcome is all too guessable. Easy pickings for TV scriptwriters.
Miguel Delibes, “El Camino” (1950)
Engaging portrait of a rural community in Cantabria in the late 1940s, seen largely from the perspective of an eleven year old boy (Daniel the little owl) and his friends (German the scabby and Roque the dung), but also recounting the foibles and struggles of the adults. Manages to be tender, funny and at times poignant without slipping into sentimentality.
John Gray, “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (2020)
This entertaining monograph glides elegantly through the stratosphere of Higher Thought, from Aristotle to Zen Buddhism, but it is rather specious to hang so much on our furry friends.
Cats, Gray tells us, are “selfless egotists”. “Selfless” as in lacking any awareness of themselves as a uniquely existing self, in marked contrast to humans. We, Gray observes, are self-aware to the extent of treating own lives as a story that we are in the process of writing, although we control much less than we think—and have no control at all over the inevitability of our decline and grisly ending. Indeed, it is precisely the knowledge of our own mortality that, according to Gray, drives us to fret over the meaning of our lives; to seek peace of mind in philosophical systems that generally fail because “They imagine that human life can be ordered by reason” [p. 31]; to indulge in self-absorbed fantasies or a variety of displacement activities to distract us from the unpleasant truth of inescapable death. Cats, lacking such self-awareness, cannot know they are going to die, Gray reasons (although he speculates that in their final moments they foresee and reconcile themselves to death), and this ignorance frees them to live their span of life to the full. Thus, “Much of human life is a struggle for happiness. Among cats, on the other hand, happiness is the state to which they default when practical threats to their well being are removed”.  “Cats are happy being themselves, while humans try to be happy by escaping themselves”. 
Cats are “egotists” in that they do their own thing with no regard for the interests of others. This seems a self-evident truth, from which Gray draws several conclusions. When they play with their prey, they are not being cruel, they are just being themselves; yet this also starkly demonstrates their lack of empathy. (Empathy, he wittily observes, would be a big handicap for an apex predator.) If they condescend to live with us, it is because they choose to, and if they choose to snuggle on our lap and purr, it is because they enjoy it and—a much more contentious claim—because they have come to feel affection or even love for us. (This perhaps sheds some light on the appeal of cats for their human fans: winning the affection of an apparently autonomous creature is more gratifying than winning the servile love of a tail wagging dog. At any rate, being more unbiddable and enigmatic, they are more likely to arouse the curiosity of philosophers.)
So, what, in sum, can we learn from cats? In pondering how to live, Gray suggests, we should think of the good life as one in which we “fulfil our own nature”—a recommendation he discerns in the writing of Spinoza and in Daoist teaching—and we should studiously avoid striving, with Aristotle, to become the best example of our own kind. Hmm.
There are several problems with this account. Firstly, it is odd, if not outright contradictory, to say i) that this is the (“wretched”) human condition, which thousands of years of philosophy have failed to remedy or alleviate, and ii) that we can escape it by adopting more “feline” philosophy.
Secondly, it claims more knowledge of feline forms of life than we can reasonably surmise. Gray twice quotes Wittgenstein but does not address his most distinctive observation on felines: that “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” In language, at least, there is an unbridgeable otherness between us. (Which is not to discount other commonalities in our shared, mammal nature.) So, to assert that “happy” non-empathetic cats (who, Gray also claims, do not miss us when we are absent) can nonetheless feel “love” or “affection” for us, is, at best, a hyperbolic way of noting that they appear to show pleasure in our company, just as we, mysteriously and interestingly, feel pleasure in theirs. (And is the mystery not a significant part of the pleasure?) Beyond that, it´s back to Wittgenstein: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” if we wish to avoid spouting nonsense.
Thirdly, Gray offers too parsimonious a view of human nature. One may easily accept the frailties he ascribes to us: the self-full self, seeing itself as the centre of everything, seeing death as an outrage, the obliteration of everything. And it’s perhaps worth remarking that our times, thanks in no small part to the Titans of Tech, seem particularly beset by narcissism, self-obsession, solipsism. But that is only part of the picture. There are good people out there too, “selfless” in the ordinary sense: attentive to others, kind to strangers, kind to animals. For them, death may be scary, but it will not obliterate everything because they know they are not, and never were, everything. For sure, such people may be in a minority, but I’m inclined to think that, for the rest of us, the way out of the dark and bottomless well of self is to become more like them—not more like cats. I’m also inclined to think that you don’t need very many kind and decent people in the world to make life tolerable for the rest of us, but you do need quite a few.
Gray would have no time for such homely sentiments, because it turns out that he doesn’t believe in goodness. He argues that ideas of what is good change over time and place, ergo nothing is objectively good, it’s all kind of relative. And, besides, describing something or someone as good is really only an expression of our emotions.
Having read little philosophy in recent decades I was surprised to find such banal ideas as these still in circulation. Is Gray, I wonder, simply playing with the reader, like a cat, just for fun or exercise? If not, and if this really is his view, there is little I can say to refute it, other than to point out that it suggests an extremely barren moral landscape.
While writing this, I received news of an old friend who recently returned to Australia, after many years teaching overseas, and who had been “staying at my brother and sister in law’s house while they were away helping farmers rebuild their lives after the bushfires of last summer. They are good people.” It strikes me that in Gray’s world we’d have to read this as merely the iteration of a conventional and transient notion of goodness, expressed with fraternal affection. But that reading is much too shallow.
We may be largely self-centred creatures, craving the attention, admiration and care of others. But nearly all of us also have at least some capacity for attending to and caring for others. School teachers, the best ones, love children, other people’s children, love seeing them flourish in the literal sense of opening up to the world. For many people, pets themselves are love objects, something to cherish and take care of in the twilight. Can we not say, then, that this outward-facing capacity is also a fundamental part of our nature which we might seek to develop and fulfil? The braggart self is never easy to transcend, but I think that most people try a bit, at least at times, and that this is the messy, ambiguous moral universe we in fact inhabit.
P.S. Recently—'full disclosure’—I came to an arrangement with my cat, Paco. If I die first, he can eat me; if he dies first, I can skin and/or stuff him, so as not to lose the tactile delight of his magnificent pelt. When I put this to him, he purred loudly (he loves me, obvs.) and then attacked my toe, in anticipation of the feast to come. I choose to read this as tacit consent.
Richard Powers, “Overstory” (2018)
This novel is evidently intended to change the way we think about trees, but for all the praise that has been heaped upon it (including a Pulitzer prize), it doesn’t work well.
Part I comprises eight chapters, each telling a discrete, and in most cases quite interesting, story about one or more trees and people. These strands are then woven together, but in several cases the weave is loose, or requires additional stitching from mysterious psychic forces and telepathy. The main strands eventually lead us to an account of tree-hugging activism to save Oregon’s primary forests from logging; an eminently worthy cause, but one that here brings another dose of earth-mother mystical syrup. There is some exploration of human motivation and activist tactics, but no sense of dramatic conflict or dilemma, when the reader doesn’t know which side to be on.
Powers clearly did a fair bit of groundwork research, and I learnt some interesting, and shocking, things along the way: eg, that four billion American chestnuts were wiped out by blight in the early 20th century; that Oregon highways are fringed with trees to blind passing motorists to the clear-cut devastation lying just beyond. But I have learned a lot more from ‘non fiction’ naturalists and ecologists whose lives have been spent working with trees. Beginners might start with Peter Wohlleben, a charmingly garrulous and tangent-prone forest ecologist.
It is the conceit of our age that all knowledge and argument must be relayed as a “story”. I’m not so sure. The limitation of fiction-cum-advocacy, however worthy, is that it tends mainly to confirm what likely readers will already be disposed to feel and believe. I doubt that “Overstory” will reach many fracking enthusiasts or Trump supporters. But I guess if it nudges New York Times readers closer to zero emissions, then it’s all to the good.
And, to be fair, Powers had anticipated my literary objections:
Everyone imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprising capacity to forgive—character—is all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed, of course, just one small step from the belief that a Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in a federal court. To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: Life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. [p. 477]
I’m inclined to agree with the last 19 words.
Anthony Trollope, “Can You Forgive Her?” (1864)
This long and winding tale makes me think how much modern TV series owe to 19th century serialised novels. Perhaps especially to Trollope’s: both for stand-out dialogue and scenes that carry along interwoven plotlines, which turn on real stuff—money, power, sex—and for the continuity between individual works. “Can You Forgive Her?” is, in effect, Season One of a suite of six “political” novels (aka the “Palliser novels”), which follow the lives and fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser, who is a future Prime Minister and Duke of Omnium, and his wife, Lady Glencora).
The Pallisers are secondary characters in this first season. Centre stage is a cousin of Glencora’s, Alice Vavasour, who “jilts” a good man and suitable match in favour of a morally flawed, and ultimately violent, suitor who needs her money to pursue his parliamentary ambitions. (This is the scandalous folly we are invited to forgive.) Happily for the conventional Victorian reader, Alice realises the error of her ways and ends up, chastened, under the loving protection of the good guy (who, aptly surnamed “Grey,” is so blandly drawn as to evoke little readerly interest). Happily for Alice, Grey decides to come out of scholarly reclusion in the flat and boring landscape of Cambridge and to go into politics under the patronage of Palliser. This allows Alice, an intelligent woman determined to deploy her advantages to improve the world, the vicarious pleasure of doing so as the helpmeet of a good man.
A second fiddle role seems to be the only one that Alice can visualise for herself, or Trollope for her. This offends modern sensibilities and was hardly radical even in its day (nearly a century after Mary Wollstonecraft was gadding about revolutionary Paris promoting equal rights for citoyennes). But there are reasons to forgive Trollope, who seems more interested in depicting the median reality than the radical ideal.
He is seriously engaged in thinking about women’s lives at a time when their norm was exercising agency primarily through men. What he shows is them chafing against this. One dimension is the magnetic attraction of danger, in resistance to respectability, which features not only in Alice’s but also in Glencora’s story. She was bullied by relatives and “society” into marrying Pallister, while her own inclination had been for the arms of an aristocratic wastrel—a liaison she dangerously resumes after her marriage.
A third narrative strand offers a glimpse of a certain kind of women’s “liberation” in the antics of Mrs. Greenow, a well-off, but distinctly vulgar, widow of a certain age. Prospecting for a later life companion, she dallies with two, finally choosing an impoverished sea captain scallywag over a staid and dim farmer. Again, this suggests the riskier option, but the merry widow is in total control of the situation—and what makes her so is, quite simply, money, freed of the clannish snobbery of higher society.
This strand was evidently intended to provide light relief from the dramas of Alice and Glencora. Unfortunately, the comic episodes become rather tedious: Trollope lags a long way behind Dickens when it comes to burlesque.
Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to Season Two. Readers with less time on their hands might want to turn straight to “The Way We Live Now,” a stand-alone novel widely, and probably justly, regarded as Trollope’s masterpiece.
Thomas Piketty, “Capital and Ideology” (2019)
This follow-up to Piketty’s widely noted and quoted “Capital in the 21st Century” (2013) amounts to a global history of inequality, within and between nations, with numerous cameos and much carefully assembled data. Fascinating stuff.
I have some reservations about his general theory of the progression from “ternary societies” (in which political power and property rights are the preserve of a coalition of warrior nobles and the clergy, and largely localised) to “ownership societies” (where property rights are ostensibly open to all—and increasingly sacrilised—while political power becomes the monopoly of a centralised state). This is a compelling account of European history, but harder to apply beyond Europe, where social and economic transformation was impacted to varying degrees by conquest and colonialism. Nevertheless, Piketty makes a good case, while acknowledging the uniqueness of every place and its apparent anomalies: arguing plausibly, for example, that colonial rule in India did more to harden and embed, rather than uproot, the caste system.
He is on firm ground when discussing the transformations of the 20th century, leading to the hypercapitalism of the 21st, and consistently insists that ideas matter in bringing about change. Much important food for thought here, which I may chew over at more length in the fulness of time.
Magda Szabó, “The Door”(1987)
Strange, and strangely haunting novel about the relationship, over many years, between a middle class intellectual couple and their industrious but enigmatic cleaner, who lives alone with a posse of cats that are never allowed out, while human visitors are never allowed in to her own house.
The central theme appears to be how hard and slow it is to know another—and when you get through the door and try to help, to save a life, it can end badly with losing one. The closing sequence evokes a disintegrating past—whether the Communist past or the Austro-Hungarian past—where what is apparently preserved crumbles when touched. Interesting.
Ian McKewan, “Machines Like Us” (2019)
The most intriguing aspect of this novel is the way it superimposes a not so distant future (in which it is possible to buy “synthetic human” companions that have advanced machine intelligence) on a counterfactual version of the not so recent past: a 1980s, in which the UK loses the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher loses an election to a radical Labour Party led by Tony Benn. Perhaps this is partly just for fun, for this is a playful book. Perhaps it is to honour Alan Turing (“the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence” according to Wikipedia), by allowing him to live well beyond his actual death (in 1954) and play a leading role in developing machine intelligence, which might have arrived decades earlier had he indeed lived on in a more open society. Perhaps it is to emphasise the wider contingency of events, in both individual and collective life: nearly always, nearly everything might so easily have turned out differently. Perhaps it is to make clear that technological breakthroughs don’t belong in or lead to shiny, hypermodern futures, but play out in societal settings which are recognisably crap and likely to remain so. Perhaps all of the above.
The main human protagonists are, as one expects of McEwan, flawed people fumbling through moral dilemmas and the consequences of the past. Predictably enough, their relationship with the machine companion goes awry, but in an interesting way that is neither apocalyptic nor dystopian.
The companion comes with a male shape and develops a personality cute enough to evoke our sympathy. Thus raising the (predictable) question: when does a machine transcend mere wiring to assert some kind of moral claim on us? McEwan seems more interested, though, in how we can presume to model human “intelligence” when we ourselves remain so enigmatic. As his reincarnation of Turing points out:
We learned a lot about the brain, trying to imitate it. But so far, science has had nothing but trouble understanding the mind. Singly, or minds en masse. The mind in science has been little more than a fashion parade. Freud, behaviourism, cognitive psychology. Scraps of insight. Nothing deep or predictive that could give psychoanalysis or economics a good name. [pp. 302-303]
Earlier, the novel’s unheroic narrator, Charlie, had mused in a relatively rare moment of happiness on the puzzles of his own biology:
What was right with me? Thirty-three today and in love. The unaccountable brew of hormone cocktails, endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and all the rest. Cause or effect or association—we knew next to nothing about our passing moods. [p.133]
Charlie also serves up this elegant sketch of human intellectual history (at least in its European version):
[O]ne could see the history of human self-regard as a series of demotions tending to extinction. Once we sat enthroned at the centre of the universe, with sun and planets, the entire observable world, turning around us in an ageless dance of worship. Then, in defiance of the priests, heartless astronomy reduced us to an orbiting planet around the sun, just one among other rocks. But still we stood apart, brilliantly unique, appointed by the creator to be lords of everything that lived. Then biology confirmed that we are at one with the rest, sharing common ancestry with bacteria, pansies, trout and sheep. In the early twentieth century came deeper exile into the darkness when the immensity of the universe was revealed and even the sun became one among billions in our galaxy, among billions of galaxies. Finally, in consciousness, our last redoubt, we were probably correct to believe that we had more of it than any other creature on earth. But the mind that had once rebelled against the gods was about to dethrone itself by way of its own fabulous reach. In the compressed version, we would devise a machine a little cleverer than ourselves, then set that machine to invent another that lay beyond our comprehension. What need then of us? [p. 80]
“Bacteria, pansies, trout and sheep” is a splendid touch.
In sum, this is a good-humoured study of the ways we stumble forward, knowing little of what we do. By no means belongs on the science fiction shelf.
Bernardine Evaristo, “Girl, Woman, Other” (2019)
In the 1970s I read quite a few anglophone women writers writing about (overwhelmingly white, heterosexual and mainly British) women’s lives. Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble, Edna O’Brien, Doris Lessing. (I think was trying to learn about women.) Evaristo’s novel reflects more interesting times. (The 1970s felt dull at the time and remain so in retrospect.) Her characters are overwhelmingly ‘BAME’ women and (fewer) men: mainly black, a good many of them lesbian or gay, and one who comes to identify as “non-binary”. So, in social documentary terms, the novel is a corrective to the long neglect of non-white “others”; a statement about diversity and visibility, with a big hint that a young generation of BAME women is emerging strong, smart and confident.
This is more nuanced and less polemical than I have made it sound. The dozen main women characters are drawn from several generations and occupations (teacher; cleaner; playwright; bus conductor; investment banker; supermarket worker and, most surprisingly, a 90 year old farmer). Their individual stories reveal various wrong turnings and intimate betrayals. One endures three years in an abusive relationship with another woman in an American commune. She later goes on to run a women’s art festival in Los Angeles, which gets into trouble for excluding transgender activists. (Evaristo seems here, and in her “non-binary” character, to be opting for diplomatic neutrality on highly emotive transgender issues.) The overall result is not a manifesto but, rather, a wide-angle panorama that, while sacrificing some depth to breadth, seems to be saying: “We are here; see us.”
And hear us. Evaristo writes in ordinary and largely oral language (including Caribbean and African accents), in sentences that omit capital letters and full stops, using line breaks instead. This script-like device reflects the unpondered immediacy of the instant messaging era and, at the same time, the axis on which the novel turns—the first night of a play at the National Theatre. (The play, “The Last Amazon of Dahomey”, sounds dreadful, but that hardly matters: it’s a fictional sign, just as the success of this book is a real one, of black women breaking into the cultural mainstream.) Above all, this technique is apt for capturing a range of voices, which I take to be the main point, and it was good to hear them.
John Le Carré, “The Constant Gardener” (2001)
Vintage Le Carré pace and suspense driven by taut dialogue, and good to find him taking on big pharma. However, I found the central, Tessa-Justin relationship, and the way the latter morphed from meticulous establishment bureaucrat to fearless sleuth, a trifle implausible. This was largely compensated, though, by the portraits of the other diplomat types: it has been my dubious privilege to meet quite a few such characters and he has them to a ‘T’.
Maggie O’Farell, “Hamnet” (2020)
This imaginative reconstruction of the lives of Will Shakespeare, Agnes Hathaway & family is engaging not just for the events it relates but also for its attention to the sounds, the smells and tastes, the draughts, the mud, the kittens playing in the yard, the rural economy and the burgeoning commerce of their time. O’Farrell has given thought to all of this, which makes for a decent historical novel even without the celebrity angle.
The Bard is in fact almost a secondary character. We meet him as a stripling youth seeking his beloved’s hand, only to be told “Agnes will marry a farmer, by and by – someone with prospects, someone to provide for her . . . She’ll not marry a feckless, tradeless boy like you.” (Oh, the dramatic irony!) But once the lovers have overcome that obstacle, and after Will has taken to the stage, he is away most of time. The reader mainly stays with Agnes, who is a bit white-witchy: reading palms and mixing up herbal potions to ease neighbours’ ailments. But she has no cure for bubonic plague—whose progress we follow around Europe, in the fleas of a cabin boy’s pet monkey—and the plague carries off one of the Shakespeare children, a boy, Hamnet. He, in this telling, somehow opted to die in lieu of his twin sister, much as the grieving Will, in his subsequent play, “Hamlet”, had a father die, somehow in lieu of a son.
An enjoyable read, which will likely swell the flow of visitors to Stratford once our own plague abates.
A. Naji Bakhti, “Between Beirut and the Moon” (2020)
This debut novel (or ‘autofiction’?) is endorsed on the cover by Roddy Doyle, who describes it as “gloriously funny.” That sets a dangerously high bar. Doyle at his best (“The Barrytown Trilogy”) was indeed gloriously funny; Naji Bakhti is a promising young writer but here, I feel, he is trying too hard to raise a laugh.
One problem is that, as a Lebanese émigré writing in English for an international readership, he has to explain some of the funny bits: eg, on page 9: “‘Mother and father’ is a colloquial term used in Lebanon to express the idea of something whole or complete.” I almost gave up at that point. It felt too much like an ‘ethnic’ stand-up whose only entry into the British comedy market is to mock their own cultural heritage, whether real or presumed. (The foremost example being the black English midlands comedian, Lenny Henry, who at the time of Zimbabwe’s independence had white Brits in stitches simply by opening his eyes wide and saying “Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole” and “President Canaan Banana”. Black people are so funny! Henry has since spoken about this career pathway with understandable bitterness.)
Another issue is that, during Naji Bakhti’s lifetime, Lebanon, one of the world’s major cultural crossroads and ‘cradles of civilisation’, has been continually mired in civil war and strife. Irony and wit in the face of adversity are doubtless admirable, but I am not sure if comedy shines much light on this recent past. Indeed, I ordered the book not for a laugh but on the strength of an entirely serious, and moving, op-ed by the author, about Lebanon’s latest economic crisis (even before the Beirut port explosion). The more poignant, coming of age moments in his book, once it had found its feet, were those I liked best.
I can imagine Naji Bakhti arguing back that he was not setting out to educate the world about Lebanon but to revisit a universal story—essentially, growing up—in the context of war-torn Beirut. I get that and concede that his book is moderately successful in that light, once it gets away from the one-liners. It is certainly not a bad book.
Nevertheless, I return to the conundrum of globalising literary markets and the perennial question they raise: “Who are you writing for?” I feel that Naji Bakhti is too consciously, and self-consciously, writing for people like me: liberal anglophones interested in the wider world. Yet books in translation, written by authors in their mother tongue, often provide more intimate contact with the elsewhere in question. (In the Arab world, an eminent example would be Naguib Mahfouz; a more recent one, Jokha Alharthi’s 2019 Booker international prizewinner, “Celestial Bodies”, translated by Marilyn Booth.)
Things have changed a lot in recent decades. Back in the 1970s there was quite a bit of British hand wringing over the imminent death of the novel, just as it was about to be invigorated by the work of ‘BAME’ writers at home and literati across the old empire writing in English. Diaspora writers of Arab heritage have helped to enrich the supply of literature in English. I am thinking, for example, of Ahdaf Soueif’s fine novel, “The Map of Love” (1999), set in Egypt.
So, I am by not saying that Naji Bakhti should not be writing in English. I think I am saying, rather, that next time out he should be braver, more ambitious and less self-conscious. And I wish him well.
A footnote to this story is that his publisher, Influx Press, is a small independent: just the kind that is needed as counterweight to Penguin Random House, Harper Collins et al. Sadly, they have let themselves down a bit here, with a glitch in the typesetting that reproduces an identical, randomised error on many pages. I guess if you’re small you can’t afford to pulp a print run.
Konrad Lorenz, “Man Meets Dog” (1954)
I spent the last few months of 2019 in Bogotá, in a rented apartment across the street from the Konrad Lorenz University, and happened at the time also to be reading “The Essential Mary Midgely”—a late 20th century philosopher who was more interested in big questions about human nature, ‘the problem of evil’, our place in the natural world, etc, than the dull currents of analytic philosophy that prevailed at that time. Midgely discusses Lorenz—as an expert in the field animal behaviour—because of her interest in the extent to which we should think of ourselves as animals. So, when a copy of “Man Meets Dog” found its way into our home I was curious to spend some hours with it in the bath.
It would be wrong to say I found the book disappointing, because its tone was quite a hoot: all “Man” and “Master” stuff from an utterly confident Expert who had to keep going off to Lecture elsewhere, leaving his Wife with instructions on keeping his own pack of dogs in order.
I quite enjoyed his (unreferenced and, I assume, largely speculative) account of the origins of the modern dog (mainly descended from jackals, with just a few breeds owing more to wolves), but did not learn much. (Except, rather incidentally, that domestic cats, as much more recent arrivals in Europe, had a high monetary value in the early modern period because of their usefulness in killing vermin, and as such often featured as associated chattels in the sale of farm property; here, in exception to the rule, he does supply documentary evidence.) But in the main I learned little because Lorenz was so successful in stamping upon a couple of generations a view of dogs and how to raise them. It was all a bit like a grown-up reprise of “The Ladybird Book of Dogs” kind of volume that graced my primary school library.
The dominant, Lorenzian narrative has not yet been fully supplanted, although it has come under considerable cultural assault from a combination of Japanese cutesy kitsch, Walt Disney cartoonification and commercial opportunism. Dogs, increasingly, are not so much pets, as barely animate toys for dressing up. I was, for example, recently baffled to find, amidst the paraphernalia in a local pet supermarket, doggie underpants. I can imagine the contempt Lorenz would feel for that. It’s not, I think, that he got dogs entirely wrong, more that he did not get “Man” entirely right.
The discerning reader should spend more time with Midgely. It would be nice to think that, if the world doesn’t first melt, a university, or at least a chair of philosophy, will be named for her.
Alberto Méndez, “Los Girasoles Ciegos” [“Blind Sunflowers”] (2004)
This comprises four, occasionally overlapping stories set in the immediate aftermath of Spain’s civil war. Méndez was a man of the left, but he is at pains here to show how the war was a defeat for everyone. Thus, the first story concerns a Nationalist soldier who, quixotically, surrenders to the Republicans the day before their final defeat, because outright victory did not seem right to him. He ends up doubly ostracised, in a crowded cell, awaiting execution alongside a detachment of the defeated.
The best piece is probably the story that gives the volume its title. In this, a leftist intellectual hides for many months in a closet in his home, while his wife and son continue a simulacrum of normal life, until a predatory priest calls and sexually assaults the wife.
A sad footnote: Méndez spent his working life as an editor and publisher; this is the only book he wrote, and he died in the year it was published.
Fernando Obregón Goyarrola, “Republica, Guerra Civil Y Posguerra En los Valles Pasiegos, 1931-1950” [“Republic, Civil War and Postwar in the Pas Valleys”] (n.d.)
Spain’s civil war continues to cast long shadows over Spanish literature and politics but is not a subject one broaches easily with neighbours in a small, rural community. So, it was good to find this sober, detailed and apparently impartial account of events as they unfolded in our immediate surroundings, and the careful accounting of every death by military or political violence.
There was a lot of both. Cantabria was initially the centre of a northern, Republican enclave, holding a front line some 20 kilometres from our home. Franco’s forces eventually broke through, spearheaded by Italian troops on loan from Mussolini, and with Italian and German air support. (Along with many Spanish casualties on both sides, some 200 Italians died in the effort; several dozen were buried in our village’s cemetery). There had been considerable repression of clergy and falangist supporters in the area when it was under Republican control and this was repaid with interest after the Nationalists took over. The last death recorded is that of amaqui (anti-Franco resistance fighter), killed as late as the summer of 1950 on the mountain at the head of our valley.
There are very few remaining souls who still remember these events but, given the long shadows, knowing of them makes me feel closer to where I am. And so, curiously, this unsung (I am guessing) book, in its clunky, inelegant edition (published with support of the government of Cantabria), may stay with me longer than any other I have read this year.
Charles Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby” (1838)
The plot is a rickety thing, held together by improbable coincidences and secrets. The heroes are mere emblems of unblemished virtue: none more so than the two young women of special interest, Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray, whose long-suffering sweetness, purity and beauty is not muddied by any personality of their own. (The eponymous Nicholas at least displays the rather ambiguous characteristic of impetuosity.) The baddies are little more than pantomime villains, although usurious Uncle Ralph Nickleby is a more nuanced study in misanthropy.
It is the wider social panorama that makes the novel absorbing: the coaching inns and boarding houses, the dusty workplaces, the general filth, the job agency (quite a surprise to find this, and with very much the same warts as the modern recruitment industry too), the racecourse gambling marquee where the petty aristocracy go slumming, the lodgings of the near poor, the debtors’ prison quarters. These are populated by characters who are mainly neither good nor bad, just humanly endowed with their own pretensions, silliness and self-absorption. The mockery is humane but knowing, with many hints of underlying drunkenness, domestic violence, sexual predation and child abuse. It’s a more complex universe than the surface fairy story of sweetness and light prevailing over darkness.
Wackford Squeers and his infamous school, Dotheboys Hall, have seized most of the enduring, cultural limelight for this array, but I preferred the exuberant daftness of Vincent Crummles’ travelling theatre troupe, which Nicholas joins for a while as chief playwright and heartthrob. And the opening scam of “the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company” is a miniature masterpiece of satire.
The modern reader’s patience may be worn thin by all the pompously vacuous speechifying that Dickens delights in reproducing. (The main flaw here being in honest Yorkshire miller’s son, John Browdie, where the efforts to capture his dialect in print strike me as placing him somewhere nearer Tyneside). But Dickens had a financial incentive to spin this out to inordinate length, and his readers fewer alternative entertainments on long, winter evenings. And, if you dare to turn the wireless off, I think it still works well.