I wrote these posts on 20 and 21 January 2009. No further comment required, I think. Continue reading “‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration”
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.
The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.
In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.
That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”
The photo says so much. The lady in the wheelchair is Amelia Boynton, last seen portrayed in the film Selma. She was the local leader of the civil rights protests in Selma in ’65. Now her hand is held by the first African-American to become president as she goes once more over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Continue reading “Selma 50 years on: one of Obama’s finest speeches”
What does it mean to come home?
– Home, page 106
Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels. Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all. The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”
Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go, like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality. But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.
So begins Bitter Lake, the new film from Adam Curtis who has previously brought us intellectually-challenging films such as The Century of the Self, which showed how the work of Freud, Jung and others was appropriated by business and politics, Power of Nightmares, that compared the rise of American neo-Conservativism with the radical Islamism and claimed similarities between the two, and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which argued that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have ‘distorted and simplified our view of the world around us’. Continue reading “Bitter Lake: helping make sense of complex reality?”
Fifty years ago today, on 22 December 1964, Sam Cooke’s iconic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released as a single. The song had been recorded in February 1964, and included on Cooke’s album Ain’t That Good News released a few months later. Perhaps more than any other song of its time, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ now seems the quintessential song evoking the era of civil rights protest.
The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965
But, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick has told of how, as well as being inspired by the political context of the times, the song also emerged from two specific experiences. One was Cooke hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and being both inspired by its ability to encapsulate America’s problem with racism, and frustrated that it should have been a white American who had composed the song. The second was an incident in late 1963 when Cooke and his bandmates had tried to check into a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and been refused – because they were black. Guralnick says:
He just went off. And became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, ‘Sam, we’d better get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ And he says, ‘They’re not gonna kill me; I’m Sam Cooke.’ To which his wife said, ‘No, to them you’re just another …’ you know.
Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his entourage, for disturbing the peace. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was written sometime in the next month, before being recorded in February 1964. After the session, writes Guralnick, Cooke played the song for Bobby Womack:
When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.
You could call it that. When ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was finally released as a single, it was eleven days after Cooke had been shot and killed at a Los Angeles motel, in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide.
The song wasn’t a big hit at the time, but it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and remains an enduring symbol of that era, an enduring cry of protest against injustice and inequality in a country that is still – as seen this year – wracked with both.
‘Each verse is a different movement: The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it,’ says Guralnick. He says that ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has become a universal message of hope, one that does not age:
Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact,” he says. “We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.
It is, as Manjula Martin writes in an essay on the Aeon website, both prayer and warning.
Crowds protest in New York City after the failure to indict in the case Eric Garner
In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner wrote:
The song expresses the soul of the freedom movement as clearly and powerfully as Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The opening measures verge on melodrama: a searching French horn rises over a lush swell of symphonic strings accompanied by tympani. But Cooke brings it back to earth, bearing witness to the restlessness that keeps him moving like the muddy river bordering the Delta where he was born. Maintaining his belief in something up there beyond the sky, Cooke draws sustenance from his gospel roots. He testifies that its been a long, long time – the second ‘long’ carries all the weight of a bone-deep gospel weariness. Then he sings the midnight back toward dawn. The hard-won hope that comes through in the way he uses his signature ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ to emphasize the word ‘know’ in the climactic line – ‘I know that a change gonna come’ – feels as real as anything America has ever been able to imagine.
He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.
Fifty years later, following the non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, both unarmed black men killed by white police officers, Cooke’s lyrics remain stirringly relevant to the systematic problems faced by black Americans. According to the NAACP, police have killed at least 76 black men and women since 1999, 14 of them in 2014 alone. Racialized violence is still an institutionalized problem.
‘I Can’t Breathe’, Eric Garner’s plea becomes a rallying cry for justice
Cooke sang of how black men and women were harassed for everyday activities:
I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
Cooke sang of a climate of distrust – still there in a society where 70% of black Americans believe the country is doing a ‘poor’ job holding police officers accountable when misconduct occurs. That same 70% also believes the police forces are doing a ‘poor’ job treating ethnic groups equally.
Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees
A few days ago, in the Guardian, Syreeta McFadden wrote:
It pains me that, in 2014, in America, we have to publicly affirm that black lives matter. And yet, in 2014, we’ve seen so many examples of when they didn’t.
In July … video quickly spread of Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner to death on 17 July. The NYPD banned the manoeuvre in 1993, in the aftermath of the 1991 death of Federico Pereira. … I was miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, when I saw a photo of a grieved father with his handmade sign immediately after his stepson, Michael Brown, was killed by now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and his body was left in the street for over four hours on 9 August. Months later, on 23 November, Cleveland police shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of spotting him in a park. They waited four minutes before administering, or allowing anyone to administer, first aid to him. And there were others besides: John Crawford. Darrien Hunt. Vonderrit Myers. Yvette Smith. Pearlie Golden. The year blurs as we track the deaths of unarmed black civilians from police violence, whether they were captured on video or not.
Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come
Ferguson and Michael Brown: A Change Is Gonna Come
‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’
Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River. That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:
He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.
And that’s the truth. Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:
Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.
Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:
As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.
He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state. As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.
Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.
His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position. In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist. In 1936, at a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever. By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.
He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.
In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.
In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt. On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill. A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.
In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.
However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).
In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.
During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.
Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963
Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers, singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’. Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.
Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement. He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:
Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.
‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’
I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.
Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….
Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’
In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:
‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’
John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:
He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.
As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?
So long, Pete. It’s been good to know you.
American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)
Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009
The baton passed to another generation
- Happy birthday, Pete Seeger: post here on Pete’s 90th
- In praise of Pete Seeger: posted after Seeger’s appearance at Obama pre-Inauguration concert
- Pete Seeger: the man who brought politics to music (Dorian Lynskey’s Guardian tribute)
- Pete Seeger, Folk Legend, Dead at 94 (Rolling Stone)
- Pete Seeger: interview with Pitchfork magazine, November 2008
- Springsteen Pays Tribute to Seeger (Mother Jones)
- When Pete Seeger Faced Down the House Un-American Activities Committee (Slate)
Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
TS Eliot: portrait by Gerald Kelly
‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future’: the instantly-recognisable opening lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets have surfaced and re-surfaced in my conciousness this past couple of weeks. They occurred to me while reading Stephen King’s recent gripping novel 11.22.63, which is but the latest addition to the vast body of speculation about time, time travel, whether it might be possible to alter an event in the past, and – if it were – what the consequences might be. 11.22.63 also represents the fruits of years of Stephen King’s sifting through the speculations about the assassination of President John F Kennedy, an event from the past that continues to inhabit the present of those of us alive at the time.
I had only just finished reading 11.22.63 when I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 production of Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which the past is forever disappearing, the future forever being born, and the present forever being renewed into a single moment: time and eternity, the future flowing into the present and the present flowing into the past. The poem was beautifully read by Irons with a measured delivery that certainly aided this listener’s understanding (also enhanced with an introduction by Michael Symmons Roberts).
Then there was this week’s Radio 3 Essay by actor and director of Theatre de Complicite, Simon McBurney – one of a series, The Book that Changed Me, in which each essayist discussed the book that inspired them in their chosen career. McBurney described how John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos – another text concerned with ideas about time and place, memory and mortality – had inspired his theatrical work with Complicite.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
– ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot
John F Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally with their wives in the presidential motorcade moments before the assassination
In Stephen King’s 11.22.63, school teacher Jake Epping enters a dark passage at the back of Al’s Diner, edges slowly down some steps and slips from 2012, through a wormhole in time, back to 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958. Epping has embarked upon his journey back in time at the insistence of Al, owner of the eponymous Diner, who has already made the trip several times. Al was on a mission he’s now unable to complete: to prevent the assassination of John Kennedy by Lee Oswald- and, perhaps as a consequence, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam. Dying from cancer, Al wants Jake to do the honours.
Al explains to Jake what he’s learned so far about this time present and time past present in time future business. First, it’s not a one-way trip; but when you return, no matter how long you’ve stayed in the past – two days, five years, whatever – only two minutes have gone by in the present. Second, each time you go back to the past, there is a reset. It’s 11:58 am on 9 September, 1958, and everything you did on your previous trip has been erased.
Stephen King’s books may not be great literature, but he’s a damn fine storyteller and knows how to keep a reader gripped, turning the page through 700 of them. 11.22.63, finally published in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, actually consists of three stories in one.
The first is a prefatory murder story set in 1958. Here Al, Jake and King himself are exploring the old vexed question: if you went back in time and changed something, might there be unforeseen consequences? What Jake learns is that, while history can be altered, it resists with all its might.
So, next, in the longest section of the book, Jake returns to live out the years between 1958 and 1963, preparing for the day when he will attempt to thwart the assassination. This is classic King territory – a hymn to a wholesome, simpler, uncommercialised fifties America where Jake teaches at a school in a small Texas town, falls in love with a librarian and becomes a fixture in the local community. In 1958, root beer is ‘tasty all the way through’ But, King also throws in some qualifiers, highlighting aspects of America at that time which were less than wholesome:
In North Carolina, I stopped to gas up at a Humble Oil station, then walked around the corner to use the toilet.There were two doors and three signs. MEN was neatly stencilled over one door, LADIES over the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick. It pointed toward the brush-covered slope behind the station. It said COLORED.
Curious, I walked down the path, being careful to sidle at a couple of points where the oily, green- shading-to-maroon leaves of poison ivy were unmistakable. I hoped the dads and moms who might have led their children down to whatever facility waited below were able to identify those trouble-some bushes for what they were, because in the late fifties most children wear short pants. There was no facility. What I found at the end of the path was a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts. A man who had to urinate could just stand on the bank, unzip, and let fly. A woman could hold onto a bush (assuming it wasn’t poison ivy or poison oak) and squat. The board was what you sat on if you had to take a shit. Maybe in the pouring rain.
If I ever gave you the idea that 1958’s all Andy-n-Opie, remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream.
For much of this part of the narrative King pushes Oswald into the background as Jake settles into the life of a small town outside Dallas where, ‘I stopped living in the past and just started living’. As well as telling a beautiful love story, this stage of the narrative allows King to further explore the consequences of messing with the past as unintended examples of the ‘butterfly effect’ multiply, leading Jake at one point to muse:
Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, O.K.? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.
Lee Harvey Oswald: a loner?
Finally, we begin to ease into the final stretch of the narrative in which Jake, utilising the latest early sixties technology (from Japan) bugs Oswald’s home and shadows his every move. It’s here that King tentatively probes the conspiracy theories: was Oswald really the shooter, and if so, did he act alone? I must admit that when I started the book I thought that this would be a much larger feature of the story. In the end, King has Jake, there on the ground in 1963 in the months before the assassination, as unsure as many remain today who have devoted much time and effort to investigating the matter. For the past,Jake learns, is obdurate. It guards its darkest secrets. Weeks before the 22nd, he is living below the Oswalds, listening in on bugged conversations in the flat above , and he still can’t be sure:
I tried the distance mic, standing on a chair and holding the Tupperware bowl almost against the ceiling. With it I could hear Lee talking and de Mohrenschildt’s occasional replies, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
In an afterword, King admits:
Almost half a century has passed since John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, but two questions linger: Was Lee Oswald really the trigger-man, and if so, did he act alone? Nothing I’ve written in 11.22.63 will provide answers to those questions, because time-travel is just an interesting make-believe.
As Mark Lawson observed in the Guardian:
A novel about thwarting Lee Harvey Oswald is crucially different from one about killing Hitler because many readers will question whether the hero is going after the right man. Jake regularly frets that, even if he changes the shape of Oswald’s day on 11.22.63, he may discover that the conspiracy theorists were right and JFK is taken out by another gunman from the grassy knoll or elsewhere.
Through his central character King communicates his own nagging doubts – after all his personal research – about the certainty of the history of that day. He also cleverly exploits a major fascination of time-travel or counter-history stories: the historical adjustments that might result from meddling.
In a thoughtful afterword in which King suggests that he partly intends the novel as a warning against ‘the current political climate of my country’ and the consequences of political extremism in contemporary America, he reveals that he first tried to write this book in 1972 but felt too close then to the raw pain of the assassination.
There’s an image that’s repeated several times by King during his account of the passionate love affair between Jake and Sadie, the clumsy librarian: the image of dancing which both of them love, being dazzlingly proficient at dancing the jitterbug:
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. . . . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
What did that remind me of?
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
– ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot
The Essay on Radio 3 is often a source of stimulating listening, and since the start of the year has being having a particularly good run, and time – ‘present in the past, past in the present’ – featured in a series of essays to mark the centenary of World War One that offered perspectives on the capital cities of the major European powers – London, St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin and Paris – on the eve of war in 1914.
In St Petersburg, the Grand International Masters’ Chess Tournament exemplified the international rivalries of Russia, Germany, France and Britain, and also demonstrated the Russian passion for chess that continues to this day. In London, complaints about the Tube were as frequent as they are today; to divert travellers from their misery, Macdonald Gill – the brother of Eric Gill, the sculptor and designer – was commissioned to produce a ‘Wonderground‘ map.
Macdonald Gill’s 1914 ‘Wonderground’ map: details
Berlin today is a place utterly unlike the city on the eve of war a century ago, argued Stephen Evans. ‘The ghosts are all around … but the buildings they might inhabit have often vanished, turned to rubble’. Berlin ‘reaped its own whirlwind in the wave of catastrophes that followed that first great war’. Hugh Schofield wondered to what extent Parisians felt that they were living through the era of La Belle Epoque. Our image of the city on the eve of war tends to overlook the extent to which modernity was the moving spirit of the city: cars and planes, Cubism and Marcel Duchamp’s first ‘readymade’.
In a vivid account, Bethany Bell spoke of Vienna on the eve of war: capital of Austria-Hungary’s multi-national empire with its simmering tensions, and home in 1914 to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud. I was particularly struck by her account of the men’s hostel in Meldemannstrasse, in the working class district of Brigittenau which for almost a century provided shelter for the homeless of Vienna until it closed ten years ago. Five years after it opened, Bell reported, Hitler moved in, remaining, down and out and unnoticed, until 1913. The hostel was financed by the Rothschilds.
Last week The Essay’s theme was The Book that Changed Me, in which five people discussed the book that had inspired them in their chosen career. There were two outstanding talks, one by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson who described how David Copperfield mirrored his own deprived childhood in London. After the death of his mother, the discovery of Dickens’s novel gave him hope: ‘I was thirteen years old and had read lots of books but nothing like this complex saga; so moving, so emotionally intertwined’. It’s a theme developed more fully in his acclaimed memoir This Boy, which I must read.
The Book that Changed Me: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
The nature of time is central to John Berger’s lyrical and meditative And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, chosen by actor and director Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite, and one of my own favourite books, first published in 1984. McBurney described how Berger’s exploration of ideas about memory, space and time, storytelling and mortality became infused in his theatrical work.
McBurney admitted that, on a first reading, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos can seem a bewildering collage of ideas, poetry, prose, polemic and autobiographical glimpses. With repeated readings, however, Berger’s slim work has become a point of reference for McBurney’s art and his life.
In an account as fragmentary as the book he discussed, McBurney spoke of how for years he had been a nomad, touring theatre all over the world. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted’, writes Berger, ’emigration, forced or chosen across national frontiers or from village to metropolis is the quintessential experience of our time’. Memory and storytelling become the mortar that preserves identity. Berger:
Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as though through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless In our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.
Storytelling is McBurney’s profession, and he noted how Berger begins his book by examining the essential element of all stories, time:
We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky. The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their times overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as law beyond the clustering. A famine is a tragic cluster of events. To which the Great Plough is indifferent, existing as it does in another time.
Berger reflects on the nature of time: the length of ‘lived’ time, the deeply experienced moment, as opposed to the seeming brevity of other moments. Time is perceived as a force which people either take to be annihilating or capable of being, if not controlled, at least opposed (in political action). Parts of Berger’s book are reminiscent of
that state between waking and sleeping. From there you can wander towards either of the two. You can go away in a dream or you can open your eyes, be aware of your body, the room, the crows cawing in the snow outside the window.
Love’s opposite is not hate but separation, said McBurney, quoting Berger. Death separates eternally – an unbridgeable gap.
When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me. This presence is multiform: it consists of countless images, passages, meanings, things known, landmarks, yet the whole remains marked by your absence, in that it is diffuse. It is as if your person becomes a place, your contours horizons. I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.
Partir est mourir un peu. I was very young when I first heard this sentence quoted and it expressed a truth I already knew. I remember it now because the experience of living in you as if you were a country, the only country in the world where I can never conceivably meet you face to face, this is a little like the experience of living with the memory of the dead. What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.
Time and memory, love and separation:
When I open my wallet
to show my papers
or check the time
of a train
I look at your face.
The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.
The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.
The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.
And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.
McBurney’s father was an archaeologist and knew, he said, about bridging gaps. The bones he dug were more fragile than the earth that surrounded them. He would reassemble shards of bone or flint that revealed the truth about our past, and joined us with it. That, argued McBurney, is what Berger’s book does: it joins – the local to the universal, the immediate to the distant, the living to the dead. Berger’s tools are words. He ‘digs in the vulnerable earth of human experience, and joins the fragments he uncovers with an eye as sure as an astronomer, a gesture as gentle as a carpenter’.
From the last page of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos McBurney quoted this heart-stopping image:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
Time past and time future.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
– ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, TS Eliot
- Kennedy assassination: 50 years of conspiracy in fiction and film: Guardian feature that inspitred me to read 11.22.63
- The Essay – The Book that Changed Me: Simon McBurney (BBC iPlayer)
- Jeremy Irons Reads TS Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’
- Jeremy Irons reads TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ BBC Radio 4
John Berger About Time
A year after John Berger had published And our faces, my heart, Brief as photos, this visual essay on time, based on ideas in the book, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985 (when C4 did such things). Simple format – Berger in check shirt in front of the camera, telling and reading enigmatic and compelling stories about our desire to outwit time. Deceptively simple and unimaginable on today’s Channel 4. It’s an old VHS video, not very good quality – best watched in the small window.
Solomon Northup was my name!
Steve McQueen’s magisterial film Twelve Years a Slave opens with Solomon Northup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, whittling a stick into a makeshift pen and attempting to write a plea for freedom in self made ink. This powerful image prefaces the story of a man who endures unspeakable hardship and brutality, just barely managing to hold on to the faith that his own words put down on paper, and the words inscribed in the American constitution, can free him.
As Northup falteringly scratches his words on paper we are reminded also that, eventually freed after twelve years from a system founded on the implacable belief that he was not a human but an animal, Northup would write one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, a bestseller when it appeared in 1853.
Solomon Northrup’s signature
There are reckoned to have been at least a hundred American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with even more following after the end of the civil war. The Life of William Grimes, published in 1825, was the earliest full length autobiography by an American slave. Grimes concludes his narrative on a note of sarcasm:
If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America.
In his own book, Northup adopted a similar tone, recalling how his kidnappers had hauled him:
Handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!
In Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story, the ironies and iniquities residing in the words of American law are emphasized repeatedly. The constitution might speak of inalienable rights, but the law of the southern states made slave-owning a question of property. The system was upheld by perverted religious belief and blind racial hatred, but its fundamental bulwark lay in the fact that the law deemed Northup not a man, but chattel which could be bought and sold like a bale of cotton.
12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt as the Canadian ‘with noble and generous emotions’There’s a key scene (lifted straight from the book) in which a Canadian carpenter, ‘a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions’, debates with Northup’s brutal plantation owner who advances the well-worn justification for slavery: that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation. Furthermore, he argues, ‘There is no sin. A man does as he pleases with his property’.
The response from the man whose actions would lead ultimately to Northup’s freedom goes right to the hypocritical heart of the white slaver’s argument:
These niggers are human beings. if they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers and can go where you please, and can gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet … there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. …Talk about black skin, and black blood … what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel.
At the end of the film an epilogue informs us that,when liberated, Northup managed to bring to trial the men who had sold him into slavery. But the action failed because, as a black man, Solomon Northup could not testify in his own defence – anywhere in the United States.In interviews around the release of his film, Steve McQueen has said that he had wanted for some time to make a film about a free black American kidnapped into slavery. Then, a friend suggested he base the film on the true story recounted in Northup’s 19th century best-seller Twelve Years a Slave. In 1841 Northup, the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter.
After seeing McQueen’s film I’ve been reading Northup’s original text -in Kindle format. (Go to the Kindle store and you will find multiple editions have been rushed out to capitalise on the film’s release. If you want one, make sure you choose the one edited by Dr Sue Eakin who, whilst at Louisiana State University, completed painstaking research into Northup’s life, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement. This new Kindle edition has copious footnotes by Eakin that confirm or explain points in Northup’s narrative: for less than £1 it is superb value.)
I mention all this in order to make the point that McQueen’s film is absolutely faithful to the book – except in one regard. At the beginning of the film Northup is presented as a model of prosperous bourgeois respectability, living in the elegant spa town of Saratoga Springs with his wife and children in a rather elegant house, well dressed and conversing at ease with his white neighbours. It wasn’t quite like that, as Eakin explains in her notes. Northup picked up seasonal work in the hotels at Saratoga, and odd jobs as as a carpenter and fiddle player at dances and other social occasions, while his wife worked as a cook at a Saratoga hotel moving 20 miles away in the ‘off season’ to work in a coffee house. In his narrative, Northup honestly admits that:
Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.
I can only assume that McQueen sought, by depicting Northup living in bourgeois respectability and with seemingly secure employment, to dramatise the rupture in his circumstances brought about by the kidnapping. With that one exception, however, the film renders Northup’s story with great integrity. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his Guardian review, there is ‘passion and moral force’ here, coupled with a ‘powerful visual sense’ and the ‘determination to look at ugly realities head-on’. While in the Independent, Rupert Cornwell wrote:
Everything about it feels authentic, right down to the language, the antiquated cadences and biblical rhythms of which are pitch perfect. Its historical accuracy has been vouched for by none other than Henry Louis Gates, the leading and occasionally prickly scholar on black America and its culture, and a consultant for the film. ‘It was much like studying… and I didn’t have to make any corrections’, he has said, calling it ‘the best film about slavery ever made from the point of view of a slave’.
McQueen tells Northup’s story with clarity and attention to period detail, and not a scintilla of standard Hollywood sentimentality. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s central performance is truly outstanding, brilliantly capturing Northup’s sense of bewilderment at his plight, his initial despair, his resilience and his battle to keep his dignity and self-respect. Advised how best to ensure his survival by a fellow captive, Northup retorts: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’. McQueen’s camera lingers in closeup for long moments on Ejiofor’s face. With precise, wordless expression, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, as a clench of his jaw and the slightest parting of his lips speaks volumes.
By this time he is no longer Solomon Northup, having been stripped of his birth name (ironically the surname of his father, a freed slave who in his early life had been so named by his owners, the Northup family), sold in a slave auction and taken to a plantation in Louisiana and renamed Platt – after one of the local slave owners.
Having been approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show, Northup had travelled to Washington DC with them, where he had been drugged before waking in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen, ‘within the very shadow of the Capitol where patriotic representatives boast of freedom and equality’, as Northup observes.
Protesting that he is a free man, Northup was beaten to within an inch of his life in the first of the film’s unbearable, but totally necessary, scenes. A slave now, with no rights, Northup described being marched through the nation’s capital in chains:
So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!
Sold at auction, Northup is transported to a plantations in the Louisiana bayou country. For the next twelve years, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week for a series of increasingly brutal masters. He is finally sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who runs the plantation where Northup will work until he being finally rescued. Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, it’s and a measure of his skill as an actor that he is able to hint at the insecurities in a sadistic man who has nothing remotely sympathetic about him. The most unbearably shocking scene in the film comes when the young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who has been repeatedly raped by Epps, is whipped on a pretext urged on by his wife. It is a scene that drips with the self-loathing and sexual guilt that lay at the heart of the system of slavery.
Michael Fassbender with Lupita Nyong’o
There has been much discussion of the unbearable scenes of violence in 12 Years a Slave. But how could there not be such scenes? Steve McQueen made this point in an interview:
If you read the book, we pulled back a lot. There are only, I think, five acts of violence in the whole film – a film which last two hours and 11 minutes. That’s five acts of violence. You know, any thriller, or any horror movie, has someone being shot in the head at least every 15 minutes, or cut up or whatever. So as far as violence is concerned in our film, it’s kind of minimal, to be quite honest. But maybe in the context of the truth it becomes quite different, I suppose.
McQueen spoke, too, of how he drew upon images from the history of art to guide him in his presentation:
Think about Goya, for example, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, “Look – look at this.” So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image. It’s about looking. Looking at the image, because it’s important. That’s what Goya is saying. And this [film] is something that’s kind of gone through art history, in a way – the frame, the image; it’s what we’ve been dealing with for hundreds and hundreds of years.
12 Years a Slave is not an easy watch and nor should it be. There is one long, uninterrupted long shot in which Northup is left hanging from a noose for several hours, his toes desperately scrabbling in the mud as he tries desperately to preserve his life. It is uncomfortable and becomes increasingly difficult to watch:
Yes, it does. Again, I don’t, it’s not a trick to use the long shot – it’s what’s necessary for the scene. Cinema is 120-odd years old, and, therefore, the whole idea of me using film language, however I use it – there no right or wrong way of doing anything, it’s just if it works or not. For example, the hanging scene, for me, was “how do you talk about two things, even three things, in one shot?” Sometimes people do six shots to say one thing and I’m interested, in this situation, in one shot to show not just physical abuse, but mental abuse. Solomon is hanging in the tree struggling, but, at the same time, you had these slaves creeping out of their hut and going about their daily chores. And [they’re] noticing Solomon, but not reacting to him because they know that if they get involved in it, they’ll be strung up beside him. So, there’s that kind of mental abuse and mental torture. And you have the kids running behind and playing while Solomon is suspended. The whole idea of normalizing that particular situation, it was very necessary for those scenes to hold the shot. And time passing as well, because he’s hung up there for most of the day.
A drunken, sadistic bully: Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps (notice how he rests his elbow)
There has been much discussion, too, of whether there is any relevance in making a film about slavery today. For white Americans (and Europeans) it’s something in the past that we can put behind us. Some black American critics have argued that the last thing young black Americans need is to be continually be reminded of slavery days. McQueen’s response is that Northup’s story is, essentially, a narrative about today: ‘It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything’.
Look at the prison population. Look at the mental health issues, the poverty, the unemployment. You could go on and on and on. The evidence of slavery is all around. This is not a coincidence. There’s a cause and there’s an effect. It’s one of those things; someone asked me the other day, “What was it like when you first discovered slavery?” And I couldn’t remember when I first discovered slavery. It’s like asking me, “What was it like when you first discovered your name?” It’s one of those things where I thought about it, and I thought about the question, and the only answer you can give was a sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment – and that’s how a young person, as a kid, one starts off their life, because you’re embarrassed about that part of your history.
The repercussions of slavery are still seen today. The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.
We have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnic groups like the Jewish community have. They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.
McQueen has also made the point (explored in this article from the Independent) that there has hardly been a superfluity of films about slavery. As McQueen points out, the Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than two dozen films about slavery in the United States:
Some people just don’t like to look at this chapter of our history because it makes them feel ashamed. But in order to get over it, in order to understand who you are mentally and spiritually, you have to understand slavery.
McQueen, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Grenada and Trinidad, believes it’s also important to note that slavery was not just an American thing.
This wasn’t just North American history, this was global. I’m from the diaspora of slavery. My parents are from the West Indies. My mother was born in Trinidad, my father was born in Grenada. Malcolm X’s mother came from Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘black power’, came from Trinidad. Colin Powell was born to Jamaican parents, as was Harry Belafonte.
12 Years A Slave featurette
Saratoga Springs honoured Solomon Northup in 1999
King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah: a hologram
Before Christmas I read Dave Egger’s latest novel A Hologram for the King, the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged, American businessman who is at the end of his rope: divorced and deeply in debt, with a daughter he can’t afford to support through college. With a fondness for alcohol, and a horrible growth on the back of his neck, he has flown to Saudi Arabia to make a presentation to King Abdullah in the hope of selling the Saudis hologram technology.
Day after day Clay is driven to a large white tent on the outskirts of the King Abdullah Economic City (or KAEC) that is rising out of the desert. There, he and three young colleagues sit around with laptops waiting to show a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, on behalf of Reliant, an American company that is the largest I.T. supplier in the world. Day after day, the king fails to arrive and the Americans lie around, worrying about the absence of wi-fi and trying to kill time in the emptiness.
The American businessman’s story that lies at the heart of A Hologram for the King is more than an individual drama. Clay’s story is closely intertwined with recent American economic history, in a narrative that Eggers has forged into a dark comedy, a kind of Waiting for Godot thing. This reflects the way in which, in his own career, Eggers has combined activism with writing that has increasingly had the state of America as its central concern.
I’m a great admirer of Dave Eggers. Though highly mannered and conscious of its own bravura stylings, I enjoyed hugely the wit and humour of his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he told the story of his parents’ deaths within weeks of each other, and of how he raised his kid brother while living out a Generation X lifestyle in San Francisco. I thought What Is the What, his non-fiction novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese ‘Lost Boy’ who survives civil war and refugee camps only to meet with pain and heartbreak in America, was superb, while Zeitoun, was a brilliant account of an American heart of darkness in the aftermath story of Hurricane Katrina.
I admire Eggers, too, for the work his philanthropy and activism. He co-founded the 826 Valencia project, a writing workshop for teens in a rundown district of San Francisco that evolved into 826 National, with writing workshops springing up around the country, and the non-profit organization ScholarMatch that connects donors with disadvantaged students who can’t afford to go to college (so it’s perhaps not surprising that Alan Clay, the protagonist in A Hologram for the King is anguished at the thought of not being able to support his daughter through college).
The new novel is a parable of America’s slow slide towards obsolescence in a globalized economy. Clay started out selling bicycles for Schwinn bikes, the Chicago manufacturer – bikes made by American workers until the company abandons its factory in Chicago. Clay ponders the repercussions:
We’d tossed out a hundred years of expertise. You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.
Now Clay is facing an existential crisis. He’s divorced, he drinks too much, and the recession has worn down his earnings to practically nothing. He’s ‘virtually broke, nearly unemployed’, and needs to pull of this assignment in Saudi Arabia so that he can pay his daughter’s college fees. Reliant, a huge multinational, has sent him to Jeddah to pitch for the IT infrastructure contract for King Abdullah Economic City, a massive new development in the desert. Alan and his team aim to impress the king by showing him a cutting-edge holographic teleconferencing system, magically enabling a colleague in London to appear in 3D in their tent in Saudi Arabia.
Eggers makes everything about Alan’s crisis noticeably symbolic. During long hours of boredom as he waits for the king’s appearance, Alan muses that at Schwinn, he had been one of the executives who pushed for the bicycles to be manufactured outside America, in order to outflank the unions. So the process was outsourced to Asia. The firm went bankrupt was Alan ‘left with nothing to sell’:
More efficient without the unions, cut them out. More efficient without American workers, period, cut them out. Why didn’t I see it coming? More efficient without me, too… I became unnecessary. I made myself irrelevant.
He’s had a career as a salesman, selling things. Now he’s selling an illusion to a man who never appears.
Eggers writes here with great spareness and clarity, conjuring the hallucinatory, weightless sense of Clay’s team waiting to make a holographic projection in the empty landscape of a puritan kingdom where everyone seems to be boozing on the sly. Egger writes from personal experience of time spent in Saudi Arabia and cleverly evokes the absurdities of the scenario, at the same time affording glimpses of connections with the world beyond the kingdom’s borders. In a half-finished apartment block in the desert he finds, just two floors below the gleaming finished apartments, a squalid bare concrete room where two dozen foreign labourers are crowded into a tiny space and fight over a discarded mobile phone.
A review in the New York Times described A Hologram for the King as ‘a clear, supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad’, and continued:
Eggers speaks for a new America that has to think globally and can’t be sure where the country fits on the planetary screen. … Eggers, with ferocious energy and versatility, has been studying how the world is remaking America.
Before the start of the novel Eggers offers an epigraph from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett:
It is not every day that we are needed.
Egger’s message for Americans (for us Europeans, too, no doubt) seems to be: get used to it.
Bruce Dern as Woody in Nebraska: look into those eyes
As we get older we tend to live more in the past. Yet at the same time our memory begins to fade. So things can get a little confused. In Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (who gave us the funny and moving Sideways), Woody Grant is an elderly and increasingly confused old alcoholic who is convinced that has won a million dollars and is determined to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska (having lost his driving licence through some past infraction) to claim his prize in person.
Nebraska: on the road
Payne has shot the film in black and white, filling the screen with wide-screen images of big sky and open country, the highways and tired urban landscape of the decaying towns that squat on the plains of the American Midwest. In the opening sequence Woody (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) trudges up the highway, heading out of his hometown of Billings, Montana, intent on walking the 750 miles to collect his winnings. His son David (Will Forte) collects him from the local police station. After Woody sets out again on his pilgrimage despite his family’s insistence that he is being conned by a marketing scam, his harassed son decides to humour him by driving him to Lincoln.
They haven’t gone far when Woody gets drunk, gashes his head and has to be taken to hospital. The upshot is a detour to the town where Woody was born and grew to manhood. The road movie morphs into a grotesque family reunion, with the screenplay treading a fine line between affection and caricature in its depiction of Woody’s relatives and old friends.
Nebraska: venal and grotesque cousins
Here are people, battered by recession and America’s fading economic power, who cling to each other in gloomy bars or slump for hours before TV screens. In one scene, Payne films Woody’s relatives gathered around the TV to watch a football game. We see them from the vantage point of the television set: old men in check shirts, all facing in the same direction, all silent and still, utterly impassive, their faces blank and inexpressive.
Nebraska: the thrill of watching the match on TV
Payne (who hails from Nebraska himself) portrays these characters as venal and grotesque. But along with the caustic humour that at times makes you wonder whether Payne is mocking his characters there is an elegiac tone that places them within the context of the fading of the American Dream. These broken people, Payne seems to suggest, once were the backbone of America – the farmers and industrial workers who powered the American century.
It’s not all grotesquery, though; as Richard Brody observed in his review for the New Yorker:
The loveliest, most poignant scene in the film takes place in the sleepy office of the town’s newspaper, where David goes in quest of information and chats with the elderly editor (Angela McEwan), who, it turns out, has history with the family. It’s the scene that quietly wrenches the movie apart and makes the distant, unspoken past vibrate with a revived passionate power.
Nebraska: watching TV again
That sense of a people living in hope that the dream they were promised will one day materialise is crystallised in this exchange between Woody’s son and the receptionist at the office of the marketing company in Lincoln. She has just confirmed that Woody has won nothing, and offered the consolation prize of a free baseball cap on which are inscribed the words ‘Prize Winner’:
– Has he got Alzheimer’s?
– No. He just believes what people tell him.
– Too bad
Payne ends the film on an uplifting note that doesn’t sweeten or weaken the stringency of its earlier observations of character and context. Richard Brody puts it well in his New Yorker review:
Payne wraps things up with a moment of cheerful satisfaction that packs bitter ironies. David and Woody don’t return home better equipped to face their troubles; Woody is still in decline, and David’s job and solitude await him in Billings. The knowledge that David brings back and the experiences that he’s had in Hawthorne won’t be of much help to him. Rather, the knowledge is life itself; the movie is the story of a life deepening and filling out, as if in real time—but that deepening life doesn’t improve in any practical sense. Nothing changes; and yet, at the end of the movie, nothing seems the same.
The film is never sentimental, nor unduly melancholic, and Payne downplays the story’s larger symbolic implications by keeping his focus on the behaviour of the characters, giving us a nuanced portrait of small-town life; an intimate tale, rooted in family and community, that resonates with echoes of forces that lurk just over the horizon.
Nebraska: Woody returns to the old homestead
Footnote: films in 2013
Without doubt, Nebraska stacks up as one of the best films of 2013 – though, at least as far as feature films go, this has not been an especially memorable year. I have seen excellent feature films – but you can count them on the fingers of one hand: Museum Hours, Terence Malik’s To the Wonder, and the Chilean election drama No! I have also seen, but not written about here, Captain Phillips, the thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks that dramatises the true story of Phillips, taken hostage after the container ship he was captaining was seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. That led us to watching a slew of his other films at home – some of them that I hadn’t seen before: the Bourne trilogy (the last two parts energetically directed by Greengrass), the white-knuckle United 93 and Green Zone, originally announced as being based on the award-winning book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, but turning out to be a thriller having more in common with the Bourne films (not least the leading actor, Matt Damon) than the book. We also saw Gravity (who didn’t?), Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant 3D epic starring Sandra Bullock as the beleaguered astronaut floating in space, and – as a family Christmas outing – the second part of Peter Jackson’s overblown Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. It was, at least, an improvement over last year’s execrable The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
But the genre that consistently came up with the best films was the documentary. There was a time when documentary films would not have been destined for cinema release, but these days they are as finely-edited and presented in high definition as feature films. Seen this year were: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, Springsteen and I, Ken Loach’s The Sprit of ’45, and McCullin, the stunning documentary about the war photographer Don McCullin.
As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.
Continuing my journey through Dickens, I’ve reached his sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, another first reading for me. Although Dickens regarded the novel as one of his best, it failed to capture the public imagination when it was first published – through 1843 and into 1844 – with sales of the early monthly parts being particularly disappointing compared to previous works. I can see why: the novel definitely has weaknesses. It is slow to get started, and seems to struggle and lose momentum in the final episodes. Yet, overall, I still enjoyed the book, and was entertained especially by the American passages and by some classic Dickensian characters, especially, of course, Mrs Gamp.
Dickens couldn’t understand Chuzzlewit‘s comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold between 40 and 50,000). He was so pleased with the opening chapters that he declared to John Forster that it was the best thing he had ever done. But, after the first few episodes had sold disappointingly, he realised he had to do something to retrieve the situation.
In 1842 he had travelled across America with his wife Kate On returning to England, Dickens had published American Notes in which he attacked slavery, and American politicians motivated by money, not ideals. He criticised the hypocrisy he had found in the republic for which he had held out such high hopes beforehand: ‘I am disappointed,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘This is not the republic of my imagination’. In American Notes, Dickens wrote of ‘despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers’. Now he saw an opportunity to vent his feelings about American society in scenes of fierce, satirical comedy by sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to America – a move he hoped would also revive his readers’ flagging interest in the novel. It did, but only marginally.
Dickens had already established the novel’s overarching theme of hypocrisy in the opening episodes in which he had introduced the complex genealogy of the Chuzzlewit dynasty and the greed of Old Martin’s relatives, in particular the unctuously hypocritical Pecksniff, each of whom hope to inherit the old man’s wealth. Now, in the sixth instalment, Dickens had the young Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man’s grandson, sail to America with Mark Tapley, who will come to represent the opposite virtues of selflessness and concern for others.
In her concise survey of Dickens’s life and work, Jane Smiley makes some interesting observations about the way in which Dickens’s thoughts about society and reform were developing at the time of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – thinking that found its way into the novel. Dickens, she says, differed from many fellow reformers of the period – people like Lord Shaftesbury, who were Evangelicals and ‘promoted, first and foremost, the prohibition of sinful acts such as prostitution and alcohol consumption, and who combined teaching the poor to read and write with rigorous religious instruction’. Dickens, Smiley says, ‘always ridiculed the Evangelical impulse to look for sinfulness and evil nature, instead interpreting kindness, fellow-feeling, charitableness and social conscience as virtues of generosity and love. Society would be reformed through an expansion of love and responsibility, through the cultivation of comfort and beauty, not through clamping down’.
When I read Jane Smiley’s words it seemed to fit right in with James Kincaid’s observations on Sairey Gamp in his Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, which can be found on the Victorian Web. At first, it might seem that Dickens has no sympathy for the outrageous Gamp, the gin-sodden midwife and nurse to the poor who treats those in her care with cavalier roughness. But Kincaid regards her as ‘the central moral figure in the novel’, the morality she lives by being ‘much more humane and more adequate to the demands of the bleak world’ she inhabits.
Though purely selfish, she is never mean and, more important, directs our attention and our values far away from such narrow moral verdicts. Mrs. Gamp is selfish only from the perspective of a fool like old Martin; Dickens and his readers saw her as a triumphant expression of selfhood.
Mrs Gamp, Kincaid points out, ‘continually satirizes the barbaric consolation offered to the poor by religion and its basic appeals to envy and vindictiveness’:
Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ’em. to see out of a needle’s eye. That is my comfort, and I hope I knows it.
For Kincaid, Gamp is the archetypal anti-Puritan, ‘who would drink and laugh even in the Slough of Despond’. She hates the prudential life which does nothing more than prepare for death, and she is dedicated to the happiness to be found in society. ‘She functions’, Kincaid writes, ‘to provide a way out of despair, through imagination, versatile artistry, and resiliency’.
The American episodes are a rollicking good read. Like Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit sets off for America full of hope that he will quickly make his fortune in this new land full of promise. But, like Dickens, he is disillusioned. Observing America through the eyes of Martin and Mark, Dickens develops a sweeping critique of America, embracing aspects such as spitting in public, lack of respect for individual privacy revealed in impertinent questioning of strangers, voracious eating habits, pompous oratory, and misuse of the English language (Dickens’ ear for how people speak is as sharp as always).
But, most of all, Dickens turns his spotlight on the failure of the country to live up to the constant proclamations of the founding ideal of democracy he heard from the mouths of Americans while he was in the country. Dickens presents America as being as hypocritical as Pecksniff – but this greed and hypocrisy is systemic, rather than individual. In one passage, Martin observes that all conversation is about money:
Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!
Dickens focusses on slavery over to reveal, as Martin puts it, that in getting rid of ‘masters’ the country has simply substituted ‘owners’. One scene in particular reveals Dickens’s loathing of slavery; Mark Tapley introduces Martin to a man he has just met on the street:
And may I ask,’ said Martin, glancing, but not with any displeasure, from Mark to the negro, ‘who this gentleman is? Another friend of yours?’
‘Why sir,’ returned Mark, taking him aside, and speaking confidentially in his ear, ‘he’s a man of colour, sir!’
‘Do you take me for a blind man,’ asked Martin, somewhat impatiently, ‘that you think it necessary to tell me that, when his face is the blackest that ever was seen?’
‘No, no; when I say a man of colour,’ returned Mark, ‘I mean that he’s been one of them as there’s picters of in the shops. A man and a brother, you know, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, favouring his master with a significant indication of the figure so often represented in tracts and cheap prints.
‘A slave!’ cried Martin, in a whisper.
‘Ah!’ said Mark in the same tone. ‘Nothing else. A slave. Why, when that there man was young—don’t look at him while I’m a-telling it—he was shot in the leg; gashed in the arm; scored in his live limbs, like crimped fish; beaten out of shape; had his neck galled with an iron collar, and wore iron rings upon his wrists and ankles. The marks are on him to this day. When I was having my dinner just now, he stripped off his coat, and took away my appetite.’
‘Is THIS true?’ asked Martin of his friend, who stood beside them.
‘I have no reason to doubt it,’ he answered, shaking his head ‘It very often is.’
‘Bless you,’ said Mark, ‘I know it is, from hearing his whole story. That master died; so did his second master from having his head cut open with a hatchet by another slave, who, when he’d done it, went and drowned himself; then he got a better one; in years and years he saved up a little money, and bought his freedom, which he got pretty cheap at last, on account of his strength being nearly gone, and he being ill. Then he come here. And now he’s a-saving up to treat himself, afore he dies, to one small purchase—it’s nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that’s all!’ cried Mr Tapley, becoming excited. ‘Liberty for ever! Hurrah! Hail, Columbia!’ […]
‘Lord love you, sir,’ he added, ‘they’re so fond of Liberty in this part of the globe, that they buy her and sell her and carry her to market with ’em. They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her. That’s what it’s owing to.’
Martin soon hands over all his savings to an agent in order to purchase a ‘location’ in ‘the thriving city of Eden. In a passage with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress, Martin and Mark arrive in Eden:
As they proceeded further on their track, and came more and more towards their journey’s end, the monotonous desolation of the scene increased to that degree, that for any redeeming feature it presented to their eyes, they might have entered, in the body, on the grim domains of Giant Despair. A flat morass, bestrewn with fallen timber; a marsh on which the good growth of the earth seemed to have been wrecked and cast away, that from its decomposing ashes vile and ugly things might rise; where the very trees took the aspect of huge weeds, begotten of the slime from which they sprung, by the hot sun that burnt them up; where fatal maladies, seeking whom they might infect, came forth at night in misty shapes, and creeping out upon the water, hunted them like spectres until day; where even the blessed sun, shining down on festering elements of corruption and disease, became a horror; this was the realm of Hope through which they moved.
At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before; so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.
Martin succumbs to despair and depression. But, after nearly dying from malaria himself, Mark Tapley sees Martin through depression and desperate illness. Mark is a figure of genuine, even heroic, goodness His self-proclaimed mission in life is to remain ‘jolly’ at all times, no matter how challenging the circumstances. It is his concern for others that helps keep him happy. Both men manage at last to return to England: penniless, they are loaned the fare home by a Boston doctor they had encountered soon after landing in New York.
The American passages are, primarily, hilarious satire. Back in England, the comedy is uppermost, too – at least until the final episodes. The comic characters and scenes are as funny as any I’ve read in Dickens (indeed, James Kincaid has asserted that Martin Chuzzlewit is Dickens’s funniest novel). He may be right; chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London, for example, comprise a brilliant passage of comic writing. And then there’s Mrs Gamp:
She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye … Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. … The face of Mrs Gamp – the nose in particular – was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits.
The sense-crunching, gin-tippling, patient-abusing Gamp is regarded by many as Dickens’s finest comic creation. Yet, although she appears to us now as grotesque, he saw her as realistic; in his Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition, Dickens wrote: ‘Mrs Sarah Gamp is a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness.’ So Dickens clearly intended Mrs Gamp and her partner Betsey Prig to represent a critique of ‘nursing’ in poor neighbourhoods at the time. Gamp appropriates her patient’s pillow in order to make herself more comfortable, and administers medicine to another patient by squeezing his windpipe to make him gasp and then pouring the medicine down his throat. She shakes old Chuffey so hard that his bones rattle.
Dickens’s rendition of Mrs Gamp’s behaviour and language is priceless. There is her fondness for the bottle:
‘Tell Mrs Gamp to come upstairs,’ said Mould. ‘Now Mrs Gamp, what’s your news?’ The lady in question was by this time in the doorway, curtseying to Mrs Mould. At the same moment a peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine vault.
Her eccentric speech, with its confused sentence structure, chaotic syntax and strange allusions, is best summed up in her words – those with which she concludes each one of her speeches: ‘Gamp is my name, and Gamp is my nater’. She’s always coming out with statements that stop you in your tracks and cause you to laugh out loud.
A remarkable aspect of Mrs Gamp’s speech, used by Dickens to reveal not only her thoughts but also her conviction that she is not alone in her thinking, is her constant evocation of the imaginary Mrs Harris. Mrs Harris exists not only to let the world know what Gamp is thinking, but also makes Gamp look good:
I knows a lady, which her name … is Harris, her husband’s brother bein’ six foot three, and marked with a mad bull in Wellington boots upon his left arm, on account of his precious mother havin’ been worrited by one into a shoemaker’s shop, when in a sitiwation which blessed is the man as has his quiver full of sech, as many times I’ve said to Gamp when words has roge betwixt us on account of the expense–and often have I said to Mrs Harris, ‘Oh, Mrs Harris, ma’am! your countenance is quite an angel’s!’ Which, but for Pimples, it would be. ‘No, Sairey Gamp,’ says she, ‘you best of hard-working and industrious creeturs, as ever was underpaid at any price, which underpaid you are, quite diff’rent … But he never said it was an angel’s countenance, Sairey, wotever he might have thought.’
Mrs Harris asserts that Sairey Gamp is sober, trustworthy, hard-working – and exploited:
Mrs Harris,” I says, “leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don’t ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I am engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.” “Mrs Gamp,” she says, in answer–“if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people and three and six for gentlefolk–nightwatching … being an extra charge–you are that inwalable person.
Perhaps the best testimony to Sairey Gamp’s qualities is provided in the ironic observation of Mr Mould the undertaker:
I’ll tell you what, my dear,’ he observed, when Mrs Gamp had at last withdrawn and shut the door, “that’s a ve-ry shrewd woman. That’s a woman whose intellect is immensely superior to her station in life. That’s a woman who observes and reflects in an uncommon manner. She’s the sort of woman now,’ said Mould, drawing his silk handkerchief over his head again, and composing himself for a nap “one would almost feel disposed to bury for nothing; and do it neatly, too!’
In the last part of the novel Dickens returns to the murder mystery form he introduced in Barnaby Rudge (this time, complete with his first detective, the shadowy Nadgett). The murder subplot involving Jonas Chuzzlewit has only a loose relationship with the main plot, but it does have the virtue of introducing Montague Tigg and his fraudulent, wonderfully-named Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. Tigg blackmails Jonas into investing heavily in the Anglo-Bengalee and when it collapses, Jonas seeks revenge. The passage in which we first learn of this venture is eerily reminiscent of events in recent times:
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is rather a capital concern, I hope, David,’ said Montague.
‘Capital indeed!’ cried the secretary, with another laugh — ‘ in one sense.’
‘In the only important one,’ observed the chairman; ‘which is number one, David.’
‘What,’ asked the secretary, bursting into another laugh, ‘what will be the paid up capital, according to the next prospectus?’
‘A figure of two, and as many oughts after it as the printer can get into the same line,’ replied his friend. ‘Ha, ha!’
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company started into existence one morning, not an Infant Institution, but a Grown-up Company running alone at a great pace, and doing business right and left: with a ‘branch’ in a first floor over a tailor’s at the west-end of the town, and main offices in a new street in the City, comprising the upper part of a spacious house resplendent in stucco and plate-glass, with wire-blinds in all the windows, and ‘Anglo-Bengalee’ worked into the pattern of every one of them. On the doorpost was painted again in large letters, ‘offices of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company,’ and on the door was a large brass plate with the same inscription; always kept very bright, as courting inquiry; staring the City out of countenance after office hours on working days, and all day long on Sundays; and looking bolder than the Bank. Within, the offices were newly plastered, newly painted, newly papered, newly countered, newly floor-clothed, newly tabled, newly chaired, newly fitted up in every way, with goods that were substantial and expensive, and designed (like the company) to last. Business! Look at the green ledgers with red backs, like strong cricket-balls beaten flat; the court-guides directories, day-books, almanacks, letter-boxes, weighing-machines for letters, rows of fire-buckets for dashing out a conflagration in its first spark, and saving the immense wealth in notes and bonds belonging to the company; look at the iron safes, the clock, the office seal — in its capacious self, security for anything. Solidity! Look at the massive blocks of marble in the chimney-pieces, and the gorgeous parapet on the top of the house! Publicity! Why, Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance company is painted on the very coal-scuttles. It is repeated at every turn until the eyes are dazzled with it, and the head is giddy. It is engraved upon the top of all the letter paper, and it makes a scroll-work round the seal, and it shines out of the porter’s buttons, and it is repeated twenty times in every circular and public notice wherein one David Crimple, Esquire, Secretary and resident Director, takes the liberty of inviting your attention to the accompanying statement of the advantages offered by the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company; and fully proves to you that any connection on your part with that establishment must result in a perpetual Christmas Box and constantly increasing Bonus to yourself, and that nobody can run any risk by the transaction except the office, which, in its great liberality is pretty sure to lose. And this, David Crimple, Esquire, submits to you (and the odds are heavy you believe him), is the best guarantee that can reasonably be suggested by the Board of Management for its permanence and stability.
It’s in the final third of Chuzzlewit where, for me at least, the weaknesses of the novel are most apparent. In the convoluted amalgamation of the Jonas murder sub-plot with the muddled resolution of the main plot concerning the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits, Dickens seems to struggle to tie up loose ends and complete his overarching critique of hypocrisy and selfishness. As often in Dickens, this is largely a result of the fact that he tended to be more fascinated by, and draw more convincingly, characters that displayed the darker side of humanity. This is a problem if you want to convince readers that individuals who are selfless, loyal and in all ways virtuous are better people.
Many of the ‘good’ characters here are hardly developed at all by Dickens: Ruth Pinch is the classic ‘little woman’, while Mary Graham is all but invisible. Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley are both selfless and never sure they’re doing enough for others. Of the two, Tapley is perhaps the strongest and more fully developed character. He’s always looking for opportunities for to gain credit for being ‘jolly’, but reckons that it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so comforts himself in bad situations that remaining optimistic and helping others will eventually allow him to stand out in the world. His care for the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit when they are in desperate straits in Eden is the nexus on which the book turns.
Despite the weaknesses of its construction Martin Chuzzlewit is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled with some memorable characters, teeming with wickedly satirical and hugely comic passages, and ringing with the voices of individuals of all classes and conditions from both sides of the Atlantic. The novel sees Dickens presenting a unified social vision, even if that vision is belaboured at times. As Martin Chuzzlewit was about halfway through its run, he distilled that vision into his everlastingly popular work, A Christmas Carol.
- Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City