The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

<em>The Underground Railroad</em> by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”


Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

Rereading John Berger: <em>To the Wedding</em>

Following news of the death of John Berger I decided to re-visit some of his books, many of which I last read decades ago. In this post I want to discuss his novel To the Wedding, first published in 1995. There must be some truth in the notion that the circumstances surrounding an encounter with an artistic work somehow may affect our response. When I first read this book soon after publication, I admired it as much for its portrayal of a post-Cold War Europe in which the novel’s characters could move with greater freedom across borders as for its its story of two young lovers facing a future poisoned by AIDS. Reading it again this week, still grieving after our own personal loss, the novel overwhelmed me with its humanity, its  assertion of love in the face of death, with the fierce determination of a couple who seize joy from the present with a wedding feast described by Berger in  transcendent passages that form the book’s conclusion.

What shall we do before eternity?

Take our time.

Dance without shoes?

Re-acquainting myself with To the Wedding, I now believe this to be John Berger’s masterpiece.  Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed

Orhan Pamuk’s <em>A Strangeness in My Mind</em>: the streets of Istanbul transformed

In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.
― Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind

Writing in a recent post about Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, with its central character a bus-driving amateur poet who closely observes the special in the mundane details of the city he inhabits, reminded me that I ought to write something about Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s latest, The Strangeness In My Mind. Read in December, it has as its central character an Istanbul street vendor through whom Pamuk weaves the tumultuous history of that city in the last half-century. Indeed, it carries the lengthy subtitle, ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 From Many Different Points of View’.  Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed”

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing

This weekend John Berger will be celebrating his 90th birthday. For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series, Ways of Seeing, that with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. In the decades that have followed, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with more television documentaries, novels,screenplays, drawings, articles and essays. So today’s post celebrates John Berger, who in all the variety of his work has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art, a Marxist ‘among other things’ whose words are sometimes those of the angry polemicist, but which invariably celebrate everyday experience and artistic expression with probing insight and subtle tenderness. Continue reading “John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing”

Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place

<em>Addlands</em>: the inescapable ties of geography and place

In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is an article by John Lanchester in which – although he’s writing about Brexit – he makes an observation that seems to resonate with a novel I read recently: ‘England’, Lanchester writes, ‘is both a small country and a big one …there is a lot of Deep England out there.’

Tom Bullough’s Addlands is set in deepest Radnorshire, a story of hill farmers battling with the forces of nature in one of Britain’s wildest, poorest and least populated areas. Historically a Welsh county, culturally Radnorshire has been a law unto itself, its people declaring their identity as neither Welsh nor English, but Radnor folk, people of the Borders; and fiercely-contested borders between fields and farms form one of the threads in a novel that spans the decades from the 1940s to 2011. Continue reading Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place”

Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud

<em>Satantango</em>: humanity flounders in the mud

There’s a DVD I’ve had for years but never watched, except for the first ten minutes or so. I’ve always been overwhelmed at the prospect of the long haul that lies ahead. Made by the director Béla Tarr, it’s a seven hour long adaptation of the first novel by fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, called Sátántangó.

The book was published in Hungary in 1985, and Bela Tarr’s film came out nine years later.  But it was only in 2012 that an English translation of the novel appeared. Lent it by my friend Dave, I finished it in just less than the time it would have taken me to watch the film version. But what to make of it? Continue reading Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud”

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.

Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain.  Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’.  Dickens did not concur. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

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”

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

Just as the our century seems likely to be defined by the act of terrorism perpetrated in New York in 2001, so was the twentieth century defined by the shots fired in Sarajevo in 1914. In a brilliant passage in The Radestky March, Joseph Roth describes how the news of that world-changing event slowly seeps into the consciousness of a drunken outdoor celebration on the far eastern margins of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a storm breaks on one sultry night in July 1914.

But that is just one of many such superb passages in The Radestky March. I don’t know how I could have lived so long before reading such a marvellous book. Roth’s elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire and its dominant class might seem unexpected  from an author born to Orthodox Jewish parents who named him Moses Joseph Roth, and a man who began his journalistic career in Vienna after the First World War, writing for left-wing newspapers under the pen-name Red Roth.

Das bin ich wirklich; bšse, besoffen, aber gescheit
Joseph Roth

For that was Roth’s own story – born in 1894 in Brody, a town on the far eastern edge of the Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia, where two-thirds of the population were Jewish. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (then known as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. The circumstances of Roth’s birth begin to explain the vision of the novel he came to write in 1932, amidst the turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.

The title evokes the twin monarchy of Austria and Hungary and the music of Johann Strauss I, who composed the march in honour of a field marshal who won key battles that asserted Austrian domination of northern Italy in the 1840s, and which soon became the theme song of the empire. But, whereas the historical novel usually celebrates the triumph of the nation-state, in The Radestky March Roth reverses the trend, seeing in the nationalist movements that inspired the terrorists in Sarejevo and which contributed to the end of the Hapsburg Empire the force that destroyed his own heimat, his homeland. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ his translator Michael Hofmann wrote, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’

Reviewing Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s Collected Stories for the NYRB in 2002, JM Coetzee added this:

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at university in Vienna, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 in number. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude‘ (a Jew from the East), remarked Roth, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.’ Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews. Roth was an outstanding student, but his education was terminated by the war. Although he had pacifist leanings, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. In 1917, ethnic tensions in the imperial army led to him being transferred out of a German-speaking unit to a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia.

Galicia, the most distant and northernmost province of the Hapsburg Empire, is the setting for the scene referred to earlier in which a celebration, organised by the local army unit, is taking place outdoors. As a summer heatwave breaks, thunder draws closer and sheet lightning illuminates the night sky:

No one heard the rapid gallop of the orderly who raced across the forecourt, came to a sudden stop, and in full regulation kit, with glittering helmet, rifle across his shoulders and cartridge pouch on his belt, white lightning flashing around him and purple clouds darkening him, looked not unlike a herald of war in a play. The dragoon dismounted and asked for Colonel Festetics. He was told the Colonel was already inside.  A moment later, the Colonel came out, was handed a letter by the orderly, and went back inside. He stopped in the circular hall, which had no ceiling lighting. A footman came up behind him, with a branched candlestick in his hand. The Colonel tore open the envelope. The footman, though trained from earliest youth in the great arts of serving, was nevertheless unable to keep his hand from shaking. The candles he was holding started flickering violently. He made not the slightest effort to peer over the Colonel’s shoulder, but the text of the message came within view of his well-trained eyes, a single outsize sentence written very clearly in blue copying pen. As incapable as he would have been of ignoring through closed eyelids one of the flashes of lightning that now were quivering in ever faster succession in every quarter of the sky, so he was averting his eyes from the terrible, large, blue letters that spelled out: ‘There are unconfirmed reports that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo.’

The words struck home, like a single, unbroken word, into the consciousness of the Colonel and the eyes of the footman standing immediately behind him. The envelope slipped from the Colonel’s hands. The footman, holding the candlestick in his left hand, stooped down to pick it up with his right. When he stood up straight again, he found himself staring at Colonel Festetics, who had turned round to face him. The footman took a step back. He held the candlestick in one hand, the envelope in the other, and now both were trembling. The flickering candlelight played over the Colonel’s face, alternately lighting it and darkening it. The coarse, flushed face of the Colonel, graced with a grey-blond moustache, was now purple, now chalk-pale. The lips trembled slightly, and the moustache quivered. No one else was in the hall, only the Colonel and the footman. From the interior of the house came the sounds of the first muffled waltzes from the two bands, the jingling of glasses, and the murmurs of conversation. Through the door that led out to the forecourt they could see the reflections of distant lightnings, and hear the feeble echo of distant thunder. The Colonel looked at the footman. ‘Did you read that?’ ‘Yes, Colonel!’ ‘Not a word to a soul!’ said Festetics, applying his finger to his lips. He walked off, tottering slightly. Perhaps it was the uncertain illumination that made his walk seem unsteady.

Joseph Roth in Berlin

Joseph Roth in Berlin

The Radetzky March brims with such brilliant passages.  The novel follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, loyal servants of the crown.  The first Trotta is a simple soldier who is elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 (the last major battle at which all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs).  This man of lowly rank dares to push the Emperor Franz Joseph to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet which would have struck the Emperor. But Roth instantly (in only the fourth sentence of the novel) gives us a foretaste of the grandiosity and ridiculousness of an empire that will decay:

Fate had elected him for a special deed.  But then he made sure that later times lost all memory of him.

The Hero of Solferino is celebrated in a textbook for the schoolchildren of the Empire.  But the account is exaggerated, and Trotta seeks an audience with the Emperor to ask for things to be put right:

“Listen, my dear Trotta!” said the Kaiser.  “The whole business is rather awkward. But neither of us comes off all that badly.  Let it be!”

“Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “it’s a lie!”

“People tell a lot of lies,” the Kaiser confirmed.

“I can’t, your Majesty,” the captain choked forth.

Trotta requests his discharge from the army, though Imperial favour does not abandon him. He is made a Baron, 5,000 guldens are allocated for his son’s  education, and – thanks to the Emperor’s casually expressed wish – the offending textbook disappears from the monarchy’s schools.

Trotta’s son – partly because of his father’s legendary status – obtains a secure post in the Civil Service, eventually becoming a prominent District Commissioner, conscientious, totally dedicated to routine and order, but lacking all imagination His son, Carl Joseph, is an army officer who begins to feel a growing sense that his life is dissolving into futility as the Habsburg mystique he is reminded of each Sunday when a military band plays the Radetzky March, loses its hold on him.  Finally, he perishes without issue in the Great War. The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the decline of the empire.

Continue reading “The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire”

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt, author of 'The Goldfinch'

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch

I enjoyed reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, remaining gripped throughout its 800-odd pages.  Whether the novel amounted to a great deal more than a thoroughly good read: of that I’m doubtful.  The question only arises because of the serious issues hinted at, but not developed in any significant way, in the novel’s powerful opening chapter, and by the Macguffin at its heart – the precious and exquisite work of art which accompanies the narrator from his childhood bereavement, through teenage dissipation to a chilling endgame in Amsterdam.

Readers had been waiting a long time for a new book from Donna Tartt – eleven years to be precise – so, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch has a bestseller, as well as garnering  much critical acclaim.  In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, called it ‘a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole’. However, the critical reception hasn’t been wholly rapturous: a review in the London Review of Books described it as a ‘children’s book’ for adults.

It really depends on your expectations.  Having read (and enjoyed) Tartt’s two previous books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), I was not expecting great literature that probed the urgent moral and social of our time.  The Goldfinch, indeed, shares many characteristics of the two earlier novels: situated for at least half its length in a childhood or adolescent milieu, and turning out to be, basically, a superior sort of thriller. Tartt is especially good at getting inside the minds of pre-adult males, and is acutely observant of teenage mores and amoral behaviour.  To that extent, the first two-thirds of The Goldfinch follow the pattern of her earlier books.  In the opening chapter it seems as if it might offer more.

Donna Tartt, 'The Goldfinch'

After a brief prologue in Amsterdam, Tartt begins by rewinding 14 years to the day when Theo, the novel’s narrator, loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes as they are visiting  New York’s Metropolitan Museum. This chapter, written in gripping prose, reminded me of the astonishing first chapter of Don de Lillo’s Underworld.  Theo and his mother are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are brilliantly written.

There’s a sense here that themes of great significance may be unfolding.  No reader could fail to sense some sort of parallel with 9/11.  And when Theo leaves the wreckage of the museum with a painting – one that actually exists in the world, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius – the anticipation grows that Tartt’s novel might resonate with the concerns of a time that has seen the treasures of great cultures destroyed in acts of war and terror. For surely, Tartt means us to recall the explosion, in Delft in October 1654, when a gunpowder arsenal blew up, killing hundreds of people, among them the young painter, Carel Fabritius. Perhaps her intention is that we should meditate on the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan buddhas?

But it’s not to be, despite the fact that, minutes before her death, Theo’s mother tells him as she stands before the painting, ‘Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. This may be what irritated some critics: apart from a couple of paragraphs at the end of the novel that feel tacked on, the miraculous survival of Fabritius’s painting in two explosions (one real, one fictitious) matters to Tartt only insofar as it provides the motor for the art-world crime thriller that makes up the final third of the book.

The longest section of the The Goldfinch is one which has led some critics to compare the novel to Dickens’s Great Expectations. A motherless child, Theo is first taken in by the wealthy Manhattan family of a nerdish school friend, presided over by the Miss Haversham-like figure of Mrs Barbour. But, after a few months his estranged alcoholic gambler of a father turns up to whisk him away to a barren suburb of Las Vegas.  There, Theo meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend: Boris, a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenage Ukrainian who leads Theo into a world of excess.

Along with the opening section, this was for me the best part of the novel.  Theo’s friendship with Boris – the son of a crooked Russian businessman, portrayed in vivid terms by Tartt –  is the backbone of the story.  It is this friendship, not anyone’s devotion to art and its ideals, that saves ‘The Goldfinch’ – and Theo himself.



The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

Google campus scene 1

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

The revelations contained in the Snowden files alerted us to power of government surveillance to use the web to break our privacy and track our every move, our thoughts.  Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian last year:

When you think about privacy you have to think about how intimate our use of technology has become. When someone is worried about a social or medical issue, about their sexuality or whether they have cancer, they can put their trust in the complete secrecy of the web. Maybe they are a minor, and too embarrassed to go through their parents. It’s important to preserve the ability to do things over the internet that are very intimate.

But what if the real threat to our privacy – indeed, our freedom – comes from the powerful corporations that now dominate the internet?  That is the question at the heart of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, a book so powerful and thought-provoking that I feel  everyone should read it.  (The issue is also the subject of ‘The death of privacy‘, a lengthy and thoughtful essay by Alex Preston in today’s Observer.

Dave Eggers The Circle cover

The Circle

In The Circle Dave Eggers imagines an internet company that we will all probably think of as Google, operating out of a shiny campus in southern California. However, Eggers’ company – called the Circle – has swallowed all its tech competitors and streamlined search and social media into one system that’s enabled it to rapidly become the biggest, richest and most powerful corporation on the planet. Setting his story in the very near future (weeks? months?), Eggers has written a novel that zips along and which raises urgent questions about the accumulation of data by private corporations, about surveillance, and transparency.  When you put the book down you realise that it’s not just NSA and GCHQ surveillance that should concern us.  We ought to be reading those long and boring t&c’s that we blithely tick ‘yes’ to when signing up to Google or Facebook, iTunes or Instagram.

In an article earlier this year,Salon magazine outlined ‘4 insane ways Google has been invading our privacy’.  The internet giant can already ‘vacuum up, scan, index and sell analytics based on the content of our texts, emails, searches, locations and more’, but now, with the purchase of Nest, a company selling wifi-controlled home appliances, Google now aims to track us not just in our homes, ‘but at work, in our cars and even when we’re walking down the street’.

‘The acquisition will help Google close the circle of search, people and goods in a broad Internet of Everything,’  wrote Wall Street Journal editor Michael Hickins. ‘With home automation, self-driving cars, robots, mobile, and life sciences, Google is setting itself up to own the 21st century.’

‘Closing the circle’ is the aim of the company at the heart of Eggers’ novel.  As the mysterious, subversive figure of Kalden puts it towards the end of the story:

I want you to connect these dots and see if you see what I see. Picture this. The Circle has been devouring all competitors for years, correct? It only makes the company stronger. Already, 90 percent of the world’s searches go through the Circle. Without competitors, this will increase. Soon it’ll be nearly 100 percent. Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and accesss to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on  their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’

Referring to Bailey and Stenton, two of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who founded the company, Kalden continues:

Bailey believes that life will be better, will be perfect, when everyone has unfettered access to everyone and everything they know. He genuinely believes that the answers to every life question can be found among other people. He truly believes that openness, that complete and uninterrupted access among all humans will help the world. That this is what the world’s been waiting for, the moment when every soul is connected.

Stenton professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, -soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.

That reminded me of an essay written for the London Review of Books last year by Rebecca Solnit in which she remarked:

We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is both utopia and dystopia. For the central character, Mae, the Circle campus, beautifully manicured, with steel and glass buildings, each named after an historical era (‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’), and with every need met (places of entertainment, places to meet and party, shop, exercise, or have a health check), is a utopia.

My God, Mae thought.  It’s heaven.

But before long, Eggers’ begins to reveal the dystopian reality of the Circle.  I particularly admired the way in which Eggers points up the exploitative labour relations that underpin the Circle’s glossy façade.   On her first day, Mae is introduced to her duties in customer experience.  She sits at the customary desk facing a screen and, once she has ‘opened the chute’, deals with an endless flood of support requests.  All her responses are monitored and rated.  Her supervisor tells her that she needs to aim for a rating score in the high nineties: ’99 is good, but I can’t help wondering why it’s not 100′.

During Mae’s first week at the workstation, more screens are added.  In addition to fielding support requests, she must simultaneously participate in both intra-company and external social networks because (as she learns in a wickedly satirical episode) ‘communication is not extracurricular’.  Her activity on social networks is integral to her work, and is monitored.  The Circle has absorbed some Facebook-like entity where participants ‘zing’ each other.  By the end of her first week, Mae is dealing with four screens (and her mobile) and is expected to maintain a high level of zings – her ‘Partirank’ in the company depends upon it.  Implicit in the atmosphere of the campus is the notion that if you are truly loyal to the Circle you will work long hours (striving to rise up the Partirank ratings), and preferably not leave the campus at all. (Anyway, why would you want to return to the public squalor that exists outside?)

Indeed, the campus is another world, compared to the public utility company Mae used to work for:

The utility building, 3B-East, was a tragic block of cement with narrow vertical slits for windows. Inside, most of the offices were walled with cinderblock, everything painted a sickly green. It was like working in a locker room. She’d been the youngest person in the building by a decade or so, and even those in their thirties were of a different century. They marvelled at her computer skills, which were basic and common to anyone she knew. But her co-workers at the utility were astounded. They called her the Black Lightning, some wilted reference to her hair, and told her she had quite a bright future at the utility if she played her cards right. In four or five years, they told her, she could be head of IT for the whole sub-station!

There are sharp echoes of Orwell’s 1984 (‘War is peace’. ‘Freedom is slavery’. ‘Ignorance is strength’) in Eggers’ depiction of the slogans that pepper very few yards of the campus (remember Google’s motto, ‘Don’t be evil’?): ‘Secrets are lies’. ‘Sharing is Caring’. ‘Privacy is theft’.  Circlers are regularly brought together for consciousness-raising sessions before giant screens from which the company’s leaders expound their philosophy and the latest technological breakthrough.  The Circle’s mantra is ‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’, a philosophy whose implications Eggers pushes to the limits in order to expose the dangers in what is happening – now – on the internet.

Mae’s ex, Mercer, is a symbol of the old world and its restraints from which she has escaped.  Eggers gives Mercer some good lines:

I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky. … Listen, twenty years ago … judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.’

To which Mae’s response is simply:

Mercer, is it important to you to be cool?

But Mercer has no wish to be cool – prefers not to advertise the chandeliers he carves from deer antlers on the web, has no interest in participation on social media, or being tied to screens for a good part of the day.  He just wants to get away from all that – with tragic consequences.

Google campus scene 2

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

Meanwhile, Mae learns the importance of 24/7 social media interaction and transparency when she is hauled before supervisors to explain a ‘lost weekend’ when she rushed off to her parents’ home after learning that her father had fallen ill.  Mae is informed that she ‘left campus at 5.42 on Friday’ and ‘returned at 8.46 on Monday’, yet left no trace of herself in cyberspace in all that time.

‘Was there work on the weekend? Did I miss something?’ asks Mae.  But what concerns her supervisors is her her failure to observe another Circle mantra: PPT.  Passion, participation, transparency.  What did she do while at her parents house? She watched women’s basketball.  Did you know we have a zing feed about the WNBA?  ‘I’m not that passionate about basketball’, responds Mae, stunning her inquisitors.  When she informs them that on her way home she took a kayak out into the bay alone, but did not zing news of her activity, or switch on her SeeChange video camera, they are appalled.  ‘I was just kayaking’, pleads Mae.  They respond: ‘Do you realize kayaking is a multi-million dollar industry?’

Strictly speaking, Mae stole the kayak, since it was midnight, and she took one left outside the rental compound.  When she returns to shore, police are waiting for her: removing the kayak, she had been picked up on one of the Circle’s SeeChange cameras.  This incident later informs a passage in which Eggers explores the question of transparency versus privacy. In one of the company’s briefing sessions, Mae is being questioned before a giant screen by one of the company founders:

“I have a question, Mae. Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?”

“Better. Without a doubt.”

“When you’re alone, unwatched, unaccountable, what happens?”

“Well, for one thing, I steal kayaks.”

The audience laughed in a sudden bright burst.

“Seriously. I do things I don’t want to do. I lie.”

“The other day, when we spoke, you had a way of putting it that I thought was very interesting and succinct. Can you tell us all what you said?”

”I said that secrets are lies.”

“Secrets are lies. It’s very memorable. Can you walk us through your logic with that phrase, Mae?”

”Well, when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that it make,s crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.”

“Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?” Bailey turned to the audience. ”When we can’t reach a loved one, we speculate. We panic. We make up stories about where they are or what’s happened to them. And if we’re feeling ungenerous, or jealous, we make up lies. Sometimes some very damaging lies. We assume they’re doing something nefarious. All because we don’t know something. ”

“It’s like when we see two people whispering,” Mae said. “We worry, we feel insecure, we make up terrible things they might be saying. We assume it’s about us and that it’s catastrophic.” […]

“For example, if there’s a locked door, I start to make up all kinds of stories about what might be behind it. I feel like it’s some kind of secret, and it leads to me making up lies. But if all the doors areopen, physically and metaphorically, there’s only the one truth.”

Bailey smiled. She’d nailed it.

”I like that, Mae. When the doors are open, there’s only one truth.

The words SECRETS ARE LIES appeared on the screen behind Mae.  Seeing the words four feet tall gave her a complicated feeling – something between thrill and dread.

The session ends with three lines projected on the giant screen:




Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

In The Circle, Eggers offers us a warning that Facebook, Google, Apple and the rest are leading us down a path which may ultimately cost us our rights to privacy and lead to every aspect of our lives being monitored, monetized and potentially controlled by giant private corporations.  As well as 1984The Circle reminded me of Huxley’s soma eaters in Brave New World. Where Huxley has the inhabitants of his perfect society blissed-out on their happiness-inducing pleasure-drug, oblivious to their control by the Alphas of the World State, Eggers paints a seductive portrait of the Circle campus in the bright Californian sun, where clever people invent new but threatening technologies in high tech glass and steel buildings, driven by the evangelical idealism of the Circle’s founding fathers.  But behind the day-glo facade lies darkness:

And there was a wonderful thing that tended to happen, something that felt like poetic justice: every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle, or the Circle’s unfair monetization of the personal data of its users, or some other paranoid and demonstrably false claim, soon enough it was revealed that that person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order […] And it made sense. Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?

In today’s Observer essay, Max Mosley (a man for whom I would not usually have much sympathy) is quoted as saying (apropos of his current challenge to Google in the German courts to remove references to a ‘Nazi orgy’ that the News of the World splashed in a report later ruled in court to be lies):

I think, because of the Stasi the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.

That’s a pretty good summary of the case put by Eggers in his fiction.  As Alex Preston comments in the Observer piece, we need to ask some fundamental questions about the role of search engines:

Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

But Google is more than a search engine.  It has developed Google Glass which enables wearers to surreptitiously film unsuspecting bystanders. It stores the content and details of email communications of millions of people (individual Gmail users, as well as employees of companies who contract Google to operate their email service – and users, like me of Virgin Media email, also operated by Google).  And, by means of Google maps and its Android operating system it can track our movements and transactions.  Towards the end of The Circle, Mae, challenged by the mysterious Kalden, exclaims:

”That’s so bad? If’everyone has equal access to services, to information, we finally have a chance at equality. No information should cost anything. There should be no barriers to knowing everything, to accessing all – ”

“And if everyone’s tracked?”

“Then there’s no crime. No murder, no kidnapping and rape. No kids ever victimized again. No more missing persons. I mean, that alone – ”

The Circle is cracks along like a thriller, its straightforward plot unhindered by character complexity.  But it’s an important – and disturbing – book for our time.  I think you should read it.

See also

Footfalls echo in the memory

Footfalls echo in the memory

TS Eliot  Gerald Kelly portrait

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

File handout image shows President Kennedy and  Jacqueline Kennedy riding in motorcade in Dallas

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

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.

And our faces

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.

Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney

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
pay money
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.

John Berger

John Berger

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

See also

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.