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.

The period during which Bleak House was written and serialized, Dickens was involved in what was, even for him, a remarkably energetic whirl of activities – not only literary, but much of it concerned with social reform.

During the first three years of the 1850s, Dickens was editing the weekly literary magazine Household Words, launched in March 1850, writing his A Child’s History of England, and touring the country with theatrical productions.  At the same time he was deeply involved in reforming causes. He was actively engaged in the running of Urania Cottage, the home for homeless women that he had set up with Angela Burdett Coutts in Shepherd’s Bush in 1847; he was an active supporter of the Ragged School movement; and he promoted reforming causes through public speaking and a stream of articles in Household Words.

Inevitably, these interests found their way into the new book he was writing, one whose darkness of tone was at odds with the national mood of complacency and self-congratulation.  The sombre mood of Bleak House no doubt derived, too, from the tragedies that Dickens experienced in his personal life at this time: the death of his father, followed only two weeks later by the death of his infant daughter Dora.

The novel brings us to Bleak House, a metaphor for cosy Victorian England, a home ruined by the machinations of a legal system that had become ‘a by-word for delay, slow agony of mind, despair, impoverishment, trickery, confusion, and insupportable injustice’ (as Dickens wrote in Household Words). But although Bleak House was once ‘a dreary place’, since being inherited by the generous and good-hearted John Jarndyce it has been transformed into a place of comfort, light and warmth.  Jarndyce has inherited the place from his great-uncle Tom who, caught up in the cogs of the endless case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Chancery, had finally blown his brains out, leaving ‘the signs of his misery upon it’.

It had been called, before his time, the Peaks. He gave it its present name and lived here shut up, day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds choked the passage to the rotting door. When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too, it was so shattered and ruined.

Yet, despite its ‘light and warmth, and comfort’, and its picturesque qualities, this place of contentment is beset by the ‘east winds’ that Dickens sees swirling through moribund mid-century Britain: the unreformed ills of industrialization, corruption, and smug self-satisfaction.

Central to Dickens’ vision in Bleak House is how rich and poor are inextricably bound to one another, and how contagion – both physical and mental – can quickly spread. Though the overall tone is sombre, the novel is illuminated by the satire through which Dickens expresses his anger at social inequality and hypocrisy, and his sympathy for the plight of the poor.  All of Dickens novels have relevance today, but Bleak House is probably the one which offers the most wide-ranging, most insightful treatment of themes that remain pertinent: compassion and lack of it; corruption and greed; the inhumane treatment of the poor; the irrelevance of Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics at Westminster; the way in which those responsible for destitution distance themselves from the actions which cause it:

A ruthless set of bloody-minded villains… perfect savage… superlative blackguards…Damn the Tories – they will win here, I am afraid.
– Dickens writing in 1835 to Catherine Hogarth, soon to be his wife.

The novel’s opening must be one of the greatest in literature: the fog that envelops London being Dickens’ metaphor for the state of British society and, in particular, his main target – the Court of Chancery, with its labyrinthine practices that bring misery and ruin to its victims and riches to unscrupulous lawyers who feed upon its outmoded procedures:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

G K Chesterton wrote of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House that ‘Dickens’s openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense’:

The description of the fog in the first chapter of Bleak House is good in itself; but it is not merely good in itself … Dickens begins in the Chancery fog because he means to end in the Chancery fog. … The beginning is alpha and omega: the beginning and the end. He means that all the characters and all the events shall be read through the smoky colours of that sinister and unnatural vapour. … Almost everything is calculated to assert and re-assert the savage morality of Dickens’s protest against a particular social evil. …The fog of the first chapter never lifts.

Another thing about that opening: its grammatical modernity that intensifies the atmosphere of constant action and movement, the swirl of juxtaposed activities in the big city fog. Beginning with a verb-less, one word sentence. The absence of finite verbs.  The insistent dangling participles that convey a feeling of continuous action. The unusual present tense narration which invests vividness and immediacy, suggesting that things are happening right now – as we watch.

As we read on we become aware, too, that Dickens has employed a unique narrative structure.  The story is told both by an omniscient, third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson. The third-person narrator speaks in the present tense, ranging widely across geographic and social space (from the aristocratic Dedlock estate to the desperately poor Tom-All-Alone’s in London), and gives full rein to Dickens’s desire to satirise the English chancery system.

Esther Summerson tells her own story in the past tense (like David in David Copperfield or Pip in Great Expectations), and her narrative voice is characterised by modesty (‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever’), consciousness of her own limits, and willingness to disclose to us her own thoughts and feelings. Yet, as her narrative develops, she displays astute moral judgement and satiric observation.

The front cover of No. 1, March 1852
The front cover of No. 1, March 1852

Satire and social criticism is at the heart of Bleak House. Re-reading it made me realise that it was this element of overt satire that was missing from John Lanchester’s novel Capital, a few years back. Set against the background of the imminent banking collapse of 2008, it was often described as ‘Dickensian’ for the social range of its characters.  What it lacked, however, was Dickens’ savage satire.

And Dickens is at his most savagely satirical in his portrayal of Chancery – the court that adjudicated in disputes over land-ownership, debts, inheritance and trusts, which by the 19th century had become synonymous with expense, delay and inconclusiveness.  There had been repeated parliamentary inquiries, but no reform.  Instead, its bureaucratic culture and exploitative court fees continued to blight many innocent lives.  Dickens had himself experienced Chancery’s corruption in 1844 when, having successfully blocked publication of a pirate edition of A Christmas Carol, instead of damages he was faced with costs of £700.

The overarching metaphor of the novel is the suit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce whose costs are steadily beggaring its litigants. It’s a metaphor for corruption and decay not confined to the area of London around the Inns of Court but spreading throughout the land:

The Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

In another passage we feel the full force of Dickens’ satirical anger:

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

The names of the birds kept by the Chancery supplicant Miss Flight are another expressive metaphor for the blight which afflicted litigants at the court:

Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.

Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse – the site of the novel’s most memorable episode, Krook’s spontaneous combustion – offers yet another metaphor for Chancery, this time as parody. In his shop Krook collects junk and old paper. The neighbours call him the Lord Chancellor, and his shop, the Court of Chancery. The shop is described as being cluttered with sacks of old rags, piles of parchment scrolls and heaps of mouldering, discoloured dog-eared law papers. Any old rubbish is bought by Crook, not least waste paper:

Everything seemed to be bought and nothing to be sold there. […] The shop had in several little particulars the air of being in a legal neighbourhood and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law.

It is here Lady Dedlock’s letters to Esther’s father turn up, and where he dies. Upstairs, Miss Flite keeps her captive birds that will be released only when the case is closed. The illiterate Krook hoards documents but cannot read them, a parody on the court that wastes interminable amounts of time on legal briefs, only to become more and more confused by them. At the court, huge sacks of papers are carried out of at the conclusion of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, echoing the mounds of junk in Krook’s shop.

At the end of the first chapter, the narrator observes, as a case in Chancery is adjourned:

A battery of blue bags is loaded with heavy charges of papers and carried off by clerks; the little mad old woman marches off with her documents; the empty court is locked up. If all the injustice it has committed and all the misery it has caused could only be locked up with it, and the whole burnt away in a great funeral pyre – why so much the better.

Krook's spontaneous combustion illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) from Bleak House
Krook’s spontaneous combustion: illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)

In the novel’s terrifying symbolic scene it is Krook, the ‘Chancellor’, who is consumed by fire, his spontaneous combustion described as

The Lord Chancellor of that court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally – inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only – spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

Bleak House 'consecrated ground' by Phiz
Jo and Lady Dedlock at the graveyard, by Phiz

But Dickens’ indictment of British society ranges much wider than Chancery. Targets in the novel include ‘telescopic’ philanthropists who sanctimoniously do good abroad whilst being blind to the condition of the poor at home (Mrs. Jellyby); slum housing (Tom All-Alone’s where Jo the crossing-sweeper lives); overcrowded and insanitary urban graveyards (such as the one to which Jo leads Lady Dedlock); neglect of contagious disease (the brick-makers’ hovels); electoral corruption (the Coodle and Doodle campaign); pompous, hypocritical preachers (Mr Chadband); scheming, exploitative lawyers (Tulkinghorn et al); class divisions (a host of impressions from the huge cast of characters – from the landed aristocracy of the Dedlocks of Chesney Wold, to the noveau-riche iron-master Roundwell, to the brick-makers and their wives and, ultimately, Jo the crossing-sweeper); and the educational needs of the poor (Krook copying words which he does not understand, or Jo, again):

Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don’t find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom, and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie. Don’t recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both.

Tom-all-alones: illustration by Phiz
Tom-All-Alone’s: illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)

Some readers, including Dickens’ friend and future biographer John Forster, were disturbed by the outspoken nature of Dickens’ attack on social ills.   Nevertheless, sales of the serialized parts were higher than for David Copperfield, helping to make him one of the richest men in Britain.

The novel not only presents a social critique; it also emphasises the interconnectedness of rich and poor, the way that rich and poor lived in close conjunction, walking the same streets, sharing the same malodorous air.  In Household Words, Dickens had written of ‘the startling depths of mental ignorance and neglect concealed beneath our hollow shows of civilisation’.

All of this is brought together in the pitiful figure of the illiterate crossing sweeper, Jo who lives in the neglected, decaying and disease-ridden slum Tom-All-Alone’s. Although Dickens’s description of the poverty and unsanitary conditions in Tom-All-Alone’s is fictional, it was all true, based on his reading of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, the year in which Dickens began Bleak House:

Jo lives – that is to say, Jo has not yet died – in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.

From the enormous cast of characters that populate the social landscape delineated by Dickens in Bleak House, I will just pick out the figure of Inspector Bucket of the Detective, since Bleak House is been cited as the first novel in which a detective plays a significant role.

England’s first Detective division had been founded in 1842, just a decade before the novel’s publication. Bucket was based on a real detective, a friend of Dickens, Charles Field.  He had been one of the first detectives recruited, and had taken over management of the division in 1846.  During his fourteen year stint as Chief of the Detective Branch, Field would often accompany Dickens on his late night walks around London. Fields retired in 1852 and worked as a private investigator until 1865.

Bucket is, perhaps, the only figure in Bleak House able to see through the impenetrable fog that envelops its characters. With his ‘attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him’, he notices absolutely everything. Bucket can fade right into the background, whether as an observer or as a ‘composed and quiet listener’, sometimes lurking in the street ‘in the guise of a pedestrian’. He has an often-noted characteristic: a large index finger, often ‘in an impressive state of action’:

Mr Bucket and his fat forefinger are much in consultation together…. When Mr Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise, to the dignity of a familiar demon. He puts it to his ears, and it whispers information; he puts it to his lips, and it enjoins him to secrecy; he rubs it over his nose, and it sharpens his scent; he shakes it before a guilty man, and it charms him to his destruction. The Augurs of the Detective Temple invariably predict that when Mr Bucket and that finger are in much conference, a terrible avenger will be heard of before long.

Frontispiece and title-page of Bleak House
Frontispiece and title-page of Bleak House

Taking an overview of the novel in his study Dickens, Peter Ackroyd argued that despite some talk of Bleak House inaugurating Dickens’ ‘dark period’, the novel is not significantly different in tone to episodes in earlier books, such as Oliver Twist.  What is different, he writes, is ‘the way in which he closely packs together all the aspects of his vision’. Bleak House is ‘more closely written than its predecessors’ conjuring forth

A world in which people are tightly bound together – in ties of duty, ties of love, ties of charity, ties of relationship, ties of debt so that the novel grows dark with the mass of lives fluttering together within it.

For Ackroyd, Dickens’ writing in Bleak House is ‘filled with power, containing the language of sentiment as well as the rhetoric of political satire, the cadence of polemic and the expression of wonder.’

In her survey of Dickens’ work, Jane Smiley writes that in Bleak House,

He created a new sort of English novel, one that explores and questions the construction of English culture and society as a whole rather than merely certain institutions.

Smiley observes how Dickens locates the tragedies of his characters ‘in institutions outside of their control and then analyses how some characters fail while others manage to cope.’

Overall, Jane Smiley casts Bleak House in a darker light than Ackroyd:

Bleak House is the most unhopeful of Dickens’ novels. Characters such as Esther and Jarndyce at best succeed in holding off decay rather than transcending it, as characters in earlier books succeeded in doing (such as the Micawbers going off to a new life in Australia in David Copperfield).

As well as having seen and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Davies’ BBC TV dramatisation, this is my third reading of Bleak House. It remains a favourite of mine.  Maybe the fascination that the novel has had for me has something to do with early childhood experience.

I grew up in the middle house in a terraced row of cottages in a Cheshire village. If I turned right out of the front door I would cross an unadopted and unsurfaced lane that petered out in fields, now lost beneath tracts of suburban houses. At the bottom of that lane, behind high hedges, stood a dark and mysterious house, reputedly inhabited by a lady who lived alone and was rarely seen. The name on the gate was ‘Bleak House’.

On the bookshelf at home was a row of the complete works of Dickens, bound in red and engraved  with gold lettering, published around 1910. As a very young child, knowing the house just along the road, I would stare at the title on the spine – Bleak House –  and wonder what mystery was contained within its covers.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House, Broadstairs
Charles Dickens’ house in Broadstairs: he named it 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.