Friday, 17 March 2017

Language and the presidency

I ended my last piece with a promise not to waste any more words on the self-publicist and arch-troll Milo Yiannopoulos (see below). I break that promise only to note that Simon & Schuster have cancelled their contract to publish his book after he was caught on video joking about clerical abuse and dismissing the significance of sexual consent. Perhaps the publishers were grateful that he provided them with an excuse to change their mind.

When I made that promise I was intending to take a break from the American carnage that is the Trump administration. I thought I might write about the contrasting stylistic choices made by various translators of Anna Karenina. But I find myself in Los Angeles and the news presses in on me. Tolstoy will have to wait.

A growing movement calling for Californian independence, though extremely unlikely to lead to anything, is symbolic of the strength of feeling here, where people voted against Trump in overwhelming numbers. As I learned today from a sociology professor at the University of California, more than half of the university’s quarter of a million students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most people in this diverse and dynamic state know that immigration is a good thing and reject Trump’s xenophobic vision.    

The phrase “American carnage” comes from the President’s inaugural address. It was striking partly because we don’t expect such a stark indictment of a country from its own leader, but also because it sounds incongruously like the title of a slasher movie, a thrash metal band or a televised wrestling competition. It was verbally jarring in the context of a formal speech to the nation.

It points to a striking feature of the current political scene. America is undergoing a kind of linguistic revolution. From the beginning of his campaign, Trump’s most plausible promise was that people would be liberated to speak as offensively as they please. He is doing his best, of course, to shut down criticism directed at him: his chief strategist has said that on political matters the press should “keep its mouth shut” and a top White House aide has announced that the powers of the President “will not be questioned”. But inciting hatred against the weak is to be encouraged. Trump continues to model this freedom at every opportunity.

In speech, he is crude, repetitive and often incoherent. And yet no American President has ever put such stock in the power of language to construct reality. And because of his position, the consequences of one of his tweets or casual asides can be enormous. I am reminded of Auden’s poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, 
And when he cried the little children died in the streets. 

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

Friday, 17 February 2017

Don't feed the trolls

Dick Simon and Max Schuster met in New York in 1921. Simon, the eldest of five siblings born to immigrant parents, was selling pianos. Schuster, with a background in journalism, was editing a car magazine. In 1924 they formed their own publishing house, which made its mark popularising high culture. The early success of The Story of Philosophy led to their commissioning Will and Ariel Durrant to write The Story of Civilization, which eventually ran to eleven volumes. They chose Millet’s The Sower as their logo to represent the dissemination of knowledge. Schuster died in 1970, outliving his partner by ten years, but their company continues to thrive.  

In December Simon & Schuster offered $250,000 to Milo Yiannopoulos for an autobiographical work called Dangerous. Whatever the publishers expect to disseminate with this book, it is unlikely to be anything one could call knowledge. Notoriously unreliable when it comes to facts, Yiannopoulos takes gleeful delight in attaching himself to whatever opinions are most likely to cause offence. He promotes the kind of ugly cyber-theatre known as trolling and has allegedly orchestrated campaigns of internet bullying, including the racist and misogynist attacks on Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones for which he has been banned from Twitter. 

News of the Dangerous deal has upset a lot of people. Publisher’s Weekly reports that 160 of Simon & Schuster’s own children’s authors and illustrators, including Arun Gandhi, have signed a letter to the CEO, objecting that it tends to make “fascism… mainstream”. More controversially, the Chicago Review of Books has promised not to review any Simon & Schuster publications in 2017, a decision which will mainly damage individual authors whose books happen to come out during this year. While distancing itself from Yiannopoulos’s views, the company has defended publication on the grounds of free speech, though its UK counterpart has announced that it has no plans to bring out a British edition.

The free speech argument is hard to sustain. As an editor at Breitbart News, which promotes the opinions of white nationalists and other extremists, Yiannopoulos championed Trump’s presidential campaign. With Trump’s election and the appointment of Breitbart’s former director Steve Bannon as his senior advisor, attitudes that until recently could be dismissed as marginal are now at the heart of government. There are abundant outlets for Yiannopoulos’s offensive opinions. There is no obligation on Simon & Schuster to lend those opinions legitimacy. 

Undoubtedly, now the deal has been made, any complaints and any obstacles put in its path will feed the perverse victim narrative of the far right, the myth that throughout American society white men are being silenced and oppressed. Trump himself, the most powerful individual in the world, continues to play the victim in an attempt to intimidate and weaken the press. This is a game 32-year-old Yiannopoulos has mastered. 

Perhaps, like a naughty child clamouring for attention, he is best ignored. If so, I have already given him 500 words more than he deserves. I promise not to make this mistake again. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

The plot against America

I wrote this for The Bangladesh Daily Star shortly after the US election and have only just got round to posting it here. There can no longer be any doubt that Trump intends to govern as a kleptocrat: he is already shaping foreign policy around his personal business interests. How his fascistic impulses will be expressed remains to be seen.

In his novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines two years of alternative history for the United States. In the 1940 presidential election, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator and Nazi sympathiser, defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war platform. The drama is played out on the national scale, but what captures us imaginatively is the impact of the new regime on the Roth family in Newark, New Jersey, as witnessed by seven-year-old Philip. (Putting his real childhood self at the centre of a story that in other ways departs so obviously from reality is an audacious move typical of Roth.)

Under the Government’s ‘Just Folks’ scheme, Philip’s older brother Sandy is persuaded to spend the summer with a tobacco farming family in Kentucky. Won over by this experience, he volunteers to work for the newly created Office of American Absorption. He encourages other Jewish city boys to join him in assimilating into the mainstream protestant culture of the American heartland. The Roth parents are profoundly disturbed by this social conversion of their older son. While the family is torn apart internally by conflict between those inclined to collaborate and those determined to resist, outside the home they encounter increasing levels of antisemitism. There are anti-Jewish riots and neighbourhood curfews, Jewish friends lose their jobs or are compulsorily relocated, and the authorities turn a blind eye to acts of racist violence and murder.

When it came out in 2004, I was inclined to interpret the novel as a comment on the Bush presidency. While studying for an MA in Creative Writing soon after, I argued in an essay that it tapped into the unease of conscientious Americans in the era of the Patriot Act. At a time when an internal minority was under suspicion and subject to unconstitutional scrutiny, and the Christian convictions of the President and his circle were encroaching on public policy, Roth’s 1940s Jews seemed to stand in for twenty-first century American Muslims. Of course I wasn’t alone in making this connection. Reviewers had mentioned it, though Roth himself, while strongly opposed to Bush, had denied that this was his purpose. 

In retrospect I see more clearly that the story resists such an allegorical reading. The isolationist Lindbergh, eager to keep America out of the war and do a deal with the expansionist tyrant Hitler, never seemed much like George Bush, who assumed America could effortlessly dominate the world through its military might. The most obvious victims of Bush’s policies were not minority US citizens but the civilian populations of invaded countries and the foreign detainees designated as enemy combatants unprotected by the Geneva Convention. 

Now Roth’s novel feels chillingly relevant. A celebrity without political experience, motivated by crude bigotry and ambition and indifferent to the world beyond America’s borders, Donald Trump looks like Roth’s President Lindberg in a way that Bush never did. As Philip’s father says of his fellow Americans, unaccountably besotted with their new President: ‘They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.’

The unsolved mystery of Elena Ferrante

Ferrante is an Italian novelist in her 70s who has been producing published work for about 25 years. But it was only four years ago with My Brilliant Friend, a novel about growing up in a poor and frequently violent neighbourhood in Naples, that Ferrante achieved international fame. At the heart of that story is a bond between two girls in which love and enmity mingle in constantly surprising ways. Three further novels have traced that relationship through adolescence and into adulthood. The last of this series, The Story of the Lost Child, was judged by The New York Times one of the 10 best books of 2015.

Ferrante is a pseudonym. What little is known about the author has been gleaned from interviews, and a volume of correspondence with editors which appeared in 2003. She insists on anonymity, explaining that she finds it necessary for her work. In an email interview with Vanity Fair in 2015 she said, ‘I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’

In spite of this, two controversial attempts to unmask her were published during 2016. The first drew on internal textual evidence to prove that Ferrante was in fact Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. The author of this paper, a Dante expert, said that he had conducted a philological analysis ‘as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text’. Even in the face of such scholarly evidence, however, professor Marmo insists that it isn’t her.  

An investigation by Claudio Gatti for the Italian newspaper Il Sole received wider circulation when it was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. Using investigative techniques that might be more usefully applied to exposing the corruption of politicians and corporate executives, Gatti followed a trail of payments from the publishers to a freelance translator of German texts, Anita Raja. Raja has also denied authorship.

Bizarrely, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone, a screenwriter and journalist, has previously been identified as the real Ferrante, as has the male writer and critic Silvio Perrella, as if only a man could show such a confident grasp of late twentieth-century Italian social and political history. But to anyone who has actually read the 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan quartet – a slow-burning study of female friendship and rivalry and the struggle to achieve autonomy in a patriarchal society, punctuated by intense love affairs, abusive marriages and intimate explorations of the trials of pregnancy and motherhood – the idea that this is an extended act of male ventriloquism must seem implausible. 

A recent convert to the Ferrante cult having just read this series, I find the author’s identity the least interesting question about it. Sprawling, loosely constructed, with too large a cast and too many tangled plot lines, it shouldn’t work but it does – magnificently. That’s a mystery worth investigating.  

This was originally written for The Bangladesh Daily Star

The flawed brilliance of Bob Dylan

I wrote this in October for my monthly column in The Bangladesh Daily Star shortly after Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

Ever since he appeared on the New York folk scene, presenting himself as an anonymous exile from a place of no distinct identity – ‘My name it means nothing, my age it means less, the country I come from it’s called the Midwest’ – Bob Dylan has worked to elude definition. 

In fact his name was soon going to mean a lot. It already signalled his recognition that a short homespun handle like Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry was required if you wanted to get somewhere in American popular culture. Matt Dillon, the fictional sheriff in a Wild West TV series called Gunsmoke, seems to have been the original inspiration before a change of spelling added a reference to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Soon enough Dylan’s disinclination to be pinned down would cause disillusionment among political followers. For a while he seemed to be the voice of a movement, telling the older generation that their sons and their daughters were beyond their command, but he was disinclined to attend rallies or endorse causes.

He famously offended folk music aficionados who had claimed him as their own when he went electric, responding defiantly to shouts of ‘Judas’ during a concert in England and turning the volume up. In the late 70s he caused consternation among fans when he declared himself a Christian and took to proselytizing from the stage. And through all these phases he has legitimately claimed the freedom to reinvent his own songs in performance. His refusal to show deference or even politeness to the Nobel Committee comes as no surprise.

One of Dylan’s qualities is that he has stayed true to his vision, following where it takes him. Songs like Highway 61 Revisited and Tangled Up In Blue, in their sweeps of impressionistic narrative, offer more density of meaning and suggestion than most words written to be sung. But when he touches on the interpersonal, Dylan’s vision becomes singularly myopic.  

His refusal to be pinned down has shown up in his writing, less attractively, in relation to women. Moving on is what his male characters and alter egos do, usually with more resentment than acceptance: ‘You just kinda wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.’ 

That last phrase appears in the chorus of another song, addressed this time not to a girlfriend but to a mother: It’s all right, Ma (I’m only bleeding) and strikes a similarly sour note. Here, in the context of apocalyptic images of eclipses and warfare, we are exhorted not to be owned, not to give up our autonomy to any person or organisation: ‘To keep it in your mind and not forget that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to’. But the warning comes in response to the realisation ‘that somebody thinks they really found you.’ The song urges us not simply to take ownership of ourselves, but more weirdly, to remain hidden, to resist the normal human desire to be seen and recognised. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The peculiar timelessness of Enid Blyton

The children’s author Enid Blyton, who died nearly half a century ago, has been in the news recently. The publishers, Hachette, have announced that they are scrapping their updated versions of Blyton’s Famous Five books.

The stated intention, when this project was launched six years ago, was to replace old-fashioned language that might make it harder for children to enjoy the stories. ‘Housemistress’ and ‘school tunic’ were updated to ‘teacher’ and ‘uniform’, archaic slang such as ‘awful swotter’, ‘jolly japes’ and ‘lashings of pop’ were replaced with blander alternatives. In some places there was a political dimension to these revisions. Blyton’s ‘dirty tinkers’, for example, would from now on be described more politely as ‘travellers’.

Enid Blyton wrote more than 600 children’s books, producing, at her most prolific, 50 a year. There was a rumour during the 1950s that to maintain this level of output she employed a team of ghost writers. A librarian, sued by the author for repeating this story, had to apologise in court. The truth was Enid Blyton didn’t need any help. By her own account, she wrote without thinking, allowing the stories to emerge unmediated from her unconscious onto the keys of her typewriter.

During the 1960s and 70s critics began attacking her on other grounds. Educators had long considered her books too simple, claiming that young readers were addicted to them because they presented no linguistic demands. More damning than that, her books were now seen to be marred by xenophobia, sexism and snobbery. The girls and boys whose adventures are narrated either conform to gender stereotypes or are rebuked for challenging them. Coming from middle-class families, they are too often pitted against suspicious outsiders whose criminality is associated with foreignness or low social status.

Inevitably, the news that Blyton’s publishers have abandoned these updated versions has been celebrated by some as a defeat for the forces of political correctness. But I think this reveals a misunderstanding both of the motives for the project and of why it failed. Blyton’s more overtly racist stories have not been in print in English for decades. Mercifully only used copies of The Three Gollywogs are available on Amazon, where reader reviews express a mixture of nostalgia and defiance. ('My grandma used to read the book to me when I was a baby… those who see gollywogs as racist or offensive need their heads tested.’)

The 2010 revisions seem to have been motivated mainly by a desire to smooth the path for the twenty-first century reader. The intention, as the publishers said at the time, was to make the texts ‘timeless’.  But timelessness requires more than the removal of obstacles. Peculiar language is as likely to be a hook as a stumbling block. I’d hazard a guess that very few of Blyton’s earlier readers were as socially privileged as her characters, or had any experience of boarding school, or ever talked in real life about ‘jolly japes’. The old-fashioned public schools that featured in the kinds of books I found in Cheltenham Public Library as a child were almost as far removed from my own experience as Hogwarts. Books create their own worlds into which readers are drawn. Language is an essential part of how those worlds are created.

This piece has appeared previously in The Bangladesh Daily Star

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Pragmatism Time

George Orwell knew about evil. He took a bullet in the throat fighting fascism in Spain. Later he barely escaped with his life when the Soviet-backed Spanish government judged him to be the wrong kind of leftist.

I don’t know if it was Orwell who introduced the phrase lesser of two evils into electoral politics, but the earliest source I know is his 1948 essay, ‘Writers and Leviathan’. The argument is aimed at fellow writers but applies to any citizen of a democratic country. We are obliged to take part in politics, he says, even though it’s ‘a dirty, degrading business’ and we should give up thinking we can choose between good and evil: ‘one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser.’

With about five weeks to go before the US Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton, who offers competence but fails to inspire, could still lose. Here are five types of voter who might yet be persuaded to climb aboard the creaking Clinton charabanc.

1  The Purist

Ralph Nader famously stood for the Green party in 2000, splitting the progressive vote and contributing to the defeat of Al Gore. This is what he thinks about Clinton v Trump:

‘If I don’t have a third party to vote for, I’ll write in my vote. I will never vote for someone who is going to engage in illegal armed force, unconstitutional killing of innocent people, selling Washington to Wall Street and driving our country into the ground’ (Democracy Now, 19 September 2016).

That’s Hillary he’s talking about. Apart from the final dystopian flourish, it sounds like business as usual for the American Empire. The question is which part of this would not be worse with Trump in charge?

2  The Disillusioned Lover

Last week, sleepless in the small hours, I heard an interview on the BBC World Service with a young man who loved Obama in 2008. Eight years on, hurt and disillusioned at the absence of transformation, he plans to stay home. ‘If voting changed anything,’ he said, ‘they’d have made it illegal years ago.’

That's not such a novel idea. Even in the land of the free, universal suffrage doesn’t just grow in the wild like magic mushrooms. 56 years after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, there are Republican-controlled states manoeuvring to prevent poor and minority citizens from voting. Trump himself has explicitly encouraged voter intimidation, urging his supporters to make their presence felt at polling stations in Democratic districts.

Voting is legal because people have struggled to make it so. And it doesn't require you to fall in love, just to choose.

3  The Revolutionary

I love Susan Sarandon. Bull Durham is my absolute favourite baseball movie of all time. But she’s wrong about this election. Explaining earlier this year why she wouldn’t be shifting her allegiance from Sanders to Clinton, she said, ‘Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode’ (MSNBC, 30 March 2016).

The trouble with explosions is that you can’t control who gets hurt. People sometimes say 'it's going to get worse before it gets better' but this is a consolation, not a strategy.

4  The Tribalist

After the first debate, a woman who looked as if she’d lived through at least a dozen general elections, said, ‘I’m voting for the conservative party. If that jackass [Trump] happens to be leading the mule-train, well, so be it.’

It’s a great line, but a terrible argument. If George Bush senior can break ranks and vote for Hillary, so can anyone. Even for a conservative, voting for the jackass is not compulsory.

5  The Missing

In 2008, in the highest turnout since the 1960s, only about 57% of the voting age population cast a ballot. It dropped in 2012 to about 55%. This year doesn’t promise to break any records. On past evidence, upward of a 100 million people will fail to vote.

Some of these will be idealists reluctant to dirty their hands in support of the status quo (see above). Some will be ex-offenders permanently removed from the electoral roll. Some with no criminal record will find themselves excluded on Kafkaesque technicalities. Many, working long shifts to support their families, will genuinely struggle to find the time for a journey on ill-funded public transport to a distant polling station to stand in line for hours. Others will think they probably should vote but won’t quite get it together, or will imagine that somehow politics doesn’t apply to them.

For the disadvantaged, disaffected or disengaged, a Clinton presidency may not be an exciting prospect, but terror at the thought of Trump in the Oval Office ought to be enough to drive more of them to the polls.