Promised You a Miracle, 1980-82, by Andy Beckett

September 14 2015 / New Statesman

‘Latest Readings’ and ‘Sentenced to Life’, by Clive James

Latest Readings, by Clive James, Yale University Press, RRP£12.99, 192 pages
Sentenced to Life, by Clive James, Picador, RRP£14.99, 80 pages

August 14 2015 / Financial Times

No literary artist, Martin Amis once wrote, ages more slowly than a poet, “some of whom (Yeats for instance) just keep on singing, and louder sing for every tatter in their mortal dress”. He could have been discussing the late-career flourishing of his old friend Clive James, who just keeps on singing even as his mortal dress is shredded by leukaemia, bouts of pneumonia and chronic emphysema.

We all live with the knowledge of mortality, with the sound of the clock ticking. But for five years now the clock has been threatening to stop ticking altogether for James: he has in effect been living under a death sentence that miraculously keeps being extended, like some death-row inmate whose lawyer keeps winning him a last-minute reprieve from the executioner’s needle.

James accepts that but for the expertise of doctors at Addenbrooke’s, his local hospital in Cambridge, and what he calls the “meds”, he would have been dead several years ago (he was first diagnosed with terminal leukaemia in early 2010). Several of the many autobiographical poems in Sentenced to Life, his latest and finest collection, express gratitude as well as bafflement that he is still with us.

When you are waiting to die, one course of action, James has said, is “inaction”. The other is “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”. For James work means reading and writing (he is no longer well enough to travel) — and these two books as well as several others that have been commissioned are testament to his remarkable resilience and industry.

The title of Latest Readings is self-explanatory: it is a collection of mini-essays about the books he has been reading and rereading. One encounters favourite writers such as Conrad, Kipling and Philip Larkin as well as those he previously neglected, such as Olivia Manning.

Like Orwell, James has infinite curiosity and seeks not to impose arbitrary distinctions between high and low culture — after all, he made his name as a brilliantly witty television critic for the Observer in the 1970s and as a reliably unreliable memoirist. He writes here that “culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs that you won’t from a tenured professor”. This is well said, not least because in his own writing James combines a fan’s intensity with a professor’s erudition.

His qualities are his capacious intelligence, sardonic voice and fondness for wordplay and paradox. Hemingway, he writes in a reassessment of The Sun Also Rises, “overstated even the understatements”. Of VS Naipaul, he says we read him “for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart”. And so he goes enjoyably on.

The style of these pieces is pared-down and reflective. Fragments of autobiography are scattered through them. He tells us how he came upon the books about which he is writing — some were already on his shelves at home but others were bought from the local Oxfam shop and a second-hand bookstall on Market Square, Cambridge, to which he shuffles when energy levels allow.

James writes here that ‘culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity’. Although James is much better known for his work as a cultural critic and primetime broadcaster, he has been writing poetry since arriving from Australia to study at Pembroke College, Cambridge. It’s perhaps only in these last few years of terminal illness that he’s found his defining poetic subject, and for this celebrated humorist it turns out to be the gravest subject of all: death. Or, more precisely in James’s case, his principal subject is less death (which, as Wittgenstein wrote, is not an “event in life”) than the long, drawn-out process of his dying, which is very much an event in his own life.

Could it be that the imminence of death has liberated James into becoming the poet he longed to be? The urge to impress — you sense he always enjoyed being the smartest guy in the room — has been checked. Instead one discovers poems of formal restraint, humility (“Just for a time, so little means so much,” he writes in “Rounded with a Sleep”) and of a kind of baffled wonder at what JG Ballard, as he too was dying, called the miracle of life.

In “Driftwood Houses” he contrasts his plight (“I’ve hit the wall”) with memories of a long-ago family holiday when his daughters gathered shells on a beach and built houses roofed with towels. There’s a hint of regret but nothing mawkish or self-pitying in the poem, the final line of which suggests contentment: “As I lie restless yet most blessed of men.”

Restlessness has defined James’s life and work — restlessness with domesticity, with various literary forms, with finding the appropriate balance between pursuing a dual career as a TV entertainer and writer of serious literary ambition. If he feels blessed now, perhaps he didn’t always so, when he enjoyed what in “Landfall” he calls the “false freedom of excess”.

“The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish,” he writes in his introduction to Latest Readings. James has felt the pressure all too well of this urge to understand everything — and the frustrations it can bring. In his case, he has attempted to master every major literary form, with perhaps most success — until the publication of Sentenced to Life — in the personal essay.

James has approached the time of his vanishing with grace and good humour, not sentimentality or anger. These essays and poems are death-haunted but radiant with the felt experience of what it means to be alive, even when mortally sick, especially when mortally sick.

He does not believe in an afterlife. We have only this one life, as he sees it, and his is ending. “We won’t be taking our knowledge any further,” he writes, “but it brought us this far.” For now, he lives and so he works, for as long as he can, for as long as time will allow.



Barbican, London EC2

March 2015 / The New Statesman

It’s fascinating to watch a famous film actor up close, especially one as alluring as Juliette Binoche. The first of her films I saw was Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Daniel Day-Lewis, her co-star, played a handsome Czech brain surgeon and libertine whose catchphrase was: “Take off your clothes.” I was an adolescent studying philosophy at the time and was naturally thrilled by the film’s combination of sex, smart talk and metaphysics.

I waited a long time before I saw Binoche in the flesh, as it were – in the avant-garde dance drama In-I, in which she performed alongside the British choreographer Akram Khan at the National Theatre in 2008. In-I was a curiosity, a study in erotic obsession, to which Binoche seemed to give herself completely in what was an exhausting and sweat-drenched performance (and that was just for those of us watching open-mouthed in the audience).


Binoche is now 51 and still beautiful. She has thick, dark hair, wide cheekbones and pale skin. She is shorter than you imagine and has muscular, gym-toned arms. In In-I she hurled herself around the stage as she and Khan took us through the various stages of a relationship, from mutual infatuation to final desolation. As they pulled each other into a series of ever more tortured embraces, one was reminded of Binoche’s tangled (and preposterous) sex scenes with Jeremy Irons in Louis Malle’s film adaptation of Damage.

At various times, in the Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone, Binoche writhes on the stage in an ecstasy of torment. She falls to her knees as she rages and curses. She pulls herself into the foetal position. She even drags herself around on her bottom, as if she has forgotten how to walk. Hers is an intensely physical performance. Yet she is equally capable of moments of repose, such as when she sits on the edge of the stage, her legs dangling, as if unaware that we are so close, and watching her.

In the Canadian poet Anne Carson’s new English translation of Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old play, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, speaks the opening line to her sister, Ismene: “We come out of the dark.” Projected behind them on a large scree is a barren, near-desert landscape through which you imagine them wandering. Binoche wears loose-fitting contemporary black clothes and, in spite of her opening pronouncement, never really enters the light – because she is doomed from the moment she chooses to defy her uncle, Kreon, the new autocratic ruler of Thebes who is striving to impose order in a cursed land.

The central problem of Antigone is that much has happened before the play even begins, and to understand it one need to know the story of Oedipus, Greek tragedy’s original sinner. The land of Thebes has been ravaged by misfortune and Oedipus’s feuding sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, have been killed fighting each other in a civil war. Kreon (a bald-headed and vigorous Patrick O’Kane) considers Polyneikes to have been a traitor and will not allow him the dignity of a burial, preferring to leave his body to rot. Antigone refuses to accept Kreon’s edict. She demands that her brother be buried rather than left to become “sweet sorry­meat for the little lusts of birds”.

Binoche’s Antigone is easier to respect than to pity and, for some reason, one never really feels the pathos of her struggles. Antigone, her sister says, is “someone in love with the impossible”. Binoche captures well her righteousness and implacability. Her foolhardiness, too. She does not fear death. Nor does she recognise the authority of her uncle or indeed the secular state. In a pagan world of gods and strange prophecies, she is unreachable in her isolation, imprisoned by Kreon but free to take her own life, which she does in a final act of defiance.

The production experiments with multi­media effects, not all of them successful; at times, it can feel a bit like you are watching the latest shortlisted piece for the Turner Prize. Yet the final scene, with Antigone dead and Kreon stricken by remorse, is perhaps the best. For the first time, the combination of music (before this, mostly electronic ambient), video images (often of blurred modern London street scenes) and stage performance fuses powerfully. The pace quickens. The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” blasts out and, on the large screen, we see Antigone lying dead as Kreon stands by her side. He lifts a white sheet and uses it gently to cover her face. In death Antigone seems serene. It is the living who must go on suffering.

‘The Buried Giant’, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 352 pages

February 27 2015 / Financial Times

Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel for a decade is, on one level, a complete surprise. It’s set in England in the Dark Ages no less, perhaps in the fifth or early sixth century, a period about which little certain is known. The Romans have left Britain and the Saxons have arrived, built settlements, and fought wars of conquest and survival. The people Ishiguro calls “Britons” have been forced into an uneasy accommodation with the settlers, and ogres and pixies roam a bleak, damp landscape.

Ishiguro has set novels in a parallel dystopian England in which child clones are being reared for organ donation in ignorance of their ultimate fate (Never Let Me Go, 2005), and in an imaginary central European city in which a concert pianist finds himself lost in a kind of surrealist nightmare of coincidence, farce and mistaken identity (The Unconsoled, 1995). He is no realist. But I never expected to encounter a she-dragon in his fiction or, for that matter, the wizard Merlin, from Arthurian legend.

Yet for all its flights of fantasy and supernatural happenings — a mist has settled over the land forcing people into a condition of forgetfulness, or so they believe — The Buried Giant is absolutely characteristic, moving and unsettling, in the way of all Ishiguro’s fiction. It’s less a case of “Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit”, as one wag has dubbed it, than a novel of imaginative daring that, in its subtleties of tone, mood and reflection, could be the work of no other writer.

Open it at any page and you will recognise the cadences of the cool, restrained, meticulous sentences and paragraphs. In the manner of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro has created a fantastical alternate reality in which, in spite of the extremity of its setting and because of its integrity and emotional truth, you believe unhesitatingly.

The dialogue, in particular, though baffling at first, beguiles through slow accumulation. The characters address one another with elaborate courtesy and formality, even at times of stress or approaching violence. One hears echoes of the chivalric codes and vocabulary of the medieval romance tradition — one of the main characters is a knight named Sir Gawain, “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands” — but in no way is it a work of pastiche or cod historical melodrama. And many of the themes are familiar from previous novels: the unreliability of historical memory, the way the past interacts with and disrupts the present, the regrets we nurture but never fully confront or understand, the ever-present reality of mortality.

The Buried Giant can be read as a quest narrative, rich in allusion; as an allegory about post-conflict resolution and the way nations and their peoples cope with and recover from wars and trauma; and as a story that explores the meaning of love in its various manifestations. It can also be read most straightforwardly as an adventure story about the trials endured by an aged married couple as they embark on a journey. Something disturbing in the family has happened and Axl and Beatrice, the couple, have become inexplicably separated from their son, whom they believe is living in a distant village and is waiting for them.

Axl and Beatrice are deeply in love, yet are confused about the origins of this love: both suffer from failing memory and peer at the world through a thick mist of unknowing. They are haunted by fears of being separated from each other and by the realisation that they have forgotten whole chunks of their life together. (The novel could also be read as a parable about Alzheimer’s, and about how this terrible disease devours memory and with it one’s continuity of consciousness through time.)

Axl and Beatrice are deeply in love, yet are confused about the origins of this love: both peer at the world through a thick mist of unknowing

The husband and wife face many obstacles and mortal threats on their journey. Along the way they meet Sir Gawain, whom Ishiguro transforms into a garrulous, horse-loving comic grotesque, as well as a Saxon warrior named Wistan, from the eastern “fens”, whose mission it is to slay the she-dragon. Wistan becomes the self-appointed protector of a young Saxon boy, who is an outcast from his village. He sees in the boy something of himself — someone blessed with “a warrior’s heart”.

One of the mysteries of the book concerns the narrator. Who is the absent author? Who is in charge here? One is aware of a bashful, occasionally self-referring presence who seems directly to address the reader as if from a perspective far in the future: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.” Let’s call him Ishiguro.

The novel itself is told variously from Axl’s and the boy’s points of view. There are also two extended first person interjections, or “reveries”, from Sir Gawain. In the final chapter, in which we move from the past to the present tense, a Charon-like figure identified as a “boatman” accepts the baton of narrative responsibility.

Each of the main characters is, in different ways, lost. Each is uncertain about the past, unsure of present circumstances and scared of what the future will bring — Wistan predicts there will be wars “when ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest” and this England will “become a new land, a Saxon land”. Each is tormented by voices, dreams, visions and half-remembered episodes. Each is searching for something or someone in “this land cursed by a mist of forgetfulness”. The overall effect is one of mystery and mystification. Even after you have finished the book, many days later, you find you can’t stop thinking about it.

. . .

Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro came with his parents to live in England at the age of five. After working as a musician and then studying creative writing under Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), which was set in England and a war-devastated Nagasaki, when he was 28. His second, the wonderfully subtle and melancholy An Artist of the Floating World (again set in Japan, just after the war), won the Whitbread book of the year award in 1986. Three years later The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize and made him famous. It became a critically acclaimed international bestseller and was adapted into a film by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.

This early success liberated Ishiguro. “Screenplays I didn’t really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I was just determined to write the books I had to write,” he said in 2005.

The intervals between novels became more extended, the works themselves longer and more experimental. He moved away from the quiet, ruminative realism of his first three novels, which were written in the first-person, and began to explore different forms: surrealism, the detective novel in When We Were Orphans (2000), science fiction.

Ishiguro’s first three novels were each about the consequences of the second world war on individuals who had not fought in it but whose lives were affected by it. In each he explores themes of culpability and collaboration, national reconciliation and personal regret. The reticent narrators — a middle-aged widow (Pale View), an elderly artist (Floating World), a repressed, buttoned-up English butler (Remains of the Day) — are like detectives investigating their own past lives and struggling to understand why they acted when and as they did.

Ishiguro is not a flashy or ostentatious writer, unlike several of his near-contemporaries, notably Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, with whom he was grouped as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 and whose achievements he has since surpassed. Amis — writing under the influence of Nabokov and Saul Bellow — once speculated to me about being the “most influential writer” of his generation, and boasted that he wanted to write sentences that “no other guy could have written”. For Amis, in other words, linguistic novelty and original use of metaphor — aspects of what he called the “high style” — were the greatest virtues.

One never hears such bombast from Ishiguro, and yet he is a stylist, a master of nuance, artful withholding and of making strange what can seem most familiar or habitual — the technique the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarisation”. One detects the influence of European modernists such as Kafka and Ford Madox Ford on his oblique, indirect methods of narration.

Reading his fiction, no matter whether the setting is Japan just after the war, a country house in the 1930s or a boarding school in a bucolic English setting in the 1970s, the reader experiences just as the characters do a sense that nothing is as it seems or should be.

There’s a deeper truth available or hinted at but, for whatever reason, it can never be fully grasped — or, perhaps, it’s simply too painful to contemplate or comprehend. As TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, and as Ishiguro reminds us again and again: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

. . .

Ishiguro has disavowed the influence of his Japanese heritage — he says he grew up in Surrey reading Sherlock Holmes novels and watching Hollywood westerns — yet in a 1985 essay he wrote admiringly about Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968. Kawabata was working in the “classical” tradition of Japanese prose-writing — a tradition, as Ishiguro wrote, “which placed value on lyricism, mood and reflection rather than on plot and character”. Kawabata’s understated, spare fictions, like Ishiguro’s, especially the first three novels, leave much unsaid and unexplained; there is a presiding sense of ambiguity and of sadness. Kawabata was a nostalgist and profound conservative, who declared, after the surrender and defeat of Japan in 1945, that he would write “only elegies”.

Ishiguro ended his essay by saying that Kawabata’s novels “offer experiences unlikely to be found anywhere else in western fiction”. Something similar could be said of Ishiguro himself and of the place he occupies today in English letters, because there’s no one like him. His books are among the strangest, most haunting and affecting in contemporary literature. You might forget certain details about what happens in them or individual characters but never their mood or atmosphere, as anyone who reads The Buried Giant will discover.

‘Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now’, by David Marquand

Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now, by David Marquand, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 288 pages

May 23 2014 / Financial Times

In 1909, the Liberal MP Charles Masterman published The Condition of England, a stylish, urgent book that, though largely forgotten today, had a powerful effect and wide influence. A friend of Winston Churchill and of the Fabian intellectuals Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Masterman was a product of the high bourgeois establishment but had been radicalised, after leaving Cambridge, by his experiences working among the poor of the London slums. He was a brilliant generalist: politician, journalist, literary critic, editor, social reformer. His book is propelled by rage at the condition of England, at its “monstrous inequalities”, its entrenched poverty, its decadence. He scourges laisser-faire capitalism and denounces a society “organised from top to bottom on a ‘money basis’, a business basis, with everything else as a side-show”.

Reading David Marquand’s Mammon’s Kingdom I was reminded often of Masterman and of his invigorating book. It is subtitled “An Essay on Britain, Now” but it is really about the condition of England, at least as the author finds it in still-energised old age. Like Masterman, Marquand is, or was, a politician-writer. A former Labour MP, he resigned his seat in 1977 to work as an adviser to Roy Jenkins and, later, became one of the founding members of the Social Democratic Party.

In the intervening years, Marquand, who enjoyed a distinguished second career as an academic, has moved back and forth between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. A restless progressive, or self-styled democratic republican, he seems destined endlessly to be disappointed by the compromises and the timidity of the British centre-left in power.

His contribution as a writer and political historian is as a synthesiser and summariser of complex ideas and as a popular communicator. I especially liked his book Britain Since 1918 (2008), a concise and elegant history of 20th-century democracy that also looks back to the Levellers and the Chartists.

This latest book is a departure – for all its footnotes and extensive bibliography, it is essentially a work of journalistic polemic, in the spirit of Masterman. It is also an indictment and a cry of despair at how we have drifted, to echo Michael Sandel, from having a market economy to becoming a market society. The author himself calls it “a wake-up call to a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism”.

For Marquand, “no large western democracy has been more devoted to money worship than Britain”. He despairs at our “low levels of public trust and high levels of inequality”. We are, he thinks, in thrall to an insidious “presentism”. History, he writes, “no longer counts”. “Untamed capitalism” has coarsened us and made us greedy, uncaring and money-obsessed.

How has this happened? Why did the Keynesian postwar consensus unravel so cataclysmically, opening the way for the counter-hegemonic project that became Thatcherism? Why do the British “no longer know where they have come from or who they are”?

These are big questions and Marquand attempts to answer them, and many others, as he takes the reader on a breathless tour of the major social and political changes of the past century, and especially of the past three decades. We are treated, along the way, to biographical sketches of any number of influential figures, from JS Mill to Friedrich Hayek, as well as expositions of the ideas that have informed our political discourse. The chapter on the culture of the country in the years from 1945-79 – and on how the old establishment operated – is particularly good, at once a lament for what has been lost and a critique of its failings.

There is much to admire in Marquand’s book, not least its intelligence, breadth and deep learning. But do we really need a wake-up call of the kind he suggests? On both left and right, there is already widespread alarm at the crisis of our moral and political economies – as well as an awareness of how close the British state is to breaking up. And we have had other recent books on a similar theme, notably from Ferdinand Mount and Robert and Edward Skidelsky. If we were sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism, a book such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century , a 700-page treatise on inequality that has become an international bestseller, would not be stimulating such a wide-ranging public conversation.

Mammon’s Kingdom claims to be about “now”. But it has little to say about Facebook, Twitter, the English Premier League (a playground for the international plutocracy and a model of the kind of rapacious winner-takes-all capitalism Marquand loathes) or many other of the fundamental cultural forces shaping the way we live, here and now. Marquand dismisses popular television as vulgar without explaining which particular programmes he dislikes and why. He writes about financial globalisation but not about cultural globalisation and how this has affected how we eat, dress, communicate, work and love. Marquand is good on economics and politics, as he always is, but the reader wants and expects more from such a beguilingly titled book.

Charles Masterman’s The Condition of England was saturated in cultural and literary reference. A panoramic state-of-the-nation novel such as HG Wells’ Tono-Bungay (1909) fascinated Masterman and rewarded close reading because it told him so much about the society in which he lived, just as Dickens dramatised and interrogated the contradictions of Victorian society. Marquand says he is not concerned with the “slow workings of imaginative literature” but perhaps he should have been. His section on our disunited kingdom would have been deepened, for instance, by a discussion of James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still (2010), a novel that has become something of a sacred text for Scottish nationalists.

None of my objections are likely to disturb David Marquand, however. He has written a self-consciously provocative book, one that demands to be read. The style and tone are overwhelmingly assertive and overstated. He cares about the condition of England. He wants to stimulate debate. He wants to wake you up.

‘Wilfred Owen’, by Guy Cuthbertson

Wilfred Owen, by Guy Cuthbertson, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$40, 352 pages

February 28 2014 / Financial Times

In Regeneration, the first in her trilogy of novels about the first world war, Pat Barker enthrallingly recreates the period in summer 1917 when Wilfred Owen was being treated for shell shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Owen was having what Guy Cuthbertson in his new book describes as “horrible dreams, often memories of the Front”. But it was also there at the hospital, under the influence of fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, that Owen, overcome by the futility of what he had experienced even if he was never a pacifist, outgrew the fey romanticism of his early verse and began to write with controlled intensity and confidence.

In Edinburgh, Owen worked on multiple revisions of “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, with its vision of so many young men dying “as cattle” on the western front. Owen, who was a believer but disliked the Church, wrote in May 1917 of how, amid the carnage and the slaughter, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land”, and his best work, as well as anger, has deep spiritual resonance.

After recovering from shell shock Owen eventually returned to the front, only to be killed a week before the end of the war. He was 25 and had published five poems. Yet today the best of what he wrote – “Anthem”, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Strange Meeting” – is among the most enduring poetry in the language and Owen is deservedly one of our most cherished poets.

Cuthbertson’s Wilfred Owen is a fan’s biography. It is ardent, dreamy and at times a touch swooning. There are some problems of tone and register because the author, an academic at Liverpool Hope University who has also written a book on poet Edward Thomas, moves uneasily between the more conventional language of literary biography and a kind of breathless raciness more suited to popular fiction.

The pre-soldier Owen is described as a “dashing gent sporting . . . his famous moustache”. There are many descriptions of this moustache, which according to Cuthbertson (who in his author’s photograph is clean-shaven) has become “one of the most famous of the 20th century . . . up there with those of, say, Harold Macmillan and HG Wells”. On another occasion he writes that Owen’s “cry was a Garbo-esque ‘I want to be alone.’”

Before enlisting in the Artists’ Rifles, a volunteer regiment, Owen spent a period working as a teacher of English in Bordeaux, and one of the well-connected female acquaintances he met there is introduced as being “easy on the eye”. Another woman Owen met in France is a “real stunner”.

Yet one forgives the author his stylistic foibles and also his weakness for overstatement because he writes with such sincerity, telling the story of Owen’s short life and journey from provincial obscurity to the carnage of the western front and then to posthumous fame as a “war” poet with diligence and empathy.

Owen was not one of England’s gilded youths, a product of the great public schools and Oxbridge. He was born into a lower-middle-class Anglo-Welsh family, or just “slightly above the working classes” as Cuthbertson would have it. His father was a railway worker who became a stationmaster in Birkenhead and then Shrewsbury, where Owen attended the local technical school. As an intelligent, sensitive young boy with literary aspirations, he felt keenly a sense of social disadvantage, resentful of those with family money and privilege.

In Cuthbertson’s retelling of his life, Owen resembles Thomas Hardy’s Jude, thwarted in his ambition to go to Oxford. “Couldn’t you divine why ‘Oxford’ is a banned word with me,” Owen wrote in a letter to a cousin in 1915. “I ought to be there.”

Owen’s closest relationship was with his mother Susan. Freud wrote that “a man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror”. Owen never felt like a conqueror exactly but, even in lonely adolescence, he was convinced of his destiny as a poet and drew strength and purpose from his mother’s unstinting love. “Wilfred was always such a devoted son, our love for each other ‘intense,’?” Susan wrote after her son’s death. From the trenches, in 1917, Owen wrote to his mother in a kind of rapture: “I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure . . . I thought you looked very very beautiful and well, through the veil.”

It’s often assumed that Owen was homosexual and he certainly became very close to Sassoon in Edinburgh. However, Cuthbertson suggests that the poet’s relationships with men and women were chaste and that even if some of his poetry has a homoerotic subtext, he was romantically, though not carnally, attracted to sexless adolescents, boys and girls. Perhaps he simply loved his mother too much.

Owen was an unashamed romantic, deeply influenced by Keats, whom he read from an early age, and Shelley. He had little interest in modernist experimentation; much of his verse has a Georgian conventionality. He may not have been a modernist but his war poems remain startlingly modern: urgent, alive with felt experience.

His short, vivid, unsparing poetic recastings of life in the trenches – the senseless slaughter, the suffering, the moments of compassion, the juxtaposition of tenderness and brutality – have helped harden our understanding of the first world war as a futile catastrophe. The many hundreds of thousands of young British men who were killed in the mud of the western front were, indeed, doomed through their participation in a conflict that even today, a century later, we continue to misinterpret and misunderstand.

The last of those who fought in the Great War are dead now but, because of Wilfred Owen and fellow war poets, because of a great novel such as All Quiet on the Western Front and the shattered landscapes of the paintings of Paul Nash, we are fortunate to have imperishable first-hand artistic representations of the horror and the pity of it all.

The Kraus Project, by Jonathan Franzen

The Kraus Project, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 318 pages

October 4 2013 / Financial Times

A writer who self-consciously craves fame and the world’s applause, Jonathan Franzen is also simultaneously repelled by it. He seems to be both an introvert, who has written of his struggles with moderate depression and feelings of “estrangement from humanity”, and the kind of extrovert who feels the need to tell us in no uncertain terms what is wrong with the world, as he does with gusto in his new book, The Kraus Project.

Franzen has documented extensively his early failures as a novelist and how, retreating from social interaction, he set himself the challenge of writing the kind of grand, all-encompassing, emblematic realist novel that could speak to and for America. That novel turned out to be The Corrections (2001), his epic saga set largely in the fictional Midwestern town of St Jude, and chronicling the fortunes of one family from the 1950s to the late 1990s.

The Corrections was published around the time of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and, in the stunned aftermath, it resonated with a nation that was traumatised and turning in on itself, asking what had gone wrong. It achieved all that Franzen could have wanted. More than a decade later, because of this and subsequent successes, Franzen is in the happy position of being able to publish pretty much whatever he wants whenever he chooses – such as The Kraus Project, which is less a coherent book than an experimental collage of texts, and all the better for it.

As a young man, Franzen went to live in Germany, and it was there that he first became seriously interested in the fin de siècle Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whom he calls a newspaperman manqué. Born in 1874 into an affluent and sophisticated Jewish family, Kraus was one of the outstanding cultural figures of late Habsburg Vienna, the great imperial city he described so presciently as a “laboratory of world destruction”. He edited and wrote for his own journal, Die Fackel. It became the pulpit from which he scourged, traduced and ridiculed. It was not for nothing that he was known as the Great Hater. Kraus hated the power of the press and the carelessness with which so much journalism was written. Living through the long twilight of the Habsburg empire, which he considered decadent and corrupt, he believed his were the end of times (he wrote a long play about the first world war called The Last Days of Mankind). He was fearful of the new world of science and mass communication. “When I think of Adolf Hitler,” he said, “nothing occurs to me”, a brilliant comment that captures something of the vacuity and nullity of the Führer, who during his years of wandering in Vienna as a failed vagabond artist would have read Kraus, who died in 1936.

The Kraus Project is both a collaboration and homage. It reads as an extended meditation on the enduring influence of Kraus and as a counterblast against our veneration of technology. Franzen has translated five of the satirist’s essays – the longest of which is an attack on the belles-lettrism of the poet and essayist Heinrich Heine. Each is meticulously annotated and footnoted.

Franzen, who is quite a hater himself, despises what he calls our “media-saturated, technology crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment”. He refuses to buy Apple products, despises blogs and the “commercial internet”, and particularly loathes Jeff Bezos and the Amazon machine (the book was completed before Bezos bought the Washington Post). He reserves special contempt for social media, especially Twitter, which he says no serious writer who cares about language should use. Please take note Salman Rushdie, whom Franzen names and shames.

Franzen is 54 and some of his rage is surely generational, the high bourgeois disdain of a middle-aged literary man for an ultra-democratic medium such as Twitter that, if used sensibly, can be an extremely useful news source as well as a means to transcend old channels of production and distribution. Twitter can of course be numbingly banal, but that’s less the fault of the technology itself than of its users.

The Kraus Project is tremendously readable and is refreshingly sceptical of the cult of digital cool. Franzen’s prose has an appealing briskness and polemical force, quite different in style from the high burnish of his long, deliberative, multi-layered literary novels. And I like its fragmentary structure and the way it liberates Franzen to roam from one subject to another – from discussing the origins of the word feuilleton, say, to the “coolness” of Joachim Löw, the German national football coach. The techno-zealots will hate the book, if they bother to read it – Franzen is already being loudly denounced on Twitter – but as an exercise in controlled rage and as a celebration of and introduction to Karl Kraus it works just so.

Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth: A masterful portrayal of a murderer

July 8 2013 / New Statesman

Unheard melodies

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’, by Sarah Churchwell, Virago, RRP£16.99, 448 pages

June 14 2013 / Financial Times

“There never was a good biography of a good novelist,” F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebooks. “There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.”

Fitzgerald was indeed many people and was never entirely able to decide which one he wished to be. Born in 1896 into a middle-class Catholic family in St Paul, Minnesota, he was, like his most celebrated protagonist, the deluded romantic dreamer and bootlegger Jay Gatsby, beguiled by the ease and confidence of the old moneyed elite from whom he always felt excluded. He described his family ancestry as “straight 1850 potato-famine Irish”.

An early hero of Fitzgerald’s was the gentleman-sportsman Hobey Baker. He is, surprisingly, not mentioned by the academic and critic Sarah Churchwell in her new book about Fitzgerald, Careless People. An ice hockey and American football champion, Baker served as a fighter pilot during the first world war but was killed in an aviation accident in December 1918, aged 26. For Fitzgerald, he represented an ideal of masculinity: courageous, daring, charming, privileged. Everything that he aspired to be.

Fitzgerald was both a stubborn moralist who, in his fiction, simultaneously satirised and venerated Jazz Age excesses, and a hedonist whose drunken stupidities are tirelessly catalogued by Churchwell, as they have been by previous biographers.

A literary modernist who was as much influenced by Conrad as he was by Keats, Fitzgerald also wrote lucrative commercial magazine fiction, and this led to feelings of self-disgust. “I really worked hard as hell last winter – but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart,” he said in a letter to Edmund Wilson in 1924.

John Updike wrote that Fitzgerald is an “author one should read when young”. That seems just right. I discovered him when I studied his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, for A-level. I’d spent my early teens reading nothing more demanding than comics and the sports pages of newspapers, and yet the combination in Fitzgerald of romance and nostalgia as well as his exquisite poetic prose enthralled me. I began reading everything I could by and about him.

One understands why Fitzgerald continues to attract the biographer’s gaze. His life was tremendously glamorous yet also ultimately a failure, at least on his own terms: his best novel, The Great Gatsby, was published before he was 30, and the last years of his life before his death at the age of 44 were spent hacking around Hollywood as a scriptwriter (he worked on Gone with the Wind, among other films).

By then Fitzgerald, who was an alcoholic and separated from his mentally ill wife Zelda, was receiving only $200 for short fiction; in the early 1920s he was paid as much as $4,000 a story. The 1920s were his time, when he and the beautiful and careless Zelda were the talk of Manhattan.

Churchwell says her book is “an histoire trouvé about what was in the air as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby”. She concentrates largely on the year 1922, when the Fitzgeralds were renting a place on Long Island. Careless People is a collage of breezily written texts combining conventional biography and literary criticism with reportage and capsule essays on style, fashion and the movies.

Interweaved throughout is the account of the double murder of a couple from New Jersey, an Episcopalian minister named Edward Hall and his lover Eleanor Mills. “The scandalous murders of Hall and Mills were impossible to miss. They would be front-page news across the country for the rest of 1922”, Churchwell writes, but neglects properly to explain why the story of this unsolved murder is especially relevant to Fitzgerald or his great novel and why she should dedicate so many pages to chronicling the investigation into it.

It’s worth recalling that Gatsby, perhaps the most perfect short novel in English, comes in at 172 pages in a standard Penguin paperback edition. Careless People is nearly 450 pages long and would have benefited from being half that.

I must have read Gatsby at least a dozen times and still cannot resist returning to it. Few writers use adjectives and adverbs more seductively than Fitzgerald. He writes for instance of the “fluctuating, feverish warmth” of Daisy’s voice; of the day the “world and his mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn”. Nearly every paragraph offers something perfectly pitched: something precise, radiant, alive.

Fitzgerald, learning from Keats – he especially admired “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which tells us that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter” – locates happiness in the search for sensation rather than in its realisation, in the dream of desire, not in its fulfilment. He was unashamedly romantic and could be as sentimental as any tormented adolescent lover.

Updike mocked what he called Fitzgerald’s “eternal undergraduate effluvium”. Hemingway once said this to his old rival: “You put so much damned value on youth it seemed to me that you confused growing up with growing old.” Yet HL Mencken articulated something essential when he said that Fitzgerald succeeded in capturing the “inexplicable tragedy of being alive”.

By the time of his death in 1940, Fitzgerald was no longer celebrated, if he was read much at all. He died pretty much defeated and disillusioned, exhausted by alcoholism and by worries about money and Zelda’s mental health. Yet years earlier he had written to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, expressing belief in his talent. “I feel I have an enormous power in me now,” he said while revising Gatsby. Which reader today does not still feel that power?

From Sarajevo to Chicago

The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, Picador, RRP£20/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$25, 224 pages

March 29 2013 / Financial Times

Long resident in Chicago and published in The New Yorker magazine, Aleksandar Hemon is one of the A-listers of contemporary Anglo-American letters. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he grew up and did military service in the old Yugoslavia, the multi-national state of the south Slavs that was held together ultimately by little more than socialist rhetoric and the cult of Titoism, and ended in a series of devastating civil wars.

Hemon always considered himself to be a Yugoslav patriot, as did everyone he knew in Sarajevo. “Our other identities, say, the ethnicity of any of us, were wholly irrelevant,” he writes early on in The Book of My Lives. At least that was how it seemed to him, before the “ethnic cleansing” began and his home city was besieged by Serbian troops in 1992.

Like Conrad and Nabokov, to whom he has inevitably been compared, Hemon found his own exalted voice by choosing to write in a language other than his mother tongue, which in his case was Serbo-Croat, or “Bosnian”. His first collection of stories, the acclaimed The Question of Bruno, was published in English in 2000, eight years after he came to the US on a one-month tourist visa, just as war was beginning to fragment his homeland. He was 27 and would never return to live in Sarajevo.

The Book of My Lives is a memoir constructed from the often wry and sardonic autobiographical essays Hemon has been publishing since 2000. It is less a coherent whole than a series of vignettes, episodes and reminiscences with overlapping themes and preoccupations. The predominant tone is one of ironic detachment, soft-edged by nostalgia.

Hemon looks back on his Yugoslav childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, recalling the rituals that sustained him, the food eaten at the family table and in the army, the television programmes watched, the clothes worn and the music listened to, the poetry written and discarded, the arguments and adventures he had with his sister, the girls he loved and the games of football he watched and played.

He remembers precisely but not always fondly. “There was nothing to do, and we were quickly running out of ways to do it,” he says of student life in Sarajevo.

Then his American life abruptly began, with all its complications and excitements. Hemon settled in Chicago and the exile’s feelings of unease and displacement became his defining subject. Telling stories and creating characters was the means by which he tried “to understand what was hard for me to understand”, which, for him, “has been nearly everything”.

In his early years in Chicago he experiences the “situation of immigration [as a] kind of self-othering”. He animates and interrogates the peculiarity of the exile’s condition – of what VS Naipaul called the enigma of arrival. He shows us how it feels to occupy the spaces in between different cultures, not feeling quite part of the new country and yet permanently estranged from the place you still call home.

Reading Hemon’s evocations of a Yugoslavia that exists now only in memory one is reminded of the essays of Joseph Roth in which he fondly recalls, from exile in Berlin, the dying days of Austria-Hungary, with its clamour of competing nationalities and ethnicities but also its bureaucratic homogeneity and ties that bound the old empire and its disparate peoples together.

The Book of My Lives closes with the harrowing account of the loss of one particular life, that of Hemon’s second child, his baby daughter Isabel. You are taken remorselessly through the initial symptoms, the diagnosis of a brain tumour, the gruelling treatment and surgery and then, finally, the baby’s death.

The essay is difficult to read. So deftly is it written and so profound is the author’s love for his daughter that you never stop hoping Isabel might live even as her plight becomes ever more desperate. It must have been extraordinarily painful to write. There are expressions of anger and dismay and a sense of numbed futility, but all are held in check by Hemon’s artistry and narrative control. He is a grieving father and he is a writer, and the writer mitigates and channels the father’s grief. “Memory narrativises itself,” he has said in various interviews.

“One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling,” Hemon writes towards the end of the book. “Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.” He and his wife learned no lessons: “Isabel’s indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

It’s a sombre way to end an often amusing book which, for all its themes of loss and displacement, tells a story of success – of how one young man from Sarajevo found his place and his voice in America and evolved a language in which to make sense both of what he’d left behind and what he embraced in his new life.

Reviewed: Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios

March 7 2013 / New Statesman

George Osborne: the Austerity Chancellor – review

October 25 2012 / New Statesman

Infinite quest

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by DT Max, Granta, £20/Viking, RRP$27.95, 368 pages

Conversations with David Foster Wallace, edited by Stephen J. Burn, University Press of Mississippi, RRP$25, 208 pages

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou, University of Iowa Press, RRP$19.95, 296pp

September 14 2012 / Financial Times

In early February 2000, on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, David Foster Wallace spent a week on the campaign trail with John McCain, the no-nonsense, straight-talking, anti-Washington candidate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination eventually won by George W. Bush. Wallace, who was 37 and considered to be the most innovative literary novelist of his generation, took on the commission because there was something about the Vietnam hero-turned-politician that fascinated him – his backstory, his candour. Could he be, as Wallace put it, “for real”?

Wallace’s Rolling Stone article (later expanded and republished as a short book) is one of his best and most emblematic works because it can be read as a hilarious take on the McCain 2000 primary campaign but also as a philosophical investigation into the question of personal identity. Wallace was especially interested in the years McCain spent in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war after his fighter plane was shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject. For Wallace, McCain’s cell, his “dark box”, becomes a metaphor for human isolation and for the radical separateness of consciousness.

Wallace was tormented by one defining question: was the world anything more than a tissue of representations? A hard philosophical sceptic, he felt imprisoned inside his own head, his dark box. “There is this existential loneliness in the real world,” he told Laura Miller, the co-founder of, in an interview collected in Conversations with David Foster Wallace. “I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me.” It was his belief (more a hope, as it turned out) that “in fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way”.

But in his life Wallace, who suffered from clinical depression, kept slamming into that wall of separation between the self and the world. He longed to make connections – with other people, with other minds. He longed to understand better, to be free from the tumult and the pain that he felt, every day, without respite.

And yet, for all his suffering, Wallace was a wonderfully exuberant comic writer and ironist. His 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest (1996) – the book that made him famous and inspired a younger generation of writers, led by Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith, to be bolder, more experimental in how they went about their business – is often astoundingly funny. It is also piercingly sad.

The novel is set in an indeterminate near future. The US, Canada and Mexico have merged to form the Organisation of North American Nations (ONAN – get it?), in which the influence of television, multinational corporations and advertising has become even more sinister and all-pervasive. Much of the action takes place in the hermetic worlds of a tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts. A third thread concerns the antics of a group of Québécois separatists, many of whom travel around in wheelchairs (are you still with me?). Everyone seems to be searching for the master copy of a film named Infinite Jest. It was made by the father of a disturbed tennis prodigy we meet at the start of the book, Hal Incandenza (Wallace’s fondness for zany character names, his low-level paranoia and ironic extremism reveal a debt to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo). The secret of the film Infinite Jest is that it’s so ecstatically enjoyable that it renders immobile, even kills, anyone who watches it.

The novel has more than 100 pages of footnotes and does not so much end as leave the reader suspended in mid-air, with nothing resolved. (In the jargon of post-structuralism, with which Wallace was familiar, it resists closure.) It would be a mistake to read it autobiographically even if, as DT Max illustrates in his scrupulous and affecting biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, much of Wallace’s own story is encoded into it.

Born in 1962, Wallace grew up in central Illinois. His father was an academic philosopher and his mother, a fastidious grammarian, taught English at a local community college (he inherited from her a mania for correct usage). Wallace excelled at sports at school and was good enough at tennis to have made it as a pro, except that in his mid-teens he started to smoke too much marijuana and stopped training hard. (Curiously, Max makes no mention of the link between heavy marijuana use and mental illness.)

Wallace never lost his flair for and interest in tennis. One of his finest long essays is a meditation on the beauty and brilliance of Roger Federer. But like Hal, whom we first meet as he is having a breakdown, Wallace turned out to be much more than a sportsman. “I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk,” says Hal. “Let’s talk about anything.” And off he goes, riffing on Kierkegaard, Camus, Hegel and Hobbes. “I could interface you guys right under the table,” he tells his interrogators at the tennis academy. “I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.”

This is the authentic voice of so much of Wallace’s writing: cerebral, vital, hyper-articulate, ever alert to the defining particulars of the age, moving between high and low culture, wised-up. In conversation, he could be tyrannical, overwhelming, eager to demonstrate just how smart he was, the smartest guy in the room. Once asked how he knew so much, he said: “I did the reading.” He did. He could be extremely funny. He was a parodist and mimic who could do all the voices. He spent many hours of most days watching television, of varying quality. He was interested in everything, except golf. And, like Hal, he could talk about anything.

As Max reveals, Wallace collected pathologies. He was addicted to alcohol (he was forced to become teetotal), marijuana, tobacco (which he smoked, chewed and spat), television, even sex (before his eventual marriage to the artist Karen Green in 2004, he moved in and out of relationships, ceaselessly on the lookout for the next woman, the next casual encounter). He once wondered aloud to his friend Jonathan Franzen whether his purpose in life was “to put my penis in as many vaginas as possible”. “Sex,” says Max, “filled a place in Wallace that nothing else could.”

At Amherst, where Wallace wrote a philosophy thesis and completed a draft of what became his first novel, The Broom of the System, he was considered the outstanding student in his year. He also had several breakdowns, and so sick was he with suicidal depression that he had to return home for a long period. Later, following another mental collapse, he was sectioned and put on suicide watch while a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. For the rest of his life his stability was dependent on the antidepressant Nardil.

Like many American writers, Wallace became institutionalised and seemed unable to cope outside the supporting structures of the university system, with its generous stipends, grants and assistant professorships. He studied for a creative writing MFA in Arizona and then taught at various universities. He liked his hair long, like a late-1970s Argentine footballer, and wore a bandanna, which became his signature sartorial statement, like Wittgenstein’s open-neck shirt or Tom Wolfe’s white suit.

As his fame grew, Wallace’s friendships with other writers deepened, notably with Franzen, with whom he maintained a tense rivalry, the memoirist Mary Karr, with whom he had a relationship, and DeLillo, whose worldly calm and prodigious output he envied. Max quotes extensively from his letters to Franzen and DeLillo. These are questing in tone, rigorously intelligent and painfully revealing of his torment – his longing for fame, his anguish at his failure to finish another novel after Infinite Jest, his search for a happiness that’s unavailable.

Wallace wasn’t content with being merely recognised as accomplished and influential. He wanted to be the best of his generation. More than that, he wanted to be a great, canonical writer. He wanted to write novels that “will be read 100 years from now”, he told a close friend from Amherst, as he was starting out.

In 2007 Wallace became increasingly agitated about what long-term dependency on prescription drugs was doing to his health. He was struggling with a novel on which he had been labouring for years and wanted to discover if he could write better if he came off Nardil. “He was a perfectionist,” Franzen told Rolling Stone, for a piece collected in Conversations. “He wanted to be perfect, and taking Nardil was not perfect.”

Wallace never got better. In September 2008, on a luminous Californian afternoon and with his wife out of the house, he hanged himself, but not before writing a two-page note to Green and arranging the pages of the manuscript of his unfinished novel, which he left in the garage where he knew it would be found. (It was published as The Pale King in 2011.)

In life, because of his literary glamour, the outsider image he cultivated and the cerebral dazzle of his work, Wallace attracted groupies who clustered and swooned at readings. In the years since his death, the cult of personality around him has merely intensified, which often happens when an artist of influence commits suicide or dies young or unfulfilled, to the irritation of Bret Easton Ellis for one. Last week, while reading Max’s book, Ellis began tweeting of his contempt for Wallace and those who revere him: “Reading DT Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation ... “; “Saint David Foster Wallace: a generation trying to read him feels smart about themselves which is part of the whole bullshit package. Fools.”

A tragedian as well as comedian, Wallace was, as Hamlet says of Yorick, a “fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”, but Ellis, whose numbed, affectless style Wallace once spoofed expertly in a short story, in his hostility takes no account of how confused Wallace could be. He was an intellectual exhibitionist, for sure, but he was also profoundly lost. To read him is to encounter a writer of boundless imaginative gifts, a moralist as well as a maximalist whose mission was to represent in fiction how it felt to be alive, here and now, in a television-mediated, information age; to capture, as Max puts it, “the everything of America”. The form of the conventional realist novel was insufficient to the ambition of his self-appointed task, which is why his novels and stories are also an experiment in forms, hence all those different registers, clarifying footnotes, parenthetical interruptions, metafictional tricks and looping digressions. He was bursting with so much to say – and restless in his desire to find new ways of saying it.

Little escaped Wallace’s attention, nothing was beneath his notice. He wrote with the same curiosity and manic attention about porn, rap and tennis as he did about mathematics, philosophy and literature. His work is saturated in detail; the reader experiences information overload.

In remarks from a Wallace memorial service in New York in October 2008, published in a new book, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, the American writer George Saunders said his friend’s prose had a “special variety of openness that I might call terrified-tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds”.

Wallace did feel encaged in the self. He used to say that he felt at times as if his head would explode. It could never be enough for him to know that his friends – Franzen said that he had a “beautiful, questing innocence” – and many readers loved him and that though he felt isolated, he was not alone. And yet, he did reach out beyond his loneliness, he did somehow make a connection – through his work, which will continue to be read long into the future as each new generation discovers the sad, extraordinary man who was David Foster Wallace.

More than a game

The Footballer Who Could Fly, by Duncan Hamilton, Century RRP£14.99, 352 pages

August 24 2012 / Financial Times

Ever since the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch 20 years ago, any number of British sportswriters with literary ambitions have chosen to write as much about the experience of being a fan as what happens on the field of play. The sporting action becomes marginal to the larger psychological drama of young men’s journey into mature, reflective adulthood.

There’s something disturbingly passive about being an ardent football fan: your moods and wellbeing are affected by something over which you have no control. It is both an affirmation (a commitment to a cause) and an escape (from the everyday reality). For this reason, the bond between fan and club is essentially irrational; you can change your wife and job, even the shape of your nose, but, if you’re a true fan, you can never change the club to which you committed emotionally at a young age, no matter how much frustration and unhappiness it brings. You are bound helplessly to the mast of your own obsession.

Most of us men who like and watch football, as well as those who write about it, do so because of our fathers. The experience of being a fan is bound up with that of being a son; of how you were first introduced to the game and conducted into its codes and rituals.

As we approach middle age, it’s inevitable that we begin to reflect on how much the game has changed – from the days of the old standing terraces, when football was the working man’s passion, to today’s venal winner-takes-all English Premier League – and how our lives have turned out in the intervening period.

Duncan Hamilton, twice winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and a former provincial newspaper journalist, was introduced to football by his father, who was a miner and a Newcastle United fan. Hamilton père was 40 by the time his son, an only child, was born. Remote and taciturn, he was prematurely aged, exhausted by working down the pit. The father spoke rarely and the son stuttered. Football brought them together. Without it, “we were strangers under a shared roof”.

Hamilton is an instinctive elegist – an earlier book, A Last English Summer, was about the decline of county cricket – and his prose has a sad Larkinian music. But he is also a sentimentalist; always a dangerous thing when writing about one’s own family. The opening of The Footballer Who Could Fly, a meditation on how our national game has changed since the 1950s as well a gentle memoir of his father, showcases his flaws and his virtues as a stylist.

He begins by recalling “with photographic quality” an image of his father as a younger man standing beside the Tyne Bridge, in the “cathedral light of a late September morning”. It’s an affecting image: most of us have a favourite recollection of a beloved parent.

“I remember everything about this long-ago hour,” Hamilton continues. “I remember that summer had long since left Newcastle, scythed away by north-easterly winds and the rapid advance of a russet autumn, already noticeable in the dampish air.” And so it goes on, sentence by slow-moving sentence, with the author wilfully surrendering to a kind of melancholic rapture.

Much of this is seductive, especially to a reader who knows the old ways of football, the passing of which Hamilton mourns. But the writing can snag on the thorns of its own nostalgic effects. Notice the ponderous repetition in “long-ago” and “long since”; how summer has been “scythed” away (isn’t that verb too mannered?); how autumn advances inexorably, darkening the scene, as it must.

The Keatsian grace notes are familiar and the warning signs clear: this is to be what Ian Sansom called, in a review of Gary Imlach’s My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes (2005, a football memoir that Hamilton has surely read carefully), a “grief-work”, a sporting chronicle of loss.

The book is episodic and meandering, a little humourless, unravelling in a series of extended vignettes of how central the FA Cup used to be in the nation’s sporting and cultural life, of club owners’ exploitation of noble players before the abolition of the maximum wage, and so on.

Hamilton indulges in novelistic descriptions of former players, such as Wyn Davies, the high-leaping footballer of the title. Many were his father’s heroes, whom he met as a reporter on the Nottingham Evening News – Tommy Lawton has a face “cleaved with the grooves of worry”; Bill Shankly’s “skin resembled the craquelure of an old painting”.

The book is sincere and deeply honouring of Hamilton’s father as well as dead greats such as Lawton, Shankly, Jackie Milburn, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Moore, men who lived alongside, and travelled to games with, those who paid to watch them. It will be of interest principally to football nostalgists happily sad to be reminded of how things used to be before the coming of Rupert Murdoch and the Premier League; before football became an icon of globalisation and the plaything of the international plutocracy.

Prairie tale

Canada, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury £18.99/Ecco, $27.99, 420 pages

June 2 2012 / Financial Times

The intrigue of Canada, this novel of crime and punishment, is not what happens and when but how and why. It begins with a bold declaration, as Richard Ford’s novels and stories often do: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

The key word here is “tell”. The novel has a highly charged plot – as well as two murders there is a suicide – but it is the telling that matters most, or perhaps that should be the retelling, because repetition and reiteration are the organising principles.

The narrator, Dell Parsons, is in late middle age and obsessively reflecting on what he calls the “event of our lives”. As a 15 year old living with his twin sister in the small country town of Great Falls, Montana, his parents, out of luck and of love, carry out a botched bank robbery in the summer of 1960. After they are arrested and imprisoned, Dell’s sister flees and he is taken by a friend of his mother’s to live across the border in a remote Canadian prairie town. There in the boundless wilderness he discovers painful truths about his parents’ ruin but also falls under the influence of a small-time Nietzschean and fanatic, a handsome, well dressed and educated man who murders without remorse and leaves the boy even more confused about his place in the world.

The story Dell tells is necessarily incomplete, pieced together from old newspaper reports, a journal his mother wrote in prison after her arrest and before her suicide which she called her “chronicle”, and from memory. He remembers as we all do, unreliably and uncertain of the true motivations of others.

Some of this is familiar territory. Ford’s fourth novel, Wildlife, was also set in Great Falls in the summer of 1960. Like Canada, it is narrated as a sombre retrospective by a man in middle age trying to understand why his father took a wrong turn in life. As in Canada, the narrator seeks peace but can never be at peace as he recalls the summer his father left home to fight a forest fire threatening the town and whose departure breaks the family.

Ford’s men are invariably disappointed, from small towns, lonely and unfulfilled but also prone to dreaminess. They endure the ordinary losses of the everyday: money worries, failed relationships, thwarted careers. “I stick to the small lives of human beings,” Ford once said, “that’s the real stuff.” The lives he chronicles may be small but what are epic about his fictions are the North American landscapes in which they are set and his lyric style. Ford’s sentences in this novel are extraordinarily poised, never exhibiting strain. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, he never hurries as he elaborates and expands.

Canada comprises 69 short chapters, sometimes no more than a few pages long, and it is told from a dual perspective – that of the confused child who recreates the events of all those years ago as if trapped in the present moment, and that of the aged man he becomes, offering retrospective interpretation. The voice and tone are formidably consistent: puzzled, ruminative, yearning.

Ford’s best novel, The Sportswriter, which brought him fame, wealth and a wide readership at the age of 40, is narrated by a 38 year-old named Frank Bascombe, for whom the best already seems to be in the past, even if he doesn’t quite know it. After having had early literary success with a book of stories, Bascombe no longer writes seriously. When we meet him he is drifting, separated from his wife and mourning the death of his son. “If sportswriting teaches you anything,” he confides, “and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret … I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.”

Facing down regret and avoiding ruin, these are the lessons that Dell Parsons must learn, too, and at times he sounds attractively like the Bascombe of The Sportswriter (rather than of the two subsequent novels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, in what became the Bascombe trilogy, when the sentences lengthened, the style became more bloated and dear old Frank rather tiresomely garrulous once he’d turned away from sports).

Canada is ultimately a book about the choices we make when we are desperate but unable to speak about our desperation, and the questions we wished we’d asked when we had the chance to ask them. It’s too long and would have been more successful as a tauter and more urgent book; better edited, or edited at all, in fact. Ford is a major American writer and the tendency for those such as he is always to want to write the Big One. Still, it’s good to be in his company when he is writing well, as he is for much of this novel.

Review: The Big Miss - My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney

May 16 2012 / New Statesman

Shades of Greene

The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me, by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 242 pages

May 5 2012 / Financial Times

In the summer of 1988, during the long vacation from university, I travelled south to Antibes on the French Riviera to try to find Graham Greene. I’d been reading what turned out to be his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy, in which a young boy is hurried away from school and off on an adventure by a mysterious benefactor, as well as an interview with Greene in which he spoke tantalisingly of his life in Antibes. On a whim, I thought it might be exciting to call by at his apartment above the famous harbour, perhaps for afternoon tea. (In the event, I could not find it, but I had fun trying.)

Greene (1904-91) seemed to me then to be an extraordinarily glamorous figure. He was of and formed by the establishment, by public school and Oxford, but seemed contemptuous of it; an Englishman who seemed happiest outside England; a world-famous novelist who refused to appear on television.

He was politically unaligned, claimed by both left and right, but loathed the US, remained close to Kim Philby long after his disgrace and flight to Moscow, and sought out the company of Latin American and Caribbean strongmen. He was an explicitly Catholic writer who professed to be agnostic - and so the contradictions and intrigues multiplied.

Greene occupies an ambiguous space in English letters, suspended somewhere between the Conrad of the ambivalent novels of urban extremism, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, and the John Le Carré of A Perfect Spy and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: better than most of his contemporaries and peers, then, but not quite considered to be a great canonical writer. Certainly he wasn’t considered worthy of study at my university, where modernism and postmodernism held sway. Yet his best novels - The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter - have lasted and repay rereading, even if their metaphysical preoccupations can seem portentous and overwrought.

Greene cultivated a sense of mystery, as Pico Iyer reminds us in his elegant new book, The Man Within My Head, which is part-memoir, part-travelogue, and part-extended literary meditation. Greene claimed to be haunted by an avenging double who impersonated him around the world. From “the unknown Graham” is how he inscribed the French edition of The Quiet American he gave to Yvonne Cloetta, his companion of several decades. “You couldn’t really know Greene,” Paul Theroux tells Iyer. “He didn’t want you to.”

For Iyer all the mystery merely enhances the allure of a writer who, from the outset of his writing life, has served as his “shadow associate” and moral guide. But Iyer can be too forgiving of Greene’s cruelties, not least to his first wife, Vivien, from whom he separated in 1948 but never divorced, and to his hapless authorised biographer, Norman Sherry.

Greene once gave Sherry a map depicting all the places in the world he had visited and the poor man was encouraged to shadow his every move, to the ultimate detriment of his health. His three-volume biography of Greene is a study in demented ambition: in trying to tell the whole story of Greene’s complex and itinerant life, Sherry, this purveyor of total biography, ends up lost and confused, endlessly pursuing false leads in some distant land.

Iyer’s approach is more sensible. His book is concise, impressionistic, partial, as much about himself and his family story as it is about Greene (“Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?”), and all the better for it.

Born in Oxford, the son of Indian academics who moved to California when he was eight, Iyer was educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, and now lives in rural Japan, “the most clarifying society I know”. As a correspondent for Time magazine, that embodiment of bland globalisation, he is an habitué of the club class airport lounge and international hotel, on the move, occupying the spaces in between cultures. He’s a self-described “global soul”, the title of an earlier book, and it’s a feeling of deracinated cosmopolitanism that most attracts him to the worldly and questing Greene.

Iyer writes with charm and intelligence, but he can be grand. “A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the planet,” he says, in what is less a general statement than a sly self-description. Reflecting on his journey from Eton to his present status as world citizen, he writes: “I sometimes thought that that was what school trained us for - Empire in the post-imperial age, toughing it out abroad ... learning to observe, to read the world, to play at being unofficial spies.”

This is too self-mythologising for my taste. At such moments, Iyer begins to sound like the protagonist of a middle-period Greene novel, the man “living on the dangerous edge of faith” (as John Mortimer once put it), a restless traveller or fugitive adrift in the world, unsure of what or where to call home, and yearning for a greater, deeper truth.

In the end - Iyer grasps this - the insistent message of Greene’s greatest fiction seems to be that there is an infinite amount of hope in the world, but not for the unbeliever. For him, beyond hope, there lies only damnation, in this world and after.

Blood and ink

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín, Viking, £20, 346 pages

February 17 2012 / Financial Times

Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses. After all, as Joan Didion wrote, “writers are always selling somebody out” - and those closest to them invariably suffer most.

Colm Tóibín is fascinated by writers’ relationships with their families. In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence. Along the way, he tells us plenty about himself, such as what he thinks a novel is, or should be - a “set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology” - as well as much else besides about the psychology of serious literary ambition.

Tóibín’s hero is Henry James, about whom he wrote a fine novel, The Master (2004). James is the model he measures all other writers against. He says that as a reader James “took what he needed, as any novelist does”, a remark that lays bare his own strategy of appropriation: you read, you take what you need and move on.

The subject of the best essay here is John Cheever, the American writer who once said: “Everything I write is autobiographical.” For Tóibín, this isn’t quite so. “Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography,” he says of Cheever by way of correction, “and another in wishful or dreamy thinking.”

Autobiography recast as dream: that would serve as a good description of Cheever’s fiction - with its superficially becalmed suburban settings and baffled, yearning protagonists - as well as Tóibín’s own. Like James, Cheever was a guilty and tormented homosexual, with many secrets. As a father and husband living in affluent seclusion on the Hudson river in upstate New York, he was serially cruel to those he purported to love, especially his poor wife. He was an alcoholic, sentimentalist and narcissist. His ambition was never-ending. He longed for fame and immense riches. “I dream that my face appears on a postage stamp,” he wrote in his journals, which were edited and published to acclaim after his death.

So far, so bad. Yet against the cultivated miseries and selfishness of the life one must also set the excellence of much of Cheever’s work, the poise, restraint and subtleties of the stories especially, but also the cold, hard, penetrating truths of the journals, so intimate and revealing about the psychology of the egomaniacal writer. Tóibín suggests that Cheever’s “view of other writers was not sweet”. We are told that he loathed John Updike. “I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company,” Cheever said of Updike in the journals. “I think his magnanimity specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.”

Yet Cheever could also write this of Updike in the journals, a statement of admiration that Tóibín misses or overlooks: “Updike’s cover story - and I quite sensibly envy his gifts.”

As an Irishman, Tóibín is understandably interested in other Irish writers. There’s a gripping essay on WB Yeats and his father, John, who was a better talker than writer and struggled to complete projects. Tóibín calls him the “great unfinisher”, which makes him sound like the former England striker Emile Heskey.

As with the fathers of James, Jorge Luis Borges and VS Naipaul, John Butler Yeats was a failed writer. “For writers and artists whose fathers dabbled in art and failed,” Tóibín postulates in an essay on Borges, “there seems always to be a peculiar intensity in their levels of ambition and determination.” Perhaps.

Towards the end of his life, resident in New York, John Butler Yeats sent a series of letters to his son William at home in Dublin, in which he expressed passionate belief in his own poems, stories and a play. The son is slow to reply, as if embarrassed by his father’s striving. The letters from father to son become ever more insistent. Tóibín quotes appositely from them, to poignant effect, as he recounts the story of the father’s deluded ambition and the son’s indifference.

The essay on Samuel Beckett is titled “Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” (with the exception of Jane Austen, Tóibín writes only about men). It’s an odd and misleading title because there’s very little about the mother in it and even less on her relationship with her son, beyond being told that she was frustrated by Sam’s indolence in the years before he settled in France, served with the Resistance and began to produce the great works. The essay is essentially a review of the first volume of The Letters (2009), covering the years 1929-1940, and it’s wide-ranging and digressive.

But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett’s relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America). This is a pity because in the second volume one finds a beautiful letter, in which, on a visit to see his mother in Dublin in 1948, Beckett wrote:

“The weather is fine, I walk along my old paths, I keep watching my mother’s eyes, never so blue, so stupefied, so heartrending, eyes of an endless childhood, that of old age ... I think these are the first eyes that I have seen. I have no wish to see any others. I have all I need for loving and weeping.”

If Beckett’s mother was “afflicted” by her son, as Tóibín keenly suggests, she was also loved unconditionally by him.

The Beckett essay’s curious title is surely a consequence of gathering together a series of occasional pieces, written over many years, into a book and then attempting to impose a retrospective coherence on it. An introduction would have helped to contextualise and would have eased the reader’s way. As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts.

The war on error

Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, RRP£30, 800 pages

September 23 2011 / Financial Times

Christopher Hitchens is living in what Philip Gould, the New Labour pollster and author of The Unfinished Revolution, described in a recent, and poignant, BBC interview as the “death zone”. He, like Gould, is terminally ill. We all live under a death sentence, however long it may be suspended, but it concentrates the mind if you are told that the end is much nearer than you would have wished – terrifyingly near. “I had immense plans for the next decade,” Hitchens said wistfully when he was diagnosed with inoperable oesophageal cancer last autumn.

There is, inevitably, an air of last things about this collection of essays, reviews and columns written over the past decade or so, a sense of leave-taking, and you read Arguably knowing that this great provocateur and polemicist will soon be silenced. Since being told a year ago that he had as little as another year to live, Hitchens’ articles have been written with “full consciousness that they might be my very last”. This is, he writes in the introduction, “Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another ... it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.”

The epigraph to Arguably is a resonant line from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” The speaker is Lambert Strether, a model of Jamesian reticence and repression. But there is nothing reticent about Hitchens. He has emphatically always chosen life, and lived it all he could. “I burned the candle at both ends,” he has been saying in recent months, “and it often gave a lovely light.”

Born in 1949, he remains a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised and shaped by the counter-cultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. (He is rather like Philip Roth’s David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talkshow star, libertine, scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.)

The son of a Tory naval officer, Hitchens was educated at a minor public school and Oxford, where he became a champagne Trotskyite. As a student, he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers party), and agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night. He remained a member until the late 1970s and, long after that, continued to defend the Old Man, as he and comrades called Trotsky.

After university, he worked on the New Statesman, under the editorships of Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard, before he moved to Washington in his early thirties. There, after some initial struggles, he began to find his voice and signature polemical style, contributing to Harper’s and The Nation and then as a well-paid de luxe contrarian, to Vanity Fair and The Atlantic.

I once had a drink with him in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the former Conservative MP George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh’s old Academy Club, in Soho, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. Hitchens sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling, perfectly formed sentences as he recited, from memory, large chunks of WH Auden’s poetry. I felt battered by his erudition – can you keep up, young man!

Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave – and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Martin Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and verbal fluency. Hitchens was engaging enough, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.

An absence of doubt defines his work as a journalist and writer. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (Islamism, God, pious moralising of all kinds), self-righteous indignation (“shameful” and “shame”, employed accusatorily, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style and his fearlessness.

Martin Amis, in Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin and the British left’s historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that Hitchens began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in “burnish and authority”, only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.

Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis’s Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double-act. Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, “the most influential writer of his generation” in his own self-description. He wrote in the High Style, after Saul Bellow, and boldly declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and was not averse to using cliché or ready-made formulation. Here he is, for instance, reporting from “Kurdistan – the other Iraq” for Vanity Fair in 2007: “Iraq as a state was always crippled by the fact that it contained a minority population that owed it little or no loyalty.” That’s the kind of awkward sentence that Amis mocks and scourges.

Yet, over the decade covered by this book, Hitchens caught up with Amis, whose reputation has been diminishing ever since the 1995 publication of The Information, his novel about two rivalrous writers, and then overtook him. It was as if their roles had been ironically reversed. Amis, in his non-fiction, instead of writing literary criticism, wrote mostly about politics and world affairs in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001. Hitchens did not start writing fiction and poetry but he did begin writing seriously about them for the first time – some of the best essays here are on Philip Larkin, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, writers revered by Amis.

Hitchens writes about very few contemporary novelists with the exception of his friends (Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Amis), and even fewer women (his literary tastes are “homosexual”, as he once put it). His choices are curiously old-fashioned, even schoolboyish (Kingsley Amis, PG Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, Arthur Conan Doyle).

After the September 11 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a zealous and strident supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror, to the dismay of many on the left. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends on The Nation.

He had, at last, found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichean, he denounced “Islamofascism”, a catch-all term that was so loose, generalised and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al-Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hizbollah – in spite of their different origins and distinct socio-political circumstances, they were all “Islamofascists”.

Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack: “The Hitch”, the journalist-as-brand-name. In 2004, he visited Afghanistan, on a well-funded assignment for Vanity Fair, and was rather delighted by what he discovered there, especially by what he called “the small victories of the profane over the sacred”. “I will venture a prediction,” he wrote. “The Taliban/al-Qaeda riffraff, as we know them, will never come back to power.”

It’s always unwise to make predictions, as any horseracing tipster or macro-economic forecaster must know, but Hitchens was wrong about the Taliban, with whom the western allies are now being forced to negotiate from a position of weakness, and the whole Afghanistan and Iraq misadventures. His general knowledge of the Middle East is superficial, he speaks no Islamic languages and, unlike, say, the politician-writer Rory Stewart or the Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, he has made no serious, long-lasting attempt to immerse himself in the politics and cultures of this extraordinarily diverse and heterogeneous region, ravaged for so long by civil war and despotism, and destabilised by repeated foreign interventions.

In a long review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens writes that: “History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale.” Too often, when discussing the 10 years of war since 9/11, and in his chosen role of defender of “secularism and democracy”, Hitchens seems to have exchanged his tragic sense of history for the rhetoric of the western triumphalist.

How will Christopher Hitchens be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returns again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus (“What would George do?”), are false. Unlike Orwell, Hitchens has no one definitive book, no Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four or Homage to Catalonia. He is not a philosopher and has made no original contribution to intellectual thought. As an atheist, his anti-religious tract, God Is Not Great, is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time, good journalism but not literature.

Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style – as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly, the itinerant man of letters and indefatigable raconteur. The culture no longer throws up people like the Hitch. Today, he is very much a man apart. He has no equal in contemporary Anglo American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.

AJ Liebling used to say that: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” There are better writers than Hitchens, but none surely who can write as fast and as well as he does, and on any range of subjects. His confidence and overweening certainty can be tiresome and his political judgments are often foolish. He purports to loathe extremism and fanaticism, but in many ways he himself is by temperament an extremist, which is why he joined the International Socialists as a young man and remained a member for so long, and why, once he changed sides, he became such a bellicose supporter of the neoconservative project.

In retrospect, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not liberate Hitchens as a political writer, as Amis suggested: even after 1989, his polemicising continued to be compromised by Manicheanism. He merely substituted one all-encompassing world view for another: first the global proletarian struggle, and then the global struggle against “Islamofascism”. The most notable development in the period covered by this book was his emergence as a literary critic of distinction – and it is here that the sense of liberation that Amis identified in his friend is most palpable.

Above all, Hitchens has never lost his sense of humour. Or his sense of outrage, which, when controlled, as in his devastating 2006 account of the effects of Agent Orange on generations of Vietnamese, is his most potent weapon.


Ragnarok, by AS Byatt, Canongate, RRP£14.99, 177 pages

September 2 2011 / Financial Times

In her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession: A Romance (1990), AS Byatt tells the charming story of two contemporary literary academics who are researching the life and work of the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Ash is a recognisable late-Victorian archetype, a high-minded scholar who reads prodigiously in science and philosophy as well as literature. Like Byatt, he is a religious sceptic. But also like Byatt, he is a fabulist, with a profound interest in mythology and creation narratives.

He might not believe in God but he is fascinated by stories about the gods and, in particular, Icelandic sagas and old Norse myths. One of his long narrative poems is entitled “Ragnarok”, the day of doom in Norse mythology, when the gods destroy one another and the world in a final, cleansing war of annihilation. For Wagnerians, Ragnarok, or the last battle, is more familiar as the Götterdämmerung, the concluding opera in the Ring cycle.

In Possession, Byatt reveals herself to be a formidable ventriloquist and writer of pastiche as she offers up extracts from the notebooks, letters and poems of her fictional Victorians. So, in one sense, long before the publication of her latest book, she has already written the story of Ragnarok in the form of an epic poem of the same title by one Henry Ash, parts of which appear in Possession.

What obsesses Ash (and, by implication, Byatt) are the similarities, echoes and repetitions in the myths of different cultures, as well as “the existence of the same Truths in all Religions”. From this, he concludes that our creation myths are not divinely inspired or metaphysically true but the work of human imagination, no more or less.

And it’s the imagination, above all else, that is the true subject of Byatt’s Ragnarok, which is the latest short novel in the Canongate Myth Series (other offerings have included David Grossman on the story of Samson and Margaret Atwood on Penelope and Odysseus).

The central character is not one of the gods but a young girl, whom we know only as “the thin child”. The ostensible setting is England during the second world war. The girl is dreamy, bookish and isolated. She has little recall of the world before the war started. Her father is an RAF pilot on active service in north Africa and, in her loneliness and confusion, she tells herself he will never return.

The child’s comprehension of the world and the expectations she has of it are enlarged and excited by the stories she reads. After being evacuated to the “ordinary paradise” of the English countryside, she discovers a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of Norse myths, which she reads together with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Byatt has written many times of her admiration for the great storytelling compendiums: The Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and so on.)

The cover of Asgard intrigues the girl – a “rushing image of Odin’s wild hunt on horseback tearing through a clouded sky amid jagged bolts of lightning”. (The image of Odin and the wild hunt was also a favourite of Adolf Hitler, for whom the Norse myths were a source of endless inspiration.)

Byatt peels back the cover of the book that the girl reads and takes us deep inside it as she delights in reimagining the twilight of the gods and the destruction of the world. Her paragraphs are constructed from short, rhythmic sentences, which have a parable-like simplicity. She favours compound nouns (“World-Ash”) and massed adjectives. She combines the precision of science writing (she is very particular about the names of flowers and trees and creatures) with wild flights of fancy. Like the thin child, she loses herself in “an ecstasy of imagination”.

Nature is presented as nothing but a continuous Schopenhauerian cycle of living and dying as “creatures ate and were eaten”. In one scene, a vast, ravenous, snake-like creature, Jormungandr, sees a shape moving in the darkness and bites it. The pain is excruciating; she has bitten her own tail, which was “wound round the earth like a girdle” – an extraordinary image.

In an afterword, Byatt says that it was through first reading the Norse myths as a child that she began to understand “that the Christian story was another myth”. Myths did not satisfy her as fairy stories did. They puzzled and haunted her mind. They were encounters with the “inapprehensible”. And yet, when approached by Canongate, she knew exactly what she wanted to write: Ragnarok, “the myth to end all myths”.

Like Wagner before her, Byatt dares to dream how the world might end but her 21st-century Valhalla is a kind of ecological graveyard, a site of mass extinctions and vanished species. So this rewriting of the Ragnarok is a story for our time of overpopulation and anthropomorphic climate change, and of all time.

Now All Roads Lead to France

Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis, Faber, RRP£20, 389 pages

August 6 2011 / Financial Times

On the publication in March 1812 of his long narrative poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, Lord Byron, heady with self-celebration, wrote: “I woke one morning and found myself famous.”

Edward Thomas, the Anglo-Welsh poet and essayist who was killed, aged 39, on the western front in the spring of 1917, had no such sense of instant and ecstatic recognition. For most of his adult life he laboured fretfully as a book reviewer and hack writer, hustling for commissions to support his free-thinking wife Helen and their three children. Sometimes suicidal and often stricken by depression – he was diagnosed as a “neurasthenic” in the opaque psycho-pathological terminology of the day – he longed to be liberated from the drudgery of a life spent writing about writing. He felt caged by domesticity and would, at various times, choose to spend long periods apart from his wife and children, whom he loved but neglected and mistreated. “What I really ought to do is live alone,” he confessed to a friend. “It is really the kind H [Helen] and the children who make life almost impossible.”

At such times Thomas’s melancholy can feel unearned, the self-pity of a man of letters who married and became a father too young, as an undergraduate at Oxford, and who was obliged to work. “For I hate my work,” he wrote, “my reviewing: my best I feel is negligible: I have no vitality, no originality, no love. I do harm. Love is dead and lust almost dead.”

In spite of his sense of failure and exaggerated self-reproach, Thomas was an influential and strenuous critic of poetry, the literary form he revered above all others, and a friend of many other writers, including Rupert Brooke and Joseph Conrad. He was tall and attractive, liked and admired by many. His life was interesting and varied as he moved between the family cottage in rural Hampshire and literary London.

None of this was enough for him, however, because he yearned to write not criticism, travel guides or biography, but his own “original writing”, as he called it. What he wanted above all else was to write poetry. It was not until he met and became friends with the American poet Robert Frost at a gathering in London that he began tentatively to believe it would be possible for him to write poetry rather than merely to review it.

Frost was four years older than Thomas and moved to England, on a whim, in 1912. The two men shared an interest in what the American called the “sound of sense”: poetry that, in its metrical pattern, aspires to the condition, naturalness and rhythms of speech. Though Matthew Hollis makes much of the influence of the friendship on both men, in Now All Roads Lead to France it’s clear that without the encouragement of Frost, Thomas would never have found his poetic voice. But without Thomas, you feel, Frost would have been just fine; he was already publishing poetry before he moved to England and was the more confident and self-assertive of the two, a raconteur and teacher.

As you would expect of a professional poet, Hollis is preoccupied with the micro world of the London poetry scene in the years immediately preceding the first world war, with its various factions and divisions between Georgians and Imagists, rather than with the macro world of politics and international affairs. He monitors the gathering storm in the southern Balkans only out of the corner of his eye and says very little about the wider socio-political context in which Thomas operated.

Thomas’s father was a Lloyd George Liberal who was committed to home rule for Ireland but that doesn’t interest the author. Instead, he writes at length about poets now mostly forgotten or little read, all friends of Thomas, and quotes extensively from old reviews, recounting who said what about whom and in which publication and when. Does any of this matter?

What matters is the poetry Thomas belatedly started to write towards the end of 1914 and beyond. The book enlarges and quickens with the onset of the war as Thomas begins to agonise and equivocate over whether he should enlist, as Rupert Brooke had (conscription was introduced in 1916), or follow Frost back to America. He felt conflicted. He was patriotic but appalled by jingoism; he loved the countryside about which he wrote so poignantly and knew that while he prevaricated, others were prepared to act to defend an ideal of England.

On long walks with Frost, he discussed what he should do and was troubled by what he considered to be his lack of courage. Then, one day, with Frost having returned to America, Thomas received from his friend in the post a draft of what would become “The Road Not Taken”, one of his most celebrated poems. Thomas read its narrative of choice and missed opportunities as a direct challenge; within days of receiving it he had enlisted in the Artists Rifles, a volunteer regiment of the British army.

The first world war has been called the English Holocaust. Few would disagree with historian John Keegan’s declaration that it “damaged civilisation, the rational and liberal civilisation of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse”. Thomas’s poems – like those of Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden and others – have helped to define the way in which the war has been represented and how, today, it is remembered and understood.

Thomas is a fine yet modest poet of nature; a delicate chronicler, often in blank verse, of landscape, rural life and the ever-changing English weather. His best-loved poem, “Adlestrop”, recalls a moment when a train on which he was travelling unexpectedly stopped at a station in the Cotswolds. These are the last days of the last summer before the war. From the train the poet sees “willows, willow-herb, and grass,/ And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry”. And in the closing lines it’s as if the poem dissolves into birdsong: “And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/ Farther and farther, all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.” Even during battle in France, Thomas never lost his heightened receptivity to nature or his gift for noticing the movement of a thrush or the effects of sunlight on frost.

Hollis writes gracefully, and with great empathy, about Thomas’s sad struggles and yearnings. His absorbing, rather old-fashioned book, which reminds me, in tone and sensibility, of Robert Gittings’ 1969 biography of John Keats, serves as a tribute to one of poetry’s more suffering souls. It’s also an evocation of a lost England that Thomas himself elegised so movingly in the nature poems that, although almost all unpublished in his lifetime, have found an enduring place in the canon of English literature.

The Stranger's Child

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, RRP£20, 576 pages

June 24 2011 / Financial Times

The long first part of this eagerly awaited novel occupies one dreamy weekend in the late summer of 1913, the last summer of its kind there ever was to be, to adapt a phrase Alan Hollinghurst himself used in his debut, The Swimming Pool Library. Published in 1988 but set in 1983, that book described a period of spectacular sexual abandon just before the catastrophe of Aids cooled and restrained the ardour of promiscuous gay men. The setting of The Stranger’s Child feels immediately familiar, as do the ironies – elegant people partying on the edge of the abyss – but they are never clichéd, because Hollinghurst writes so carefully and subversively, often with one eyebrow raised in sardonic amusement as he satirises the excesses of his mostly high-born protagonists.

The central character around whom all others gather is a young aristocratic poet named Cecil Valance. He is heir to a baronetcy and 30,000 acres, and is visiting the family of his friend from Cambridge, George Sawle. Cecil is beautiful, insouciant, careless, adored, and both George and his younger sister, 16-year-old Daphne, fall in love with him.

At the end of the weekend, Cecil, who has enjoyed illicit sex with George in local woodland and flirted with Daphne, writes a poem, “Two Acres”, named for the Sawle family home in Middlesex, and dedicates it to the swooning young girl who, like the innocent boy in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between or the mischievous girl in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (both novels that Hollinghurst has evidently read carefully and learned from), understands little of the adult world of sex and secrets, and even less of homosexuality.

We then shift abruptly forward in time to 1926. Daphne is now Lady Valance, having married Cecil’s worthless brother, and Cecil himself has been killed during the first world war as you knew he would be. His statue stands in one of the rooms of the family’s neo-gothic mansion.

As with Rupert Brooke, Cecil’s reputation as a poet has been enhanced by early death – just think of what he might have achieved! – and “Two Acres”, like Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage Grantchester”, has become an emblematic poem, evoking a lost prewar world. We are told on several occasions that, at the time of Cecil’s death, lines from “Two Acres” were quoted by Churchill in The Times. It’s the beginning of a literary cult that resonates through the decades as the novel unfolds from 1913 to the present in six distinct parts.

Hollinghurst is interested in what it means to love someone or something that is perpetually unattainable as well as in class, history and how it feels to be an outsider at the top table of high privilege. Reading the first part of the novel one thinks of the pastoral elegies of AE Housman, and in particular of A Shropshire Lad and its subtext of homoerotic longing and conflation of youth and mortality. This strange, haunting collection in which the poet mourns lads already dead or those soon to die was published in 1896, yet it found a renewed popularity with the generation who went to war in 1914, with all those young men destined, like the fictional Cecil, to be lost in the trenches of the western front, and with their bereaved families.

Hollinghurst has always been adept at juxtaposing tenderness and depravity, at combining a highly refined literary sensibility with the instincts of a pornographer. The shock, and aesthetic surprise, of reading him for the first time was to encounter a writer determined to write so explicitly about gay sex in a style that was as extreme as it was deliberative and rarefied.

So frequent and all-consuming was this in The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star (1994), and so scarce was the female presence, that as a reader you were left numbed by the relentlessness and the repetition but also beguiled by the artfulness of it all.

The sex in The Stranger’s Child is unusually bashful for Hollinghurst; it occurs in the margins, referenced but not described. There are also complex female characters, notably Daphne whom we see as an almost-child, as a young unhappily married woman and then in old age.

Yet the homoerotic yearning of old remains strong, and gay characters feature throughout. They include a suburban clerk with literary aspirations who later becomes one of the many Cecil biographers attempting to decode “Two Acres”. As the years pass, and those present during that golden, misunderstood weekend in Middlesex die, the poem becomes encrusted in legend. It is the role of the biographer to unravel the truths of Cecil’s short life and of the poem. Its creation-myth was that it had been written for and about Daphne, but in fact it was written for and about her brother, with some hard sex excised from the final draft.

The Stranger’s Child is broader in scope and more generous in outlook than anything Hollinghurst has written before as well as being structurally his most ambitious work and his most restrained sexually. What remains absolutely characteristic is the gracefulness of his sentences as he goes about his business, scrupulously scene-shaping and mood-patterning. (No contemporary writer is more fastidious about adverbs; “experimentally” is a recurring favourite here.)

Hollinghurst is essentially a writer of the long moment and of the extended set-piece: the party, the country house weekend, the dinner party. If he has a weakness it is a tendency to over-describe; to seek to convey each and every subtle shift in mood, tone, inflection and nuance. The overall effect is charming and you admire the artistry but it can also be enervating – sometimes you wish that things were more slipshod, rough and urgent in this fictional world, a little less perfect and sumptuously poised.

The problem with Africa

September 6 2010 / New Statesman

Solar by Ian McEwan

March 14 2010 / The Observer

The Humbling

October 29 2009 / The Observer

Twilight of the Manhattan gods

January 11 2009 / The Observer

Stating the obvious, but oh so cleverly

November 23 2008 / The Observer

Outrage from beyond the grave

September 14 2008 / The Observer

A marathon man of letters

August 10 2008 / The Observer

Unaccustomed Earth

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Bloomsbury £14.99, 333pp

June 9 2008 / Financial Times

Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are extraordinarily place-specific and character-faithful. Most of her fiction is set in and around Boston, Massachusetts, or is in some way connected to the city, and concerns a small, narrow demographic: educated middle class Bengalis making their way in what was once called the new world. Her interest is the minutiae of Bengali family life as it is lived outside India; how families are affected by geographic separation, cultural slippage and merging, and miscegenation. She herself is of Bengali Indian descent and lives in New York.

In three interconnected stories in Unaccustomed Earth – ‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Year’s End’, ‘Going Ashore’ – Lahiri follows the fortunes of two Massachusetts-based Bengali families. She shows how the various members interact with one another across the years as they seek to remake themselves in a new country while they attempt, with difficulty, to remain faithful to a larger cultural inheritance.

In ‘Year’s End’ Kaushik, a student, returns home to spend Christmas with his father who has recently married again to a woman with two young daughters. Kaushik is still mourning his dead mother, and he is angry and hurt that his father has remarried, not least because the marriage was “arranged by relatives” in India. His stepmother, from Calcutta, speaks very little English; having lived in America for so long, Kaushik speaks little Bengali. They address each other with mutual incomprehension.

This is the set up for what becomes a closely observed study of cultural misunderstanding within one family – the stepmother is as welcoming and open as Kaushik is guarded and truculent. As always in Lahiri’s stories of domestic realism, there’s an epiphany towards the end, in this instance a moment of sudden self-revelation as Kaushik discovers within himself a capacity for violence that changes fundamentally the way he perceives his father and his new wife.

Though inevitable, Lahiri’s epiphanies never feel forced or unearned. In ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, the title story, a daughter – who, like Kaushik, is also mourning a dead mother – discovers a letter written by her aged father who has been living with her. This alters her understanding of the father whom she considered to be a closed-in man, incapable of the love she had always sought from him but never received.

Lahiri isn’t a noisy or ostentatious writer; it’s impossible to think of her writing a story about an Islamic terrorist or the assassination of a politician, let alone the events of September 11 2001. She’s not interested in fiction-as-documentary, in bringing urgent news of the times in which we live. If she has a fault, it’s that her sentences can be too detailed, too overstuffed with superfluous information about her characters’ lives: their thoughts, hopes, yearnings and aspirations.

She mostly writes in delicately poised sentences of unusual precision and clarity, but there can be occasional inelegancies too, usually resulting from her desire to make her sentences too full, as in this example from ‘Unaccustomed Earth’: “She decided that it must have been the food she found herself always finishing off Akash’s plate and the fact that now she had to drive everywhere instead of walk.”

Lahiri is presently probably the most influential writer of fiction in America. Her quiet, richly textured stores are read, studied and widely imitated by the unceasing flow of graduates emerging as if on a conveyor belt from the American universities’ MFA programmes – I know, because most of them send their stories to me. (If a quarter of those wanting to be published in Granta actually subscribed to the magazine, it would be a runaway bestseller!)

My favourite of all Lahiri’s stories is ‘Sexy’, from her first collection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies (2000). Miranda is a naïve young American living in Boston who, after a chance meeting, finds herself, in spite of herself, falling in love with a complacently married Bengali investment banker named Dev. His life is a labyrinth of lies and betrayals. But he is charming and attentive enough, and Miranda is excited as much by his cultural difference – the Bengali he speaks, his religion, the stories he tells her of Indian family life – as she is by the man himself. The story is richly comic, and yet poignant, because this is a relationship that will never have the chance to mature or deepen. So graceful and nuanced are Lahiri’s observations, and so dense are her paragraphs in incidental but telling detail, that it’s miraculous to observe how much Miranda changes over the course of one short story. By the end she is an entirely different woman: alone, much wiser, but sadder too. Most miraculous of all is how the story quickens in the final paragraphs as it suddenly enlarges, flaring out from the particularity of Miranda’s loss to the generality of Boston on a cold winter afternoon. We see Miranda sitting outside a church, and as she drinks coffee, her head beginning to clear of all the confusion, she becomes aware of the giant pillars and dome of the church and the transcendent “clear-blue sky spread over the city”.

This new collection also ends with a story of disappointed love, ‘Going Ashore’. Kaushik, now in early middle age, is a hard-travelling photo-journalist, with a flat in Rome. It is there in the city that, by chance one evening, he meets Hema, a fellow Bengali-American whom he knew many years before in Boston. They are both confused and adrift but for a few brief weeks they lose themselves in a rapture of mutuality and fellow feeling. But Hema is soon to return to Massachusetts to be married. She knows that if she leaves Kaushik behind she will never know happiness again – but leave him behind is what she does, with disastrous consequences. ‘Going Ashore’ is perhaps the saddest story Lahiri has ever written, and yet you finish it feeling only uplifted by the artistry and sheer mastery of technique.

Tainted Love

Tropic Moon, by Georges Simenon (translated by Marc Romano), New York Review Books, 133pp, £6.99

June 1 2008 / New Statesman

The two most celebrated novels about European colonialism in Africa were written, appropriately enough, by a European, Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, 1902), and by an African, Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, 1958). These writers were both witness to traumatic change in Africa, they travelled extensively and, to some extent, were displaced figures, Conrad as a Ukrainian-Pole in England, and Achebe as an Igbo in a Hausa- and Yoruba-dominated Nigeria and then, later, as a Nigerian in America, where he still lives. There the similarities end. In a lecture delivered in 1975, Achebe denounced Conrad as an unadulterated “racist”. Heart of Darkness, he said, “projects the image of Africa as the ‘other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality”.

Achebe is an insistently moral reader, and his reading of Conrad - as orientalist and European supremacist - influenced a whole generation of students of post-colonial literature. In Achebe’s vision of what constitutes literary art, the ethical and the aesthetic are inseparable. The aesthetic is an expression of the ethical. No work expressive of racism can be considered a work of art. Conrad, he says, in an awkward phrase, “eliminates the African as human factor”. He continues: “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art.”

The narrator of Heart of Darkness is a young English sailor called Marlow. He has returned to London from his travels in central Africa with a remarkable story to tell - of the rapacity and venality of the Belgian exploitation of the Congo and the subjugation of the local peoples there, and of the moral and psychological disintegration of Kurtz, a once idealistic high-bourgeois European intellectual who, in despair and embracing nihilism, withdrew to a remote trading post on the Congo River to become the debauched head of his own cannibal kingdom.

Marlow is, at all times, a deeply unreliable narrator, at one moment sympathetic to and at another contemptuous of the colonial project: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

The story he tells of Africa is necessarily partial, circumscribed by the old racial and class hierarchies: it is Marlow, not Kurtz, who speaks repeatedly of the heart of darkness and of the irrationality and metaphysical horror of Africa. It is Marlow who portrays the black Africans he encounters in a pejorative and monolithic way. “A quarrelsome band of footsore sulky niggers trod on the heels of the donkey,” he writes early in the book, establishing an idiom. It could be Ron Atkinson speaking.

We are told by Marlow that Kurtz’s gift, before his turn towards barbarism, was language: “his ability to talk, his words - the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness”. We have to take his word on this, because we hear little from Kurtz himself and read none of his supposedly elegant prose. And the miraculous gift of expression is never extended to the Africans in the book: they can speak all right, but they are never articulate or coherent.

The effects are similar in Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s astounding Journey to the End of the Night (1932), perhaps the greatest work of literary nihilism, and one of the finest novels of the past century, a novel even more problematic than Heart of Darkness in what it reveals of educated European colonial attitudes to Africa. The narrator of the novel is a French doctor called Ferdinand Bardamu. He is scabrous, cynical, enraged, yet often very witty. He is the precursor of Michel Houellebecq’s dissolute and fatigued last men. His story is told in an urgent vernacular, a hybrid of the lyric and the gutter. The engine of his disgust is an irrational misanthropy. Wounded on the Western Front, Ferdinand travels to what is now Cameroon in search of a new start. He has none of Marlow’s youthful wonder. He knows where he is going and what he will find there: “We were heading for Africa, the real, grandiose Africa of impenetrable forests; fetid swamps, inviolate wildernesses, where black tyrants wallowed in sloth and cruelty on the banks of never-ending rivers.”

If Kurtz is an enlightenment rationalist exhausted and then destroyed by his experience of Africa, Ferdinand is representative of the post-Christian new man who emerged from the trenches of the Western Front, the grand renunciator who believes in nothing, least of all in the possibility of progress. He survives his African experience - “Whole trees bristling with live clamour mutilated erections, horror” - precisely because, unlike Kurtz and indeed Marlow, he has no ideals to lose: the chaos and disorder of Africa merely affirm his own nihilism.

There are close similarities, in subject and theme, between these novels and Georges Simenon’s Tropic Moon (1933), which has just been reissued by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books and deserves to find a wide readership. Tropic Moon (Le Coup de lune) is set during the Thirties in francophone Gabon. Joseph Timar, from La Rochelle, is the nephew of an influential government official, and he arrives in Libreville to take up a job at a trading post deep in the bush. You sense that he has lost his way back home and Africa offers him the possibility of adventure, another chance. He takes a room at a hotel, and soon begins an affair with Adele, the wife of the hotelier. In fact, it is less an affair than a series of random sexual encounters; Timar learns, quickly, that most of the white men who hang around the hotel’s bar have slept with the bored Adele, who wears nothing beneath her transparent dresses.

Then, over the course of a couple of nights, Adele’s husband dies and a black servant is murdered. It becomes appar- ent to Timar that everyone in the white settler community knows that Adele is responsible for the murder; but he is sick with desire for her and, rather than investigate, intensifies his affair. Together he and Adele set off upriver for the remote timber camp.

Great claims have been made for Simenon (1903-89), most recently by the political philosopher John Gray and the novelist John Banville. In truth, he is a limited artist, but an interesting one. He has a robust, even unbreakable style: his brusque sentences are stripped of all superfluous ornamentation, the vocabulary is reduced, there is little description of landscape or place, and he follows his characters less in thought than in action.

Simenon was grotesquely prolific, writing more than 400 books, the most popular of which are the genre thrillers featuring the detective Maigret. His more contemplative books are what he called his romans durs - the hard books. And the best of these are Tropic Moon and Monsieur Monde Vanishes, which is about an apparently settled middle-class Parisian family man who one day, without warning, walks out on his wife and loses him-self in the floating world of the Riviera, where he seeks to live authentically among whores, adventurers and criminals.

“I was always tempted by what I call complete liberty,” Simenon once said, and many of his characters, in the romans durs, are seeking release from domestic obligation and mundane routine, through sex, travel or crime. But they invariably discover that there is no such thing as complete liberty: other people, with their conflicting needs, as well as the rule of law, serve as brakes on our more treacherous desires.

When Timar arrives in Gabon he has a young man’s optimism, but soon, like the other settlers, he is listless. The tropical heat oppresses him. The days are long and heavy. His head is often “thick with drink before lunch”. The “blacks” out on the streets of Libreville or in the bush move as one: homogenous, indistinguishable, nameless, without identity.

Simenon, who travelled through French West Africa, was a determined critic of colonialism, and Tropic Moon is a more subtle book, in many ways, than Heart of Darkness, though just as despairing. Its subtlety lies in what happens to Timar late in the book: travelling by canoe downriver from the timber camp (Adele has fled the camp and is presumed to be back in Libreville), he finds himself unexpectedly moved by the solidarity of the African oarsmen, the harmony of their collective endeavour. He watches them in a rapture of mutuality. “Twelve paddles rose out of the water together, dripping liquid pearls in the sunlight. They hung suspended for a moment and then came down, while the men lifted their voices in a sad unchanging chant whose muted powerful rhythm would be with them throughout the trip.”

Timar begins to see that the Africans are less an undifferentiated mass - “the blacks” - than sovereign selves, with needs and longings similar to his own. As this is Simenon, things are further complicated by sex. Resting in a remote village on the way back to Libreville, Timar meets a young “native” woman. She is an orientalist’s fantasy: “She was naked except for a bunch of dried grass that covered her sex. Timar had never seen breasts like hers before . . .” Later, she visits the hut where he is to spend the night. Simenon closes the door on what happens next, but a sense of mutual erotic need is established in a few terse paragraphs. Timar is changed further by the experience and, on his arrival in Libreville, he refuses to be complicit in an attempt by Adele to evade arrest for the murder of the servant through framing an innocent man, the obligatory local black. Timar desires Adele intensely, feels a kind of inchoate love for her, and she for him, but he also loathes the corruption and injustice of the whole rotten French-administered set-up in Gabon, and he must act to prevent injustice.

In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the proud Igbo leader from the village of Umuofia who rebels against the arrival of missionaries and British bureaucrats in his ancestral village, hangs himself from a tree, in one last act of defiance and despair. It is as if he knows what awaits his people and continent, and he cannot bear it. In Journey to the End of the Night, Ferdinand leaves Africa as he found it - in a fury of exasperation and contempt. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, sick and withered at the end of his life, crawls alone into the bush. “I am lying here waiting for death,” he tells Marlow. The man who once had “immense plans” has lived too long and seen too much. His conclusion? “Exterminate all the brutes.”

As for the Africa-returned Marlow, once more settled in London, he tells his aunt, who is worrying about his health, that it is not “my strength that needed nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing”. And, in Tropic Moon, Timar eventually leaves Africa, fever-stricken and defeated, without hope or aspiration. He, like Marlow, cannot even begin to imag-ine what is happening in the land he left behind. “Africa doesn’t exist,” he mutters to himself, at the very end of the book. “Africa - it doesn’t exist. Africa . . .”

What each of these writers seems to be saying in his own way is that the European has no place in Africa: the cultural misunderstanding is too profound, the history too painful, the bitterness too great.

“Tropic Moon is a dark masterpiece,” John Banville wrote recently in the Guardian, “darker even than Heart of Darkness.” That a stylist as fastidious as the Booker-garlanded Banville should use an adjective so complacent when commenting on a novel set in Africa is merely further confirmation of Achebe’s pessimism. So must Conrad always remain our first point of reference when considering representations of Africa in the novel? Of course not, because, in the end, the best stories, memoirs and essays about Africa - the truest and most empathetic - are written by Africans, from an African perspective, if not necessarily for an African readership.

For one thing, their imaginations do not need soothing and their vision of the continent does not, as it does for Timar in Tropic Moon, end with an ellipsis . . . beyond which there is only horror, horror.

Zuckerman's last stand

Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape £16.99, 292 pp

October 20 2007 / Financial Times

No matter which name Philip Roth chooses for his narrators or fictional alter egos, whether it is Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh or indeed even, slyly, Philip Roth, they invariably share many of the same urgent preoccupations: the tyranny of sexual desire, the essential incomprehensibility of women, the question of Jewish identity and self-positioning, literary ambition. In other words, they are all recognisably the same man: “Roth Man”, as Martin Amis once called him. Roth Man has long been defined by his egoism, his limitless ambition, his aggressive and relentless sexual energy, his scabrous wit and irony, and his rage.

More recently, Roth’s novels have been suffused with a sad music. They are soaked through with illness and regret. For Roth Man is now old; his friends have died or they are sick and dying; the desires of the flesh remain, but the flesh itself is withered.

No one has suffered the torments of old age more than Nathan Zuckerman, who made his first appearance in Roth’s fiction in The Ghost Writer (1979). In that novel the young Zuckerman found a potential mentor in E.I. Lonoff, an acclaimed short story writer and fellow Jew, his hero and inspiration. He entered Lonoff’s life at a time of great complication for the older man. Long married to a decent and honest woman, Lonoff had fallen in love with one of his students, Amy Bellette, about whom Zuckerman fantasised feverishly.

Exit Ghost begins with Zuckerman, now 71, returning to New York after more than a decade’s absence from the city. He has been living in austere solitude on a remote hilltop in the Berkshires, doing little but writing, reading, and listening to music. Surgery for prostrate cancer has left him both impotent and incontinent, as readers of Roth’s acclaimed “American Trilogy” - American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000) - will know. These novels were narrated by Zuckerman but they were not about him; he was a mere facilitator used by Roth to tell other people’s stories. Now, in regretful old age, Zuckerman is writing about himself again, and, in spite of his long retreat from the world, his refusal to read newspapers or watch television news, he finds himself succumbing once more to what he calls the “stimulants, temptations, and dangers of the present moment”.

He is in New York to see a doctor who has devised new techniques to counter the debilitating effects of prostrate cancer. He is soon distracted, first by a chance encounter in a diner with an aged and deathly Amy Bellette, and then by deciding, on a whim, to respond to an advertisement for a house swap that would enable him to live for a year in Manhattan. This impulsive decision brings him into contact with an affluent young couple - both aspirant writers - Billy and Jamie. As it happens, a young male Harvard friend of theirs is writing a biography of Lonoff. We are told that he spent the last years of his life blocked while unhappily labouring on a novel that was never published.

Zuckerman becomes predictably obsessed with Jamie, reawakening in him a furious sexual yearning that can never be fulfilled. He conducts imaginary dialogues with her, as he did with another young, sexy woman in an earlier novel, The Counterlife (1986). Here the dialogues offer a counter-narrative of sexual fulfilment, contrasting with the bleak actuality of Zuckerman’s plight: an old man, sick with desire and futile longing, moving slowly to the final exit door of his life, unsettled by spectral presences from his past, and envious of the health and vitality of those such as the biographer who are on their way up just as Zuckerman is on his way out. The set-up is poignant.

There is much to admire here, not least the acuity of observation - the cocky and aggressive biographer, whom Zuckerman meets for the first time in Central Park, is “savage with health, and armed to the teeth with time”. But too much is too hastily told or compressed; detail, nuance, and the careful colouring of scenes are sacrificed as characters offer long, unbroken summaries of their lives, their talk looping and sprawling. The imaginary dialogues feel this time like an unearned extravagance, and Roth assumes too much knowledge of his readers - that, for instance, they know all about Zuckerman.

So this is a novel for those who already know the novels of Philip Roth. It is a coda, and a farewell - to Nathan Zuckerman, but also to all those readers who have followed him on his long journey through Roth’s inflamed fictional landscape.

Engaged and sincere

Touchstones: essays on literature, art and politics, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Faber

April 16 2007 / New Statesman

Stick around and you might just learn something

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir, by Peter Godwin, Picador £16.99, pp342

March 4 2007 / The Observer

Perfect profile

Reporting: writings from the New Yorker, by David Remnick, Picador, 483pp, £18.99

September 18 2006 / New Statesman

When in the late 1990s Ian Hamilton began compiling The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Essays, he was certain that there should be no place for the long profile in his ideal republic of letters. “The rise of the literary ‘profile’, in newspapers and in glossy magazines, is usually deplored, but it has produced some good writing . . . The trouble is: it tends to get badly out of date . . . Also, the literary profile, without meaning to, tends to get sucked into the book-publicity machine: critical comments get sacrificed to personality-portrayal.”

David Remnick specialises in the long literary profile and, in his hands, it is a most capacious and flexible form - the ideal form, perhaps, for our age of globalised celebrity. He may write to the moment, but there is little that is out of date about the work in this collection of his writings from the New Yorker, the magazine he has edited since 1998 and taken into profitability after the drift and profligacy of the Tina Brown years. Indeed, to read some of these pieces several years after they were first published, and knowing what has since happened to some of the subjects, merely enhances their appeal as well as their poignancy.

While working on a profile of Vladimir Putin in 2003, Remnick visited the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the wealthiest man in Russia, at his gleaming offices in Moscow. Khodorkovsky, who was using his wealth to prepare for a move into politics, conceded that he took advantage of the bandit capitalism that had flourished under Boris Yeltsin as post-Soviet Russia experimented disastrously with unfettered market reforms. “You could get away with not breaking any laws because there weren’t really any laws,” he said. “Not everything was ethical. This is not something for me to be proud of.”

Khodorkovsky had changed; now he was a reformer and a democrat, but Putin was watching him. In 2005, as Remnick reminds us in a postscript, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for tax evasion after a “bogus trial”. He is now in prison in south-east Siberia, his fall complete.

Remnick is especially interested in political power and in those who have or pursue it, which is what leads him to seek out the company of prime ministers and presidents and, when he is with them, to listen hard and to report perceptively on what he sees. The long interview-profile of Tony Blair, from when Blair was campaigning ahead of the 2005 general election - “the Masochism Campaign”, as Remnick calls it - is so rich in detail and sympathetic observation, sceptical without being cynical, that one finishes it with sadness for what has been lost since the invasion of Iraq and all that has gone wrong for Blair. He was once, after all, such a symbol of renewal and so full of promise himself. “Blair,” Remnick writes, “risked everything in his decision to support Bush, and, when his case for war turned out to be unfounded, he lost the confidence and trust of much of the population.”

As a reporter Remnick tends to seek out only those he admires, such as the writers Philip Roth or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or those with profound influence in the countries that, aside from the US, interest him most: Russia and Israel, countries to which he returns again and again as he seeks to document their troubled modernity. He uses the prestige of the New Yorker and the authority of his position as entrées to most of the places he wishes to go, whether this is inside Downing Street with Tony Blair or at home with Al Gore in Nashville. He was not, however, able to get inside the Kremlin with Putin. Maybe the cold-eyed authoritarian had not read the New Yorker.

Remnick is not a swaggering writer. He is present in his pieces, but never obtrusively; they are emphatically not about him, which is as it should be. Nor is he an ostentatious stylist, a verbal showman in the style of the New Yorker’s film critic, Anthony Lane, whose pieces can have a flashy emptiness. He has a strong, muscular, unpretentious style and a restless curiosity that enables him to write as well about literature and politics as he does about boxing (there is an enthralling capsule essay here on the ruined heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson).

Is the New Yorker the best of all English- language magazines? There is much about it that, technically, could be improved: its headlines and standfirsts are inadequate, its design is predictable, the short fiction it publishes is seldom worth reading, and photography should be used more creatively. Yet none of this really matters because such is the range, quality and sophistication of so much of the journalism in the magazine, notably its coverage of international affairs, that one continues to read it with both admiration and longing, especially when Remnick himself is writing. Would that we had a magazine that was as well resourced and as rigorously edited in this country.

The month of cherry blossom

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata, Yellow Jersey Press, 224pp, £7.99
Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata, Vintage Books, 206pp (out of print)
Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, Vintage Books, 175pp, $12.95
The Lake, by Yasunari Kawabata, Kodansha International, 160pp, £8.99
The Old Capital, by Yasunari Kawabata, Shoemaker & Hoard, 182pp, $15
House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, Kodansha International, 160pp, £9.99

August 21 2006 / New Statesman

In 1938 Yasunari Kawabata was commissioned by a Tokyo newspaper to write about a championship game of Go between the best player in Japan, the Master, and a young, talented challenger. It was no ordinary game of Go: the aged Master, believed to be unbeatable, is portrayed in The Master of Go - Kawabata’s book based on the 1938 match, which has just been reissued in a fine edition by Yellow Jersey Press - as the embodiment of a traditional and hierarchical Japan that is threatened by the forces of change and modernity, a Japan of ceremony and ritual to which the conservative and nostalgic Kawabata is deeply attached. The Master as reimagined in this non-fiction novel has a contemplative, Zen-like serenity: through Go he has learned the art of patience and the value of silence. But he is ill, and his illness affects the game, which keeps being interrupted and then suspended; as such, it occupies a period of more than eight months, at the end of which you sense the ailing Master will surely die, as he does. So this, in every sense, is to be his final game, his last stand as the Master of Go.

In the oriental game of Go, black and white stones are moved on a board but, unlike in chess or draughts, it is not a game of multiple moves by the same pieces. “Though captured stones may be taken from the board, a stone is never moved to a second position after it has been placed upon one of the 361 points to which play is confined,” writes Edward Seidensticker, Kawabata’s long-standing translator. “The object is to build up positions which are invulnerable to enemy attack, meanwhile surrounding and capturing enemy stones.”

For Kawabata, Go was not simply a game; at its best, and especially as played by the Master, it was an art with a certain oriental nobility and mystery. As with Japan in the immediate postwar years, the game was changing (though begun earlier, this book was not published until 1951). “From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled,” Kawabata wrote. “Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system.” So The Master of Go is less a celebration of a great games player or work of dramatic reportage than a highly refined elegy of a kind that would come to define Kawabata in the second half of his life.

Kawabata was born in the industrial town of Osaka in 1899, the son of a doctor. His early childhood was marked by trauma and bereavement: his father died when he was one and his mother when he was two. He went to live with his grandmother, who died when he was seven. Two years later, his only sister died as well. When he was 15, his grandfather died, prompting him to remark that, already at a young age, he had become a “master of funerals”. His first important novella, The Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old, offers a harrowingly realistic account of how he tended his grandfather on his deathbed.

Much later, after the atom bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Naga-saki and Emperor Hirohito had unconditionally surrendered to the Americans to end the war in the Pacific as well as the myth of his own quasi-divine provenance, Kawabata, by that time middle-aged and established as a writer, wrote of how, “since the defeat, I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan”.

Was this sadness common to all Japanese, as he would have us believe? Or was it something much more personal, an expression of Kawabata’s own ontological perplexity - the sadness of the adult who was once an orphaned child, lost and alone in the world? Whatever the origins of this sadness, Kawabata decided that, with the war’s end, he would write only elegies; and so, on the whole, he did, producing some of the strangest and most memorably affecting fiction in 20th-century literature, the last major writer to work in the “classical” Japanese tradition. Today, the Japanese writers most familiar to western readers, from the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe to Haruki Murakami, are inter nationalists in style, attitude and ambition, their politics largely leftist or liberal and their familiarity with popular culture - with Hollywood, the American vernacular, pop and the buzz of new technologies - obvious.

Kawabata was different. Influenced by the formal austerity and sparse, fragile lyricism of haiku, he is a miniaturist: he compresses where others seek to inflate and enlarge. His is a fiction of extreme economy, even of emptiness. Like the youthful Hemingway or, more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written of the influence of Kawabata on his own fiction, he leaves much unsaid and unexplained. To read him is to enter into an extended act of collaboration: Kawabata challenges you to interpret and imagine, to colour in and shade the empty spaces of his stories. Worked on and revised over many years, sometimes published as magazine extracts or episodically, his novels do not end so much as expire, in defiance of conventional expectations of narrative resolution and closure. You know where the novels are set but never quite know when, despite the occasional oblique reference to the war and to the social and cultural changes that followed. He understands, too, the value of silence - of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry - the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images - is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his “aesthetics of ma”. “Ma”, in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata’s best sentences in Japanese are dis tinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

In 1968, Kawabata became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself” (in which, addressing a western audience, he sought perhaps too consciously to conform to stereotypes of the mysterious Orient), he described the influence of the classical poets and Zen on his work. “The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the west. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless.”

He could have been describing the aged Master as he sits impassively at the board during a game of Go. Indeed, in his later works, the central male characters often yearn for Zen-like states of grace and harmony while remaining resolutely of this world, burdened by doubt and erotic longing, striving for a freedom and detachment that can never fully be theirs. As a young man Kawabata had an intense, unfulfilled relationship with a young dancer. She became the inspiration for his celebrated novella The Izu Dancer (1925), and he returns again and again in later books to a certain ideal of female purity - youthful, innocent, chaste - and shows how the real must necessarily violate the ideal.

In his novella The Lake (1954), he describes a teacher’s obsessive pursuit and stalking of an innocent adolescent girl: he watches her always from the shadows, sometimes feeling “like dying or killing her”, so tortured is he by thwarted desire. House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961) is about a brothel where elderly men, often impotent and close to death, go to spend the night lying beside sedated young women. The rules of the house prevent them from having sex with the women, even if they could. This does not stop Yoshi Eguchi, who is slightly younger than other visitors, from fantasising about one of the girls with whom he is infatuated. Sometimes, resting beside her, he dreams of strangling her, to preserve her virginity in death; at other times he longs to die in her arms, a blissful surrender. The linking of sex with death is powerful in these later works, and reading Kawabata one can be reminded of Othello and the tormenting desire he feels for his young wife Desdemona, her skin “smooth as monumental alabaster”, even as he prepares to murder her.

Beauty and Sadness (1965), the most gripping and tightly plotted of all Kawabata’s novels, is about a successful writer called Oki who, in regretful and nostalgic middle age, returns to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, to discover what became of a young woman with whom he had a disastrous affair many years before and later wrote about in one of his novels. Otoko, with whom Oki had a child that died as a baby, is now a painter, living with a younger woman, her lover. She has never forgotten the writer or ceased to love him, and his return unsettles not only Otoko but also her young lover, who is intent on avenging the unhappiness that Oki caused all those years earlier through his carelessness and arrogance. Once again, themes of male narcissism, sex, death, erotic obsession and the vulnerability of female purity are interconnected, and the preoccupation with mutability is acute: even in translation, one is repeatedly moved by the delicacy of the imagery and the understated precision of the limpid prose.

For all the sadness of his early years and the sombre longing of his later works, Kawabata began as a Europe-enthralled experimentalist. As a young man he attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he became interested in Euro-pean avant-garde literature and painting. He co-edited a journal called Literary Age, in which, attracted by the Arnoldian idea that literature and art would one day replace religion as the pre-eminent moral force in our lives, he introduced Japanese readers to Joyce and Proust as well as the work of the surrealists, the German expressionists and Dadaists. Some of his early stories were bold experiments in form: the stream of consciousness, the fractured narrative.

Slowly, however, as he moved away from European modernism and towards a more hardened cultural nationalism, his stories and novellas - with their tea ceremonies, geishas and ritualised formalities - increasingly revealed the influence of the classical Japanese tradition in style and sensibility. Perhaps his finest work is Snow Country (written between 1935 and 1947), set on the inaccessible and mountainous west coast of the main island of Japan, where snow settles thickly for at least five months of the year. It is here that Shimamura, a fatigued and wealthy habitué of the metropolis, travels by train through the snow to meet up with the woman he thinks he loves, a beautiful and apparently innocent hot-spring geisha called Komako. The hot-spring geisha does not have the same privileges as her city counterpart: she is condemned through social status to a life largely of servitude and isolation. The relationship between Shimamura and his geisha has a strange, formless in determinacy. They may feel a kind of inchoate love for each other, but it is a love that imprisons rather than liberates, an impossible love. In seeking beauty, the jaded Shimamura discovers ultimately that he can know only sadness.

If there is a recurring motif in Kawabata’s work, it is the cherry trees that bloom beautifully for only a couple of days each spring before shedding their flowers, which the Japanese celebrate with hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties. In The Old Capital (1962), a late work praised by the Nobel committee, the cherry blossom spring in Kyoto is animated with exquisite care and all the usual precision. “The scarlet double flowers were blooming all the way to the tips of the slenderest weeping branches. It would be more fitting to say that the flowers were borne upon the twigs than to say they were simply blossoming there . . . The faintest touch of lavender seemed to reflect on the scarlet of the flowers.”

One understands why Kawabata would be so moved by the transience and fragility of cherry blossom: in many ways, he must have spent most of his life mourning something important - first the parents he never knew; then his grandparents with whom he lived; and later, after the defeat, the rituals and ceremonies of the old nation that he sought to dignify in his fiction even as they were being overwhelmed, if not altogether lost, by the relentless American-led forward march of technology and progress.

In 1972, at the age of 72, suffering acutely from insomnia and unsettled by the fame that the Nobel Prize had brought him, Kawabata put his head in a gas oven and killed himself. As a practitioner of Zen, he did not believe in an afterlife. But maybe he believed in the long afterlife of art. Whatever, we are lucky to have his books, the best of which - Snow Country, Beauty and Sadness, The Master of Go - are unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who reads them. And he chose well the month of his death - April, the cherry blossom month.

Zimbabwe in black and white

House of Stone, by Christina Lamb, HarperCollins £14.99, pp290

May 14 2006 / The Observer

Rhodesians Worldwide is a website through which old Rhodies communicate, and wonder about the lives they might have lived if Robert Mugabe had not won the war to liberate from white minority rule the country that became Zimbabwe. These dispatches are, inevitably, nostalgic and Rhodesia is remembered as a kind of Arcadia before the fall, when these reluctant exiles were enjoying the time of their lives, unburdened, it seems, by any sense of racial or liberal political conscience. The contributions to the site can be read as an exercise in willed denial; what is missing is any curiosity about the lives of the black Africans among whom they once lived, what they thought, believed or wanted.

Denial is the subject of Christina Lamb’s book, which tells the story of a white farmer called Nigel Hough and his black maid, Aquinata, and how they were brought together and changed by the farm invasions that began in 2000 and have since led to the ruin of the agricultural infrastructure of one of the most fertile countries in Africa and to the misery of its people.

Nigel’s father, an Englishman, settled in Rhodesia in the late 1940s, attracted there by the ease of the lifestyle, the climate, the landscape, and by the privileges of being white in this part of colonial Africa. What is often forgotten about Rhodesia is how resolutely suburban it was. To visit the capital, Salisbury, was like finding yourself in Tunbridge Wells on a Sunday afternoon; the polite hush and the prejudices were certainly the same. How can this be Africa, you thought?

Growing up in a village, Aqui had her own dreams and aspirations. She wanted to be educated, and she wanted to be a nurse. She believed in the war to liberate her people and she was sure that once the whites were defeated and the blacks controlled their own destiny, there would be equality and the country would flourish.

For a brief period following the free election of Robert Mugabe as president in 1980, there was hope that reconciliation between the black majority and the remaining whites was possible. In his post-election address to the nation, Mugabe spoke of forgiveness and urged whites to stay on to build the new country. The white farmers, despite faltering attempts at reform, were allowed to continue very much as before, working the richest and most fertile land.

Nigel was encouraged; Africa was his home, he was a white African; he wanted to believe, as Aqui did, in the possibility of a harmonious future. He stayed on and, in time, married a local white woman and settled on a farm in the tobacco-growing district of Marondera. It was there that Aqui came to work for him, her life before then, even in liberated Zimbabwe, amounting to a convoy of sorrows: raped as a child by a schoolmaster, a drunken, abusive husband, absolute poverty.

Nigel and Aqui’s stories are told in alternating chapters, their own words, rendered in italics, merging with the flow of Lamb’s hurried prose. But there is a problem: too often one struggles to differentiate Aqui’s voice (her English would surely be Shona-inflected) from Nigel’s. In their flatly modulated diction they both sound like Christina Lamb.

Lamb is a courageous and excellent reporter but she can be a careless writer. In her acknowledgements she thanks her editor ‘who somehow turned round her manuscript in record time’. But her editor failed to prevent her worst excesses: repetition, overstatement and a serious absence of attribution. One section, on the Selous Scouts, reads as if hastily paraphrased from a website dedicated to the Scouts. If this site was indeed one of her sources, as it must have been, why isn’t it cited? Why wasn’t she advised to include a bibliography, index or source notes, in what is, after all, not only reportage but a semi-scholarly history of Zimbabwe?

The final section of the book, the best, sees Lamb back in Zimbabwe, illegally. The farms have been destroyed. The shanty settlements of the blacks in the cities who dared to vote against Mugabe in the last election have been demolished as part of Operation Clean Up the Filth. Most of the whites who can have emigrated, and the prevailing mood is one of menace and fear - a geriatric tyrant holding on to power at any cost. The Houghs remain in the country, though they have lost their farm, and Aqui is still working for them in a subordinate role. Nigel and Aqui now live without dreams, illusions or hope. Yet they have mutual respect - and a greater understanding of what it means to be black, and indeed white, in southern Africa. But, oh, the pain, and the regret.

South-west sound

Collected, by Massive Attack

March 27 2006 / New Statesman

Who are or what is Massive Attack? At times it seems to be less a band or a group than a kind of movement, with a large cast of associate and affiliate members and an ever-changing line-up of musicians, producers, DJs and vocalists. If there is a central system of control, it probably revolves around Robert Del Naja, who has appeared on each of the four Massive Attack studio albums and has overseen the selections for Collected, a new greatest-hits compilation that includes previously unreleased material. And if there is a base, it is Bristol, even though many of those who are in or have worked with Massive Attack no longer live in that vibrant, multiracial city.

Yet through all the changes in personnel, and for all the various singers who have worked with the Massives, as they are more colloquially known, the sound has remained unmistakably the same. Their first album, Blue Lines (1991), established a template, and it remains one of the most influential records of the past 20 years. Its fusion of electronics with rap, dub, hip-hop and reggae vocals, its bleak lyricism and evocation of urban alienation and paranoia, its use of sampling, and its dense, multi-layered sound have been widely imitated but never bettered. As the founding member Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) said, here was “dance music for the head rather than for the feet”.

On subsequent albums, the mood and the sound fractured and darkened; everything seemed to slow down, as personal relations became strained and the Massives began to experiment less with dance rhythms than with more somnambulant electronic backbeats, inviting the likes of Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) and Liz Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) to sing on selected tracks for the albums Protection (1995) and Mezzanine (1998). The title track of Protection, featuring the soulful Thorn, with its mournful, trance-like electronic underbeat, is, for me, the best of Massive Attack. Ambient dub, trip-hop - whatever you call it, this was late-night, post-rave, spliff-slowed mood music with its own peculiarly beguiling atmosphere of confusion and loss.

Massive Attack emerged in the early 1990s from a Bristol-based group of DJs and musicians called the Wild Bunch sound system. As a group, the Massives were multiracial, like Bristol itself, with its deep history and problematic connections to the slave trade, its inner-city deprivation and cultural diversity. The group was interested in a range of musical styles, from dub to jazz to electronica, and in how they could be combined or collapsed into each other to create a new kind of contemplative urban dance music. The early Massive Attack was, broadly, a trio: Del Naja, Grant Marshall and Andrew Vowles. They were supported by the producer Nellee Hooper of Soul II Soul; the reggae artist Horace Andy; and the rapper Tricky, who went on to release one of the best and most disturbing albums of the Nineties, Maxinquaye (1995). In addition, there were the soul singer Shara Nelson and the multi-instrumentalist/sound engineer Geoff Barrow. With the singer Beth Gibbons, Barrow later set up his own group, Portishead, which took its name from the small town just outside Bristol. A large and varied cast indeed.

A few years ago there was a series on BBC2 called Rock Family Trees, which traced the connections between groups of musicians and showed how each had influenced the other, and who had worked with whom and when. It would be possible to make a similar programme about Massive Attack; it would be quite long, and the resulting family tree would have many branches and offshoots.

Take, for example, Tricky, who was such an influence, for his songwriting as well as his inimitable, flat-vowelled rapping, on both Blue Lines and Protection. Later, once he had stopped working with the Massives, Tricky collaborated on Maxinquaye with, among others, a young Alison Goldfrapp - well known today as the eccentrically flamboyant singer/songwriter of the chart band Goldfrapp - and the then teenaged Martina Topley-Bird, with whom he had a child. After their separation, the lovely Topley-Bird released her own album, the Mercury Award-shortlisted Quixotic (2003).

The connections do not end there. There are songs on Maxinquaye that also appear, in different forms and under dif- ferent titles, on Protection; “Overcome” (Maxinquaye) and “Karmacoma” (Protection) are essentially the same song. Another song from that album, “Hell Is Around the Corner”, has the same backing track, if not the same lyrics, as “Glory Box” from Portishead’s first album, Dummy (1994). And so the samplings and borrowings of the Bristol scene go on and on.

Of late the Massive Attack sound has become all-pervasive, their songs and instrumentals being used in films and TV programmes as theme music and soundtracks. But we have had nothing substantial from them since the unremarkable 100th Window, their fourth album, released in February 2003.

There remains something furtive and unaccountable about Massive Attack. Why, for instance, does no one beyond Del Naja stay for long within the movement? Perhaps Del Naja’s personality is simply too oppressive and controlling. Or perhaps, as it was for Tricky and Barrow, the desire to achieve something in your own right is too powerful.

Whatever is going on inside the group - and one reads often of rancour and disputes - this much is true: the musicians, composers and collaborators working under the name of Massive Attack, formed by the rebellious DIY attitude of the rave scene and always seeking new ways to express the reality of the tense urban landscape through which they move or once moved, have succeeded in writing some of the most influential and seductive electronic music of modern times. In so doing, they have offered their own idiosyncratic definition of Britishness: multiracial, heterogeneous, fractious, often violent, and just about holding together.

Other voices, distant worlds

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Brian Eno and David Byrne, EMI, reissue

March 19 2006 / The Observer

In the late Seventies, Brian Eno began to work as producer and motivational guru with Talking Heads but soon he became virtually the fifth member of the band and this collaboration with David Byrne, an off-shoot from their main work with the Heads, is perhaps the best of what he achieved during that intense, exciting period when the can-do aesthetic of punk combined with emerging technologies to enable the creation of an entirely new kind of music.

This album takes its title from a novel by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutola, and what differentiates it most obviously from the Talking Heads sound is that David Byrne doesn’t sing on it. He is present all right, in so many interesting ways, but never in voice. In fact, there are no real singers here at all: merely an assemblage of sampled and taped voices, displaced spirits adrift in this particular bush of ghosts.

When the album was released, in 1981, it sounded like very little, if anything, that had gone before. There were, in retrospect, antecedents - one thinks especially of the German Holger Czukay’s wonderful song ‘Persian Love’, with its radio samples, from his album ‘Movies’- but not many. Its fusion of the austerity of the new electronics with funky backbeats, of sprightly rifting guitars with West African drum and percussive rhythms, its pioneering use of sampling techniques and experimentations with ambient soundscapes - all of this would, in time, come to seem merely routine (if not on one single album) but, back then, the effect was startlingly fresh and innovative. What’s more, you could even dance to some of it. Just about.

Eno has spoken of how he and Bryne were trying to make “collage music, like grafting a piece of one culture onto a piece of another” and trying to make them work as a “coherent musical idea.” This would do as a kind of early definition of the cultural slippages and mergings with which we are so familiar today, in music as in food and so much else.

For a time, after the release of The Bush of Ghosts, one could hear its influence everywhere in the work of any number of young artists of ambition, from David Sylvian to Kate Bush. And you can still hear its long influence even today in some of the best of Massive Attack, Moby and Thievery Corporation.

Remastered by David Byrne, the album features seven “bonus tracks”. These are out-takes and unfinished ambient pieces from the original sessions, none longer than three minutes and all unremarkable, and yet, taken collectively, they act as a fitting coda to what is one of pop’s great adventures in sound.

Existentialist crisis

The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 345pp, £12.99

November 7 2005 / New Statesman

At least five books have been published in France already this autumn on Michel Houellebecq, whose latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, was bought for £1m by the French house Editions Fayard. Academic conferences analysing the deep structures of his fiction as well as his political significance are being held all over Europe. Journalists everywhere delight in gossiping about his licentiousness and eccentricities - his smoking and drinking, and his fascination with religious sects and sex cults.

If interest in Houellebecq’s life and work remains inexorable, this is because, in many ways, the life is inextricable from the work. His central characters - his fatigued, sexually dissolute yet always yearning last men - share a vision of humanity slouching towards oblivion and address the world in the same sardonic, bored and scabrous voice. It is unmistakably the voice of Michel Houellebecq himself - but have we heard too much of it? Has he anything more to say beyond the programmatic recycling of the same preoccupations and effects? Is his comic nihilism, which once seemed so astonishingly authentic, beginning to resemble nothing more than a well-worked conceit, a mere party trick? The same trick, played over and over again, for considerable financial reward.

Every once alienated young man of a certain age can recall the abrupt opening to Albert Camus’s novel The Outsider: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.” Houellebecq has evidently read Camus very carefully, and his hard-edged, confessional novels abound in comparable moments of existential isolation and wilful detachment. “On the day of my son’s suicide I made a tomato omelette. [. . .] I never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father. His death was far from a catastrophe; you can live without such human beings.”

The speaker here is a successful stand-up comedian called Daniel, the narrator of The Possibility of an Island. He is a recognisably Houellebecqian figure: middle-aged, jaded, death-preoccupied, sex-obsessed, sentimental if also cruel, misanthropic and very funny. Adrift in what he considers to be a terminally corrupt society, he delights in mocking the orthodoxies of the age, no matter what they are: liberalism, religious fundamentalism, consumerism. His comedy is a form of perpetual attack - against the world. He is, like his creator, a grand provocateur who seems to believe in nothing beyond the pursuit of intense erotic love.

Liberated from mundane concerns by his wealth, Daniel thinks he has found happiness when he meets Isabelle, the editor of a women’s style magazine. Together they go to live in the south of Spain, but they are both getting older, and Isabelle, horrified by what time is doing to her body, turns away from Daniel, no longer able to have sex with him. “When sexuality disappears,” Daniel writes, with searing insight, “it’s the body of the other that appears as a vaguely hostile presence; the sounds, movements and smells; even the presence of this body that you can no longer touch, nor sanctify through touch, becomes gradually oppressive.”

For a while, Daniel is lost, seeking out whores and embracing violence, until he becomes involved with a religious sect, the Elohimites, who practise free love (what else?) and whose leaders are experimenting with the possibility of cloning humans - this is a thinly disguised portrait of the Raelian cult, which claimed in 2002 to have created the first human clone, and among which Houellebecq has spent some time. One day Daniel meets a young actress called Esther. She is 22 and like many of her generation is, according to Daniel, interested only in pleasure, not in love. She is an enthusiastic, indulgent and complicit lover, even if she feels no love for Daniel. There is nothing the girl will not try and their sex scenes, as well as Esther’s hardcore adventures with other men, are described with the usual detailed relish. Daniel is tortured by jealousy. He wants to possess Esther but knows that, because of her extreme youth and carelessness, she will soon leave him, as she does, and that his body is decaying, that all around him is decay: “Well, yes, I was an ageing man, this was my disgrace - to borrow Coetzee’s term.”

He chooses suicide, as Isabelle has before him (why does Houellebecq condemn the women in his books to such bleak fates?), but not before he allows the Elohimites to take a sample of his DNA. And so Daniel lives on into the future, through a series of cloned replicants (Daniel2, Daniel3 . . . through to Daniel25). These cloned “neohumans”, inhabiting a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by global warming and nuclear war, comment retrospectively on Daniel’s sad struggles on earth, on the ruin of humanity and on their inability to understand abstractions such as love and happiness.

Houellebecq is fond of dreaming up a post-human future, as he did before in Atomised (1999), which was narrated by a clone. In truth, The Possibility of an Island is little more than a reworking of, or long appendage to, the earlier novel. The pre-occupations, the political sensibility, the expressions of ennui and drift, the wrenching longing, and the biting misanthropy, are the same. But Atomised was one of the most inspired and remarkable novels of the past 20 years, and this new offering, by contrast, reads more like a work of perspiration than of inspiration - and much of it is repetitive and tedious, especially the scenes among the Elohimites.

Towards the end, Daniel, separated from the two women he has loved, observes that “people become famous as a result of one or two talented productions, no more, it’s sufficiently surprising that a human being has one or two things to say, after that they manage their decline more or less peacefully, more or less painfully, that’s the way it goes.”

Houellebecq has one or two things to say and he is managing his own decline remarkably well - and profiting from it. But decline it is; Possibility is a less interesting book than Platform (2001), which was, in turn, a less interesting book than Atomised. You feel he has told his story. What one wants to read from him next, then, is not another novel, but a collection of aphorisms and gnomic utterances, a book of last things in the style of, say, the romantic French-Romanian nihilist E M Cioran. For one never ceases to be moved by the profound wisdom of his observations and the insight he offers into the complexities and corruptions of the present.


Aerial, by Kate Bush

October 16 2005 / The Observer

Why do so many pop performers produce their best work when they are in their early-to-mid twenties? A simple answer is that pop is essentially a juvenile form, the expression of a certain youthful worldview and rebellious sensibility, and the more the musician matures and learns about music, the greater can be the desire to complicate and to experiment with what once felt so natural and spontaneous.

Few artists experiment more than Kate Bush - often to thrilling effect. Her first single, ‘Wuthering Heights’, was a huge number one hit in 1978, when she was just 19. After that surprise, EMI allowed her near-absolute artistic control. Since 1980 she has produced and written all her own material and, as the wait for each new album has grown longer and longer, she has become the musical equivalent of a celebrated novelist who refuses to be edited: she has the freedom to do whatever she wants and at whichever speed she desires. If she wants Rolf Harris to play didgeridoo for her as he did on The Dreaming (1982) and again on this new album, Aerial, she can have him. If she wants to combine the orchestral string arrangements of Michael Kamen with uninhibited rock guitar, as she does here, she can. If she refuses to play live, as she has done for more than 20 years, no one will try to force her to change her mind.

Twelve years is a long time to wait for a new record from any artist, even from one as consistently inventive as Kate Bush, but at least Aerial offers value. It’s a 14-track double album, no less. The more experimental of the two records is ‘A Sky of Honey’. It begins not with music but with the sound of birdsong, the wind in the trees and the voice of a child calling for her parents. What follows is a suite of seven unashamedly romantic and interconnected songs taking us on a long day’s journey into night and then on through to the next morning when birdsong is heard once more and the whole cycle starts all over again. There are similarities here with the second side of the remarkable Hounds of Love (1985) and to the song sequence ‘The Ninth Wave’ that took us into the consciousness of a drowning woman (the sea, in her work, has long been a source of inspiration and of threat). That album, memorable for its daring, its imaginative use of sampling, and its erotic intensity, was, like much of Bush’s work, preoccupied with memory - and with how we are never entirely free from the voices and sounds of childhood. It remains her best album.

‘A Sky of Honey’ is music of pagan rapture - songs about acts of creation, natural or otherwise; about the wind, rain, sunlight and the sea. Sometimes it is just Kate alone at her piano, her voice restrained. Sometimes, as on the outstanding ‘Sunset’, she begins alone and softly, but soon the tempo quickens and the song becomes an experiment in forms: jazz, progressive rock, flamenco.

There are weaknesses. At times, Bush can be too fey and whimsical, especially on ‘Bertie’, which is about the joy of motherhood, or on ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’, a rhapsody to nothing less than a washing machine: ‘My blouse wrapping itself around your trousers… slooshy sloshy/ slooshy sloshy.’ And the bold, musically adventurous second album is a little too insistent in its ‘hey, man’ hippyish sensibility, with Kate running freely through the fields or climbing high in the mountains. She did, after all, once dress up as a kind of white witch for the cover of Never For Ever (1980), on which she is portrayed flying through the air, like a giant bat.

‘What kind of language is this?’ Kate Bush sings, self-interrogatively, on the title track, the last of the album. It’s a good question, to which she offers a partial answer on ‘Somewhere in Between’, which in ambition and content is where most of the songs on this album are suspended - somewhere in between the tighter, more conventional structures of pop and the looser, less accessible arrangements of contemporary classical and the avant-garde; somewhere, in mood and atmosphere, between the lucidity of wakefulness and the ambiguity of dream; between the presumed innocence of childhood and the desire for escape offered by the adult imagination; between abstraction and the real. Even when she escapes her wonderland to write songs about actual figures in the known world, she remains attracted to those figures such as Elvis (‘King of the Mountain’, the album’s first single) or Joan of Arc (‘Joanna’) that, in death as indeed in life, have a mythic unreality.

So, again, what kind of language is this? It is ultimately that of an artist superbly articulate in the language of experimental pop music. But it is also the language of an artist who doesn’t seem to want to grow up. Or, more accurately, who has never lost her child-like capacity for wonder and for pagan celebration and who, because she is sincere and can communicate her odd and unpredictable vision in both words and through sumptuous music, occupies a cherished and indulged position in the culture. There is no one quite like her, which is why, in the end, we must forgive her excesses and eccentricities. We are lucky to have her back.

From here to Kashmir

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape £17.99, pp398

September 11 2005 / The Observer

Notes from a time traveller

Campo Santo, by WG Sebald, Hamish Hamilton £16.99, pp240

May 27 2005 / The Observer

The Fight by Norman Mailer

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

May 8 2005 / The Observer

The leading character in Mailer’s thrilling account of the 1974 world heavyweight boxing championship in Kinshasa - the Rumble in the Jungle - is not Muhammad Ali, as you would expect, or even his ferocious rival George Foreman, then thought by many to be unbeatable. It is not Don King, who first came to prominence through brokering the improbable deal that brought Ali and the whole circus to Africa, or Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictatorial president of the country he called Zaire, for whom the fight was an astoundingly profligate propaganda coup, an assertion of black power that would lead him and his people, in the end, to nowhere at all. No, the main character is Norman Mailer, naturally enough. He delights, as ever, in ostentatious displays of ego and writes about himself in the third person, first as the ‘interviewer’ and then, as he gets to know himself , more familiarly as ‘Norman’ or ‘Norm’.

Yet you can forgive Mailer much, especially the vanities, because he writes so well. His book is less a work of journalism than a kind of non-fiction novel, with Mailer relentlessly at the centre of the action, if not actually in the ring. He moves freely around Kinshasa, weaving in and out of the boxers’ lives as they prepare for a fight that will define them for ever. He stays late at the bar, drinking hard with Hunter S Thompson and George Plimpton, as he listens out for the latest word from inside the fighters’ camps and mingles with the hangers-on and the money men, the chancers and the power babes.

The Fight is as much about race as it is about boxing. Mailer is astute on the catastrophe that is Mobutu’s Zaire (it will get worse, Norm), but less convincing when he speculates on the effect of superstition and animist beliefs on the ordinary Africans he encounters, Africans whom, he thinks, inhabit a ‘fearful and magic zone between the living and the dead’.

On arriving in Kinshasa, and meeting the two fighters, Mailer is immediately troubled by the threat that Foreman, so strong and ruthless in the ring, poses to an ageing Ali. He fears that Ali will be seriously hurt, killed even, and in the days preceding the fight he visits Ali often to listen to the usual banter and boasts. One evening, he even goes running with the former champ. Later, back at his hotel and no longer breathless, Mailer is convinced that Ali cannot win. ‘Defeat was in the air.’ The dramatic set piece of the book is the fight itself. Mailer was ringside but, on his return to America, he says he spent ‘about 25 hours’ watching and studying how Ali had introduced his grand theme: reclining defensively on the ropes, he absorbed Foreman’s strength, forcing him to punch himself out in a series of futile onslaughts, before, astonishingly, in the eighth round, counter-attacking suddenly and decisively to reclaim the title that was taken from him when he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.

‘I remember I got a movie of that fight and I studied that movie, studied it by the hour,’ Mailer said later. ‘It’s just as if you were to take five pages of Finnegan s Wake and skim it quickly, that’s analogous to what you get watching a fight once. There might be all the excitement of reading it for the first time but you don’t begin to know what the five pages say, you have to study them and study them and study them. And boxers at that standard are working at so many high levels, psychologically, physically, intellectually and also in terms of the emotions, confidence and fear that you really have to study it over and over again, looking through to see which stuff you’re on - physical, mental - and so forth. That’s how those tales come in, there’s a lot of work to it, it’s like putting a mosaic together.’

The Fight has the complexity of a mosaic as well as a wonderful simplicity. A lot of work and considerable talent disguise the artistry of a book that can be read, quickly, as a dramatic first-hand account of one of the greatest of all sporting events of last century, and then again, more slowly, for the detail and acuity of its psychological insights and for the forceful fluency of its rhetorical, endlessly inventive style.

Another Screw on the loose

A Jealous Ghost, by AN Wilson, Hutchinson £12.99, pp196

April 10 2005 / The Observer

The terror of the unforeseen

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

October 11 2004 / New Statesman

Late style, Edward Said wrote in an essay published shortly before his death, “has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without realising the contradictions between them”. Philip Roth’s new novel, a counter-factual satire in which the pioneering aviator Charles A Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and begins to turn America, as an ally of Nazi Germany and Japan, into a quasi-fascist state, is an exercise in disenchantment and pleasure. In style and tone, it is recognisably the work of a novelist entering the final period of his writing career, peering back through the smoke of a long, fractious but absolutely dedicated life at the person he once was. The novel is unashamedly nostalgic—and this is the pleasure of it, for both writer and reader.

Roth, who is 71, returns once more to the tough mercantile neighbourhood of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey. This time we follow him directly into the cramped family home as, in an act of imaginative reclamation, he introduces us to his father, Herman, an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life, his resilient mother, Bess, and his elder brother, Sandy. The domestic detail of Roth’s own lower-middle-class, war-shadowed childhood is rendered exactly in clear, plain prose. But the historical circumstances are different—and this is the true disenchantment of the novel because, as the narrator (the young Philip Roth) tells us at the outset, a “perpetual fear” presides over these memoirs. That fear is anti-Semitism, and the precariousness of life for a minority people persecuted and menaced by their own government.

If Roth’s recent and great trilogy of novels about postwar American society—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000)—as well as the novella The Dying Animal (2001), which was a kind of coda to and comment on the entire trilogy, were about anything, they were about how the individual has little control over the inexorable forces of history, and is remorselessly tethered to them. In each of the three novels an aspirant everyman, buoyant on a steady stream of American optimism and expectation, is humbled and then destroyed after becoming entangled in a net of public politics and private deceit. They are destroyed by what Roth in this new book calls the “terror of the unforeseen”: the unexpected event, the chance occurrence, the unimagined catastrophe. Only in retrospect does history appear to have shape, narrative, direction and meaning. The present as it is lived never feels like that; it feels complicated and confused, a rush of pure sensation. In truth, most of us live with a sense, even if only subconsciously, of the terror of the unforeseen, the event over which we have no control but which ineradicably alters the direction of our lives.

In The Plot Against America, the unforeseen is the election of Charles Lindbergh as president. In 1927 Lindbergh, a former airmail pilot, became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis. He flew from New York to Paris without a radio or navigation aids, and his flight took him nearly 34 hours. In many ways, he did more than cross the Atlantic on that historic flight: he flew straight into the future and became, as J G Ballard has written, a reluctant but authentic international celebrity of our emerging consumer and entertainment culture, “the admired and welcome guest of kings, presidents and prime ministers”. For a period after that, Lindbergh had no peace: he was harried, pursued, adored. In 1932, his baby son was kidnapped; the story was a news sensation. The baby was later found dead, his body mauled by animals, in woods near the Lindbergh home. In retreat, Lindbergh moved to England, from where he travelled to Germany, thrilled by the pseudo- modernity and technological obsessions of the Nazi state. In July 1936, Lindbergh attended a lunch hosted in his honour by Hermann Goering and was thereafter an esteemed guest at the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics. “Germany,” Lindbergh wrote at the time, “is the most interesting nation in the world today, and she is attempting to find a solution for some of our most fundamental problems.” On another trip to Germany in October 1938, Lindbergh would receive a medal of commendation from Goering, “by order of der Fuhrer”.

On his return to the US in 1939, Lindbergh, a resolute Republican isolationist, campaigned against American intervention in what was after all, he said, a European war. At an America First rally in Des Moines in 1941 (Roth moves the speech to 1940), he spoke of American Jews as “other peoples”, and warned Americans not to allow the “natural passions and prejudices” of Jews to lead “our country to destruction”.

You will learn very little about the true history of Charles Lindbergh from Roth’s novel. To Roth, he is less a historical figure—the “last naive hero”, as Ballard calls him—than a convenient device, a figure through which Roth, fiddling with the facts of history, can invert the founding ideal of the United States, transforming this proud vessel of migrations and new beginnings into a kind of anti-utopia, the worst possible world for Jews. And Lindbergh is never more than an absent presence in the novel, someone heard on the radio or discussed in anxious conversation among senior family members. Yet his influence on American society is rancid and immediate: he flies to Iceland to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler, he establishes a national Office of American Absorption through which he forces Jews out of the cities and into new settlements in the Midwest and the South, and he creates a society in which pogroms and politically sponsored killings are not only possible, but desirable.

In one early scene, the best in the book, Herman Roth takes his family on a trip to Washington, DC. Anti-Semitism is already biting; the Roths, despite having pre-booked their rooms, are turned away from their hotel, because they are obviously Jews—an enraging and humiliating experience for Roth pere, but an echo, too, of how African Americans have been treated throughout American history. Meanwhile, out on the street, the young Roth boys look up into the sky to see a low-flying Lockheed Interceptor aircraft: it is their new president out on his daily solo flying mission, simultaneously a figure of fear and fascination.

The Plot Against America is, in many ways, an unsatisfactory book: not quite fiction and not quite believable. There are too many long, dull explicatory passages of historical narrative—a kind of elaborate scene-setting. It is Roth at his most benign and forgiving, of his parents, of his extended family, and of his tortured relationship with his own Jewishness. Roth the hectoring raconteur, the stand-up comedian, the tyrannical monologist is absent. Instead, the tone is one of heightened resignation—and Roth’s family and their fellow Jews, following the mysterious disappearance of President Lindbergh in an unexplained aviation accident at the end of the book, are redeemed by benevolent destiny as the natural order of things is, as in a fairy tale, restored.

What are we to make of all this? Indeed, what are we to make of the late style of Philip Roth? Before the publication of this book, so unexpected and softly reflective, one would have said that it was characterised by rage against death, a kind of willed nihilism, and the realisation that, as fallen “Swede”, the central character of American Pastoral, must discover, “the worst lesson that life can teach is that life makes no sense”. But this book is different. Sparer and less exalted in style, it is Roth’s homage to his family: his own black-and-white home movie, his Radio Days. Reading it, one thinks also of the late fictions of Saul Bellow, so elegantly reduced compared with the turbocharged exuberance of his middle years; of the pared-down austerities of late VS Naipaul or Muriel Spark. One thinks even of the late romances of Shakespeare, with their interconnecting themes of loss and separation, of reconciliation and forgiveness, and their belief in the redemptive capacity of art, a belief that Roth evidently shares as he returns to wander through the rooms of the old family home in Newark, and conjures his parents into life all over again.

The long view

Brief Lives, by WF Deedes, Macmillan, 212pp, £12.99

July 26 2004 / New Statesman

A couple of years ago, when I was editing these pages, I telephoned WF Deedes at the Daily Telegraph to ask if he would review Nicholas Bagnall’s memoir of a life in journalism. I had once been scornful of Deedes, whom I imagined to be the personification of Conservative Man, but of late I had begun to read his journalism—columns, despatches from sub-Saharan Africa, countryside diaries—with intensifying respect and admiration. Deedes agreed to review the book without hesitation, and delivered his neatly typed copy on time and at the agreed length. He never once asked how much he would be paid. His review, like most of this book’s 18 character studies of influential figures he has met during a long dual career in politics and newspapers, was concise, wise and compassionate.

To read Deedes, especially in the company of those who, like him, are regular contributors to the op-ed pages of the Telegraph—the pious Charles Moore, the strident and bellicose Barbara Amiel, the inane Mark Steyn—is to encounter an unexpectedly liberal voice amid so much complacency.

Informed by the long perspective of history yet alert to and curious about the present, his columns are like no other. You read Deedes to escape the hectic trivialities of so much contemporary journalism. You read him to be told what the weather was like during the first day of the Normandy landings, to be reminded to look out for the hawthorn this springtime or to find out how it felt to have lived through the General Strike or the Great Depression of the 1930s. And, in the summer of 2004, it is always reassuring to read a sentence that begins: “There had been an extraordinary by-election at East Fulham in 1933, where I was sent for a day or two as a reporter on the Morning Post ...”

Deedes is an instinctive conservative; he is acutely aware of the mutability of all things. Change is what he fears most, but change is what is most inevitable and irresistible in life. Like a true conservative, he believes in and accepts the fallen nature of man. Yet there is little that is sententious in his world-view: the purpose of this book, he writes in an engaging preface, is not to say whether someone was right or wrong, but rather to show how their life was a “guidepost” to the past and thus also to the present. He never condemns his subjects, not even the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. He seeks, instead, to remind us of the social and political context in which they acted.

There is an underlying tone of elegy to some of these essays—a melancholy recognition of mistakes made and wrong turns taken. Mosley, he writes, may have been destroyed by “impatience” and “incurable arrogance”, but he had many talents and “might have been a great prime minister”. Anthony Eden, who lost two brothers in the First World War and a son in the second, should be remembered chiefly not for the failure of Suez but as “someone who spent the best of himself in the nation’s service”. Diana, Princess of Wales, whom Deedes came to know well through their charity work in Africa, was driven by wild impulses and many of her “follies” were “inexplicable”. But had she lived and had more opportunity to display her “outstanding gift” for compassion, she “might just have turned out differently”.

Ian Smith, the former leader of Rhodesia who in 1965 declared unilateral independence from Britain, who did nothing to prepare the African majority for self-rule and who led his country into a murderous bush war, is also recalled fondly. Smith, a fighter pilot during the Second World War, had courage; he was uncompromising and loved his country. But he could not see “the changes taking place in the world that were rendering his position unstable”. So Smith, isolated by the South Africans, was left to “perish in the gale of the world”.

Deedes returns occasionally in this book and often in his journalism to the catastrophe that was the First World War, as if the ghosts of the fallen on the Western Front are with him for ever. What he seems to be saying in these essays, and elsewhere in his work, is that most of us, in the end, no matter how grand or noble our intentions, perish in the gale of the world. He is surely right. Who for instance could have foreseen, when Labour came to power in 1997 and announced that it would pursue an ethical foreign policy, that the country would soon be embarking on a war without end against an opaque and largely hidden enemy? Who could have foreseen such troubles ahead? Well, the humane and cautious WF Deedes, for one.

Prophet of doom

Hey Nostradamus!, by Douglas Coupland, Flamingo, 244pp, £15.99

September 8 2003 / New Statesman

There are two main charges against Douglas Coupland. The first is that his fiction, with its use of coincidence, its zany, cartoonish, pop cultural sensibility, its voices from the dead and its metaphysical fervour, is too unrealistic. The second is that his vision of the world is adolescent. The first charge can be easily dismissed, because the important question asked of any novelist is not whether his or her work is true to life, but whether it is true to the life created within the fiction.

In this important sense, Coupland’s novels are true, often movingly so. The second charge is more difficult to counter because Coupland’s vision, certainly as expressed in his early novels—Generation X (1991), Shampoo Planet (1992), Life AfterGod (1994)—is adolescent. For all its cleverness and arch, languorous wit, Generation X, which is about the struggles of a group of directionless twentysomethings, reads more like an exercise in style journalism than a novel. It was an ideal book for the MTV generation, by whom it was received with rare delight. Here, at last, they might have said, is a novelist who writes about us; whose frame of reference is entirely circumscribed by popular culture, by film, television, adverts and the buzz of consumerism; a novelist who shows us what it feels to be, as Coupland himself once put it, “the first generation raised without God”.

Except, Coupland was always smarter than that, he was always one step ahead of his readers in his interests and ambition. For a start, he can really write—his prose, pithy and aphoristic, occasionally deepens into lyricism. He understands, too, the corruptions of the present and what can happen to young people in consumer societies who grow up believing in nothing but the pursuit of pleasure: whatever their ostensible subject, his novels are really about the same thing, ennui and drift.

In 1995, Coupland published Microserfs. In this story of young friends who seek to escape the drudgery of their jobs at Microsoft through establishing their own internet start-up business, he showed how alert he was to the hold that science and new technologies would have over our lives, as well as hinting at a new maturity of theme and subject. But there was nothing here to prepare you for the audacity and sheer strangeness of what he produced next. Girlfriend in a Coma (1997) is a novel about apocalypse. Or, more precisely, it is about the longing for a great cleansing act chat may redeem humanity and allow us all to start again, unchained from history.

In this remarkable book, set in Coupland’s home city of Vancouver and written after he had emerged from a period of depression, we follow the fortunes of six friends from the optimism of late adolescence through to the inevitable disillusionment of mature adulthood. It is 1979 and, after experimenting with diet pills at a party, Karen becomes dangerously ill; later that same night, she slips into a coma, but not before telling her boyfriend of her disturbing premonitions: “The future is not a good place, Richard ... we were all still alive and all older, middleaged or something, but meaning had vanished. We were meaningless.”

Karen remains in a coma for more than a decade, during which period we watch as her drug- and alcohol-dependent friends wither into aimlessness. When Karen eventually awakes, she finds the world unutterably changed—colder, more hostile—and still she keeps having these terrible visions of the end. Then one morning, everything begins to go wrong—birds fall out of the sky, planes crash. During the final, hallucinatory section of the novel, Coupland, retreating into rapture, dares to imagine how the world might end.

Hey Nostradamus! begins with a Columbine-style mass murder of pupils at a school in Vancouver. It is, like Girlfriend in a Coma, a work preoccupied with apocalypse and the absence of meaning. One of the victims of the killing spree, a young pregnant teenager called Cheryl, is our narrator for the first part of the book (there are four parts and four separate narrators). When we first meet Cheryl, she is, like the narrator of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, dead: “Stillness is what I have here now, wherever here is.” Her voice is at once lyrical and fey—when she is not addressing letters to God, she tells us, with gentle detachment, what happened on that appalling afternoon when three boys arrived at her school in combat gear and began shooting everyone around them; she tells us about her boyfriend, Jason, whom she secretly married, and about her belief, which is ardent and sincere.

The rest of the book, covering more than a decade, is about the long aftermath of the killing spree: how it directly affected Jason, who never can find peace again nor consolation in religion, and those who know him. Too much happens in the novel—murders, disappearances, drug heists, alcoholism, secret marriages and hidden pregnancies—and there is no coherent narrative focus; this is, emphatically, a novel ABOUT EVERYTHING. Coupland is such a fluent writer that you wonder, too, why so many of the sentences, particularly in the third section narrated by a former girlfriend of Jason’s called I Heather, are simply bland.

“As I’m never going to be old,” Cheryl writes, early in the novel, “I’m glad that I never lost my sense of wonder about the world, although 1 have a hunch it would have happened pretty soon.” Douglas Coupland, you feel, has never lost his own sense of wonder about the world, but he seems increasingly disappointed by it. With each new book, his vision darkens further, his tone becoming ever more nostalgic. His characters mourn not only the lost idealism of their youth but also something more important—purpose, meaning. Hey Nostradamus!, though flawed, is still worth reading, if only for the superb drama of the school shootings and for the subtlety and charm of Cheryl’s narrative voice.

Postcard from the edge

Lanzarote, by Michel Houllebecq, Heinemann, 87pp, £9.99

July 28 2003 / New Statesman

Lanzarote is a peculiar book. It is not quite an unconventional travelogue, nor is it fiction in any recognisable form. It reads more like random diary observations, or perhaps a long, hastily written e-mail to a close friend, or perhaps even as something that might have been written by Alain de Botton in the immediate aftermath of a long night spent experimenting with alcohol and Viagra: not only does the narrator sound like Houellebecq - ironic, amused, scabrous, ridiculous - but he shares most of his prejudices, too. There are, for instance, the now-familiar attacks on Islam and Anglo-Saxons, and there is the wild, comic misanthropy and the pornography. What is new (and rather delightful) is the contempt for Scandinavia and, in particular, for Norwegians.

The set-up is simple. A bored middle-aged Parisian, seeking some sun in January but short of money, is encouraged by a travel agent to visit Lanzarote. On arriving there, he is thrilled by the artificiality of this holiday island (though he is less impressed by its many fat, pale-skinned visitors from northern Europe) and by the colours and remoteness of its volcanic interior, which he describes with a kind of naive rapture.

The book is illustrated with Houellebecq’s own photographs of the difficult and forbidding volcanic landscape of Lanzarote. What is missing from the photographs, however, is people - which is a shame, because our narrator, on his travels across the island, meets two German lesbians, with whom he enjoys extravagant sex acts, and a Belgian police inspector called Rudi who, spurning the opportunity of group sex, disappears to join a religious cult that is later implicated in a paedophile scandal back home in Belgium. Well, this is Houellebecq, after all.

Sex is Houellebecq’s revolutionary signature as a writer. It is the means through which his jaded last men affirm their often squalid existences. But sex in Houellebecq, as in Freud, is inseparable from death; it is a force of liberation and of destruction, and though it may provide release from the burden of self-consciousness, it can offer no lasting happiness.

For Julian Barnes, writing recently in the New Yorker, Houellebecq is a pornographer because his sex scenes, in which nothing ever goes wrong, are as choreographed and stylised as any skin flick - erections are gloriously true and firm, and the women are always complicit, ever eager to engage in threesomes with, say, an illiterate and conveniently placed Thai maid.

But Houellebecq is not a realist; he is a programmatic writer, a thinker who begins with a thesis and ideas, and then seeks to dramatise them in a series of increasingly unreal situations. You read him, therefore, not to be drugged by narrative, but to be exhilarated by his insight into, and understanding of, the defining conflicts and tensions of the present. As the narrator of Lanzarote observes, impressively, when reflecting on the disintegration of Rudi: “Deep down, I understood the choice Rudi had made. That said, he was wrong about one thing: it’s perfectly possible to live without expecting anything of life; in fact, it’s the common way. In general people stay at home, they’re happy that the phone never rings, and when it does, they let the answering machine pick up. No news is good news.”

Lanzarote was published in France in 2000, and can be read as a precursor to Plateforme (2001). In the earlier work, Houellebecq experiments with many of the themes and ideas that find more convincing expression in that later novel about Islamic extremism and a middle-aged Parisian sex tourist in Thailand. Lanzarote should not be taken too seriously; it is a very minor offering from a great writer whose best work, I fear, is already behind him. What lies ahead for Houellebecq is the corruption of celebrity, debauchery and, above all, further boredom.

Coney matrimony is phoney baloney

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, by Delmore Schwarz, Souvenir Press £9.99, pp202

May 4 2003 / The Observer

The monk of metaphor

The Book Against God, by James Wood , Jonathan Cape, £12.99

April 2003 / Prospect, Issue 85

James Wood conforms in many ways to my romantic ideal of the critic. He is not someone for whom literary criticism is a mere profession or a discipline. For Wood, criticism is a vocation, a secular calling.

When Wood, who is 37, first emerged as a young writer on the ‘Guardian’ in the late 1980s, his reviews had a strange, sanctimonious fervour. There was nothing quite like them. They resembled polemical sermons rather than reviews; even then, he seemed to have read everything of value and to know exactly what he wanted to say about literature and how to say it. It emerged later that he had endured an evangelical Christian childhood and adolescence in the northeast of England, but had lost his belief while a Cambridge undergraduate. In place of lost faith he discovered, as FR Leavis had before him, belief in the transformative potential of literature-literature as rival to, and usurper of, religion; literature as the repository of secular truth and ethical guidance. Literature as story, as entertainment, or as means to bring urgent news of the times in which we live, seemed of no interest to him.

From the beginning, Wood used a charged, inflated critical language, a high style appropriate to the dignity of his self-appointed task. Unwilling to forgive slipshod or ready-made formulation, he was a stern moralist, quite oblivious to modishness or fashion. He could be cruel, especially when reviewing minor writers of small talent, and exasperatingly competitive, contrasting his own elaborate style with that of the writer under review; he often spoke of the rivalrous proximity of the critic and the author, both of whom use prose narrative. Metaphor was what delighted him most. He once wrote, comically, in a review of a novel by Candia McWilliam, that he was prepared to lose a whole book for a phrase as good as the “silent bustle of fish.”

In 1995, Wood moved to Washington to become a senior editor on the ‘New Republic’, where he was allowed the freedom to write long, rigorously worked reviews of contemporary novelists, many of whom were reduced to rubble. At this time, he began to mature as a reader and critic, developing his own idiosyncratic theology of fiction. “Every novel is its own reality and its own realism,” he wrote in ‘The Broken Estate’: ‘Essays on Literature and Belief’. “The reality of fiction must also draw its power from the reality of the world. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of discretionary magic.”

At times, it seemed, he demanded too much from fiction, from the merely make-believe. His was a displaced religious intelligence wandering in search of the God he had lost. And you longed for this monk of metaphor occasionally to leave his book-stacked study, to transcend the restrictions imposed by the hermetic form of the long review. Why did he never write about politics? Or travel in search of a subject? Why had fiction become the sole battleground in his private war against belief? In ‘The Broken Estate’, it becomes clear that fiction was indeed, for him, a religious surrogate with the novelist a self-made god, creator of people and of entire worlds.

Having spent so long writing notes towards a supreme fiction, Wood has now published his first novel. Possibly, in doing so, he is seeking to fulfil his own prescriptions, to ask: “can I do it?” It is a question many critics-most notably, Cyril Connolly-have asked themselves and answered, reluctantly, in the negative.

‘The Book Against God’ dramatises many of the preoccupations of his criticism: the impossibility of truly knowing another person; the futility of belief; the longing for transcendence; the virtue of scepticism and doubt. The book is narrated by a young philosopher called Thomas Bunting who (no surprises here) is the product of an evangelical childhood in the northeast of England. Bunting is an erratic, comic grotesque. Compulsively dishonest, he is a failure in every sense-as an academic philosopher, who is unable to complete a PhD; as a husband, who cannot make his pianist wife happy; and as a son, whose parents are disappointed by his loss of faith. In his spare time (which is most of his time, since he does little but moon around his flat all day, wearing a soiled dressing gown) Bunting writes his own book against God, a fractured narrative of longing and despair, informed by his intense reading.

This is a good set-up for a novel and, for the most part, it works well. The often simple sentences have a clipped, comic buoyancy. One believes, and is moved by, Bunting’s struggles, and his relationship with his devout parents is portrayed with deep conviction. The real surprise of the book is how anachronistic it feels; it could have been written at any time in the past 50 years. ‘The Book Against God’ reminded me of the early fiction of Iris Murdoch: there are the same philosophical and theological concerns, the same attempt to animate often static dilemmas, the same posh talk, the same evasion of the contemporary inferno, the same concern with truth and redemption, the same antique burnish.

Those about whom Wood writes best-Knut Hamsun, Woolf, Chekhov-are also those who seek to privilege consciousness and interiority, who follow their characters deepest into thought and reverie. ‘The Book Against God’ has the form of a stylised confession, an account written by Bunting who, at the end of the book, is at the same point he was at the beginning. In effect, we have been privy to his thoughts as he tries to make sense of recent events in his life, such as the failure of his marriage and the death of his father. The narrative mimics the loops and patterns of consciousness, as Bunting seeks to impose order on the free flow and loose association of memory. Perhaps if Bunting thought less and acted more he would not be in the state he is.

Yet maybe Bunting-and, by implication, Wood-is wrong to privilege consciousness, in the style of the grand modernist project. Perhaps the truth of our lives is rather to be found in the fiction of Elmore Leonard, JG Ballard or Michel Houellebecq, writers who understand the flimsiness of the self’s construction, and whose characters have little inner life. Their lives, as the philosopher John Gray has written of Leonard’s fictional creations, are composed of the settings in which they act; there is nothing beyond, or beneath, what they do. It is the absence of inner life that makes the characters of Ballard, Leonard and Houellebecq so true.

The trouble with Bunting is that he has too much inner life, which leads him to embellish what should be simple, such as a description of travelling up the A1: “We swiftly passed long articulated lorries, sighing and creaking their governed way north. They were covered with little lights like a starlet’s mirror and as we passed them the car briefly glowed with rough glamour. Then suddenly they were gone, and we were silent again. At York the dawn arrived very quickly, like something unimportant…”

The stylistic infelicities of this passage, clotted as it is with incongruous metaphor, are merely those of a writer in the process of finding a fictional voice, a writer who, after all, already possesses an authoritative critical voice in the lost tradition of VS Pritchett and Virginia Woolf.

Will Wood write another novel? Should he have written this one? Should he have dared to disappoint himself and, no doubt, those who demand of him that he produces a first work commensurate to his great ambition? ‘The Book Against God’ is not ‘Buddenbrooks’, or J’ourney to the End’ of the ‘Night’, or ‘The Moviegoer’ or even ‘White Teeth’. But it is witty and charming.

For all the baroque extravagance of his critical style, Wood should, in the final analysis, be admired for the seriousness with which he reads fiction. He may occupy a lonely position, suspended uneasily between the academy, for which he is insufficiently theoretical, and the shrinking world of scholarly journalism, for which his standards are too exacting, but he is a true critic.

The second coming

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt, Bloomsbury, 555pp, £16.99

October 28 2002 / New Statesman

Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (1992), is about a cabal of highly educated classics students at an elite New England liberal arts college who gather around a cold, charismatic classics tutor called Julian Morrow. They are neurotically withdrawn, isolated and contemptuous of the mundane preoccupations of their fellow students (rather like the murderous students in Hitchcock’s Rope). One night, in a kind of Bacchanalian frenzy and as a spontaneous expression of a belief in their own superiority, they murder a local farmer. This is soon followed by the more calculated murder of one of their own inner circle, Bunny, who has discovered, and is appalled by, the truth of what happened to the farmer. The murder of Bunny is an attempt to transcend conventional morality, an act of true Nietzschean pitilessness and indifference. This is the central crisis of the novel, from which all else flows: insomnia, alcoholism, madness and suicide.

The novel, a worldwide bestseller, is narrated in retrospect by one of the student-murderers, a lonely dreamer called Richard Papen, whose conscience has forced him repeatedly to relive the events of that one terrible evening. His guilt at what happened, we understand, has destroyed him. “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

As a Californian, Papen feels himself to be a stranger to the east coast, the setting for the story, at once accepted by his more socially adept friends but destined to remain for ever at a distance from them. His regretful, ruminative voice consciously echoes Nick Carraway’s in The Great Gatsby, and there is, too, in his recreation of mood and atmosphere, and in the slow accumulation of detail, a fey nostalgia that owes much to Brideshead Revisited. But The Secret History is, in truth, for all the great claims made about it, essentially an extremely accomplished realist novel. Tartt takes few risks, if any, with form. Little is left unexplained. Her individual sentences are seldom memorable. Her first-person narrative is melodramatic and marred by static set pieces and great blocks of talk, as the characters mechanically relay important events that have taken place beyond the gaze of Richard Papen. Yet, from the opening paragraph, you are drawn relentlessly into a world of concealment, betrayal and repressed sexuality. It is a seductive world, at once morbid yet true, hysterical yet convincing. For Tartt knows that the obsessive study of the higher humanities seldom humanises; instead, it can create its own peculiar darkness and pathology.

Since the publication of The Secret History little has been heard of Tartt, though there has been a great deal of gossip surrounding her. Although the rights were expensively purchased by a major Hollywood studio, the film of her novel was never made. In the period during which she withdrew into affluent seclusion, publishing only the occasional story in the New Yorker and not much else, it was widely thought that Tartt, like Richard Papen, had only one story to tell. And she had already told it. Was she then destined, like Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Ralph Ellison (In Invisible Man) and Henry Roth (Call It Sleep) before her, to disappear into disturbed anonymity?

As we now know, Donna Tartt has spent much of the last decade completing another novel, which is being published simultaneously in Europe and the United States. The Little Friend (which is thought to have earned her [pounds sterling]4m in advance rights sales) is set in 1970s Mississippi, where the author grew up, and opens, like The Secret History, with a startling prologue about the mysterious death of a small boy who is found hanged from a tree. But the novel is not really about the tragedy of the boy; it is more about his younger sister, Harriet, and her struggles to understand the secret sadness of her family. Hers is a tainted environment, one of shabby gentility, of private schools, proms and prayer meetings, and long languid summer nights, the counterpoint to which is criminality and racial exclusion.

The novel is presided over by Harriet’s formidable grandmother and three great-aunts. Perfumed, powdered and prim, these melodiously named southern belles (Edith, Libby, Tattycorum and Adelaide) belong to a distant age of order and elitism. They are part of the southern aristocracy, a defeated people, who nurture a wounded superiority. Their former ancestral home, Tribulation (a latter-day version of Margaret Mitchell’s Tara), survived the civil war, but not the reforms of the civil rights movement. While this, then, is a tale of three generations, it is also about three classes: high-born whites, poor whites, and the black descendants of liberated slaves.

Harriet herself lives in a large, dishevelled house, full of ghostly echoes and reverberations. Its slow, A inevitable deterioration mirrors that of her mother, who never stops mourning her dead son, and her fragile, listless sister, who drifts sleepily through each day. Harriet is an overfamiliar literary archetype: the solitary, inquisitive, bookish child who, through trauma and neglect, is hastened from innocence into experience, creating her own world of fantasy and blighted romance. She is at once knowing and naive, and we have encountered her like many times before, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, in To Kill a Mockingbird, in The Go-Between and, most recently, in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Harriet desires not only knowledge, but revenge. She never questions her conviction that a poor white youth, who used to be her brother’s friend, was the killer. Nor does she doubt her right to murder him. Like the students in The Secret History, Harriet believes in her own omnipotence and simplistic moral code, which is informed by the adventure stories she reads and by the superstitions and biblical hysterics of the American South. At all times. Harriet cultivates a kind of wilful blindness: in her immaturity and arrogance, she misreads everything. Yet she will eventually learn something far more profound about the cruelty and injustice of the adult world, and begin to understand, too, something of the corruption and fraudulent gentility of the American South itself. So this, after all, like so much fiction from the South, is a novel about inherited guilt, about class, prejudice and hypocrisy, in which even the black housekeeper despises the local “white trash”, who in turn despise all “niggers”.

Martin Amis once wrote that all American writers of ambition were trying to write a novel called USA. What he meant, I think, is that the mission of the American writer, certainly in the latter decades of the 20th century, has been to write, if not the Great American Novel, then at least a great American novel, a work that, as Michael Ondaatje said of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, contains multitudes. Where Tartt differs from other contemporary American writers of ambition, such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, is not in the length of her novels (no one would wish them any longer), but in the way she takes the foundation blocks of so much popular fiction—gun battles, drugs, cartoonish caricatures, high-energy action scenes—and uses them to build something entirely her own.

V S Naipaul has said that he cannot understand why readers feel the need “to be drugged by narrative”. The challenge, he thinks, is to create new forms, to find new ways of writing about the modern world. Well, Donna Tartt writes about the modern world and she certainly drugs her readers with narrative. Elaborately structured, astoundingly well-paced, resolutely unexperimental, her fiction satisfies what may well be our hard-wired hunger for narrative, for coherent, dramatic representation of the human story. This may explain why she appeals to people who don’t really enjoy reading, to those who perhaps buy only one or two novels each year. Why, she is big even in Belgium, an honour few writers can claim.

The Little Friend is audacious, implausible and enchanting. As with the best 19th-century novels, it is indulgently expansive, as cluttered and overstuffed as Harriet’s rambling house. At times, one becomes aware of the strain behind the style: the novel has little of the lightness or real fluency of The Secret History. Tartt never hurries. She is not afraid of scenes intended less to further the action than simply to create mood or deepen character. This time, she also resists resolution: the secret history behind this novel remains as elusive to the reader as it does to Harriet; the riddle of her brother’s death is never solved. After more than 500 pages, we have essentially been party to nothing more than a childish prank and a drugs scam, both of which go wrong. Yet there remains something indefinable and ultimately mysterious about this novel, a certain elegiac tone and lingering regret for the passing, if not of youth, then of an innocence that perhaps never existed at all, neither in America nor in th e life and imagination of foolish little Harriet.

This Charming man

Who’s a Dandy?, by George Walden, Gibson square Books, 180pp, £12.99

October 21 2002 / New Statesman

George Walden and I were once friends. We visited Moscow together, and I used to go to his house for drinks and dinner. Those dinners were an intimidating, though enthralling, experience for an impressionable young man. Walden was an elegant host: before dinner there would be fine champagne and animated conversation in his drawing room, where you would find books double-stacked on every available surface and toppling towers of journals and literary magazines, and where you would encounter philosophers, politicians, literary editors and the occasional visiting writer from Paris. I recall, during one of these evenings, Walden speaking about a little book by the obscure French novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, which he then removed from his shelves. It was a study of the dandy Beau Brummell. Walden urged me to read the book; but my French, I told him, had scarcely progressed beyond 0-level. Someone should translate it, he replied.

Well, there are some jobs that you just have to appoint yourself to—because Walden, in his desire for the curious story of the life and death of Beau Brummell to become more widely known, has gone ahead and translated Barbey himself. First, however, he offers his own thoughts on dandyism in an entertaining introductory essay. He opens with a vignette of Beau Brummell living out his last days in squalor and poverty in the Normandy town of Caen, a figure of ruined elegance who, Walden writes, had let himself go entirely. Brummell, once a friend of the Prince Regent and perhaps the most celebrated figure in London society, had fled to France to escape gambling debts. There, on the streets of Caen, he was glimpsed by the young Barbey. The novelist never forgot the sight of this English dandy, who, despite failing health, incontinence and the shame of his fall, continued to dress with a fearless, self-celebrating extravagance, though his clothes were now rags and his complexion blanched.

Born in 1778, George Bryan Brummell was educated at Eton and Oxford and, from an early age, moved with an aristocratic crowd, yet he himself was neither rich nor titled. Rather, he was languorous, fastidious—and gloriously self-absorbed. He was, Walden writes, the “prince of fashion and autocratic ruler of the Age of Elegance”. He was, unlike Byron, whom he knew, no writer or political adventurer. His poems have long since been forgotten and his letters were seldom enlivened by wit or distinction of phrase. His real gift was for conversation and for ostentatious display, if not for hedonism (he drank but, like the true dandy, he was abstemious when it came to the pleasures of the flesh and was certainly not homosexual). Byron spoke of “a certain exquisite propriety” in his clothes.

George Walden has had a varied career, as a diplomat, Conservative MP (he was briefly minister for higher education in the Thatcher government) and as a newspaper polemicist. As a columnist, he would often write in twilight mode: disaffected and rancorous, our new age of manic populism and “hyperdemocracy” was, for Walden, the manifestation of a wider defeat, an evasion of the real truth about our present cultural and political mediocrity. He has been caricatured (once, regrettably, by this reviewer, which led to the end of ourfriendship) as the personification of Institution Man, a member of the postwar elite—the generation drawn instinctively towards the BBC, higher diplomacy and Westminster politics—that led the country to near-ruin, and as a wilful pessimist, always ringing the bell of bad news. In truth, he is, pre-eminently, as this book reminds us, one of our most acute and penetrating cultural critics. He has an instinctive understanding of the fundamental emptiness of contemporary British culture—with its cult of cool, its celebrity fixation and its obsession with surfaces and style—and of how the collapse of the ideological certainties of our old bipolar world has left us not only perplexed, but also morally bereft.

But why dandyism? Walden writes pithily about the cult of the modern “democratic dandy”, ephemeral figures from the worlds of pop and television such as Jonathan Ross and Jarvis Cocker who affect the nonchalant foppishness of a Brummell but who are neither startling nor memorable. How can they be when, today, we are all so much in thrall to dress and appearance?

More worthy of consideration as true dandies, in style and hauteur, are the American writer Tom Wolfe and the rock star Adam Ant, neither mentioned by Walden. Ant enjoyed considerable success in the early 1980s, following early experiments on the punk scene, through reinventing himself as the “dandy highwayman” and, later, as an ironic version of “Prince Charming”. Ant has since declined into impecunious disaffection, a marginal figure now, who, like the aged Brummell, is perhaps sustained in his disappointment only by the memories of a former radiance.

To Walden, the democratic dandy is essentially a fraud, the product of a bored society; one senses he finds something fraudulent in the whole cult of dandyism, even in the great Brummell himself. To Barbey, however, there was something heroic about the singularity and defiance of Brummell, who deferred to no one in matters of taste, not even to the Prince Regent.

Brummell flourished in an age of aristocratic privilege, but did not affect “the arrogance of the aristocrat or of the misanthrope”. He was not beautiful—Barbey writes of how a riding accident had “marred the Grecian line of his profile”—but he was, to the last, unforgettable, his entire way of life an affront to the cant and puritanism of English life that even today can be glimpsed in, say, the foolish excesses of John Major’s “back to basics” campaign.

Beau Brummell spent his last days, alone, destitute and semi-deranged, in the Hotel d’Angleterre in Caen. There were mornings when he would wake and ask immediately for his rooms to be prepared as if for a great party: “Chandeliers, candelabra, candles, flowers everywhere, nothing was wanting.” He would announce the arrival of his guests, spectral figures from his past, chief among whom was usually the Prince of Wales. Then he would wait, and he would wait. And what was he waiting for? He was waiting, Barbey writes, for an England that no longer existed.

With a little help from his friends

Fragrant Harbour, by John Lanchester, Faber £16.99, pp310

June 30 2002 / The Observer

Measuring the Richter scale

May 6 2002 / New Statesman

One of the first paintings you see as you enter the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a portrait of the artist’s uncle Rudi dressed in his Nazi uniform. The painting is from a family photograph of Rudi taken shortly before he went off to fight for the Wehrmacht. He was killed within a few days of leaving home in the autumn of 1939. In the portrait, it’s as if Rudi has already died and Richter is painting his ghost: the young man stands in front of what appears to be a crumbling wall, his facial expression not so much of indestructible optimism as of amused distraction, as he fades before your eyes into the greyness of the background, at the edge of non-existence. There is nothing heroic in Rudi’s posture - he’s merely an ordinary boy preparing to fulfil his patriotic duty. But already the light is failing, twilight is upon us, and Rudi is soon to disappear altogether, becoming no more than a construct of memory, both outside time and time’s victim.

Uncle Rudi (1965) is shown in the same room as Richter’s paintings of allied warplanes (Bombers, 1963; Mustang Squadron, 1964): grainy, obsessively detailed black-and-white images of these ambivalent machines of death that brought a terrible liberation to Germany. Born in Dresden in February 1932, Richter was a member of the Hitler Youth, and recalls hearing from a distance the bombs falling on his home city. He grew up in the old GDR during a period of profound silence and mourning in Germany, both east and west. Like the late W G Sebald, Richter remembers wandering as a youth through a purgatorial landscape of bombed-out and ruined cities, where so little was spoken and understood about the catastrophe that had unfolded in the German Reich. The Germans were, Sebald wrote, wilfully blind: when they turned to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, they were always both “looking and looking away”.

Over more than four decades, Richter has assembled what he calls his Atlas, a huge archive of photographs. Some of these were clipped from newspapers and magazines, while others were taken by him: his defence in a personal war against forgetting. They are the inspiration behind many of his most memorable paintings, the subject of which is often perception itself, the act of both looking and looking away. Through the distortion of photographic representation, Richter attempts to show how the eye can both illuminate and deceive. The past, he seems to be saying, is unstable. The image, photographic or otherwise, is always artificial. There is no truth, only interpretations, which applies as much to our own personal narratives as it does to the hauntedness of the German past.

Richter escaped from East Germany in 1961, before the Wall was built, settling in Dusseldorf, where he attended the local art academy and became interested in the avant-garde, in particular in abstract expressionism. His early paintings were experiments in socialist-realist fantasy and, as such, have been excluded from this retrospective, though it would have been fascinating to evaluate them against his subsequent work.

In the late 1980s, Richter began a cycle of paintings about the Baader-Meinhof group, October 18, 1977 (1988), the student radicals whose early idealism and disgust at their own country curdled into nihilism. Richter professes to be sceptical of all ideology and dogma. One believes that he is sincere when he says this. And yet, looking at his paintings of the leading members of the gang - Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof - emaciated and exhausted by their trials in prison, one is moved by how their portraits are suffused with a sense of grandeur and loss. In particular, there are three startling portraits of Gudrun Ensslin as she is being returned to her cell (Confrontation 1, 2 and 3), adapted from police photographs and all softly lit. In the first painting, she turns to embrace the camera, smiling slightly: she is thin and ragged, her dark hair falls limply, and yet the light of a perverse idealism still shines in her eyes. In the second painting, she turns away from the camera, a young woman who, like Uncle Rudi, is in the process of being destroyed by the inexorable forces of history. In the third and final painting, she hangs her head in defeat: she is on the way back to her cell now, and to an ambiguous death.

In his introduction to the retrospective, Robert Storr, a senior curator at New York’s MoMA, suggests that although Richter had no sympathy with the revolutionary leftism of the student radicals, he regarded their “flawed, desperate and inevitably doomed idealism as a tragedy in the context of a society where human values were so distorted by conformity and the hope of fundamental change so remote”. But that is too neat. There’s both a harsh, unforgiving realism as well as an elegiac quality to the Baader-Meinhof cycle that, as with much of Richter’s work, defy the simple generalisation with which Storr seeks, again and again, to explain and entrap the German artist.

How good is Gerhard Richter? Well, it’s hard not to be impressed by his versatility and daring. There’s no one characteristic Richter style, no one programmatic aesthetic of representation. Walking through the huge open spaces of this exhibition, you are constantly startled by his choice of subject and style across more than 180 canvases, from realistic portraits and still lifes to abstract expressionism, pop art, and even Mondrian-like experiments with geometry and colour. It’s as if Richter, through his long career, has been continually pushing at the limits of his own versatility: how good am I? What can’t I do? What is, if anything, my natural style?

Michael Kimmelman, in a recent profile of the artist in the New York Times Magazine, went so far as to claim that Richter was the saviour of painting. One understands the anxiety that led him to make such a hyperbolic claim: admirers of painting, of brush strokes on canvas, are disturbed by the huge popularity and influence of conceptual art. But the death of painting, like that of the novel, is greatly exaggerated. There’s no such thing as Painting; there are only painters, good and bad. And Richter is a very good painter, if not quite a great one.

I prefer his earlier, less obviously virtuosic work, before he began experimenting too lavishly with colour, before his paintings were being sold for millions of dollars and great claims and counter-claims were being made for his work; most recently, Jed Perl, art critic of the New Republic, denounced Richter as a “bullshit artist masquerading as a painter”.

The portrait of Uncle Rudi and others like it painted in the mid-to-late 1960s - such as Stag and Motor Boat - with their smudged, restrained and washed out colours, are authentically strange and melancholy, befitting the strangeness of postwar Germany itself: a country at once in search of and in flight from history.

Asking for trouble

Youth, by J.M. Coetzee, Secker & Warburg, £14.99, pp169

April 21 2002 / The Observer

Rout of Africa

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, Picador £15.99, pp310
Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith, Public Affairs £15.99, pp243

February 24 2002 / The Observer

New Gauls, please

Something to Declare, by Julian Barnes, Picador, £8.99 pp302

January 6 2002 / The Observer

Still life in mobile homes

Mother Tongues: Travels Through tribal Europe, by Helena Drysdale, Picador, 401pp, £16.99

November 19 2001 / New Statesman

Travel writing is, on the whole, a debased and exhausted genre. Most modern travel books are truth-free zones, in which facts are never allowed to interrupt a good story, dialogue is recollected in tranquillity and thus unconvincingly burnished, and imaginative fancy is irresponsibly indulged. Too often, a travel book is no more than a work of exaggeration and distortion. It is less a study of people and places than a rather tedious inward journey—an examination of lonely consciousness, as in Jonathan Raban’s most recent book, Passage to Juneau (Picador), about his journey by water from Seattle to Alaska, which was really a study of the disintegrating self (Raban had separated from his wife, his father had died, and he wanted to universalise his misery). Or, in the case of the most egregious examples, it is an indulgence of ego, a form of ostentatious display. Who, after the publication of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, can read the reflections of the self-mythologising exquisite withou t disbelief and indifference? Nor is chatwin sufficiently engaging or unpredictable to be read purely as an exercise in style. Rather, all one can say of him is that he has had a catastrophic effect on a generation of younger travellers, for whom the journey is less a means to an end than an end in itself: an act of Nietzschean self-affirmation, a search for sensation. These young post-chatwin travellers have shrunk the world into a bland monochrome; wandering lost, like the celebrated W G Sebald, in a nebulous mist of half-remembered quotation, arcane allusion and duplicitous evasion, they seek not to discover but to celebrate—themselves. They end up speaking to no one but themselves.

It’s not that one expects a travel writer to be entirely reliable, constrained by facts and dry detail, rooting around in dusty archives like a furtive historian. The best practitioners of the genre—Thomas Browne, V S Naipaul, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Jan Morris—have always been engagingly unreliable, either alchemists of the real, or driven by hard polemical purpose. Rather, all one demands of a travel writer is a certain humility, wit, an authentic curiosity about the world and other minds, and a true sense of vocation. A journey, one would think, ought to have a certain necessariness; there must be a reason for going. If not, the resulting book is no more than a marketing contrivance and reads as such; it has all the intrigue of someone else’s holiday snaps. But we have lost confidence in simple, direct works of reportage. The world is not enough. There must be something more: embellishment, a conceit. The journey itself must become a kind of stunt.

Helena Drysdale is different. For a start, she can write; every page of her new book carries the imprint of her originality of thought and expression. You never doubt that she travels to discover not just herself, but the world in all its dizzying perplexity. Her previous book, Looking for Gheorghe: love and death in Romania (published later in paperback as the more reader-friendly Looking for George), told of how, while on a trip to Romania as a student in 1979, Drysdale met a young dreamer called Gheorghe cupar, an aspirant poet-priest from a peasant family, who had taught himself English. For one gloriously liberated week, Gheorghe, defying the authorities, travelled with Drysdale and her two friends through the remote forests of the Carpathian Mountains. One night, he told Drysdale that he loved her; they kissed. After she had returned to Cambridge, she began receiving long, impassioned letters from Gheorghe, the “Mad Monk”, as her friends called him. In his letters, he hinted at trouble with the police, existential frustration and his longing to leave Romania. She responded with diminished enthusiasm. The letters stopped and she heard nothing more of him.

In 1991, after the fall of Ceaucescu, Drysdale returned to Romania to find out what had become of her mad monk. “No traveller can be a silent witness, leaving no trace,” she wrote. “Their very presence, watching and listening, changes what they see and hear.” As she journeyed across the country, meeting those who had known Gheorghe, she began to understand how much her earlier presence in Romania had disturbed the young poet, filling him with impossible expectations, and how irresponsible she and her friends had been in allowing him to travel with them, monitored as they were by the secret police. Looking for Gheorge begins as a conventional travel book—young woman searching for one of Ceaucescu’s disappeared—but slowly deepens into something stranger and more mysterious, an authentic metaphysical quest, in which truth shimmers brightly but elusively.

In Mother Tongues, Drysdale is no longer travelling alone, but with her husband, Richard, and their two exotically named young daughters, and her travels through what she calls “tribal Europe” are less explicitly personal than politically motivated. She is attracted to the contested, ethnically confused shadowlands of the. remoter, often mountainous edges of Europe, where “minority” languages are spoken and many of the indigenous inhabitants have long nurtured an embattled romantic nationalism—the Basques, the Bretons, the Corsicans, the Lapps, the Slav-Macedonians and so on. Drysdale is in search of cultural difference and linguistic diversity (perhaps she should have gone to Nigeria); she is anxious about the homogenising thrust of modernity, the amorphousness of contemporary European society and the threatened extinction of many of the world’s languages, because, for her, language, culture, ethnicity and identity are inextricable. (She simplistically equates language with culture.) She would agree, I th ink, with the linguist David Crystal who, in a recent essay in Prospect, wrote: “We should care about dying languages, for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet.” Languages, so the argument goes, are valuable in and of themselves, and ought to be protected as such, as one would a rare flower.

The book begins with Drysdale and her husband purchasing a mobile home—Mob, they call it—in which to travel, and one immediately fears the worst. In the event, after initially cluttering the narrative with excessive domestic detail and too much willed bohemian eccentricity, Drysdale begins to settle into her style, and into her journey. Leaving behind south London’s “dog-shit parks and car crime”, she travels far and wide, from northern Scandinavia, where the transnational Sami (Laps) roam freely, to the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and then east to riven Macedonia, with its ethnic muddles and disputed territories. She travels hard and not without discomfort; her hygiene suffers, the Mob is infested with lice, she is robbed twice in Catalonia, the children are frequently bored and hungry, and the people she interviews do not always share her naive enthusiasm for their local language and culture. Fortunately, the redoubtable Richard emerges as something of a marvel: mushroom-hunter, dri ver, cook, lover and DJY fanatic, the one still, calm life in her erratic mobile home.

Drysdale is a considerable poet of landscape, and the best of the book lies in her descriptions of the high mountain passes and sudden storms of the Tyrol, and the boundless emptiness and great forests of northern Scandinavia. Arriving in Finland for the first time, she is exuberant: “I kept hearing a single note—passionate, mournful, exquisite—of a Japanese flute. In the wooden architecture, in the modern architecture, in a Finnish neatness and attention to detail, in that eastern slant of the eyes, beside the lakes, beneath twisted pines, I thought of Japan.”

Often, however, she finds herself disappointed, repelled by the defensive nationalism of those such as the Basques she meets—who are agitating for a racially pure state, rooted in a cult of blood and soil—or merely dispirited by a persistent, cross-cultural, low-level indifference. In Dutch Freisland, frustrated in her attempts to find a native Frisian speaker, she writes: “I wanted to be inside a real Frisian house, living and breathing with a real Frisian person.” At such moments, she can sound dangerously like a tourist on safari who is searching for particularly rare game, her face pushed up against the window as she peers out at the exotic locals from the safety of her air-conditioned camper van. (Oh, all right, the Mob doesn’t have air-conditioning.) And her questions can be repetitive and guileless. What does it mean to be Breton, or Macedonian, or Frisian, or Walloon, she asks her perplexed interviewees. Their answers are as diverse and inconclusive as you would expect if you were stopped in the street and asked what it means to be, say, English or Scottish or Manx.

Drysdale seems to have returned from her travels as uncertain as she was when she left as to the value of preserving minority languages. “The speakers of these [minority] languages have choices: they can choose passive assimilation, allowing their culture and language to die; or they can fight to save it.” But, she adds, there is a “third way”. There usually is. “It is adaptability, assimilating a different culture but without surrendering to it. Many people are content to have two selves—Breton and French, Welsh and British, Frisian and German. Most (except extremists) see a value in this. The route is bilingual education.”

Is it really? “Loneliness and claustrophobia” is what Drysdale experiences on the road in a mobile home. And loneliness and claustrophobia are perhaps the defining extremes of the experience of many of those she meets who seem to be living in what V S Naipaul has called “half-and-half worlds”, suspended uneasily between the majority culture from which they feel excluded and an older, more ritualised way of life that is rapidly disappearing. There is something moving about the plight of those struggling to preserve a dying language, but one should never forget that a language is nothing if it is not a medium of communication. As the estimable Kenan Malik has written, a “language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It is like a child’s secret code.” Too often, minority languages are no more than secret codes, badges of honour, and they are disappearing from the world because they are of little or no use to anyone, beyond, perhaps, the reactionary assertion of an outmoded, semi -tribal identity.

In Britain, we live in a multiethnic and, indeed, multinational state, but ours is not a multicultural society, despite what relativists would have us believe. To deny that we have a majority culture—liberal, sceptical, secular, broadly tolerant, anglophone—is to deny the truth of both our present and our past. If a person is to thrive in this country, is to participate fully in the wider culture, he or she must be encouraged to speak English, the lingua franca of the modern business world.

Drysdale’s third way is, in principle, admirable, but it has always seemed pointless to me for a child to be taught, say, Welsh or Breton at the expense of a truly useful global second language such as Spanish. One has no wish to restrict the use of minority languages, but they should be allowed to live or die without the intervention of the state. A language does not have intrinsic value; any value resides in its application and use. If a language cannot be naturally sustained by its users, if it does not have a function, then it is mere sentimentality to lament its passing. Which is in no way to diminish Helena Drysdale or the achievements of this marvellous book.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris, Faber

October 13 2001 / The Daily Telegraph

Arriving in Trieste in 1909, the Viennese playwright Hermann Bahr felt as if he were “nowhere at all”, adrift in a city of ghosts. Anyone visiting Trieste for the first time today may experience a similar sense of dislocation, because there is something mysterious and unaccountable about the cosmopolitan Adriatic port, something to do with its lost past as the great seaport of the Habsburg empire and its moribund present as a buffer-zone between Italy, to which it now reluctantly belongs, and the Balkans.

James Joyce, who lived in the city for more than a decade, had his own name for Trieste - “Europiccola”, a little Europe - and the city through which he moved as an impoverished teacher of languages certainly mirrored the polyglot diversity and ethnic confusion of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, Trieste is quieter, but it remains a place where you begin to understand the conflicts in the Balkans, and how south-east Europe seems forever doomed to be split along the ancient fault-line separating Roman Catholic from Orthodox, East from West.

Trieste is one of those mercantile city-ports - such as Odessa or Danzig/Gdansk - that ought to belong to no country; indeed there was an attempt after the Second World War to create the “Free Territory of Trieste”, a strategic non-aligned zone between rival ideological blocks. Before Trieste was ceded permanently to Italy in 1954, what was known as Zone B of the Free Territory, incorporating the Istrian peninsular, was assigned to Yugoslavia. There are elderly Triestines I know who have never ceased mourning the lost “Italian” towns of Koper, Piran, Umag and Novigrad, which are now divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

Jan (then James) Morris first arrived in Trieste as a young soldier at the end of the Second World War and has remained haunted by the “crepuscular” city ever since. For Morris, Trieste is an “allegory of limbo, in the secular sense of an indefinable hiatus”. As she walks the streets of what the locals still call their “little Vienna” because of its splendid baroque and neo-classical architecture, she is accompanied by phantoms, and her Trieste becomes, though this is never said, what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a “chronotope”, a place which allows us to range through time and space, to see the past in the present.

But to live with too great a sense of the past and of time passing can lead to a dangerous nostalgia, and Morris, though alert to such dangers, nevertheless allows herself to be seduced into concentrated melancholic rapture, with every street and cafe holding wistful memories of loss. One senses that she sees in the ambivalence of Trieste - its shifting allegiances and ethnic muddles - something of her own inner ambivalence: that of a woman who was once a man, and of a writer who concedes that her books are no more than “smudges of graffiti on the wall”.

Morris - like Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig before her - is moved by the grandeur and historic failure of the multiethnic Habsburg em pire, and this book can be read as a lament for the world of security that was shattered by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914 (their coffins passed through the streets of Trieste before being sent by train to Vienna). Many others have passed through Trieste, too - Rilke, Freud, Stendhal, Egon Schiele, Casanova. Perhaps they were attracted there by a sense that they had reached the end of something, if not the “last breath of civilisation”, as Chateaubriand put it in 1806, then the last town in Western Europe, which remains suspended on an ancient precipice between Rome and Byzantium, water-surrounded and borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Jan Morris has also reached the end of something, in her case the end of the writing life. If, as she says, this is to be her last book, then she has left us with not only an unconventional travelogue of fascinating complexity, but also one of the most impressive and subtle meditations on old age that I have read, much more than mere smudges of graffiti on a wall. The rest is silence.

Emotional landscapes

Vespertine, by Bjork

September 17 2001 / New Statesman

Is there a more consistently unpredictable figure in modern pop than Bjork? It’s certainly hard to think of another artist who seems so wilfully addicted to perversity, both in her image and her music, and who simultaneously seeks and evades attention to quite the same degree. Ever since she appeared on stage as the heavily pregnant teenage lead singer of an Icelandic punk band, dressed only in a ripped, navel-revealing T-shirt (this was more than a decade before it became a statement of faith for female celebrities to flaunt their pregnancies), she has been a source of perplexed fascination, both at home in Iceland and abroad. A natural exhibitionist, she arrived for last year’s Cannes premiere of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (for which her hypnotic performance as an unhappy Czech immigrant in 1950s America won her the best actress award) dressed as a Christmas tree. At this year’s Oscar ceremony, she chose something more sensible—a swan’s costume, which receives another outing on the cover of her new album, Vespertine (which means “relating to the evening”).

But, at times, it has all been too much for Bjork: in 1996, one of her American fans filmed himself in the process of sending her a letter bomb. He then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. A few months later, at an airport in Thailand, Bjork attacked a journalist who was attempting to interview her son, Sindri, wrestling the startled woman to the ground.

After that, she seemed to withdraw into a thicket of introspection. Here was a woman retreating… what exactly? She left London after the break-up of her relationship with the DJ Goldie, returning to her native Iceland, where she began tentative work on her 1997 album, Homogenic. A collection of loose, impressionistic songs, it is one of the strangest albums in recent pop history. Gone were the punchy dance rhythms that made her first two albums, Debut (1993) and Post( 1995), commercially so successful. In their place was a series of intense, brooding soundscapes, an epic music of loneliness and dislocation, which baffled in all its complex oddity as Bjork sang of healing herself with a razor blade. I thought it was terrific. Most critics disagreed, however, dismissing Homogenic, with its orchestral grandeur and lyrical opacity, as a work of pure self-indulgence—a “cry for help from a woman on the edge”, as one critic put it. On the edge of what, you wondered.

Her new album, Vespertine, is more immediately accessible than Homogenic, but no less impressive. There is nothing mechanical or calculating about this music; each song assumes the form of a complex emotional drama, a stylised confession that, at its best, has the loose, improvised feel of free-form jazz. Bjork, you feel, has no idea what might happen when she enters a recording studio. As a lyricist, she occupies a dream-world, somewhere between innocence and experience. Her songs are often obliquely sexual, emotion recollected not in tranquillity exactly, but in rapture: “He slides inside/Half awake half asleep/We faint back into sleephood/When I wake up the second time in his arms/gorgeousness” (“Cocoon”). And there is an often unremarked humour in her work, particularly in the way she deliberately mangles language, having fun with mispronunciation and neologisms, the way her voice does not always complement the music so much as work antagonistically against it.

Those who know Bjork well, or have worked closely with her, are impressed by something unaccountable in her personality—the unaccountability of true talent. “Bjork is very special,” said Catherine Deneuve, with whom she co-starred in Dancer in the Dark. “She cannot really act, she can only feel.” This is a perceptive remark: “You don’t have to speak/I feel/emotional landscapes/they puzzle me,” sang Bjork on “Joga”, one of the best tracks on Homogenic.

For U2’s Bono, it is less Bjork’s wayward personality and more her music—particularly the “unforgettable power” of her voice—that most compels. Bono is right about that voice, which is a vast, tortured, other-worldly instrument that sounds like nothing else because it is like nothing else. To listen to Bjork singing is often to be returned to the anguish and pain of your first failed love affair: even when she is happy, she sounds sad, as if every word is being delivered in an ecstasy of suffering.

“I never thought I would compromise,” she sings on “Unison”, the closing track on Vespertine. But this is not a work of compromise; it is scorched through with the authenticity of an artist in the process of a complicated journey of self-invention. Where she might end up, or where her talent might take her, is impossible to say. What matters is the journey itself, and it will be worth following her as she matures and deepens and continues to experiment. As for that voice? Well, as Bono said after he listened to Bjork rehearsing one afternoon in a darkened studio: “It’s like an icepick—it goes straight to the heart.”

How the dead live

On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, by AS Byatt, Chatto & Windus

December 4 2000 / New Statesman

The American novelist Jonathan Dee, in a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, wrote disparagingly on the art of literary grave-robbing, on the way more and more contemporary writers were appropriating real-life characters and the actual events of the past for fictional ends. To Dee, a righteous and rigorous reader, there was something ethically troubling about the way these writers were glibly fiddling with history—redeeming time, making the dead live, distorting the truth—in order to enhance the lustre of their own invented narratives. “Creating a character out of words and making him or her as vivid and memorable as a real person might be perhaps the hardest of the fundamental tricks a novelist has to perform,” he wrote. “Simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character—Lee Harvey Oswald, JP Morgan, Amelia Earhart—cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader’s consciousness as a total unknown.”

There are no truths, said Nietzsche, only interpretations, and in modish psycho-historical novels, it seems, the past itself has become a kind of fiction, inherently unstable and open to endless reinterpretation. The trend for history-as-fiction is not confined to the US, where writers such as Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates have long been adept at exploiting the slippage between interpretation and fact, between the known world of the historical past and the imaginatively unknown of the present and near future. Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a trilogy of novels set during the First World War and featuring actual figures such as the army psychologist WHR Rivers and the poet Siegfried Sassoon; the late Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, a novel about Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as the Romantic poet Novalis, and his obsessive love for a 12-year-old girl called Sophie von Kuhn; Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, a prize-winning first novel about the last days of Idi Amin; Muriel Sparks’s Aiding and Abetting, a delightfully eccentric recasting of the Lord Lucan story—these are just some of the more successful recent examples of writing in which the fiction, as Novalis once put it, “arises out of the shortcomings of history”. The trouble is, novelists such as Fitzgerald and Barker have spawned countless inferior emulators, whose motives, one senses, are deeply cynical; and one knows this because they use the pathos of the already known—the emotional charge of historical crises such as trench warfare and the Holocaust—in an attempt to impose on a text a spurious moral validation that does not emerge organically. This trend is indeed ethically troubling.

So what lies behind this evasion of the defining particulars of our time, this retreat into history? Well, in this country, at least, there has long been a powerful loss of confidence in the fictional possibilities of England, particularly beyond the metropolis. One struggles to think of more than a handful of novelists who bring urgent news of our contemporary condition, in the way that Dickens must once have done; novelists who consistently stretch and mangle form in seeking to bring to the novel an authentic modern idiom; novelists who seek and find new ways of writing about the modern world. With the exception of VS Naipaul, JG Ballard, AS Byatt (most of the double-initial crowd, in fact), one struggles to think of novelists who have truly made modernity their urgent subject, in quite the same way that Philip Roth and DeLillo have made postwar American society—with its consumer frenzies and killing sprees, its money-chatter and information buzz—their defining subject.

Reading Roth’s recent trilogy of novels—American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain—and Sabbath’s Theater before that, you sense that here is a writer, even at the age of 67, who burns to invent, who is writing against extinction. (In a recent New Yorker profile, the now reclusive Roth spoke of how, because of a bad back, he works standing up at a lectern, writing all day until he reaches the point of exhaustion.) As a result, his fiction has, humanly, a peculiar contemporary resonance, an existential frenzy of the kind that has largely disappeared from the British novel.

But hold on. Perhaps one way of writing about the modern world, as Byatt reminds us, is to write about the present through the aspect of the past, so that the novel becomes a kind of palimpsest, in which successive generations fail quite to erase the influence of those who have gone before, and all time exists as an eternal present. Certainly, Byatt, in this powerful and stimulating book of essays, is eager to defend the integrity and freedom of the novelist to write about whatever he or she chooses without programmatically being restrained or bullied: “A writer can rebel in various ways against the novel of sensibility, or the duty (often imposed by literary journalists) to report on, to criticise, contemporary actuality.”

If our ideas of the past are formed by ideas of the present, part of the process of understanding history, she seems to say, includes re-imagining it. Byatt herself is a fabulist, an exuberant spinner of multiple narratives. Her novels are rich in allusion, in layers of information, in historical loops, echoes and repetitions. Not surprisingly, she writes most enthusiastically here about the great compendium storytelling collections—The Arabian Nights,. Boccaccio’s Decameron, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The hero of this book is really Scheherazade, telling her one thousand and one stories as she struggles to deter death. And it is the freedom to tell stories that Byatt most cherishes: “Narration is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood. Modernist literature tried to do away with storytelling, which it thought was vulgar, replacing it with flashbacks, epiphanies, streams of consciousness. But storytelling is intrinsic to biological time, which we cannot escape.”

If there is a weakness in the book, it is that Byatt never really answers the question as to why so many writers are in retreat from the contemporary. Instead, she offers a series of smart close readings of recent novels—by Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Lawrence Norfolk and others—in which, eschewing theory and using extensive direct quotations, she attempts to show, rather than explain, how different novelists animate the historical past.

Byatt is right to emphasise, against the modernist obsession with consciousness and interiority, the human hunger for narrative and storytelling. But more crucially, I think, what underscores our obsession with history-as-fiction is a loss of confidence in the possibility of objective historical truth, in the failure of the academy robustly to argue against a prevailing relativism which insists that meaning is intrinsically unstable, that all events and texts are subject to multiple and conflicting interpretations, and that there is no such thing as value-free history, given that all historical narratives are no more than partial ideological constructions, a kind of fiction. And it is the confusion created by this state of affairs—together with the blunt truth that peace, prosperity and a benign political culture are the enemies of radical creativity—that has led so many of our best writers to look, in their search for inspiration, not to contemporary Britain’s clogged motorways and bustling shopping m alls of limitless mediocrity, but to the past.

As for Byatt, On Histories and Stories reminds us definitively that she is not only one of our best living novelists, but one of our most astute readers, too. We are lucky to have her.

The duty of genius

Otto Weininger: Sex, Science and Self in Imperial Vienna, by Chandak Sengoopta

August 21 2000 / New Statesman

In June 1903, the young Jewish-Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger published his first book, Geschlect und Charakter (Sex and Character), a long, dense, obsessively researched work of hysterical misogyny and anti-Semitism that fell virtually stillborn from the presses. Exhausted and destabilised by feelings of guilt and inauthenticity, Weininger had melodramatically speculated, at the time of publication, that three possibilities awaited him—“the gallows, suicide, or a future so brilliant that I dare not think about it”. In the event, a few months later, Weininger rented a room in the house in SchwarzspanierstraBe, Vienna, where his supreme hero, Beethoven, had died. He wrote to his family to say that he planned to kill himself, and then, that evening, shot himself in the chest. His brother arrived at the house, having received the letter the next morning, to find Otto dying on the floor.

At the age of 23, Weininger had stubbornly confirmed the truth of his own prediction by choosing death over the brilli ant future for which he so desperately longed. Yet, in renouncing the world, he was merely following the logic of his own argument as expressed in Sex and Character: that, if one cannot be great, one should not live at all.

So that, everyone thought, was that. However, as word about Weininger’s suicide spread through the salons of Vienna, a cult began to develop around him and his curious book. Reviews of Sex and Characterbegan slowly to appear; his aphorisms and gnomic utterances were hastily collected by his friends and published in a book called On Last Things; the satirist Karl Kraus and Sigmund Freud declared themselves admirers of the disturbed intellectual, and an assortment of thinkers, including the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oswald Spengler, Adolf Hitler and Franz Kafka, read Weininger with fervid attention. Riding a wave of morbid curiosity, Sex and Character soon became a defining text of Hapsburg Vienna, over which a sad imperial twilight was settling even as the population of the city, swelled by a veritable Babylon of polyglot migrants from across the empire, was expanding exponentially, thus rendering society dangerously unstable.

To be alive at the end of the 19th century in Vienna was to experience social life as a maelstrom. As the old order slipped into decline, new ideas flourished; crisis, it seemed, inspired creativity. People were at once energised and enraged by anti-Semitism, Zionism, pan-German fanaticism and feminism, by the theories of Freud, the architecture of Adolf Loos and by the visual art of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Degeneracy was perceived as being everywhere apparent in fin fin-de-siecle Vienna, its manifestation identified in anything from the emancipation of women and the popularity of psychoanalysis to the proliferation of prostitution. “We are now fully infected by serious popular mental illness, a sort of black plague for degeneration and hysteria,” wrote Max Nordau, a German-speaking Jew from Hungary. Vienna, as Kraus remarked, was becoming the “laboratory of world destruction”.

If anyone was a victim of Nordau’s plague, it was Otto Weininger, who was pathologically preoccupied with decay and whose work seethed with the anxieties of his age. Modern life terrified him. He longed, like a Nietzschean fanatic, to break free from the enslaving chains of mediocrity, believing that the exceptional individual always created his own values. For Weininger, life amounted to a stark dichotomy: greatness or nothingness.

To read Sex and Character is to emerge as if from a whirlwind: shaken, disturbed, but exhilarated by the precocity and absolute singularity of Weininger’s vision. It is difficult to think of another work that is, in equal parts, quite so clumsy, brilliant and repellent. The book is opaque. It is sometimes atrociously written (I have German friends who read passages aloud to themselves, so hilariously absurd do they find Weininger’s style and ideas). And yet there is something moving about Weininger’s struggle to turn what the philosopher Ray Monk has called his “bigotry and self-contempt” into a politics for living. As Chandak Sengoopta writes, in this fascinating study, Weininger planned, in his book, no less than “to analyse the differences between male and female from all perspectives—biological, cultural, metaphysical—and to base a…critique of modern civilisation on that analysis”.

Weininger believed that the self is a microcosm of the world, but that, at the same time, the empirical self, like the world, is an infinite mystery; that we can never know who we are in all our essential complexity. He believed, too, that all human beings are biologically bisexual, combining male and female characteristics, and he discusses men and women not as individuals, but as ideal, Platonic types. Woman, he says, is weak, illogical, amoral, instinctual, feeble-minded and obsessed with sex. Woman has no autonomous self. Man, by contrast, is rational, strong, moral, engaged with the world and “free from all fetters of necessity, and from all taints of the earth”.

Employing the rhetoric and ideas of science and medicine, Weininger further divides Woman into two archetypes: mother and whore. The prostitute, he writes, is motivated not by economic necessity, but by pure desire. She is no more than a sexual being, a monolith of desire. The mother is also a sexual being, but she uses sex as a means to an end—that of producing a child and uniting Man with Woman—whereas, for the prostitute (whom Weininger eccentrically defines as any woman with a recreational interest in sex), sex is an end in itself.

For Weininger, sex is an abomination: it locates Man in the world of the senses when the duty of every individual is, in fact, to transcend the merely empirical world as he seeks a higher love—the love of self. “In love, man is only loving himself. Not his empirical self, not the weakness and vulgarities, not the failings and smallnesses which he outwardly exhibits; but all that he wants to be, all that he ought to be, his truest, deepest, intelligible nature, free from all the fetters of necessity, from all taint of the earth.”

Weininger is a Kantian idealist. He sees the world of the senses—the world of appearances—as no more than a cruel distraction. What matters is noumena, the world that lies transcendentally beyond appearances, and also the contemplation of permanent generalities—goodness, truth, beauty. But only through renouncing transient pleasures—sex, the body, that which is most “feminine” or “Jewish” in our natures—can an individual find dignity, find the divine in himself. And the man most likely to achieve such an elevated state of grace is the genius—the Beethoven or Wagner—for whom life is a kind of duty to achieve all that his potential will allow.

The most female of men, he adds, is the cosmopolitan Jew, who, in his rootlessness and degeneracy, is “saturated in femininity”. (Weininger, who later converted to Protestantism, reminds us in a footnote of his own Jewish origins.) Christ was great because he “conquered in himself Judaism, the greatest negation, and created Christianity, the strongest affirmation and the most direct opposite of Judaism”. Hitler, an admirer, described Weininger as a “good Jew”, who “killed himself on the day when he realised that the Jew lives upon the decay of peoples”.

Was Weininger mad? Well, no one who met him could ever quite forget the strange intensity of his personality, or quite comprehend the mania of his ideas. Freud, after reading an early draft of Weininger’s thesis, recommended that he spend a decade gathering data to support his generalisations. “The world wants evidence, not thoughts,” he told him. (Freud later conceded that Weininger was blessed with a “touch of genius”, but thought that he was “sexually deranged” and that, “being a neurotic, he was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes”.) Weininger’s postdoctoral tutor, Frederich Jodl, who had urged his student to clarify his ideas, complained of how they had assumed “monstrous” forms in the published treatise, and that his “soul is a riddle to me”.

One suspects that Weininger was a riddle even to himself. He was an outstanding student at Vienna University, a talented linguist and rigorous conversationalist. “Otto was a passionate thinker,” one of his friends said, “the prototype of the thinker.” There has been speculation that Weininger’s peculiar views were rooted in childhood trauma, but there is no evidence to suggest that he was sexually abused. Nor is there any evidence that he ever had sexual relations with women, which has led some to conclude, inevitably, that he was a guilty homosexual.

Influenced by the anti-Semitic pamphlets of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s English son-in-law, Weininger declared, after a lonely period of intense study, that he was becoming interested in ethics and logic, which he saw as one and the same: “All of ethics is conceivable only along logical lines, and all of logic constitutes an ethical law.” So it is immoral, then, to think illogically—as if Weininger himself was a model of rational thought!

Nowadays, Weininger is ridiculed as being no more than a dangerous fanatic, but Sex and Character remains a compelling document of a disturbed age. As Monk explained in his marvellous biography of Wittgenstein, and this book reminds us, Weininger is worth reading because, as Sengoopta writes, some of “the most significant intellectual and cultural currents of the age ripple through his brief life”. Indeed, to read Weininger is to be confronted once again with that great crisis culture of Musil, Freud, Klee, Kraus and Schnitzler (on whose novella, Dream Story, the director Stanley Kubrick based his last film, Eyes Wide Shut). A culture that, in time, proved indeed to be the laboratory of world destruction.

Beautiful but damned

Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, by Scott Donaldson, John Murray, £25, 352pp
Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby, edited by James LW West, Cambridge University Press, £30, 192pp

April 8 2000 / The Guardian

Hating the mob

Diary of a man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen
East Germany: What Happened to the Silesians in 1945?, by Ursula Lange

March 6 2000 / New Statesman

“When I think of Adolf Hitler, nothing occurs to me.” Karl Kraus’s remark famously captured something of the dangerous emptiness of the Fuhrer, something of the hectoring, clownish little man that he was—an officious schoolmaster perhaps, promoted far beyond his abilities; or, as Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen memorably puts it in his diary of the Nazi years, the very “stereotype of the head waiter”.

Reck-Malleczewen was a Prussian aristocrat who spent much of his life in rural isolation on his Bavarian estate. His diary—published for the first time in Britain but widely known in Germany—covers the period from 1936 to February 1945, when, having refused a call-up, his elegant disdain for Nazism led to his being murdered at Dachau. It is a fascinating contribution to what is now a thriving sub-genre: Hitler studies—the source of a seemingly inexhaustible flow of new books, attracting in equal measure distinguished scholars, journalistic populists, revisionists, conspiracy theorists and innumerable paranoids and maniacs. Not a week passes but a new study thuds on to my desk, announcing its intention to anatomise, unmask, interpret or reflect on the Fuhrer. In short, to explain him; but not, mercifully, to revive him as George Steiner did in his novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A H, in which a group of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Hitler hiding out in a Peruvian jungle. They capture him but allow him one last long speech of clear-eyed self-justification.

So where will it all end? Well, in perpetuating mystery and incompleteness, I suspect, certainly if one learns from the experience of Ron Rosenbaum. In his recent book, Explaining Hitler (Macmillan), Rosenbaum met and interviewed the world’s leading authorities on Nazism only to conclude after more than 400 pages that, in fact, there is nothing to conclude: that Hitler remains resolutely inexplicable, unknowable, a monolith of contradictory motives. Joachim Fest understood something of this perplexing hollowness when he spoke of Hitler as being an “unperson”, a man without conscience, believing in nothing and no one, utterly bereft of any coherent sense of self. And yet this “unperson” compels and fascinates more than perhaps any other 20th-century figure. Steiner, interviewed by Rosenbaum, is still capable of speaking fervidly, as if approvingly, of Hitler’s courage as a soldier on the Western Front, and of his indisputably compelling presence. Albert Speer, as revealed by Gitta Sereny in her biography of th e architect, clearly loved the Fuhrer and continued to love him long after his death. Goebbels, on meeting the young Hitler for the first time, was so mesmerised that he wrote, comically, in his diary: “Is he John the Baptist? Is he Jesus?”

But Reck-Malleczewen was less impressed when he first encountered the “forelocked gypsy”. He was present when the young Hitler arrived at the house of his friend clemens von Franckenstein in 1920. He walked in wearing gaiters, a floppy wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a riding whip. “He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the army… The servants thought we were being attacked and rushed in to defend us. When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic.” At length, Franckenstein rose, crossed the room in silence and opened a window. The “fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.” Some Jesus indeed!

Diary of a Man in Despair abounds with moments of such startling clarity. To read the diary is to encounter a kind of German version of the late Tory Alan Clark—but Reck has better jokes and a more exquisite aesthetic sensibility. On visiting a spa town in southern Austria, for instance, Reck is alarmed by the smouldering proximity of the Balkans—where the sight of a “well-cut suit can stop the traffic”.

A cultural conservative, monarchist, snob and extreme pessimist, Reck is a man out of a time, at once listlessly estranged from German modernity and mournfully engaged with it. His prose has a superb hauteur and he addresses the world out of the absurd aristocracy of his background (he knows most of the big noble families in Germany and Austria, speaks fondly of meetings with the Habsburgs and with the deposed Wilhelm II). He despises industrialism, mass-man and the “termite-heap” society, Prussian militarism, the new “business German” spoken by the swarming hordes in Berlin, “processed food” and the petty bureaucrats of Nazism—“office managers before they began impersonating Genghis Khan”. But, above all, he despises AdolfHitler, whom he once sat next to in a near-deserted restaurant. Reck was armed. He could have murdered the man whose face he unforgettably describes as waggling with “unhealthy cushions of fat; it all hung, it was all slack and without structure—gelatinous, sick. There was no light in it, none of the shimmer and shining of a man sent by God. Instead, the face bore the stigma of sexual inadequacy, the rancour of a half-man who had turned his fury at his impotence into brutalising others. And through it all, this bovine and finally moronic roar of ‘Heil’.”

One hears, at such moments, echoes of the cultivated fury of the French nihilist Celine, of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and D H Lawrence. But Reck—unlike Celine and indeed the great Norwegian pessimist Knut Hamsun, who both embraced Nazism as a cleansing ideology of apocalyptic rebellion—was never attracted to National Socialism. In fact, he was repulsed by its vulgar hysterics; repulsed, unusually for one of his class, by its virulent anti-Semitism.

As his disgraced country stumbles towards total war, Reck is haunted by a sense of an ending. He finds the very air that he breathes “faded and mouldy”. He reads and rereads a passage from Dostoyevsky in which the end of the world is forecast. He begins to see death everywhere—in the bomb-ruined buildings of Munich; in the countryside where the Catholic farmers he respects continue working on the land with sombre resignation; and in the ghostly passageways of his own crumbling mansion. His diary even begins with the emblematic death of his friend Spengler, whose The Decline of the West resonates with Reck’s own worldview, as it did, for entirely different reasons, with the young Hitler’s, as he wandered the streets of cosmopolitan Vienna, inflamed by adolescent dreams of limitless achievement. But Spengler, dressed in his tweeds, has grown fat and bloated—the kind of man “who likes to eat alone, a melancholy-eyed feaster at a great orgy of eating”.

In a powerful sense, then, Reck’s own world of pastoral conservatism died long before he ever met Hitler, died even as Bismarck was unifying the nation under Prussian control and beginning the hard drive towards industrial prosperity. He longs for the lost past—for “the world of yesterday”—and thinks approvingly of his grandfather, a “reserved and cultured man who lived the contemplative life… and retired at 50 to spend his remaining years hunting and fishing in otium cum dignitate”. He contrasts the genuine conservatism of his grandfather with the sound and fury of mass-man, and he is frightened: “What I see coming is… the inevitable catastrophic finale to mass-thought, and thus to mass-man, which is in the making here and which now I see on the horizon in all its frightfulness and all its promise.

If Hitler studies have assumed the exaggerated dimension of a boom, the diaspora of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe remains one of the great unwritten narratives of the postwar period. As a result, an important book is still to be published in this country on the experience of the estimated 13 to 14 million Germans who were forcibly removed from their homes—ethnically cleansed, in the argot—in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Hitler.

German selfhood has long been defined by a cult of the Volk; it is an ethnic nationalism, rooted in a mystical sense of blood and soil—quite unlike Britishness, no more than a legal concept, founded on civic unity, a shared history and an uninterrupted attachment to a given territory. As the Nazis pushed east in the name of the Volk and in search of Lebensraum, they resorted to mass deportation, upheavals and slave labour; and the Soviet forces used similar tactics as they began their counter-offensive after Stalingrad. The eventual result was the dislocation and expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans, scattered throughout the Soviet empire, central and eastern Europe: the largest single refugee movement in European history, but one now either largely ignored or forgotten altogether.

East Germany is an admirable book, a work of oral history from an enterprising independent press, telling the story of these expulsions from the perspective of the Silesians who, like the east Prussian, Pomeranians and Sudetenland Germans, were cleansed from their homes in 1945 as the borders of Poland were lifted as casually as a rope and shifted westward. As a young woman, the editor, Ursula Lange, fell in love with and married a Silesian refugee. She became interested in his story and those of his friends. This book, soft-edged with melancholy, is a testament to her diligence and curiosity, even if her grief at what happened to the lost Germans of Europe, who endured an “elimination of even the simplest human rights in the middle of civilised Europe without precedence within the last two thousand years”, is not once counterposed by a wider acceptance of historical German complicity.

In his darkest moments, slipping rancorously into despair at the end of the 1930s, Reck-Malleczewen knew what lay ahead for his people and for their enemies. He thought he knew, too, that the coming world war would signal the “end of an epoch in which rationalisation was dominant, and the legacy of which—assuming that the planet is still capable of regeneration—will be a new model of life based on the non-rational”. Although he was prescient about much, he was wrong about the future of Germany, which has evolved into a model of benign rationality. But how he would have hated the banality of our mass consumer culture.

Stolen identity

My German Question: growing up in Nazi Berlin, by Peter Gay, Yale University Press, 208pp, £16.50

January 24 2000 / New Statesman

Hitler's Vienna

Hitler’s Vienna, by Brigitte Hamann, OUP, 482 pp, £20

April 26 1999 / New Statesman

When Adolf Hitler left provincial Linz in late adolescence there was only one place to go: Habsburg Vienna, the great imperial city. But the crowded streets of Vienna through which he wandered as a destitute young artist were dark with shadows of change and threat.

Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1907, leaving for Munich in 1913, a period when the Austro-Hungarian empire was unravelling, its disparate peoples inflamed by incipient nationalism. Everyone, it seemed, was in revolt against the long-nurtured assimilationist, multinational ideals of Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria since 1848 and king of Hungary since 1867. The romantic nationalism of the pan-Germans, in particular, led by Georg von Schonerer, had drawn support. Dr Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna, was using his considerable gifts as an orator to scourge Slav emigration and Jews. The Zionist movement, recently founded, was vocal and committed. The Balkans, meanwhile, gently seethed, like a geyser waiting to erupt.

Political turmoil was paralleled by a different kind of turmoil in the arts. Artistic-intellectual fin-de-siecle Vienna was a world of radical innovation- the world of Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Schoenberg and the architect Adolf Loos. But this wasn’t Hitler’s Vienna, as Brigitte Hamann shows in her superb new study. Rather, Hitler’s Vienna was a city of the “little” people, insurgent on all fronts, a city of the disadvantaged, of the hungry and homeless, of poverty, isolation and threat. The people among whom Hitler mingled were unsettled by Viennese modernity. They viewed the new modernist cultural order as “degenerate”, too cosmopolitan and libertine, too “Jewish”- a dire symptom of fragmentation and decay.

Degeneracy was everywhere apparent in Hitler’s Vienna, its manifestation identified in anything from the emancipation of women to expressions of Jewish self-hatred. “We are now fully infected by serious popular mental illness, a sort of black plague for degeneration and hysteria,” wrote Max Nordau, a German-speaking Jew from Hungary. “The degenerates babble and stammer instead of talking…They draw and paint like children who with useless hands dirty tables and walls. They make music like the yellow people in East Asia. They mix together all artistic genres.”

George Steiner, reviewing the German edition of Hamann’s book last year, likened the young Hitler to the narrator of Knut Hamsun’s great debut novel Hunger (1889). The comparison is instructive. The young Hitler, like Hamsun’s narrator, was morbidly introspective and isolated, although utterly convinced of his talent. Like the narrator, Hitler came from the provinces to wander the streets of the metropolis in search of high culture, a lonely, ostracised figure, a fanatic of perpetual indignation for whom social intercourse was a tiresome impossibility. His friend Gustl Kubizek, with whom he shared a room in 1908, recalled how Hitler would bully him with speech. Hitler, like the narrator, was a failed artist, an aspirant painter and architect who was rejected by the Academy for Visual Arts, the summit of all his youthful ambitions.

Having been rejected from the academy, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “Downcast, I left von Hamsun’s magnificent building on the Schillerplatz [the academy building], for the first time in my young life at odds with myself.” He knew then that if he was to progress it would be as an “auto-didact”. And so began his restless years of street wandering, of buying cheap tickets for the opera (he was obsessed with Wagner), watching the debates in parliament, where politicians addressed one another in a Babel of languages, studying architecture, writing into the night and sleeping late, consumed by a will to greatness.

At this stage, he lived in cheap accommodation, in shelters, bedsits and hostels, mingling with the outcast of the city. He cultivated the role of neurotic outsider and his sustenance was a kind of wounded contempt, as he grappled with what he called his “struggle for survival in Vienna” and his “constant unappeasable hunger”.

What prevented Hitler from progressing as an artist was not his lowly status, nor any kind of establishment conspiracy, but a fundamental lack of talent. His drawings - hurriedly produced and sold so that he might eat - were at best mediocre, as he himself acknowledged when, as Fuhrer, they were being valued at outlandish prices. And yet, Hitler had talent, a diabolical, world-transforming talent: a talent to exploit, organise and inflame mass man.

With discipline and diligence to primary sources, Hamann shows how he came first to accommodate himself with, and then to harness, his talent; she offers a portrait of real complexity, of a young man for whom life was perceived as a kind of mystical quest, a quest for supreme self, assertion that found its ultimate expression in a messianic pan-German nationalism that flowed like an ocean into the spaces left behind by the disintegrating Habsburg empire.

Hamann works hard to dispel many of the false assumptions regarding Hitler’s youth: that he had Jewish antecedents; that he was an anti-Semite from the moment he arrived in Vienna (he had several Jewish friends); that he abandoned his mother as she lay dying alone at the age of 46 (in fact, he was a caring son and returned from Vienna to nurse his mother, whose doctor said that he had never seen anyone “as prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler”); that Jewish academics played apart in his rejection from art school.

Nazism, although utterly a product of the time, was an extraordinarily flexible, inclusive, DIY, perhaps uniquely Austrian ideology. By recreating the atmosphere of the last days of imperial Vienna, Hamann shows how Hitler became a kind of ideological kleptomaniac, stealing ideas from the pan-Germans, Teutonic supremacists and the Schonerians, from Nordic myths and old Germanic history, from folkish race theoreticians such as Guido von List and the English-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain (with their ideas of Aryan supremacy) and misappropriating Otto Weininger, Nietzsche and assorted others. But without the Great War, she argues, without Hitler’s experiences of the trenches and the subsequent humiliation of Versailles, he would never have been galvanised into apocalyptic rebellion.

Hamann shows that Hitler’s one trick of evil brilliance - his essential difference from other pan-German fanatics such as yon Schonerer - was not to have numerous enemies but one central, unifying enemy: the Jews, the diabolical Other on to whom the agitated “little” people could project their deepest fears and loathing. She seldom slips into a tone of condemnatory didacticism; like a good reporter, she shows, but never prescribes. And she understands, too, that Hitler’s Vienna, that her Vienna, which she animates so vividly in its multi-ethnic diversity, will for ever more be a Vienna of the imagination, a make-believe city whose teeming streets are clamorously alive with the rough collision of Magyars, Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, gypsies, Romanians, Poles, Italians, Germans, Czechs, Ruthenians and, above all, with Jews. It’s all long gone now.

Murdered promise

The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, by Jerzy Ficowski (editor), Picador, 582pp, £50

February 12 1999 / New Statesman

To read the fiction and correspondence of Bruno Schulz, knowing that he was murdered by the Nazis, is a bit like watching footage of passengers board a plane that later crashed: you long to warn him of the dangers ahead. As a Polish-speaking Jew in a largely Catholic country and an avant-garde artist living impecuniously in the provinces of eastern Galicia, Schulz felt intensely isolated for much of his life. He worked as an art teacher in Drohobycz, supporting his extended family, and he was part of no community of artists or metropolitan networks; he seldom left his shtetl, travelling occasionally to Warsaw and once to Paris. Like Kafka, whom he translated and whose story Metamorphosis he evidently read carefully, he never married. He was not published until he was 40.

His letters are palpable with the dread of extinction, of metaphorical disappearances; he feared that his work would never find a readership. “I need a friend. I need the closeness of a kindred spirit. I want some affirmation of the inner world whose existence I postulate.” When the end came, it was quick and brutal: visiting the “Aryan” quarter of the Drohobycz ghetto on a privileged pass, in November 1942, he was stopped and shot by a bored Gestapo officer. One bullet. Gone. A great lost talent.

With Schulz died not only what the American-Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick has called one of the most “original literary imaginations of modern Europe”, but much of his unpublished literary work, including his only completed novel, The Messiah, his diaries and many of his letters. Jerzy Ficowski, editor of this book, has travelled for years in search of the scattered fragments of Schulz’s oeuvre, a tireless sleuth seeking to redeem the senselessness of his death. Ficowski, who found 200 drawings and works of graphic art on his travels through the ashen landscape of postwar central Europe, was tantalised by the notion that The Messiah may one day be discovered to take its place in the canon of 20th-century literature. Yet, in a way, the novel already exists: its presence has long been felt even in its absence - Ozick has written of its supposed discovery in her novel The Messiah of Stockholm, and the Israeli novelist David Grossman once met a Pole who claimed that Schulz had shown him the opening line of The Messiah: “Morning light rises over a city; a certain light, towers.” I wonder.

It is hard to think of a more hysterically imagined work than The Street of Crocodiles, the themed collection of stories (or episodes), published in 1934 when Schulz was 40. The verbal landscape of this fictional memoir of childhood is restlessly, at times tiresomely, inventive. The young boy-narrator’s house is dominated by the presence of his sick, bearded father, a shopkeeper who gives up work and takes to mooning around, a withered presence living on the edges of the family’s life (sometimes he disappears for days into the dark places of the house).

The narrator watches his father as “point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community”. Schulz, like Kafka, is obsessed with metamorphic fantasies and by the father as monster, as the Great Magician, the Heresiarch. In the boy’s overheated imagination his father is transformed into grotesque, phantasmagoric shapes, his textile shop becomes a forest of lust and intrigue, and even innocent birds from his father’s aviary are imbued with menace.

The prose strains for metaphorical surprise: the narrator meets a woman whose “face works like the bellows of an accordion”; his father’s face dissolves into a “thoughtful net of wrinkles”; salesgirls have skin “like grey parchment”. In one scene, the father becomes, not a beetle as in Kafka, but a cockroach after the boy sees him late one night crawling naked across the floor. “He moved with the many-limbed, complicated movements of a strange ritual in which I recognised with horror an imitation of the ceremonial crawl of a cockroach.”

Schulz’s Drohobycz is an enchanted city of the imagination, a place of “make-believe streets”, and his stories are a kind of extended secular rapture: he deifies his family and fetishises the objects of daily life. Of his own style, he once wrote that he was a “parasite of metaphors . . . carried away by the first simile that comes along”. At times, his struggle to remake the world in language - his restless quest for aesthetic surprise - can result in ungainly, clotted sentences, and in moments of unintentional hilarity, as when he writes of passing cyclists in the village: “They must have felt it themselves when, hanging like spiders among the delicate machinery, straddled on their pedals like great jumping frogs, they performed duck-like movements above the wide turning wheels.” Can you imagine how such people might look?

At the end of 1938, when Bruno Schulz returned from his only foreign trip, to Paris, he announced that he despaired of ever “crossing the borders of the Polish language”. Four years later his murder seemed to have confirmed the fatalism of his declaration. And yet this magnificent Picador edition of his collected works, with its many pages of Schulz’s own tormented, sexually bizarre drawings and illustrations, as well as his essays and letters, triumphantly proves, in Philip Larkin’s line from “An Arundel Tomb”, that “Our almost instinct - almost true/ What will survive of us is love.”


Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape

September 19 1998 / The Times

Ian McEwan is a dualist: he divides the world into conflicting opposites and makes fiction from the sparks thrown up by their collision. His work thrives on dichotomies and dilemmas: the clash between science and unreason, between rationalism and belief, between public and private. He creates dramas out of accidental occurrences: the disappearance of a young child from a supermarket (The Child in Time , 1987); a ballooning accident in Oxfordshire (Enduring Love , 1998); the sudden appearance of menacing hounds (Black Dogs , 1992).

For McEwan life is a kind of disaster area where random events destabilise even the most ordered existences. In Amsterdam , his sly and absorbing novella, the drama pivots on the discovery of lurid photographs of a right-wing foreign secretary dressed up as a woman. The editor of a struggling broadsheet newspaper buys the photographs of the foreign secretary, an old friend whom he privately despises. Publication, he reasons, will have a dual effect: increase circulation of his newspaper and ruin the politician.

The editor’s actions are denounced by another friend, a self-savouring composer called Clive Linley, who himself is morally compromised when he witnesses the attack of a woman in the Lake District but, comically absorbed by his own “inner-music”, fails to intervene. So we have the ethical conflict - one situation echoing and informing the other - on which the fiction turns.

Amsterdam , like Enduring Love , is written against the template of a thriller; and like all McEwan’s work it has a superb readability. It is also very funny, the final macabre scene, which takes place in Amsterdam, especially so. If there is a weakness it lies in an over-determined, schematic structure - perhaps inevitable in such a short, driven work. Why, for instance, must Linley witness a rape as soon as he visits the Lakes? The event does not emerge organically but seems entirely a function of plot: once Linley leaves London you expect something sinister to happen and sure enough it does. I have walked in the Lakes on countless occasions, yet the most frightening thing I have ever seen was the reflection of my own orange kagoule in a fast-moving stream.

Still, McEwan writes well about newspaper offices (unlike, say, Julian Barnes whose new novel, England, England , full of worthless hacks, seldom rises above heavy-handed caricature). He understands how the proprietorial pressure to impress not just readers but also your peers - by being, in short, first with interviews and stories - compromises and demeans editors, forcing them into morally duplicitous situations. He writes, too, with acute psychological insight about adult friendship, about how so many of us are, like Clive Linley, no more than monoliths of motive: absorbed in our own petty quests for self-fulfilment, quests which can render old friendships as dust.

Ian McEwan is a miniaturist: he shrinks where others enlarge. His work is at its best when at its shortest, when his imaginative brio is most tightly concentrated. His first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), had a gruesome originality: experimental work about murder, molestation and incest, stories about lonely sadists, paedophiles and castration. Re-reading these stories you are struck not so much by the content as by the authenticity of the narrative voice. From the start McEwan had his own voice, his own a skewed signature. His mature work may lack the urgency and verbal exuberance of First Love, Last Rites , but his voice and plain, staccato style remain absolutely characteristic. And he still retains a capacity for aesthetic surprise. It is hard to think of a more impressive opening to a novel than the first chapter of Enduring Love , where the chance meeting of two men at the scene of an accident prefigures disasters.

What impresses, in the end, is McEwan’s willingness to grapple with modernity. There is very little about the modern world that does not interest him, from science to politics to musicology. Yet the demand of writing about the way we live today is freighted with difficulty, perhaps because we are so conscious of the world around us changing. No sooner have we attempted to represent our contemporary experience than the picture has altered.

Yet McEwan, almost alone among modern British writers, continues to dissect contemporary morality with the ruthlessness of a child pulling the wings off a butterfly. He knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it. There are not many writers of whom that is true.