- Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution. It was published in 1992 and is the template for her books about Thomas Cromwell: character and research-based novelisation of pivotal yet complex historic events
- I think it’s better than Wolf Hall. Actually, I think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly I didn’t think this when I first read it which was about ten years ago. It’s a long, dense book: maybe I needed to read it twice? But, also, the reviews were quite cool when it was first published. Perhaps it was before its time and the success of the Cromwell books has retrospectively canonised it, somehow?
- Or, because the technique is modern but the literary approach is 19th century? The book isn’t about a cryptic fragmented post-modern hypothesis, as was rather fashionable in the 90s; instead it’s about what it is about: the experience of being one of the central conspirators in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
- Mantel doesn’t have a grand theory of history she’s trying to sell. In the book Robspierre anticipates Marx and argues to his friend Camille Desmoulins that the revolution would have happened without them, and their co-conspirator Danton. Economic and class forces do play a role. But so do whims, geopolitics, friendships, rivalries, romances and random chance. Individuals rise to power and are poised to take the revolution in one direction, but then they’re struck down by their enemies, or ill health, and someone else takes over and history veers off in another direction entirely. History, according to Mantel, is chaos.
- I don’t know that much about the French Revolution. There isn’t a good English language history of it (so far as I know). I was struck by how many of the incidental characters are still famous ~225 years later. Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette, of course. Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liasons, is a calculating royalist agent. John-Paul Marat appears periodically to present sound logical reasons for the Revolution to murder all its enemies. The painter David apotheosises him after he is killed in his bath. Citizen de Sade (formerly a Marquis) makes an appearance. A heroic young artillery officer called Buonaparte is mentioned towards the end. Heady times.
- It is one of the best books about politics. Mantel is very interested in the figures behind the development of the modern nation state and the immense power – for good and evil – of bureaucratic government. She is an expert on conspiracies, the power of journalism, demagoguery and transactional politics.
- The title is a (a) a reference to the murderous ‘Committee for Public Safety’ which is my favourite sinister euphemism for a dictatorship ever, and (b) an ironic comment by Camille Desmoulins: the brutal reality of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics forces the central characters to accept that to ensure their own personal safety they have to murder their enemies. And since almost everyone else with any power is a potential enemy, to keep themselves safe they’re forced into an endless cycle of paranoia, denunciations and liquidations. Trying to reach ‘a place of greater safety’ dooms them all.
- Happy days
September 29, 2015
June 16, 2015
- I’ve been meaning to read this for years.
- The opening line is one of the most famous in New Zealand literature: ‘The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.’
- But it is a bit of a bait-and-switch. The book is mostly a tragi-comic, rather earthy coming-of-age story, mixed with domestic farce and comic sketches of provincial New Zealand life during the depression (Morrieson spent his life in Hawera). The gothic/thriller elements are minimal.
- Which is a shame because those are the best things about the book. Some of the comic writing has dated well but most of it hasn’t, and Morrieson has a very limited repertoire. The Scarecrow is a short book but by the six-or-seventh lengthy dialogue between drunken halfwits – all written in dialect – it is no longer even slightly funny.
- The book is weirdly similar to It by Stephen King: the small town setting; the heroes who are outcasts and misfits; the dual antagonists are a gang of young bullies and a shadowy killer; even the themes and narrative style are comparable. And the head bully’s name – Victor Lynch – is a very Stephen King name. Probably just a coincidence – King is a well-read guy but I still kind-of doubt he read The Scarecrow.
- Morrieson’s writing was unrecognised during his life but celebrated – in New Zealand at least – after his death, a fate he anticipated and dreaded. Both judgments feel right to me. He has all the skills and talent of a great writer and that’s worth acknowledging, but he never managed to produce a great book.
February 16, 2015
From Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s book about his friendship with V S Naipaul:
There was a story I never asked Vidia to verify – didn’t dare ask, because I wanted it to be true. If it was not true, it ought to have been.
Ved Mehta is a distinguished Indian writer. Vidia knew of him. Speaking of The New Yorker once, how under the editorship of William Shawn he could not interest the magazine in his writing, Vidia said, “Of course, they already have a tame Indian.”
Ved Mehta is also famously blind. A certain New Yorker doubted his blindness. Seeing Mehta at a New York party, speaking to a group of attentive people, holding court, the man decided to test it. He had always been skeptical that Mehta was totally blind, since in his writing he minutely described people’s faces and wrote about the nuances of color and texture with elaborate subtlety, making precise distinctions.
The man crept over to where Mehta was sitting, and as the writer continued to speak, the doubting man began making faces at him. He leaned over and waved his hands at Ved Mehta’s eyes. He thumbed his nose at Ved Mehta. He wagged his fingers in Ved Mehta’s face.
Still, Mehta went on speaking, calmly and in perfectly enunciated sentences, never faltering in his expansive monologue.
The man made a last attempt: he put his own face a foot away and stuck his tongue out. But Mehta spoke without pause, as if the man did not exist.
Realizing how wrong he had been, the man felt uncomfortable and wanted to go home. Leaving the party, he said to the hostess, “I had always thought Ved Mehta was faking his blindness, or at least exaggerating. I am now convinced that Ved Mehta is blind.”
“That’s not Ved Mehta,” the hostess said. “It’s V.S. Naipaul.”
February 10, 2015
- I went into Man Alone with the preconceived notion that it was a celebration of stoic kiwi masculinity, and it turned out to be the exact opposite. I knew that Grace’s Potiki was about a marae locked into conflict with a property developer, so I went in expecting a postcolonial version of a ‘Little Battler’ story. Then I read the prologue which is a very brief, beautiful story about the life of a wood carver and I thought that Grace was going to thwart my expectations.
- She did and she didn’t. The plot of Potiki is painfully cliched. A materially poor but spiritually rich family living on a coastal marae fight off the predations of an evil, murderous drug-dealing super-capitalist property-developer who wants to knock down their meeting house and dig up their graveyard to build a road to his new aquarium. But the plot is just there as a means for Grace to make her statements about the past, present and future of Maori culture and Maori society. As an insight into Maori attitudes towards the land and its appropriation it is pretty much canonical. No one will ever put it as eloquently as Grace does here.
- Plenty of writers write books they want to read. Before she wrote Potiki Patricia Grace was a teacher in both primary and secondary schools around New Zealand, and I suspect that she wrote a book that she wanted to teach. I also suspect she mostly had Maori teachers in mind, teaching Potiki to Maori students but the book is now a standard text in New Zealand secondary schools.
- Maybe I’m wrong about the authors intention, but reading Potiki feels like homework. It’s beautifully written and very, very worthy, but I always felt like I’d eventually have to answer questions about it in an exam. Describe in your own words, using examples from the text, why Uncle Stan refused to sell the warenui to Dollarman.
- It’s not much fun, partly because of the homework vibe. But there’s a deeper problem. One of the basic components of story-telling is that things are not as they seem. Heroes turn out to be flawed. Villains have secret plans. But in Potiki everything is exactly as it seems. The heroes are unambiguously good. The property-developer is utterly evil. Stuff happens, but not in an interesting way.
- You could say that this stark good vs evil depiction simply reflects the lived experience of Patricia Grace and the wider Maori perspective. That there was no moral ambiguity about property confiscation and the Maori struggle to win back or keep their land. And that’d be true, but truth doesn’t necessarily make for good literary fiction. You could also say that Grace isn’t writing literary fiction in the western sense: instead she’s writing a myth using the forms of her own tradition but in a modern, political context. That’s fine too, but ‘modern political myth’ is really just a euphemism for propaganda. I’m not criticizing Grace for writing her book the way she did – it was a vital counterbalance – just explaining why I didn’t enjoy reading it.
- It is an interesting insight into how a Maori intellectual and artist saw the future of her people in the time before the Waitangi Tribunal became a force for meaningful change, and the growth of (some) iwi as major forces in the New Zealand economy. Grace’s vision for Maori was one of communal subsistence farming. She’s very scathing about the idea of Maori being involved in the tourist economy.
- It was an unusual reading experience for me because Patricia Grace lives in Plimmerton, and the book is clearly set in the reserve in Hongoeka Bay (my copy of the book shows the bay on its front cover), and I grew up in Plimmerton during the period in which the book is set. So it feels a bit like my childhood friends and I are always hanging out at the periphery of the story. Some of the characters go to school, and I wondered if they sat at the desk beside mine. But I think it says something about the segregated nature of New Zealand back in the 1980s and 90s that I didn’t know, and don’t recall anyone ever mentioning that a major New Zealand novel had been published that was set in our tiny seaside community.
- I might be wrong, but I don’t think anyone ever tried to build an aquarium and five-star hotel in Hongoeka Bay. As I recall – and my memory is vague – the marae’s dispute was with the quarry adjacent to it. The quarry wanted to expand, widen the road and so on, but it turned out they didn’t have a resource consent to operate there and when it became obvious to the owners that obtaining consent would be difficult, and very expensive they closed down. I walked around the coast from Pukerua Bay to Plimmerton over the summer, and most of the traces of the quarry – the stagnant pools, piles of rubble, deep gouges out of the cliffs – have been covered with new growth of native bush. And gorse.
- Most of the early analysis of Potiki talks about Grace’s use of untranslated te reo at key points in the text and the absence of a glossary. It was a daring, provocative thing to do at the time, and back then it had the effect of dis-empowering pakeha readers who couldn’t understand it. Now someone as oblivious to tikanga-Maori as I am can read and understand Potiki with little trouble.
January 20, 2015
1. The Cult of Business.
Gordon Campbell has a post up about the similarities between John Key and David Cameron, and it touches on the issue of what these people actually believe in.
Robert Muldoon too, used to think that his own political instincts were always somehow mystically in sync with the mood and the tolerance levels of the nation. (In his last interview before his 1984 defeat, Muldoon told me that he had this innate ability to know New Zealanders, even though he hadn’t walked down Lambton Quay for over a decade, nor shopped for clothes in an actual shop for years – “ They bring in some shirts and I choose.”) With Key and Cameron, it is a far more conscious process, aided by focus groups. In both cases, being ever-willing to shift ground in order to perpetuate themselves in power is what passes for a political philosophy :
I was thinking about this very issue a bit over the summer. What does the right believe? I feel like the core beliefs have shifted in the wake of the GFC, but to what?
My theory is that contemporary right-wing thought has moved on from ‘neo-liberalism’ and its attendant belief in the magical power of free markets or the panacea of economic growth. What they believe in now is ‘business’, in much the same way that early Christianity transferred its system of belief from the mysticism of the Gospels and the coming Kingdom of Heaven to the temporal supremacy of the Church, and Communist intellectuals transferred their belief in dialectical materialism to the primacy and infallibility of ‘The Party’. Right-wing intellectual thought, such as it is, is focused on the primacy and infallibility of ‘business’ and the wisdom and needs of the private sector. So we have politicians like John Key and Steven Joyce, who are themselves revered as ‘business’ (ironically, every time they sit down to do a deal with the private sector they get comprehensively beaten at vast expense to the taxpayer) and who have no ideological problem with picking winners or extensive interference in the market, or just giving state money away to private companies. The free market isn’t important. Business is important. The state can intervene in the economy – massively – but at the service of business. Ideally it should be in partnership with business or, failing that, managed by someone from the private sector ideally a membership of the modern post-capitalist priesthood, our versions of the college of Cardinals, or the politburo: a ‘business-leader’.
Here’s a silly but – I think, telling – example: When Grant Robertson was announced as Labour’s Finance Spokesperson, various National-Party and ACT people scoffed at the appointment. Robertson has no private-sector experience. He wouldn’t win the respect of ‘business’. I pointed out on twitter that Bill English doesn’t have private-sector experience either: he was a Treasury analyst and then a politician. A National Party organiser quickly corrected me. English had worked on his parent’s farm in Dipton. Private sector! Which sounds absurd, because Robertson ran the Prime Minister’s Office, which – to me at least – is slightly more impressive and more of a qualification for being a senior Minister. But if the mystical properties of the private sector are at the core of your belief system then obviously English’s experience has blessed him in a way that Robertson’s has not. To an atheist the difference between someone claiming to be a bishop in the Catholic Church, and one who has actually been consecrated via apostolic succession is meaningless. To a believer it is everything.
So here’s a solid prediction based on this hypothesis: Paula Bennett will never be the leader of the National Party. She’s not ‘business’.
2. Nostalgia, mid-point Generation X literature and generational attitudes to climate change.
A few of the novels I’ve read recently (The Marriage Plot, Wolf in White Van, The Interestings) have been set in the 1980s, or indulged in a little nostalgia for 1980s youth culture. Up until now, whenever I’ve read a novel dealing with childhood nostalgia it’s almost always been a boomer author pining for the 1950s and 60s, but Gen-X authors are now of an age when they’re looking back to their/our own youth.
Nothing wrong with that. But one of the features of growing up in the 80’s I really don’t miss is the Cold War and perennial threat of nuclear apocalypse. I don’t remember how old I was when I learned about the possibility of nuclear war. I do remember that whenever the electricity went out I always checked to see if my digital watch was still working. I knew that the EMP of a nuclear blast would disable my watch, so if I could still tell time then a nuclear war probably hadn’t broken out. Maybe I worried about these things a little more than most kids, but everyone was aware of it.
And then the Cold War just ended. The Warsaw Pact collapsed and the looming threat of global annihilation suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Which was awesome, but I do wonder if it impacts on generational attitudes towards climate change. Do most people of my generation and older sub-consciously equate the slow motion catastrophe of climate change with the threat of nuclear war and just sort of hope that climate change will painlessly vanish as a problem, somehow, the same way thermonuclear war did?
January 13, 2015
I like this essay by Teju Cole on the issues around Charlie Hebdo and free speech. Also, this piece by Laura Miller questioning whether the critics describing Charlie Hedbo as racist know what they’re talking about. This problem occurred to me yesterday when a bunch of people I know linked approvingly to this column critical of Charlie Hebdo, explaining why its cartoons were racist and offensive, which included this point:
I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover
The ‘self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet ‘ referred to here is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t know a lot about French satire but I do know that this is a dubious way to describe a guy who is arguably the most acclaimed novelist in contemporary French literature, whose last book was a parody of a thriller in which a psychopath gruesomely murdered Houellebecq himself (which won the Goncourt award, the French equivalent of the Booker Prize). His new book Soumission does imagine a France surrendering to Islam. But, via the Guardian’s review:
Some in France have already complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, but that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply mischievous point. Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues, the novel gleefully points out, really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to “traditional” or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband – just as “Islam” means that a Muslim submits to God.
But Soumission is, arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise. François himself happily submits to the new order, not for any grand philosophical or religious reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay much better – and, more importantly, he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envious fantasy, of his charismatic new boss, who has adroitly converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things … no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”
The novel ends in an almost science-fictional conditional mood, with François looking forward dreamily to his own conversion and a future of endless sensual gratification.
Houellebecq’s previous book was called The Map and the Territory, which is ironic because him and a lot of what’s happening in France are now subject to a classic map-territory problem: we’re confusing descriptions of what’s happening for the events themselves. It’s a reminder that the pundits confidently translating French (and Islamic) culture for us so they can tell us what to think about it all don’t necessarily have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.
January 11, 2015
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Sci-fi novel in the space opera tradition which swept all the major sci-fi awards last year and is, I think, the first book to do so. All the critics are comparing her to Ian M Banks, or ‘the successor to Banks’, and that’s fair enough, but I also think there’s a lot of Ursula Le Guin’s influence in there (most of the characters are members of an ungendered humanoid race). Highly recommended. My only criticism is that in sci-fi/fantasy books with exotic character names I find it really hard to keep track of everyone.
American Prometheus by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird: A biography of Robert Oppenheimer. The science writing isn’t as good as I’d like. (The gold standard of science biographies is, for me, James Glieck’s book about Feynman). If you don’t already know a lot about quantum physics then the story of Oppenheimer’s contributions to it won’t mean much. The sections on Los Alamos are excellent. I’ve wanted to read a good nonfiction account of the Manhattan Project for a long time and this was it. Oppenheimer was under FBI surveillance for much of his adult life, and his biographers had access to the FBI archives, so the level of insight they have into their subject is almost unprecedented. This could be an unexpected side-effect of the modern surveillance state: our ancestors will get really kick-ass biographies.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: My wife enjoyed it. I started but didn’t finish it. I didn’t like Atkinson’s superior, sneering attitude towards her characters, which the reader is supposed to share. Also I’m really sick of British writers writing about World War II.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: Not for everyone but I loved it. NYT review here. If you describe the book in terms of plot it sounds banal and weird, but it’s an example of how clever story-telling and great prose can transform something simple into something dark and complex and brilliant.
The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère: Carrère wrote a biography of Phillip K Dick called I am alive and you are dead. It’s my favorite literary biography; I’ve reread it a few times and always felt bad for the author that this book wasn’t better known, and that he hadn’t made it as a writer (because if he’d published more books I would have heard of them, right?) Then I stumbled across this Paris Review interview with Carrère and learned that he’s one of the superstars of contemporary French literature. (I assumed he was a Hispanic writer working in the US.) Anyway, The Adversary is his best-selling true crime novel. It is amazing. I’m going to read everything else he’s written.
October 29, 2014
- My friend James gave his maiden speech in Parliament yesterday!
- I’ve just finished reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Half-way through I was describing it to friends as one of my favorite books ever. One of the odd, quirky things about it was a minor character called Leonard who was obviously a deft little sketch of David Foster-Wallace. Then in the second half of the book Leonard becomes a main character and the book turns into a study of Leonard’s depression, and the fact that David Foster-Wallace is shuffling around inside this novel is just really weird and uncomfortable.
- Here’s a point I meant to make before i went on hiatus. Here’s the aggregated polling for the Internet-Mana Party.
- So. The Internet Party and the Mana Party merged in May. They were trending upwards in the polls until August when they slumped. What happened in August? A few things – it was a crazy campaign – but the big events for Internet/Mana were the ‘Fuck John Key’ video and Pam Corkery’s on camera meltdown. My post-hoc hypothesis is that those events were terribly damaging for Internet/Mana. But when those events happened the conventional wisdom among on-line activists (on my twitter feed, the comments of my blog, places like Public Address System, see also many posts on The Daily Blog, like this one) is these events were great for Internet/Mana. They were ‘disruptors’, and although these things might have upset mainstream New Zealand, that didn’t matter because Internet/Mana appealed to radicals and the disenfranchised, and they’d love this stuff, which was tapping into this deep vein of anger among the youth of the nation.
- And, at the time, that sounded plausible to me. After all, Internet/Mana was a radical party. It turned out to be totally wrong though, so it’s worth bearing in mind that most of the left-wing commentariat aren’t just out of touch with mainstream New Zealand, they’re also out of touch with radical left-wing New Zealand. Something I think left-wing MPs and their staffers need to bear in mind when they’re being howled at by these folks on twitter all day.
May 18, 2014
I read the introduction to Piketty last night, then dreamed that my computer stopped working because – it claimed – it was contributing to the aggregate increase in the rate of return on capital over economic growth. I do not remember how the dream ended.
I will write more about the actual book later. But I’ve been interested in the debate in the economics blogosphere. Left-wing economists all seem to think Pikety is right and right-wing economists all seem to think he’s wrong. (I would note that the objections I’ve heard from some on the right: ‘Piketty disregards the decline of inequality between nations, cf the development of China,’ or ‘Pikety disregards the ability of education and skills transfer to reduce inequality,’ seem to be issues Piketty addresses in the introduction to his book. Maybe there are more substantive critiques out there?).
Anyway, my point is that the question Piketty asks is important: does capitalism reduce or increase inequality over time? He reckons it increases inequality, left-wing economists agree with him; right-wing economists reckon he’s wrong. What are non-economists supposed to make of a discipline that splits along partisan lines over a fundamental empirical question?
April 15, 2014
Donna Tartt’s new book won the Pulitzer Prize today. Lots of people loved this book – and if you’re into beautiful prose there is a lot to love. But the story-telling really bugged me, and the event of it winning a major literary award seemed like a good time to whine about it. (Warning: contains spoilers that spoil the entire plot).
First let me talk about great story-telling. There’s a scene I love in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s in the first third: John Travolta and Uma Thurman have just finished their date, won their dance contest and gone back to Uma’s place where they share a romantic moment. Then John Travolta goes into the bathroom.
Because we’ve all seen a thousand genre movies the audience thinks they know what’s about to happen. Travolta will come out of the bathroom and he and Uma will have sex. Travolta and Thurman will fall in love. Thurman’s boss, a vicious, jealous crime lord will find out, and the rest of the movie will be about how this drama plays itself out, presumably involving the mysterious glowing contents of the suitcase we saw at the beginning of the movie. Everything that’s happened in the movie so-far seems to have set up this narrative.
But all the audience’s expectations are completely wrong. Instead Thurman helps herself to drugs she find’s in Travolta’s jacket, overdoses and Travolta takes her to his drug-dealers house and injects her heart with adrenaline. One of the reasons this scene plays out so well is that we’re off the road-map. The viewer has no idea what’s going to happen. And all of this – the drugs, the drug dealer etc – has also been set up previously in the movie, but done so slyly that we never suspected they were plot devices.
Tartt tries to do something similar in The Goldfinch. The main character Theo has stolen a priceless painting and hidden it in a storage facility, and we assume that the book will be about him escaping the police and the other unsavory characters who want to take it off him. But two-thirds of the way through the book we find out that Theo does not, in fact, have his stolen painting hidden in a secure storage facility. It was stolen by his friend Boris years ago and went missing in a drug deal. But instead of putting all the clues out there and just letting the reader form their own false conclusions, Tartt tricks us: both of the main characters act totally against character in order to set up her big dramatic reveal. Theo tells the reader he never told anyone about the painting – turns out he did but was drunk so he forgot. Boris took the painting and can’t really explain why, in a way that made it look like it was still in Theo’s possession and can’t really explain why, and didn’t give it back when Theo left and can’t really explain why, and Theo never once actually looked at his priceless painting for eight(?) years. None of that makes any sense. And I think Tartt knows that, because she does quite a bit of hard work trying to justify, say, Theo never once looking at his painting; the plot of the book picks up quickly at that point and she introduces sinister gangsters and other interesting distractions.
(The Goldfinch also falls down awfully at the end, I think – Theo spends about eighty pages in a hotel drinking and vomiting while Boris runs around and ties up all the plot problems. But at least that’s a legitimate choice Tartt made about how to tell her story instead of a scam she runs on the reader.)
Tartt references Dostoevsky a lot in this book and all the critics praise it as ‘Dickensian’ but I think the main influence was Patricia Highsmith. Disturbed protagonist, art; forgery. Psychological thriller. But Highsmith lets her characters drive the story. Tartt’s characters seem to drink and act erratically because that lets the writer get away with plot developments that wouldn’t make sense if the characters were rational. Aspiring writers like myself always get lectured about having our characters ‘make choices’ because that ‘defines character’. I’m not sure the main character in this Pulitzer Prize winner makes a single meaningful choice in the entire book.