Saturday, 26 May 2018

Philip Roth


Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, was one of my most favourite writers. I believe he was also one of the greatest fiction writers, not just of his generation, but in the last five decades.

Roth’s literary career was of great longevity. His first book, a novella (Goodbye Columbus), was published in 1959. His last novel, Nemesis, came out in 2010. He was also a writer of astonishing fecundity. Over a period of five decades, Roth published more than thirty novels.   

When Roth declared in 2012 that Nemesis would be his last novel, I had mixed emotions. As a great admirer of Roth and his prose style, I did not want him to stop. At the same time Nemesis had not exactly blown off my socks, and Humbling, the novel which came out a year before Nemesis, had left me feeling underwhelmed. We discussed Nemesis a few years ago, in our book-club. It turned out that I was the odd person out; everyone else loved it. Those, who, like me, had read several of Roth’s earlier novels, felt that Nemesis was up there with the very best of Roth novels.

Roth created several protagonists in his novels, the most famous of whom was Alexander Portnoy, the priapic, Jewish, American who can’t stop wanking (and can’t stop talking about it). Portnoy’s Complaint is one of the funniest novels I have read. The novel brought fame and notoriety to its author in equal measures. Over the years, Portnoy’s Complaint has deservedly taken its place in the pantheon of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Nathan Zukerman is another of Roth’s famous creation. Zukerman features in several of Roth’s novels, though not in all as the main protagonist, I think. The last of the Zukerman novels, Exit Ghost, came out in 2006 (which I have not read). The first three Zukerman novels: Ghost Writer, Zukerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, along with the epilogue (The Prague Orgy) were published in one volume (Zukerman Bound). These are some of my very favourite novels. The novels have, like many of Roth’s other novels, autobiographical elements, which, over the years, generated enthusiastic speculations about the extent to which Nathan Zukerman is an alter-ego of Roth (in Zukerman Unbound, for example, Nathan Zukerman achieves spectacular fame following a publication of a sexually explicit coming-of-age novel—not dissimilar to Roth—the fictional novel of Zukerman and its style being a departure from his (Zukerman’s) earlier, Jamesian style (I don’t think Roth can ever be accused of imitating the prose-style of Henry James, or, for that matter, any other novelists. Roth had a style of his own, which influenced other novelists).

Operation Shylock was the first Philip Roth novel I read. The novel totally blew me away. I had not read anything like it before.  The narrator of Operation Shylock is ‘Philip Roth’. The fictional Philip Roth is in Israel, attending the trial of a notorious war criminal called John Demjanjuk. (John Demjanjuk, born Ivan Demjanjuk, is one of the several real-life charcaters which populate the novel. Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian born soldier in the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War and was also a POW of Germany.After the Second World War he emigrated to America, in the 1950s. Demjanjuk was deported to Israel in the 1980s to face the charges of war crimes when several holocaust survivors identified him as the notorious ‘Ivan the terrible’ in the Treblinka Extermination Camp the Nazis built in Poland. He was initially convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned by the Israeli supreme court which decided that there were reasonable doubts as to whether John Demjanjuk was indeed the notorious ‘Ivan the terrible’ in Treblinka. New evidence emerged in 2001 that Demjanjuk might have worked as a guard in another concentration camp in Germany. He was eventually deported to Germany from America; tried; found guilty of war crimes; and sentenced to five years in prison (he was 92 at the time). Demjanjuk was granted appeal against his conviction, and died, a free and innocent man in the eyes of the law, while the appeal was still pending). Operation Shylock follows the first trial of Demjanjuk, in Israel in the 1980s, covered, in the novel, by the fictional Philip Roth. While in Israel, the fictional Philip Roth, to his initial astonishment which soon turns into horror, comes across an imposter, who has the same facial features as Philip Roth (the fictional Philip Roth), and—you will have guessed it—is also called Philip Roth. So, there are two Philip Roths in the novel; one ‘real’ and the other an imposter, who is planning to steal the identity of the ‘real’ Philip Roth. Operation Shylock, which has the backdrop of the Demjajnjuk trial and the First Intifada, narrates the battle of wits between the two Philip Roths, as the imposter tries to destroy the ‘real’ Philip Roth (that is the other fictional Philip Roth in the novel) and spread the counter-Zionist ideology, is an extraordinary novel. It is very difficult to sperate the real from the fictional in this novel, the full title of which is Operation Shylock: A Confession. You might say that it is a bit narcissistic to create not one but two alter egos in one novel. John Updike apparently wrote in a sardonic review of Operation Shylock that readers should read the novel if they were interested in Philip Roth (Martin Amis levelled a similar charge while reviewing a Zukerman novel). I can say without hesitation that I wasn’t. Until I read Operation Shylock, which got me greatly interested in Philip Roth, and I went on to read several more.

‘Philip Roth’ appears in a few other novels, the last of which, I think, is the 2004 The Plot Against America. The Plot Against America is narrated by the child Philip Roth (though I can’t now remember if the narrator identifies himself as Philip Roth). The novel narrates an alternative history of America spanning the Second World War period. Franklin D Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 general election by Charles Lindbergh, who, in real life espoused non-intervention in the European war and was a member of the America First Committee (AFC) which was a non-interventionist pressure group (dissolved after the attack on Pearl Harbour). As was typical of the novels Roth wrote during this phase of his career, The Plot Against America novel is bereft of humour, and, relentlessly bleak and grim.

The Plot Against America was also the last of the Roth novels which greatly impressed me. Starting in 2006, Roth produced a novel a year, a total of four novels ending with Nemesis. These four novels are frequently described as Nemesis novels—presumably because they have the common theme of end and degradation. I was not hugely impressed by them and would not call them as Roth’s major novels. Indignation, which tells the story of a young Jewish man who is drafted in the Korean war in the 1950s and dies, was probably the best, and Humbling the least impressive.

Sabbath’s Theatre, Roth’s 1995 novel, is, for me, his last funny novel, the story of Mickey Sabbath, an out-of-work puppeteer and a penchant for whores, which shows no signs of moderating with the advancing years. It is also his last novel which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The novel had everything I had come to expect of a Philip Roth novel: coruscating wit, erudition and prurience. The novel was dirtier than the whole stack of Carry On films. Mickey Sabbath, without doubt, is a memorable creation. Sabbath’s Theatre is grotesque and unputdownable. It won the National Book award and was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

Roth won the Pulitzer for the first time for his next novel, American Pastoral, considered by many to be a great novel. The novel is narrated by Nathan Zukerman, but Zukerman is not the protagonist of the novel. The protagonist is Seymour Levov, a successful Jewish businessman (all the protagonists of Roth’s novels are Jewish, though not all successful). With this novel began a period in Roth’s career, which is often described as his second wind. He was in his sixties, a time in life which, for many artists, is the beginning of declining creative powers. But not for Roth. Starting with American Pastoral, he published ten novels over the next decade. American Pastoral and the novels that followed also marked a departure of sorts in Roth’s prose style. Gone was the humour which made his earlier novels such a delight to read. Roth had a great comic gift. It is difficult to say whether it deserted him or whether he chose not to use it any longer (I read a few obituaries of Roth, but no one commented on it). Roth had a very bitter divorce from his second wife, the British actress Claire Bloom, in 1995 (she wrote a memoir, Leaving A Doll’s House, of her disastrous marriage to Roth, in which, needless to say, Bloom did not have many kind words to say about Roth). One wonders whether these bitter experiences had anything to do with the interminable bleakness and despair that seemed to pervade Roth’s later novels. American Pastoral was followed by I Married A Communist, another acclaimed novel narrated by Nathan Zukerman, this time about Ira Ringold. Viewed along with American Pastoral and Human Stain (which came out after it), I Married A Communist is often considered as one of the trilogy in which Roth depicted post Second World War history of Jewish men (majority of Roth’s novels have male protagonists) in America, particularly in New Jersey and Newark, with the backdrop of socio-political changes taking place in that country. When I first read American Pastoral, the story of the tragic life of Seymour Levov, destroyed by the folly of his daughter, who sets off a bomb in 1968 to protest the Vietnam war (and, later in the novel, becomes a Jain, a little-known religion in India, often mistaken to be a sect of Hinduism), I did not really know what to make of it. I could see that it was a remarkable book, with the riveting backdrop of the social upheaval in America in the 1960s and 1970s. But I did not like it. This was also the first Roth book I had read in which humour was completely absent. I Married A Communist confirmed for me, sadly, what I had suspected when I’d read American Pastoral: Roth was taking a long hiatus from humour, prurience and libidinousness (he did not return to it till the end). I liked I Married A Communist more than American Pastoral and the slightly unconvincing The Human Stain. Some reviewers said that Eva Frame, the wife of Ira Ringold in I Married A Communist, was a barely disguised (and not very flattering) portrait of Clair Bloom from whom Roth was divorced a few years earlier. If that were the case, then Roth’s portrait of his ex-wife was, all said and done, sympathetic, I thought (although Eva Frame destroys Ira Ringold).

When Roth was awarded the International Man Booker Prize in 2011, in a display of arresting churlishness, mean-spiritedness, and petty-mindedness, Carmen Callil, the founder of the Virago Press and one of the judges on the panel, resigned in protest (she disagreed vehemently with the choice of Philip Roth, but was overruled by the other two judges on the panel), and, on the day the award was announced, wrote a dyspeptic article in The Guardian, in which she animadverted Roth’s fiction. Roth, she put it to the readers of The Guardian, wrote only about himself. Or something to that effect. Callil was not the first one to level this accusation at Roth. Many of Roth’s novels, particularly the early ones are autobiographical. Indeed, Zukerman Bound was described by Martin Amis, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an autobiographical novel about an autobiographical novel. Outside of the personal experiences, Roth mainly wrote about post Second World War Jewish men in America, tormented by several matters including but not limited to their libidos. That is as may be. To me, Roth wrote brilliantly. He was a master at creating a kind of quiet hysteria which sucked the reader in. Afterwards (as in Humbling and Nemesis) the reader might wonder ‘was that it?’ or ‘what was all the fuss about?’. But not while they were reading the novel. Even when, to my disappointment, the humour went AWOL from Roth’s novels, with very few exceptions, I never found his novels less than riveting.

Philip Roth won many prestigious literary awards in his career, but not the Nobel. I have no doubt in my mind that Roth was overlooked (as was John Updike, whom I rate slightly lower than Roth) because of the anti-American bias in the Nobel committee for more than a decade, beginning in the 1990s. For more than twenty-five years, during this period, not a single American author was awarded the Nobel, while European writers and poets, who were not known outside of their buildings, struck lucky.

Philip Roth was a great writer. A literary giant. His novels brought joy to my life. In her article in The Guardian in 2011, Carmen Callil predicted that no one would read Philip Roth in forty years. I think Callil could not be more wrong. Fifty years from now Roth would still be read and his work would continue to enthral future generations of readers.


Saturday, 28 April 2018

Body Positivity


Two Falstaffian women appeared recently on a breakfast-show to promote body positivity. One of them was a journalist who I believe has published memoirs, chronicling, I am sure, her heroic struggles against drugs, weight, the ennui of a privileged upbringing, the unhappiness of being sent to a posh boarding school— swimming, as they say, like a shrimp in cocktail sauce, in her misery, a product, probably, of inwardly directed florid imagination.  Misery can be like cocaine; when you develop a taste for it, you can’t have enough of it.

In the breakfast show, the journalist was joined by another woman, who was introduced as a plus-size model. What’s wrong in that, you may ask. There is no law against chunky people appearing on television. That would be discrimination. You might be interested to know that the ‘two fat ladies’ appeared in the breakfast-show wearing only their undergarments. Obviously, there is no law against that either; however, you might think that that was a tad unusual. By and large people do not present in a partial state of undress when they appear in public. Call me old fashioned, but I think that there is some merit in the idea that you should be adequately covered in public places unless you are at a swimming pool or a beach or in a sauna. In addition, if your stomach has reached the dimensions where it looks as if it is hiding a football stadium, there is an outside chance that you will attract ridicule if you went around in public only in your frillies. Fair? Probably not; but such is life. If life were fair, Bashar-Al-Assad would realise the folly of his ways and immediately hand himself over to the Western forces; the Islamists would accept that blowing themselves up in Western cities is terribly messy and not fair on the road-sweepers; Putin would appreciate that the British get awfully upset when you poison people on their soil; and the bar-maid would be complimentary when your ordered the third pint of lager and a plate of onion rings. But life, regrettably, is not fair. People have stereotyped ideas about aesthetics. So, when it comes to human beauty, for most it is skin-dip. Only a minority of human population would find the sight of someone, who looks like they have enough body fat to keep a village in Afghanistan going for a few months, arousing. I know. Not cricket. But there it is.

Why did the two women appear on the breakfast show?  They appeared on the breakfast show to inform the viewers that they were planning to run the London marathon the next day. In their undies. That was the news. The women were threatening to strip down to their underclothes and run 26 or whatever are the required miles for marathon.

Why were the women planning to run a marathon in their underclothes? They explained, the journalist and the model, their underwear roomy enough to hold a Tory party conference, and their rumps filling every inch of the seats of the plastic chairs which looked in danger of crumbling any minute. The aim, they informed, was not to gain cheap publicity—perish the thought. They wanted to promote body positivity. They wanted to prove that exercise is for everyone—small, big, tall, short, size 8, size 18; that you don’t have to be an athlete to run a marathon; that a runner’s body comes in all shapes and sizes!

Give me a f**king break. You don’t have to make a spectacle of yourself to prove that even fat people can and should—indeed must be forced to—exercise and get fitter (spare a thought for our NHS). If you are so intent on doing exercise, go to a f**king gym and get on a treadmill.

What was the message? The two roly-polies said they were planning to enter a marathon and not a donut eating competition. Which suggested that that at least one message was that it is good to do regular exercises. One can’t take issue with that. Why is it good to do regular exercise? Because it will make you healthy. It will make you fit. And, if you become fit because of these endeavours—I am going to go out on a limb and make a wild guess, here—maybe you will not resemble a bouncy castle.

As you watched the two women, neither appearing to lack egotism, you could be excused for wondering whether it was necessary to parade gigantic abdomens and elephantine thighs on national television only to prove that anyone, even the obese, can run a marathon. People by and large do not have difficulties in determining the size and shape of things unless, I don’t know, they are visually impaired, or are afflicted by one of those rare exotic neurological conditions Oliver Sachs used to write books about. It is, how shall I put it, an innate ability people possess. Therefore, just as trying to camouflage the layers of fat by wearing black clothes (a delusion shared by many lard-arses; squeezing your excess luggage into black jeans and hoping that it will somehow make your lardy arse vanish is about as optimistic as farting in a party with your palm pressed to your butt and hoping no one will notice; it fools no one) is futile, there is no need, really, to strip down to your underclothes and run a marathon, resembling (from behind) a marshmallow doing hurdles, to promote body positivity.

The women were described by some as brave. The viewers were invited to consider that they were displaying courage. That’s a load of codswallop. What was on display was the size of their ego, bigger than their baps. The narcissism, masquerading as some sort of feminism, made you despair for the future of our race.

Why is this going on? Why are such people still around? Small Pox is gone. Polio has disappeared. Rickets is on its way out. German Democratic Republic disappeared. Yugoslavia imploded. Soviet Union vanished. But these self-publicists are not going away. They continue to hog British television time. It is enough to make you want to emigrate to North Korea.

I don’t believe that the two women decided to strip to promote body positivity and increase awareness of the importance of exercise for everyone. They are depressing examples of the length to which some p-grade celebrities—gasping for publicity like an asthmatic gasping for air—will go to get five seconds of air-time. 








Friday, 20 April 2018

Book of the Month: Untold Story (Monica Ali)


Monica Ali is not an easy writer to pigeonhole. She has published 4 books—3 novels and a book of short stories—so far, all on very different subjects.

Ali’s debut novel, the best-selling Brick Lane (short-listed for the Booker Prize and also made into a film, I think), was about the experience of a girl, who had an English mother and a Bangla Deshi father. This was followed by a book of short stories set in Portugal. She followed it up with In the Kitchen, which, as the title suggested, was set in a hotel kitchen and told the story of a feckless but likeable chef.

Untold Story, Ali’s 2011 novel, has the late Diana, the Princess of Wales, at its centre.

Untold Story is a ‘what if’ novel. It is also a pot-boiler. What if Lady Diana, the ‘people’s princess’ (as described by Tony Blair), did not die in 1997, while fleeing the paparazzi, in a Parisian tunnel? What if she survived the crash, but, being totally fed up of living constantly under the spot-light of the world, faked her own death? What if, after successfully faking her death, she began living under an assumed identity, a life of total anonymity, in a small-town in America? And what if, by chance, a photographer who had ‘papped’ her on numerous occasions in her former life spotted her and threatened to blow her cover?

If you are curious to find out answers to the above (hypothetical) questions, Untold Story is the novel for you.

Diana has faked her own death with the help of a loyal aide who is (conveniently enough) dying of cancer (so he won’t be around long to spill the beans). While holidaying in the South American seas on the yacht of her most recent paramour, Diana goes for an early morning swim and ‘disappears’. Her body is never found and she is declared dead. What has in fact happened is she is picked up and stays incognito in Brazil for a while. From there she goes to America and finally washes up in a small town, called appropriately enough, Kensington. She has lived in Kensington for a few years under the name Lydia Snaresbrook. Not possessing anything useful in the way of academic degrees (like the real Diana, apparently, who flunked her exams), Lydia tries her hand at first being a beautician. However she discovers that "pulling hair out of people’s crotches" is not how she wants to earn a living. She is now working for an animal charity (awww!). She has made a few friends in Kensington, all women, heroically battling to keep at bay the advancing middle age. She is also in a relationship of sorts—with a man named Carson who has a sob story of his own. Carson would like to have a long-term relationship with Lydia, but she is not so sure, partly because she is worried that once she is in a relationship she might drop her guard and he will guess her big secret (although you can’t help thinking she is worrying unnecessarily; Carson strikes you as the soppiest person in the town, the kind of guy who believes everything said in the advertisements for men’s shaving blades). Lydia / Diana is of course devastated that she has left her two sons behind in England, whom, in all probabilities, she will never meet. She has—what’s the word?—guilt feelings (and the poor woman can’t even enter therapy because it’s a secret.) Then out of the blue arrives in Kensington a photographer called Grabowski. Grabowski has photographed Lydia in her previous life on innumerable occasions, not always with her permission and cooperation. Why is Grabowski in Kensington? Even he doesn’t know. He is drifting around from place to place in America (as you do), having accepted an advance from a publishing house for a book of photographs of Diana he has taken over the years, and Kensington is as good a place as any to hibernate. In Kensington Grabowski spots Lydia and something rings a bell. From here on, the novel ratchets up its tempo and reads like a thriller. A cat and mouse game develops between Lydia and Grabowski. Grabowski is certain that Lydia is in fact Diana, but is not sure whether she knows that he knows; and tries his best not to make her suspicious until he is ready with all the evidence. Lydia recognizes Grabowski the moment she lays eyes on him. For a while she tries to convince herself that he hasn’t recognized her, and behaves so as to not let him know that she knows who he is. Lydia’s doubts about Grabowski’s intentions are removed once she learns that he is snooping around with her friends and employer. It all, as you will have guessed, is heading for a spectacular climax; and Ali duly delivers it with a degree of panache, if rather too neatly.

Untold Story is a well crafted novel that flows smoothly most of the time. Monica Ali has an accomplished way of turning out a phrase and keeps up a steady supply of witty asides throughout the narration. Although the main theme of the novel (I think) is what if Diana had not died in 1997, a substantial proportion of the first part of the novel is devoted to how she manages her escape with the help of faithful Lawrence. This is in the form of a diary Lawrence keeps in the months leading to his demise. Not a great deal of explanation is provided, however, as to why the fictional Diana decides to leave behind her glamorous existence and live a life of total anonymity for which, it would be fair to assume, life has not prepared her until then, and which would per force involve separation—possibly permanently—from her two sons for ever. I wouldn’t have thought any woman who is devoted to her children would take the decision of faking her death and being separated from them for ever— ightly. All that is provided in the way of explanation is that the fictional Diana is fed up of being hounded by the paparazzi. While a celebrity might occasionally wish for a life of anonymity away from the glare of the media, for her to take the drastic step as Monica Ali’s Diana does, something more, you’d imagine, needs to be there. (The real Diana on whom the fictional Diana is based was not exactly shy of publicity.)  The picture of Diana that emerges from Lawrence’s personal diary is commensurate with that which was associated with the real Diana in at least some section of the media: an emotionally unhinged, insecure and manipulative little creature trying to find comfort in disordered eating, therapies and unwise sexual liaisons; not what you'd readily describe as a well-balanced personality. The Lydia who lives in Kensington, USA, is a rational, considerate, reliable, and stable. Quite how this transformation in Diana's personality comes about is also left unexplained. One would have thought that being forced to fend for herself without any support would be a recipe for disaster for an inadequate woman who, in her Royal life, was used to giving orders and probably thought halibuts swim in the fish section of Harrods. For the fictional Diana, it is her making; she finds deep resources of resolve in herself to triumph, as they say, over adversity. That is all very well, but it is a tad unconvincing. The Diana in Untold Story is a figure you almost feel sorry for. Similarly, Ali has resisted the temptation of depicting Grabowski, the other protagonist in the novel, in crude generalization of the paparazzi. Grabowski is not an evil man. He is a paparazzi photographer—believe it or not—with a conscience.

Untold Story possibly shows the direction Monica Ali’s fiction might take: commercial and entertaining. If you are looking for Untold Story to provide you with an insight into the life of Diana, you will be disappointed. If you are looking to read a well-written book that is also an above average thriller, this is your ticket. Read it on a long train journey; you won’t know how the time will fly.






Saturday, 31 March 2018

Book of the Month: An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)




An Officer and A Spy is the first novel I read of Robert Harris. Harris shot to international fame with his debut novel, Fatherland, and, as the cliché goes, has never looked back, since. Harris, when he was a BBC-reporter in the 1980s, wrote a few non-fiction books, one of which was the endlessly riveting Selling Hitler, which I have reviewed on this blog.

I picked up An Officer and A Spy, not so much because it was written by Harris, or, not entirely because of that, as because the subject interested me. The Drefus Affair, which took place in France at the turn of last century, is one of those historical event, I should imagine, many would be aware of, or, heard of, but of which, most would not know the details. (That Harris wrote the novel also made the decision easy; I might not have been inclined to read the book if it were written by someone whose name I did not recognise).

Alfred Drefus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was convicted in 1895 of treason. Drefus was found guilty of passing on French army secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to solitary confinement on the Devil’s Island, an ice-free island near the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (near Venezuela), where he was subjected to emotional torture of very impressive proportions—Drefus was forbidden to speak to anyone during the entire period of his incarceration. The Drefus affair, as it came to be known, aroused strong public emotions in France at the time, and public opinion was sharply divided as to whether justice was done. Latent Anti-Semitism as well as hurt French pride and the inevitable French paranoia towards the Germans, following the heavy defeat of the French army by the Germans in the 1870 war (resulting in Germany appropriating French regions bordering with Germany), played a vital part in how Drefus was treated and viewed throughout the trial. That Drefus was a German Jewish did not help. The Drefus case is considered as a great miscarriage of justice in French history. Emil Zola was one of the many influential intellectuals in the French public life who were disturbed by the handling of the investigation by the French army, and took up the case of the convicted Jewish officer, which eventually led to the exoneration of Drefus.

It is highly likely that the higher echelons of the French army were aware that Drefus was innocent, but allowed, nevertheless, for him to be the fall-guy, and, when they became aware that truth might come out, went to great length to suppress it.

It would, however, be wrong to say that everyone in the French army was complicit in the conspiracy (and, by association, an anti-Semite). There were French army officers who were uneasy about what happened to Drefus, and showed great courage and righteousness, in the face of intimidation and threats by the increasingly unsettled French army, in revealing truth.

The French army-officer who played a major role in the re-trial and eventual exoneration of Alfred Drefus, whose name has disappeared under the sand of time, was Colonel Georges Picquart, the protagonist of Harris’s absorbing novel.

The story is narrated from the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, of French army. Picquart comes to hold the belief that Alfred Derfus did not receive a fair trial. Picaquart, a member of French army’s General Staff, has witnessed the court martial of Drefus in his capacity as a reporter. Within six months of Drefus’s conviction Picaquart is promoted to the position of the chief of the operational arm of French army’s intelligence section, known as statistical section. Picquart has no, or not many, warm feelings towards Drefus. Drefus is a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole de Guerre (French army’s war college) where Picquart was his teacher. Drefus, with his somewhat standoffish manner and a tendency towards viewing any unfavourable decision as resulting from crypto-anti-Semitism, has not made it easy for others to develop warm feelings towards him, and Picquart is no exception. Picquart, the novel hints, might have had a smidgen of anti-Semitism in him—all the more remarkable, then, that he fights tenaciously and even risks his own military career to prove the innocence of Drefus, once he is satisfied that Drefus is the fall guy, and the real traitor is someone else. Picquart has always believed that the case against Drefus was weak—he has told the French war minister, General Mercier, who has had Drefus arrested in an unseemly hurry in the absence of any clear proof of Drefus’s guilt, that Drefus’s acquittal was the likely outcome of the court martial. Picquart is, therefore, surprised and uneasy when Drefus is found guilty. When Picquart takes over the reins of the statistical section he sees the photocopy of the letter, which was considered in the court martial to be the incontrovertible evidence of Drefus’s guilt. Picquart realises that the handwriting is not Drefus’s but that of one Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a feckless, inveterate liar, whom Picquart suspects to be the man who was passing the secrets to Germans. This had indeed been the case. At the time of the court martial several hand-writing experts had rejected the notion that handwriting in the letter was Drefus’s, until an obliging one came along and gave the army the opinion they wanted to hear. An army officer lied to the tribunal, and, just in case if this was not enough, a secret file, full of forged documents and confirming Drefus’s guilt, was passed on to the tribunal, with full knowledge of Mercier, keeping the legal team representing Drefus completely in the dark. As Picquart’s suspicions grow that the wrong man has been sent to gaol, he also begins to suspect that those who conspired to frame Drefus are in his own department and, backed up by the powerful army brass, will do the same to him. Picquart begins to carry out his secret investigation. As Picquart delves deeper into he realises that the rot goes right to the top of the French army. Picquart begins his fight against echelons of French army to prove the innocence of a man he has disliked but who, Picquart believes, is innocent. 

Robert Harris has narrated a gripping tale that conflates the historical narrative as well as the personal perspective (of Picquart). Harris’s prose is dry, sardonic, but also elegant. The Georges Picquart that emerges from this narrative is emotionally aloof, at times cynical, but also someone with a strong sense of where his moral compass should be and uncompromising on his principles once he makes up his mind.  If I have to make criticism I’d say that the novel does not give you a good enough idea of the rabid anti-Semitism that was affecting at least part of the French society at the time. One, therefore, might wonder whether the decision of the French army to make Drefus the fall guy was motivated only by cynical opportunism of the army combined with the determination of the army generals to not be seen to have made a mistake or whether some of the higher army officers were also affected by the anti-Semite fervour.  Harris made the decision to make Picquart, and not Drefus, the hero of his story. Picquart, in some ways an army-insider himself, and, more pertinently, is focused on the injustice he felt was done to Drefus. Picquart is uninterested in the wider, cultural ramifications of anti-Semitism that might have influenced the decision of the French army to scapegoat Drefus. The absence of the details of historical backdrop to the Drefus affair, thus, is understandable, but it still seems like a gap.

The Drefus affair might have happened more than a century ago, but it is still relevant in the twenty-first century. in the As I type this, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is embroiled in a controversy whereby he stands accused of either deliberately being or allowing himself to be the figurehead of racist Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, particularly amongst his noisy supporters).

An Officer and A Spy is a very satisfying read. It is a historical novel which reads like a thriller. Very much recommended.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Brexit Madness


Britain’s painful and protracted divorce from the European Union (EU) grinds on.

You don’t need to be blessed with clairvoyance to figure out that Brexit is going to cause economic damage to both the parties. The EU is going to lose the second biggest contributor (after Germany) to its budget once the UK leaves. As for the UK, barring the bonkers Brexiteers from the Conservative party—madder than a stadium-full of hatters (on acid)—no one thinks that Brexit won’t cause significant damage to the country’s economy.

The latest twist to what is already a high-octane melodrama is the shift announced by Comrade Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition party in the UK, in its position towards the customs union. A couple of days before the Comrade’s speech, Labour’s Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer (who wears the lugubrious expression of someone who buried his mother in the morning), announced in a television interview that under a Labour Government, Britain would stay in a customs union and single market. Starmer also informed in the BBC interview (with the air of the doctor breaking the news of advance cancer) that free movement of people would have to end; however, he added, there would be ‘easy movement’ of people (the doctor explaining that there were first-rate hospices). He neglected to explain what this ‘easy’ movement would look like.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who, by consensus, is born in the wrong decade and in the wrong country—he would have been so much happier if he were born as McDonnellowich and been Stalin’s henchman—revealed himself to be a cunning linguist, and helpfully clarified that Starmer used the indefinite article ‘a’ instead the definite article ‘the’ while discussing customs union and single market.

What did McDennellowich mean? His leader, Comrade Corbyn—once described by an Iranian freedom of speech, whom Corbyn inadvertently exposed in an interview on live Iranian television and who ended up spending time in Iranian prison (reputed to be only slightly better than Luton), as a useful idiot—clarified a day later in a speech, while inexpertly reading from the autocue. Labour would negotiate a bespoke customs union (and presumably a bespoke single market) with the EU.

Comrade Corbyn invited us to believe that under the bespoke customs union there would be frictionless trade between not just Northern Ireland and republic of Ireland, but also between the UK and the EU. The good news does not stop here. The UK will be able to strike bilateral deals with other countries (while remaining in ‘a’ customs union) at the same time, and EU bureaucrats would nod their heads, give an indulgent smile, and say, ‘Go on you rascals!’

Quite how this ‘bespoke’ arrangement would look like Corbyn did not care to explain in the speech, perhaps because he was keeping his cards too close to his chest, or, more likely, because he had no clue (McDennellowich had not explained that to him). But we are not to question this. We must have the faith that the Messiah will deliver. If you don’t you are obviously a capitalist traitor, who, no doubt, supported Iraq war and Blair.

Corbyn’s about-turn on customs union predictably raised the hackles of the Tory nutters who are in the grip of Revanchist fury (turned on themselves) ever since the referendum happened (almost two years ago). The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, took himself to air, the BBC Radio 4, the next day, and removed the last vestiges of doubts from the listeners’ minds that his grasp of Brexit was slightly worse than Donald Trump’s grasp on . . . well, pretty much everything. When the interviewer Mishal Husain (she of seductive voice) asked Johnson about the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, Johnson launched into a long-winded blather, which, even by his high standards, was a spectacular twaddle. He compared the border situation between Northern Ireland and the Republic Ireland to that of two Burroughs of London, and went on to crow how he, Boris, when he was the mayor of London, saved the situation by bringing congestion charges! Husain, unwilling to accept that the foreign secretary was serious, asked Johnson whether he was serious, and Johnson assured her that he couldn’t be more serious. I have seen and heard a few interviews of Boris Johnson (which always leave the interviewers, from Jeremy Paxman to Mishal Husain, shaking their heads in disbelief), and have always wondered whether he is like a not-altogether-stupid-but-lazy-as-f**k pupil, who never takes the trouble to prepare the subject, and hopes to get through by verbiage (hoping that bullshit, when continued without pause, will always baffle brain). It rarely works, but Johnson seems incapable of learning and changing his indolent ways.

In the BBC interview, Johnson was frothing at the mouth at what he saw as Comrade Corbyn’s treachery over the customs union (guessing, probably with good reason, that the ‘useful idiot’ would be persuaded, next, by Starmer (and those in Labour who have some brains) to change his stance over the single market (replacing with ‘a’ single market). Johnson, no doubt trembling with righteous indignation, accused Comrade Corbyn of cynical opportunism, because Corbyn had shifted Labour’s position to that announced in Labour’s manifesto in the 2016 general election: Labour would leave the customs union. Johnson accusing Corbyn of cynical opportunism is a bit like Trump accusing the North Korean potato-head of being mentally deranged. It also suggested the innocent assumption that people bother themselves with manifestos of political parties (and remember them after a year). Finally, it also indicated that Johnson had not cottoned on to the difference between the definite and indefinite articles, as elucidated by the linguist McDennellowich (to be fair to Johnson, no one had).

The trouble for Johnson and Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary (he is an idiot, alright, but difficult to see what use he can be of to anyone), is that so far there is not so much as a whiff of the free trade deals we have been hearing so much about, and which Dr Fox is presenting to the heads of different countries round the globe (including but not limited to the dictator in Philippines, who once referred to Barak Obama as one can only assume his (the dictator’s, not Obama’s) favourite part of female anatomy).

It was left to Sir Martin Donnelly, a highly experienced civil servant, who, until last year, was the permanent secretary in Dr Fox’s Department of International Trade, to tell some home truths to the fantasists in the two parties. Brexit and giving up membership of single market and customs union for future free trade deals elsewhere, Mr Donnelly said, was like giving up a three-course meal now for a packet of crisps and promise of future. Three-fifth of the UK’s current trade, Mr Donnelley explained, was with the EU or countries with which the EU (as a bloc) has preferential deals with. It beggars belief that the hard Brexiteers are prepared to piss on this in the delusion that the rest of the world is queuing up to strike deals with the UK. As for Corbyn’s nonsense about ‘frictionless trade’ Donnelley warned that it is not even a legal term. Having your cake and eating it, as Donnelley rightly observed, is not an option in the real world, not that it will penetrate Corbyn’s thick skull.

Theresa May might go to India and wear as many bright-coloured saris as she wants, or she might go to China and pose next to the Chinese dragon (looking only marginally more scary), there is no sign, yet, that these two Asian giants are in a mood to give any definite assurance to the UK. As for America, with whom the UK politicians fondly believe we have a special relationship, with Trump in the White House, we will soon find out that the special relationship is the same as the McDonald’s has with cows. Trump does not believe in special relationships. He believes in deals. And any deal Trump has anything to do with has only one winner. Trump.



Sunday, 18 February 2018

Book of the Month: Sex and Stravinsky (Barbara Trapido)


V.S. Naipaul attracted a lot of flak when, in an interview a few years ago, he claimed that men and women wrote different kinds of novels. He went on to claim that he could make out within the first few pages of a novel whether it was written by a man or a woman.

 I would have had no difficulty in guessing within the first five pages of Sex and Stravinsky that it was written by a woman. Why? Read this paragraph on page six: 

 '. . . she knows the uses of coconut milk and cardamom pods. While her contemporaries stuck with pulses and tinned pilchards, and mounds of oily grated cheddar she is already making her own pesto with fresh basil which she grows from seeds in flowerpots and her careful student budgeting allows for tiny bags of pine nuts and pecorino cheese. . . She makes glazed fruit tarts. She makes fruit mousse, mixing dried apricots, stewed and pureed, with gelatine, whipped cream and frothed egg whites. For Josh she makes an airy angel whip.’

As you read on, there are detailed descriptions of clothes worn by some or more female protagonists, descriptions of the dressing rooms of houses, so on and so forth.

As it happened I did not have to guess, as I knew that the novel was written by a woman, Barbara Trapido, who, while she will not feature in the top-ten list of my favourite novelists, is a writer I have time for.

Sex and Stravinsky is Trapido’s first novel since the 2002’s Frankie and Stankie, which I thought was brilliant. The autobiographical novel which told the story of two white girls growing up in the apartheid era South Africa was something of a departure for Trapido, whose earlier novels could be best described as romantic comedies or comedies of error. I have read two of them. The Brother of the More Famous Jack, Trapido’s debut novel which won the Whitbread (now Costa) award, and The Travelling Horn Player, which came out in 1998 and was very well received critically. The Brother of the More Famous Jack was, I thought, thematically very similar to an earlier novel by Margaret Drabble (Jerusalem the Golden), although Trapido’s treatment of the subject matter was different and was characterised by what was to become her trademark—light and comic touch. The Travelling Horn Player was an effervescent novel which did not linger on in your mind.

With Sex and Stravinsky Trapido has returned to her terra firma—romantic comedies. The setting of Sex and Stravinsky is South Africa (where Trapido was born and grew up) and Oxford (where she has spent most of her adult life). Like her earlier romantic comedies (for example Travelling Horn Player), Sex and Stravinsky is breezy and cheerful, with—in tandem, perhaps, with the mood of the novel—carefree unconcern for realism. Her comedy is almost Shakespearean in this sense, full of chance meetings and coincidences.

The main characters in Sex and Stravinsky meet one another from time to time, without knowing that they are connected, the pattern hidden behind their movements and decisions being governed by the all-seeing omnipresent fate, or, the writer.

This is the story of two couples Josh and Caroline, and Hattie and Herman. Caroline is an Ozzie while the others are South Africans. Hattie is Josh’s first love but she declined to accompany him to England when he wins a scholarship to study ballet dancing in England. In England Josh meets the super-efficient Caroline and marries her, forgetting, with the passage of time, his first love. Hattie is locked in an outwardly successful but increasingly loveless marriage to Herman who is an acquaintance of Josh at the University and is different from him in every conceivable way. They have three children, of whom the youngest, Kate, or Cat, is at home. Cat, who despises her mother with a passion, is tentatively embarking on what promises to be a successful career in bulimia. Hattie writes moderately successful children’s books on—you have guessed it— ballet dancing. In the meanwhile, Josh and Caroline, in England, are happily married—or so they think. Josh is a dance academic while Caroline is a head-mistress and can command everyone except her caricaturesquely obnoxious mother, who, no matter what Caroline does to please her, is never pleased and always favours the younger daughter, Janet, who lives in Australia and wants nothing to do with her. Josh and Caroline, too, have a daughter, named Zoe who is a minor neurotic. These are the main characters in the drama. Then there is the supporting cast. It includes, in no particular order, Caroline’s ghoulish mother (already mentioned) and ghastly sister (ditto); Josh’s parents—Josh is their adopted son—who are Jewish and are anti-apartheid activists in South Africa; and Jack, the illegitimate son of their Black maid, Gertrude.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about the lives of the protagonists. Caroline, who has gone out of her way to be subservient to her mother and has subjected her family to sacrifices in order to keep her mother sweet but has always been the less loved, unfavoured daughter, discovers that she was adopted (in a manner of speaking—she was given to Caroline’s mother, adoptive mother that is, on a bus in Sydney). This knowledge about her provenance triggers the kind of upheaval in Caroline’s attitude to everything, compared to which the revolution in Russia was a tea party. She turns up in South Africa with her daughter to inform Josh, who has travelled there to participate in a conference, that her mother, though she wasn’t her real mother, had died (although why the news couldn’t wait—seeing as Caroline has decided that the woman was a bitch— till Josh returned from the conference is not clear). And whom should Caroline run into upon landing in South Africa? Why, Herman, Hattie’s husband, who, in the tradition of randy White South African men, is always looking for opportunities to get his leg over. Caroline and Herman hit it off straightaway and the woman whose boldest decision until that time was to add a twist to a lemon meringue pie, allows herself to be taken first to Herman’s house (which is also Hattie’s house), and then to be, well, taken. Josh in the meanwhile has run into Hattie at a local cafĂ©, and the two ex-but-about-to-be-current lovers are visiting museums and galleries and animatedly discussing finer points of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It doesn’t end here: Herman and Hattie have a lodger named Giacomo, who is none other than Jack, the son of the maid who worked for Josh’s parents. And the man who impregnated the Black maid was none other than Hattie’s reprobate brother James when she worked for her parents, although neither Hattie nor Josh is aware of this link till the very end. Have I missed any more co-incidences? I might have. This is a novel so full of co-incidences that you are left wondering whether co-incidences aren’t travelling around looking for their lost twins.

I shall not be giving away any secrets, I hope, when I say that it all ends happily with the main protagonists realigning themselves with each other’s partners, the arrangements and exchanges taking place more smoothly than a transaction at the Tesco counter.  

Trapido employs the tried and tested literary tropes—secret paternity and adoption, sibling rivalries—to embellish the narrative, mostly to impressive effect. The prose is elegant and has a kind of rhythm and flow to it which, for the most part, carries the novel through.

Nevertheless, reading Sex and Stravinsky is a strange experience. The characters are contemporary; the story takes place mostly in the here-and-now, and when it deals with the past, it’s still twentieth century. The problems and dilemmas faced by the protagonists are real enough; yet they are dealt with in a manner that is very unreal. Towards the end, especially after Caroline’s discovery that her mother was a manipulative harridan, the pace of the novel increases, the co-incidences and chance encounters come thick and fast, so much so that the plot runs the danger of appearing contrived. The narrative tone, throughout, is facetious, almost fatuous; and the resolution of the mismatched relationships is slapdash. It is almost as if the author is begging you not to take any of it seriously because she herself isn’t treating it seriously. There is a token nod to the apartheid inequalities in South Africa, but here, too, in contrast to the superb Frankie and Stankie, in which the heroines come slowly to realise the inequalities of the world around them in which they enjoy privileged positions, the matter is treated with about as much gravity as in a Christmas pantomime.

The title of the novel is a tad misleading. There is no sex and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella has no bearing on the narrative; it plays no pivotal part and is mentioned almost as an aside—a ballet Hattie likes.

Reading Sex and Stravinsky is like eating a happy meal at McDonald’s: it is cheap and cheerful, it will fill your stomach; but if you want a gourmet experience, you will need to look elsewhere.


Monday, 29 January 2018

Book of the Month: Small World (Matt Beaumont)




Small World is British novelist Matt Beaumont’s sixth novel. The story takes place in North London, and involves a long list of characters: a washed up political journalist and his wife (who runs an art and craft shop), their marriage increasingly coming under strain as they try one unsuccessful IVF attempt after another; a stand-up comedian—he steals lines from an Indian waiter, who is his fan—and his (the comedian’s) wife, who is a full-time mother and unofficial agony aunt to her friends, who include the infertile woman; a workaholic, control-freak woman, who is an HR executive—she has become friends with the comedian’s wife at the antenatal classes—and her (HR executive’s) very odd husband who calls himself a graphic designer but has not worked in years, and has a secret crush on the infertile woman, whom he spies on every day for months from the Star Bucks opposite her shop. The infertile woman, who does not know the HR executive woman, has noticed him of course, but she is not sure whether the weirdo is stalking her or her eighteen year old assistant, who comes from a dysfunctional family and hangs out with kids from backgrounds similar to her, one of whom is a tall (and gorgeous despite, or perhaps because of, dread-locks) black boy, whose mother works as a nurse in the Accident & Emergency Department of one of the hospitals in London. The HR executive has an Aussie nanny who, incredibly, does not do drugs, but has an Aussie friend who is also a nanny and does drugs. Then there is a policeman who is more bitter and disillusioned than the share-holders of the Royal Bank of Scotland; his live-in girlfriend is the PA of the HR executive woman. Have I missed anyone? Oh yes! There is an alcoholic bum who does not let his constant inebriation come in the way of stealing things, and possibly raping and murdering (not at the same time) young women; a Czech baby sitter who has a nose longer than the Sidney Harbour bridge and is saving money for a nose job; and a Northern woman who comes to London after her husband has a pulmonary embolism while he is attending a conference—well, not strictly during the conference; he gets the embolism in the evening, after the conference, when he is visiting a prostitute, and is admitted on the same ward of the hospital where the infertile woman is also admitted after she experiences unexpected complications of her treatment in a private clinic (which by the way is lousy), the same hospital in the A & E department of which the black kid’s mother works, the department to which the Aussie nanny brings the son of the HR executive woman twice in space of two weeks—once when he has pneumonia and another time when her druggy Aussie friend inadvertently gives the kid ecstasy. Is this all getting a bit confusing? I don’t blame you; I am getting confused myself. All these characters either meet each other or run into each other—some because they know each other, others by chance—so often that you begin to wonder, like the weirdo husband of the HR executive, whether their lives and meetings are not following an invisible programme, their movements manipulated by an unseen hand (the God or the author?).

This has of course been done before—a long list of characters, many of whom do not know each other but keep on bumping into each other, and vitally influence the course of events. Paul Theroux did it in the seventies in his novel, Family Arsenal. Small World follows the same format as that which Beaumont employed in one of his earlier novels, the hilarious The Book, the Film, the T shirt: the story moves forward via first person monologues or narratives of all the characters.  There are more characters in Small World than in EastEnders, and they all like to talk uninhibitedly. To Beaumont’s credit, he juggles them adroitly and does not allow at any time the pace of the narrative slacken.  He does not narrate the same incident from the point of view of different persons; rather a given scenario is taken forward by the first-person narratives of the characters involved. Beaumont has the knack of dramatizing the happenings and the misunderstandings, which further enhances the impact. There are enough twists and dramatic scenes which keep the readers’ interests going.

This book is something of a departure for Beaumont, who made his debut in 2000 with e, the first novel, his official website informs, written entirely in e-mails. Whereas his previous novels were out and out comedies, Small World is a potpourri of many emotions; it is not your routine feel-good novel. None of the characters, with the possible exception of the Aussie nanny, is particularly likeable; some are downright creepy. For the same reason, perhaps, they are very believable: the three middle class couples in Small World could be your next-door neighbours. While extremely funny in parts, the novel essentially holds a mirror to the bleak lives of the materialistic and outwardly conventional middle classes (or to be more specific, the materialistic and outwardly conventional middle classes who live in London). The humour—a lot of it is in the dialogues rather than in the situations—has an edge to it. The casual racism of the police, for example, when they speak about and deal with black and other minorities, manages to make the reader laugh and feel unnerved at the same time. Beaumont makes liberal (and effective) use of irony. He also tries, with a degree of success, big emotions. Small World is like a big roller-coaster ride that is good fun but nonetheless leaves you feeling dizzy at the end:  a laugh-out-loud section is immediately (and unexpectedly) followed by tragedy, or love followed by violence.

A great strength of Small World is its narrative style. Beaumont follows the dictum of keeping the vocabulary simple, as though mindful of the other pressures and constraints on his readers’ time. It works well and the novel, despite being, at four hundred plus pages, humongous, does not weary its reader. Beaumont has effectively captured the lingo of the teenagers, which gives it a pulse of authenticity. (This is not an easy skill to master. Some years ago, I had read a novel by Justin Cartwright, titled The Promise of Happiness: the novel was about everything but happiness, and Cartwright had attempted to portray the speaking style of the younger generation by repeated use of ‘like’, which only made the sentences awkward.)

Small World does not pretend to give a big message, at least not directly or obviously. It does not attempt to ponder on the imponderables. What it does is entertain you with a riveting story, told flowingly, which has believable characters, which throws enough surprises to keep your interest sustained, and which has a bit of twist at the end. It may not be the greatest novel ever written; neither is the format the most original; but it is an easy read and for the most part very entertaining. Not many novels can be said to do it.

(I wonder where Matt Beaumont has disappeared. Following the publication of his first novel in 2000, he published six novels in the next nine years, a very impressive rate. He seems to have fallen silent in the past nine years.)