Monday, 23 May 2011

Philip Roth Wins the 2011 Man Booker International Prize

American novelist Philip Roth has been awarded the biennial international 2011 Booker Prize. The septuagenarian Roth joins the ranks of Ismail Kadre, Chinua Achebe, and Alice Munro who received this prize, which began its life in 2005.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize which is awarded every year to the best novel (in view of the panel of judges) in a given year, the International Booker rewards the overall achievement of the writer and the influence on writers and readers world-wide.

This year, there were 13 writers short-listed, including Marylinne Robinson, Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman, and Anne Tyler. The British Spy-story writer John le Carre requested his name to be withdrawn from the short-list. In a statement that was published on the award’s web-site, le Carre declared:

‘I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of 2011 Man Booker International Prize.  However I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.’

Which should be read as:

‘I am an internationally successful writer who has sold millions of copies world-wide, and I do not need the prop of your poxy award.’

Rick Gekoski, a seller of rare books, writer and Chair of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 judges, commented in response:
‘John le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list. We are disappointed that he wants to withdraw from further consideration because we are great admirers of his work.’
Leave the man alone, Gekoski. What part of le Carre’s statement did seem to you like he gives a shit about the prize?
The judges’ panel, which included South African novelist Justin Cartwright and the founder of the Virago Press Carmen Callil, decided to keep le Carre’s name on the short-list. And did not to award him the prize. As I see it, the judges decided to ignore le Carre’s wishes because they admire him so much, but not enough to award him the prize. That is a bit insulting, don’t you think, although I should hazard a guess that John le Carre’s indifference towards the award extends to the decision-making process of the judges.

Awarding the prize to the mega-prolific Philip Roth, however, has triggered a controversy of sorts. Carmen Callil is doing what she does best: stir storms in tea-cups. Callil was not happy that Roth was chosen as the winner. Callil does not rate Roth as a writer. ‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,’ Callil was reported as saying in some broadsheets.
Left to her Callil would not have even long-listed Roth, let alone short-listing him. Awarding him the prize (£ 60,000) was beyond pale. She could not be a party to the decision.
So what did Callil do? She ‘retired’ from the panel and on the day the award was announced went public with her carping. She followed this up with a whining article in the Guardian (in which she hissed and spitted like that possessed girl in the Exorcist). Below a photograph which showed her staring at the world with a murderous glint in her eyes, like an aging hippo hounded out of a deliciously muddy puddle, Callil outlined her objections to Roth’s choice. These, in no particular order, were as follows:
(1)There are loads of writers writing excellent fiction in non-English languages, who ought to be recognized. Why give the award to yet another English language writer and a North American too. (She may as well have added Jewish.) (2) There were 12 other writers short-listed, any one of whom would have acceptable to her (even though one of them, John le Carre, had made it clear that he would rather have his teeth extracted without anesthesia (by a dentist who’s had lots of onions for lunch) than be short-listed for the prize); couldn’t the two other judges show some regard for Callil’s delicate sensibilities and agree on someone other than Roth? (Like who? Marilynne Robinson, who has written a grand total of three novels (two of which are unreadable) in a career spanning thirty years?) (3) The other two judges were not being fair. If she could not have her first choice (anyone other than Roth) crowned as the winner, neither should they have been allowed to have their first choice (Roth). There should have been a compromise and the ‘second choice’, acceptable to all the judges, should have been chosen. (I think the woman is being too clever by half: her  ‘second choice’  in effect would have been the ‘first choice’, seeing as ‘any other [than Roth] of the 13 short-listed authors would have been acceptable’ to her. (4) Finally, there was some animadversion of Roth’s fiction—Roth digs brilliantly into himself but there is little else, Roth uses a large canvas to do small things, unlike Jane Austen who apparently used a narrow canvas to portray big concepts (it’s a shame the prize can be awarded only to living authors) etcetera etcetera.  
Now I accept that I won’t be able to point out good fiction out of an identity parade, but none of the reasons proffered by Callil, save one, strikes me as literary.
The only literary point (the fourth one) is, like, her view, and, while she is entitled to hold her views, she can’t throw a tantrum when the world does not take notice of it. And what exactly is the point? Roth, according to another comment attributed to Callil, writes about the same thing (presumably post-war American Jewish male) again and again, in books after books.  Most writers, including great writers, do that in my view. Howard Jacobson, the winner of 2010 Man Booker Prize, writes again and again about middle aged randy Jewish men who are serial philanderers; Kingsley Amis wrote again and again about randy, middle aged, alcoholic English men who wished to f**k anything that moved; Anita Brookner writes again and again about middle aged, unfulfilled spinsters; V.S. Naipaul (barring the first three comic novels) writes again and again about the statelessness of a perpetual outsider; Carol Shields wrote again and again about middle class Canadian men and women; and Martin Amis writes again and again about nothing in particular. The question I ask is whether what they write is worth reading, whether it captivates me.
The long and short of the brouhaha Callil has created is: she does not like Roth as a writer; she has reasons not to like him which in her view are perfectly legitimate; she is pissed off that the other two judges ignored her views because they think Philip Roth is great; therefore she has thrown hissy fit.  I won’t rule out an underlying desire to grab a bit of newspaper publicity (and Guardian is always obliging). She could have quietly withdrawn and kept her reasons to herself, having the magnanimity to accept that although she can’t see the point of Roth many others, including her co-judges (and one of them a seller of rare books, too), can, instead of giving out statements insulting Roth and publishing an article which might make people wonder whether she isn’t a bit childish (and bursting with clichés). But then some people seek out publicity like a pig roots for truffles.
Callil’s accusations at her fellow judges sound like playground politics. Essentially she is saying, ‘If I can’t have it my way, others can’t, either.’ What seems clear is that the other two judges were firmly of the view that Roth was the most deserving winner out of the short-listed 13. Two out of three judges chose Roth, end of story; majority rules. Whichever democratic system you choose—first past the post or alternative vote—Roth was the winner. Callil should have gracefully accepted that she was not able to get round either of the co-judges to her point of view (Roth is a crap writer), but I suspect Callil won’t recognize graciousness if it poked her in the eye.
Whether Philip Roth is a great writer is almost beside the point. If you take a straw poll of people on the streets of London, 80% won’t have heard of either Roth or the International Booker. Of those who have heard of either or both, some will say he is a great writer, some won’t. These are subjective views and we are never going to have a consensus about it. I remember reading the reaction of Arundhati Roy when she won the 1997 Booker for her debut novel The God of Small Things. Roy remarked that she was lucky, as, had there been another panel, she might not have even been shortlisted.  That is the point: in the opinion of the majority of the judges on the panel for 2011 International Booker Roth is a worthy winner.
Callil was quoted in one broadsheet that in her view no one would read Roth in 20 years’ time, or something to that effect. I look at it this way. In the last two years I have read four books of Roth, one of which was Portnoy’s Complaint, first published more than forty years ago. Such peevish comments say more about the commentator than the objects of their comments. Ten years ago Paul Theroux launched a scathing attack (yet again) on V.S. Naipaul after Naipaul was awarded the Nobel. Naipaul, Theroux declared petulantly, was like John Galsworthy: considered great (undeservingly) in his time but forgotten by the world with the passage of time, because he did not write anything of lasting value. Callil’s prophesies are as off the mark as Theroux’s prophesies were then.
Since world is not driven entirely by pique, there is a fair chance that people will be reading Philip Roth in twenty years. 
PS: I have no idea why the font size has changed one third of the way through the posting. Blame Blogspot.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Book of the Month: Zanzibar (Giles Foden)

Osama Bin Laden’s war against Western democracies did not start, as many these days tend to assume, with the attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC), New York, in September 2001. Almost three years before they flew two American planes into the twin towers of the WTC (which triggered the then American president George W Bush to declare a war on ‘terror’—an imprecise noun at best—and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq) the Al Qaeda terrorists bombed the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing dozens of people, most of them native Africans.

Giles Foden's third novel, Zanzibar, is a thriller, which revolves around the bombing of the Dar-es-Salaam embassy. The main protagonists are: Nick Karolides, a young marine biologist who has come to Zanzibar (a semi-autonomous island, controlled by Tanzania), having accepted a job in a USAID mission for preservation of coral reefs around the island; Miranda Powers, an executive assistant of security in the Dar Embassy; and Jack Queller, the world-weary ex-CIA veteran, who, during the Regan administration, when the USA pursued the short-sighted policy of providing arms to the the Mujahidins who were fighting the Soviets occupying Afghanistan. Jack Queller has also had the pleasure of meeting Bin Laden in person on many occasions in the 1980s, in Afghanistan. Then there is Khaled-al-Khidr, a young Zanzibari, who is recruited by Al-Qaeda, after a personal tragedy for which he blames the West (represented by America). Khaled travels to Afghanistan and receives training during the course of which he too rubs shoulders with Bin Laden. Khaled then returns to Zanzibar along with two other Al Qaeda terrorists. The group camps on the nearby island of Lyly. their mission: to blow up the American embassy in Dar-Es-Salaam. The terrorists bomb the embassy, setting in motion the American response (which brings Jack Queller first to Dar-es-Salaam and then to Zanzibar) and concluding with a chase scene that could have come straight out of Ian Fleming novel.

Zanzibar manages the feat of not proceeding at a break-neck speed, yet being thoroughly absorbing. For the first couple of hundred pages of the novel nothing much happens, yet the reader does not lose interest. With great care Foden builds up various threads of the story that come together—almost neatly—towards the end. He also develops characters of his protagonists. He does not—perhaps deliberately—spell out everything for the reader while describing the characters, does not offer an in-depth emotional analysis of what makes them tick. The reader is thus free to draw his own conclusions. 

Of the three main protagonists, the most interesting is Jack Quller. He is a cerebral agent, who places premium on understanding the identified enemy rather than demonising it in crude stereotypes. Miranda Powers first sees Queller at the graduation seminar at the Bureau of the Diplomatic Security, Washington where she has trained. Queller is one of the speakers at the ceremony. This is how Quller starts his speech: ‘If the main threat to the world peace is to emerge out of Islam let’s at least understand it. It is because it is misunderstood that Islam as a whole is feared, that it is perceived as extreme in its totality. That’s way off target.’ At another point he maintains that Islam lends itself to distortion by the terrorists because of the low value it places on the material world. If you believe something the human frame includes is merely an illusion, it is easier to destroy it. These quasi-philosophical accounts—which impress you as very reasonable and sensible—are interspersed with Queller’s account of his actual meetings with Bin Laden when he was the go-between the CIA and the multimillionaire Laden who, at that time, had vowed to rid the Islamic land of Afghanistan of the anti-God Soviets. These encounters, while slightly stagy, do not strike as ludicrous. Foden does not attempt to give us insight into Bin Laden’s mind, but neither does he demonise the founder of Al Qaeda. (The name of the organization, we are informed, was inspired from an Isaac Asimov novel!)  

The approach of Queller is contrasted with his other, younger and slightly gung-ho colleagues in the organization. Miranda Powers, the callow executive assistant of security in the Dar Embassy, too, is an endearing character, who gets the reader’s sympathy when the CIA investigating officer who arrives in Dar following the bombings tries to pin the blame on her for lapses in security. The chain of events that brings Nick Karolides and Miranda together and sucks them into the vortex of events is utterly believable. 

By contrast the depiction of Khaled, the junior member of the terrorist group, is somewhat formulaic, if not exactly weak. Khaled—Foden apparently based this character on a real-life Zanzibari terrorist, Khalfan Kamis Mohammed, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal court in New York for his role in the 1998 bombing—is recruited to Al Qaeda after he finds his parents murdered in their house; an Al-Qaeda ‘recruiting agent’ convinces Khaled that the parents were murdered by the Americans for the father’s link with Al-Qaeda. Khaled is depicted as a gullible young Muslim man who joins Al-Qaeda not because he is brainwashed into believing Bin Laden’s, hateful, violent rhetoric but because he identifies the America, the geo-political entity, as responsible for the murder of his parents. Khaled is a simple, probably not excessively bright, man. Foden brilliantly brings to fore the confused state of what passes for Khaled’s mind and the ambivalence towards the method espoused by Bin Laden’s brand of Islam to achieve eternal bliss by a subtle change in the narrative style: the sentences become short, more passive, bringing into relief the passive, helpless flotsam that has becomes Khaled’s life. Formulaic it might be, Khaled’s predicament does not fail to move the reader. As the war on terror rages on in Afghanistan, you cannot help thinking that there is no more effective advertisements for Al-Qaeda than the  innocent civilians ‘collaterally damaged’ by the American drones.  

Foden (who grew up in Africa) writes about Africa with great tenderness and compassion , without, at  any time, descending into patronizing sympathy or excessive sentimentality. As the novel slowly builds up towards the climax, Foden describes in rich detail the ecology of the islands surrounding Tanzania. It probably dilutes the focus of the novel (if Foden’s intention was solely to write a thriller) it is no less insightful and enjoyable for that. This is a writer who clearly has a great fondness for Africa.

Gile's Foden's debut novel, The Last King of Scotland, became a worldwide best-seller and was also made into a successful Hollywood film. His subsequent novels (he has written three more) have not reached the dizzy height of The Last King of Scotland. Which is a shame; Foden is a mightily talented writer. Zanzibar is more than just an entertaining thriller. It is a novel that exudes ideas, and is very impressive in its attempt to understand ‘the enemy’ that goes beyond the ridiculous, two-dimensional, demonizing stereotype that seems to hold sway these days. A very wise novel.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama Binned, Who is the next Baddie

Osama Bin Laden is dead. He is (pardon the awful pun) binned.

The Christians all over the world are jubilant. Surely, the killing of Bin Laden is a proof, if proof were needed, that God has finally decided to climb down from the fence and announce to the doubters that He is Christian. Christians are the f**king daddies.

Remind me again what Osama is supposed to have done. Oh yes! He was the mad Islamist, the chief executive of the organization which had become, in the last decade or so, the major shareholder in what passed for the minds of the young men (and possibly women, let’s not be sexist about this) in many Islamic countries as well as young Muslim men (and possibly women) in the Western countries.  The dividend was the promise of 72 virgins whom the martyrs could enjoy forever in the afterlife once they had performed the holy duty of slaying down infidels (although the 72 beauties would technically not be virgins once they have been had, unless Allah, in his infinite mercy, kept the supply lines open).

There was also the small matter of Christian armies attacking and pillaging Muslim lands, Christian governments propping up dictators and plutocrats in the Middle East by providing them with weapons (for a reasonable price, of course) so long as they toed the line, all because the ancestors of the Arabs, by geographical lottery, happened to have parked their camels next to oil reserves.

Osama was the mastermind behind the aeroplane attacks on the World Trade Centre. This, over the years, has been accepted by most of us as a fact. We tend to forget that precious little by way of evidence has been provided by the world’s lone superpower (for how long?).  True, Osama released videos from time to time in which, surrounded by scary, bearded nutters, he left no one in doubt that (a) he was not overtly fond of Western countries; (b) he did not like Westerners; (c) he wouldn’t be sorry to see us all dead; and (d) he was more than willing to lend a helping hand and send us on our way to that place where the Pope thinks homosexuals are going. I am not sure what these videos suggested other than that Osama was a crazed sociopath, a Santa without the body fat and love of humanity. However, if spouting deranged, reactionary drivel was a crime, Jeremy Clarkson would be waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay. Osama was as much likely to be an Arsenal fan as the conceiver of the World Trade Centre atrocity.

What seems undeniable is that Osama got under the skin of many. Over the years we were repeatedly subjected to the unedifying spectacle of George W Bush (who was immune to the necessity of being liked) ranting against him in a language that had a passing resemblance to English, and BLiar turning all healthy stomachs with his insincere rhetoric (was it Mark Twin who said, ‘You can straighten a worm but the crook is in him and only waiting?’). Recently old Muammar in Libya was bleating that Osama was behind the rebellion against his regime.

Where Osama actually was was in Pakistan, living in the kind of mansion crusty old relics in Surrey buy when they start getting fussed about getting mugged.

It looks as though Osama, for several years, was hiding—if living in a humongous mansion surrounded by concentric walls, some of them eighteen feet high, can be called hiding—only a few kilometres away from Pakistani army’s biggest training camp, in the town of Abbottabad, itself only a hundred kilometres away from the Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

The Pakistanis and the ISI (which, according to leaked documents thanks to the organization founded by a hacker who may or may not be guilty of statutory rape, is considered by the Americans as a terrorist organization) are totally flabbergasted that Osama was in their midst all these years. They had no idea, you see.  They can’t believe it. If you believe that I suggest you also book a sky-ride over London attached to the underbelly of a pig. Call me cynical but I think Pakistanis are telling the biggest porkies since the commandant at Auschwitz gave evidence at the Nuremberg trials. (Ach! Zose Chambers? Ze vere for burnink garden rubbish and zis and zat.)

What surprises me is that the Americans are acting surprised that the Pakistanis are surprised. The Pakistanis, the Americans are saying, have some serious questions to answer. How come Osama went on living in Pakistan in an establishment that would have been difficult to ignore from the outer stratosphere only a few kilometres away from the army base? The answer, which the Americans know only too well—because they are not stupid—is that he was allowed to. 

The Pakistanis knew all along where Bin Laden was. They hid him and protected him all these years while purporting to be America’s ally in what George W Bush described as a war on terror.

In case the Americans have not wizened to the fact, let me announce it on this blog. The Pakistanis hate the Americans. They have no trouble accepting aid worth billions of dollars from the Americans, and still they (the Pakistanis) hate them (the Americans).  If the Pakistanis have their way they would send volunteers to the White House with explosives wrapped to their genitals.

This is a country that has become a sanctuary for all types of Islamic fundamentalists and, as the neighbouring India has been kvetching for years, has been exporting terror to all parts of the world.

Most of the terror links in the UK have always led to Pakistan. The general pattern seems to be that the disaffected (in many cases educated) youths travel to Pakistan, enrol in one of the many competing terrorist academies (these are boom times for them), receive training in manufacturing bombs, get a crash course in suicide bombing, and they are back in the UK to carry out the jihad.

Incidentally, the Indians are now claiming that they had twice alerted the Americans about Osama’s likely presence near Islamabad as far back as 2007 and 2008. If true, then the Americans obviously did not take the Indian intelligence seriously, an understandable error, seeing as the intelligence had come from a country that was caught napping as the terrorists arrived from Pakistan in a launch and struck at the heart of her commercial capital, Mumbai (incidentally in the same year in which the Indians were trying to teach the Americans how to do their job). The Indians would have been better advised to spend their resources on protecting their own people and leave it to the Americans to sort out Osama.

Pakistan is America’s ally in her (America’s) war against terror under duress. As Pervez Musharraf, the ex-dictator of Pakistan who usurped power in 1999 and gave himself the title of President, remarked in his memoir, he joined America after Duba told him on phone that America would bomb Pakistan into stone age if it did not collaborate. Musharraf, incidentally, is concerned that the Americans violated Pakistan’s sovereignty by keeping the Pakistanis in the dark about their mission which they carried out on their own. What was Musharraf expecting, given Pakistan’s disgraceful history? Would you keep an alcoholic in charge of your wine bar? Would you trust a fat man not to eat your pie when you popped out? Obama probably does not trust the Pakistanis as far as he can throw them (and I don’t think his upper body strength is all that great).

I am not even convinced that Pakistanis were unaware of America’s intentions. It is not inconceivable that they decided to present him to the Americans as they had had enough of him. Given the pro-Islamist mood in the country, they could not have afforded to bump Osama off themselves. Easier to look the other way when the Americans finished him off.

Obama has apparently decided that he will not release the photographs of dead Laden, even if that means that rumours will circulate on the streets of Karachi and Kandahar that the beardy is alive. A sensible decision. Also, seeing as Bin Laden was killed with a bullet to his head and eye, he would probably have resembled more a mashed potato than human face. Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, would have had, one would imagine, no qualms about releasing the photograph, but then interpersonal sensitivity was never his strong point. Duba would also have given a jingoistic, tub-thumping speech that would have played straight into the hands of mad Mullahs from Pakistan to Iran, who would have inflamed the passions more on the streets.

It would have been better if Obama had not allowed the release of the photograph of him, Hilary (with a hand on her mouth) and some other American toads (probably from the US army) watching live as Bin Laden was killed. I must admit to an embarrassing defect in my character. Call me squeamish but on the whole I don’t think it is a swell idea to kill people. I find it faintly obscene when a bunch of people sit down to watch another human being killed as if it were Saturday night entertainment. And if you do, don’t publicise the fact. It might make you look like a Barbarian. I remember people, perfectly ordinary, middle class, educated people, discussing, with barely suppressed excitement, last night’s ‘fireworks’ when NATO missiles were pounding Belgrade day and night, in 1999, and the sordid spectacle was aired live on British television. I couldn’t make up my mind which was more disgusting: a bunch of rich European nations systematically destroying a city by dropping scud missiles from air; the media airing the carnage live for the entertainment of the aggressors; or the people treating it as entertainment on par with the Gladiators.

Just when we thought the Archbishop of Canterbury would do us all a favour and keep his gob shut, he gave the world the benefit of his opinion. The Archbishop is apparently uneasy that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. Rowan Williams is not feeling uneasy that a man was killed; that a life was taken; he is feeling uneasy that the man killed was unarmed when he met his end. Would the Archbishop’s conscience have suffered less prongs id Bin Laden was wielding a Kalashnikov and had killed a few of the US squad? 

There is a good argument that the Archbishop and his likes should stop poking their noses into matters that are not religious and concern themselves with marrying tinpot royalties. But then again it may be argued that what we are witnessing is a clash between two religions: Christianity and Islam. These two have been at each other’s throat for centuries and they are at it again. The Western governments might justify their aggression using phrases like democracy, liberal culture, but don’t be fooled. At its heart this is about who has got the exclusive access to the Supreme Being. The Archbishop or the Pope, despite their airs of wise and considerate men (less apparent, it has to be said, in case of the Pope), is no different from the Mullahs who preach the Muslim masses. They are all out there, peddling their faiths and trying to prove the supremacy of the one over the other. The bearded Mullahs in Vaziristan, lacking the guile and the Archbishop, do it openly, while the Archbishop attempts the same using subterfuge, while trying to appear as a wise old owl.  There is little doubt that many of us in the West consider our culture superior to the Muslims; that the leaders do not say so openly, the political correctness (which in the eyes of many in the West has come to have a pejorative connotation) itself is a sign of our superior culture. Frequently (and understandably) boundaries between culture and religion are blurred. Many of us in Britain may have stopped going to church on Sundays, but how many of us can say that we do not believe in Christian values? And if our culture, our values, our way of life, is superior to the Muslims, it follows that our religion, which has given us these values, is superior to theirs too. The reality is we in the West are guilty of intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities which we are too quick to accuse the Muslims of. Take France, where they have banned the hijab and veil in public places. How is that different from the Saudis where wearing a veil is a requirement? In both countries women not adhering to the dress code would face prosecution. The restrictions in Saudi, we nod our heads sagely, is an example of the religious fanaticism of the despicable Saudis. The French have banned Muslim veil not because they have a right wing, xenophobic headcase as their president but because they have genuine security concerns. Hypocrite? Moi?

And what has David—call me Dave—Cameron has to say about all this? What pearls of wisdom has he come out with? For a start he is relieved. That’s a relief. We don’t want our prime-minister to worry his little brain when he is holidaying in whichever Mediterranean resort with his equine wife. (We are all in this together, remember?) The man has enough problems as it is on his plate such as recommending children of his friends for internships, and further discrediting the already discredited Nick Clegg (who has the skin of a pachyderm, spine of a paramecium, and morals of a sewer rat). Dave shares the concerns of the Americans about involvement of Pakistani army and intelligence services with al Qaeda. (I can’t remember the last time a British prime Minister did not share the concerns of the Americans. I guess it has something to do with the special relationship we enjoy with the Americans, although you would be excused for suspecting that Americans treat us like a household pet, say a dog, who, loyal to the master he might be, should never forget his place, which is at the bottom of the staircase.) 

Dave too thinks that Pakistan has serious questions to answer. (He can ask all the questions he wants till his throat runs dry, he is not going to get an answer, an honest answer at any rate, from them; and the Pakistanis, if you think of it, would be no more deceitful and duplicitous than we Brits have been over the decades when it comes to foreign matters).  At the same time Dave does not want to be too harsh on the Pakistanis. He wants to work with them. He wants the democratic forces in Pakistan to strengthen. Quite how he is going to achieve this, something which has not happened in that country in the more than sixty years of its existence—Pakistan has seen more coups and military dictators than you and I have had hot meals—he has neglected to explain. But that is not important. What Dave is all about—what he has always been all about—is blathering sentiments which mean nothing. Also, this patronizing comment makes a few suppositions: (1) there are democratic forces in Pakistan; and (2) they need (or want) our help. The reality probably is the Pakistanis loathe us as much as they loathe the Americans and would respond to Dave’s offer by telling him to find sex somewhere else.

Dave may think that he is an egg that is trying to be good; he may believe that he offering the Pakistanis a branch that is olive. But he is going to be treated by they who fuck like a stupid rectum of a farmyard animal that has long ears. And that would be right. Because he is a stupid rectum of a farmyard animal.

So the Americans finally got their man. What happens now?  Osama was probably responsible, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of many innocents (although I should hazard a guess that Duba and BLiar, between them, were responsible for the loss of even more lives. In an ideal world all three would be standing trial for crime against humanity, with Duba facing the additional charge of crime against English language), but he served an important function for us in the West. He was somebody on whom we could focus our hate. Osama and his Al Qaeda filled the vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet Union. He made life easier for us. It helped us to neatly divide the world between the goodies (us) and the baddies (mad Muslims). Who will be the next bogyman? (Alex Ferguson? Robert Kilroy Silk? John Prescott?) Who knows? But we can rest assured that there will be someone. Leo Strauss said it years ago: Keep the population in fear and keep it in its place.

As for Osama, I sincerely hope he does not get a nasty surprises when he meets the virgins awaiting him.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Wittgenstein Family

In this, the last post in the series on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his siblings, I shall write about how it ended for the Wittgenstein siblings.

Paul Wittgenstein's life in America

As a person, Paul Wittgenstein, according to his friends, was charming, energetic, and erudite; however, he was also very short-tempered, and despite having many admirable qualities, was not an easy person to get on with. He was aware of these foibles in his character, and chose to lead solitary existence. For example, he never ever stayed in other people’s houses, even those of his close friends; and insisted on booking himself (and his valet) into a nearby hotel whenever he was visiting his friends. 

One of his pupils—after Paul had immigrated to America and was teaching students—remembered that Paul had ‘a shell around him, like a suit of armour that did not permit him to interact with other people’. 

Paul's three children  mostly grew up in America—his son was born in America while his two daughters were very young when they went to America. The children did not meet, during their early years, anyone of Paul’s family.  Much later the children called that their father rarely, if ever, spoke about his illustrious family. 

One of his closest friends wrote shortly after Paul’s death: 

‘Paul’s personality is unforgettable. Those who met him felt it instantly; frequently the impression warded off contact. Highly sensitive to his physical disability, he made self-contained independence his rule of life and met tragedy with fortitude. For those whom he admitted to his friendship, he was the staunchest of friends.’

Paul Wittgenstein married Hilde, his 'Aryan Mistress', in America, and in 1941 their son (also named Paul) was born. Despite the great difference in their age the marriage of Paul and Hilde, for all outward appearances, was successful one. In 1946 he and his family were accorded full American citizenship. 

In the 1950s—by this time he was in his sixties—Paul lived a life of semi-retirement, and published three books of piano music for the left hand. 

Paul's children later remembered him as ‘a stern, incomprehensible, and a somewhat distant and imposing figure’ who was exceptionally enthusiastic about Christmas. 

All of Paul's children spoke English at home and could not understand when their parents spoke to each other in German. 

Paul very rarely spoke about Ludwig Wittgenstein or any of his family to his children. 

Paul and Ludwig, who were very close to each other in their childhood and young adult years, severed all contacts with each other in the last thirteen years, until Ludwig’s death. In 1949 Ludwig Wittgenstein was in America on a visit. On an impulse he went to Paul’s house on Long Island. He found the house empty except for a maid, and left without living a note. 

On the occasions when Paul visited his friend Marga Denke in England, she attempted to reconcile the two brothers by inviting Ludwig, invitations which he declined. 

In 1953 (by this time Ludwig Wittgenstein was dead for two years) Paul wrote to a common friend:

 ‘I kept out of contact with my brother from 1939; he wrote me one or two letters when I was visiting England, in response to Ms Denke’s invitation; I did not answer them. I do not know whether I would have done anything if I had been aware that he was terminally ill.’

Death of Hermine Wittgenstein

                                         (Hermine as a young woman)

Hermine Wittgenstein died in Vienna, in Palais Wittgenstein which was her home for all of her 76 years, in 1950, after a long battle with cancer. 

Hermine (pronounced Hermeena) was the eldest of the Wittgenstein children and remained unmarried until her death. 

Named after her grandfather, Herman, Hermine was her father's favourite. Karl Wittgenstein whose business fortunes changed for the better after Hermine's birth considered her to be his lucky mascot.

Hermine was an introspective person of nervous temperament. Like one of her brothers, Konrad (Kurt), she was markedly ill at ease in the company of strangers. Her nervousness frequently took the form of aloof, abrupt and outwardly arrogant demeanour. According to one family story, when composer Brahms visited the family, Hermine became so wound up with nervous tension that she had to leave the room. She spent most of the evening in another room, vomiting.

Like many of her siblings Hermine was a talented pianist and could also sing very well. But her main hobbies were painting and drawing. In the 1890s, when her father bought the Winter Palais in Vienna, Hermine helped her father collect his formidable art collection. Karl Wittgenstein used to jokingly refer to Hermine as his art director.

In her later years Hermine wrote a memoir of the Wittgenstein family (which was privately circulated amongst the family members) in which (as mentioned in previous posts) she wrote lovingly of many members of the extended family. She devoted a whole chapter to Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'the most worthwhile' of her brothers. She also left behind a loving account of Hans,  who had disappeared in 1902. Konrad (Kurt) Wittgenstein, who killed himself on the battlefields of the First World War, was dispatched in one paragraph. The remaining two brothers, Rudi (who had also killed himself, probably over his sexuality) and Paul (who was alive at the time but was estranged from the family) were not mentioned at all.

                                        (Hermine in her old age)

In 1949, Paul Wittgenstein, who had stayed away from Vienna for more than eleven years, was invited to play in two concerts. Hermine, with whom his only correspondence in the preceding years was through lawyers, lay dying in Palais Wittgenstein. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to Marga Denke (Paul’s friend) to inform Paul that Hermine was dying. Paul spent more than a week in Vienna, but did not visit his ailing sister. 

Hermine Wittgenstein died on 11 February 1950. Her most favourite brother, Ludwig, himself diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, was in Vienna at the time. Ludwig visited Hermine every day for two months until her death; however, she was not in a fit enough state to even recognise him. 'A great loss for me and for all of us,' Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote after Hermine's death. 'Greater than I would have thought.'

The once magnificent Palais Wittgenstein (it was in the Russian sector at the end of the war), the family home of the Wittgensteins for two generations, was razed and demolished by developers after her death.

(The Wittgenstein Winter Palais which Karl Wittgenstein bought in 1890 was an imposing structure that stretched for 50 yards along Alleegasse. It had nine bays on the first floor, seven below, with high arches at either end. In the forecourt was a colossal fountain statue. The hall was somewhat gloomy with high ceiling and mosaic floor, carved panelling and frescoes depicting scenes from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  The most splendid saloon on the first floor was Musiksaal where most of the private concerts were held. These musical soirees were, as Hermine Wittgenstein recalled later, grand, festive occasions.)

                               (The front staircase in Palais Wittgenstein)

Death of Ludwig Wittgenstein

                                     (Ludwig Wittgenstein as a baby)

                                            (As a young man)

                                     (On his death bed)

Ludwig Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer in Cambridge on 30 April 1951, three days after his 62nd birthday. 

Four years before his death, in 1947, Ludwig resigned his professorship in Cambridge, and, from then onwards, led a peripatetic existence that took him to Ireland (Dublin), New York (where he tried to meet his estranged brother, Paul), London, Vienna, and Norway. 

It was Cambridge, however, where Ludwig returned to die, in November 1950. He moved into Storey's End, at 76 Storey's Way, the house of his doctor, Edward Bevan. By this time Ludwig knew that he had only a few months left to live. He did not want to die in a  hospital, and Dr. Bevan agreed for him (Ludwig) to move into his (Bevan's) house.

In January 1951 Ludwig made a new will. Having donated his vast share of the Wittgenstein fortune years ago to his siblings and charities, he did not have much in the way of material wealth. In the will he named his literary executor. In the same month he wrote to a friend:

'My mind is completely dead. This isn't a complaint, for I don't really suffer from it. I know that life must have an end and mental life can cease before the rest does.'

Nevertheless in the last two months of his life Ludwig began work on his final manuscripts. (These would be published posthumously as Remarks on Colour and On Certainty.)

On 26 April 1951 Ludwig celebrated his 62nd birthday. He had three more days to live.

The morning after his birthday Ludwig composed his last philosophical thought:

“Someone who is dreaming says ‘I am dreaming,’ even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream ‘it is raining,’ while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of rain.’

That afternoon Ludwig went for a walk. In the evening his condition deteriorated. Dr. Bevan told him that he might have only a few days to live. His response was: 'Good!'

Dr. Bevan's wife, Joan, stayed with Ludwig through the night. On 28 April Ludwig went into a coma from which he did not wake up. His last words, just before he lost consciousness were: 'Tell them, I've had a wonderful life.'

Ludwig Wittgenstein died on 30 April 1951. Four of his former Cambridge students were at his bedside when he died. Two of them were Catholics. None of them was sure what kind of funeral Ludwig would have wanted. Some of them remembered that he had once said that he hoped that his Catholic friends would pray for him. 

Ludwig was given a Roman Catholic burial at St Gile's Church, Cambridge. (One of the Catholic students admitted years later that he had been troubled ever since whether it was the right thing to do.) 

None of Ludwig's family or friends from Vienna was with him when he died.

(The plaque outside 76 Storey Way, the house in which Ludwig Wittgenstein died.)

Death of Helen Wittgenstein

Helene Wittgenstein died of cancer in 1956. Known in the family by the nickname Lenka, Helene would appear to have been the most low profile of the Wittgenstein siblings. 

Plump, plain, and always smiling, Helene was known to be of placid temperament. 

Helene was married to Max Salzer, who belonged to a high-ranking Protestant family in Vienna. Salzer, who, at one time, held a high-ranking position in the Austrian government’s finance department, was chosen by the Wittgenstein family to manage their finances, a job he did with distinction for many years, before he became senile and demented. 

With her children, though, the otherwise placid Helene was exceedingly strict. 

Helene and Max had four children. 

The eldest, a daughter named Maria, died of cancer in the 1940s, while Friedrich, her eldest son, died at the age of 21 because of paralysis caused by polio. 

Helene's second son Felix went on to become a distinguished musicologist; however, he became estranged from the family at an early age and did not keep in touch. 

The youngest daughter was named Clara, whose husband (Arvid Sjogren) was involved (and arrested) in the business of obtaining fake Yugoslavian passports for the family, in 1938. 

Helene became estranged from Paul (like her other siblings) around the time of the dissolution of the family’s trust in Switzerland, although she was not directly involved in the negotiations. 

At the time of her death, Helene had not seen Paul for eighteen years.

Death of Gretl Wittgenstein

(The above portrait of Gretl Wittgenstein was painted by Gustav Kilmt in 1904. Gretl loathed the painting and believed that her mouth was inaccurately depicted by Kilmt. Years later she had it repainted by a relatively unknown artist. In the painting Gretl appears self conscious in a fancy shoulderless gown that appears ill-fitting.)

Gretl outlived Helene by a couple of unhappy years. A strong minded and energetic person—according to Hermine Gretl was the only one amongst her siblings who at times showed the energy and initiative of their father—she lived the high-flying lifestyle of the rich in the 1920s and 1930s, and, in her own way tried to save the family from the clutches of the Nazis during the war years, with some success. 

In her younger years Gretl was closest to Rudi. She was devastated when Rudi killed himself in a dramatic manner in Berlin. She married within months of Rudi's suicide. By that time, Karl Wittgenstein, the children's father, furious at the shame brought upon the family by Rudi, had forbidden the family members to even utter his dead son's name in his presence. As Gretl came out of the church after the marriage ceremony she asked one of her friends to secretly put a wreath on Rudi's grave.

Gretl's personal life, though, was far from happy. Her marriage to Jerome Stonborough was troubled. Her husband’s family was originally German Jewish—Jerome’s father was an immigrant from Saxony—, though he was born and bred in America. Indeed he was born as Jerome Steinberger. His father, Herman Steinberger, was an entrepreneur, and committed suicide in 1900 when his business of importing kid-gloves went bankrupt. Jerome had a strong family history of suicide; in addition to his father, an aunt and an uncle (both from father’s side) killed themselves. After his father’s death Jerome changed his surname, anglicised it to Stonborough, and travelled to Vienna to study medicine. 

Jerome and Gretl were married in a Protestant church, but it is not known whether he actually converted to Christianity (his sister remained Jewish). His marriage to Gretl was unhappy, marked by Jerome’s violent mood swings. 

It has been speculated that Jerome might have suffered from neurosyphilis, the speculation most probably having arisen from the fact that Jerome was seen by Julius Wagner who won the 1927 Nobel prize for the treatment of neurosyphilis (dementia paralytica) with inoculation of a malaria strain (within a few years of this discovery, Wagner’s treatment would become supererogatory with the discovery of penicillin). It is however very likely that what Jerome suffered from was agitated depression. 

Jerome's mood swings and Gretl's intensity did not make them an easy couple to interact with. In 1913, Jerome and Gretl planned to move to London. Gretl's youngest brother, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was already living in England. 'I am leaving at once,' Ludwig Wittgenstein is supposed to have exclaimed upon hearing his sister's plans. 'Because my brother in law has come to live in London, and I can't bear to be so near him.'

Gretl’s long marriage to Jerome ended in a divorce in 1938, and a few months later he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a rifle. The marriage produced two sons, both of whom were, in different ways, disappointments to her. 

The elder son, Thomas, was not very capable and was a source of constant worry and financial drain. 

The younger son, John (Ji), of whom Gretl had high hopes, inexplicably gave up his high-flying Washington career and spent the post-war years in idleness in Dorset, England. Gretl died in 1958 of heart disease. 

Gretl was the one who fell out with Paul Wittgenstein spectacularly, and there was no question of reconciliation. She never spoke of Paul ever again, but mentioned him in one of her letters to Ludwig Wittgenstein, in which she wrote:

‘For a while I really believed that Paul would get over his attitude, but now I see that we have really lost him. He is not a forgetter and I don’t see that age is going to make him mellower.’ 

Both Gretl and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that Paul had to estrange himself from his family and Viennese past in order to forge a new identity and life in America. 

At the time of her death Gretl and Paul had not been in touch for almost twenty years.

(Kundmanngasse, the grand villa Ludwig Wittgenstein, who maintained a broad interest in architecture, designed for Gretl. It was built between 1926 and 1928. Gretl lived there until 1939. During the war years, when Gretl lived in America, the villa served as an army hospital. Gretl returned to Vienna and lived there until her death in 1958. After Gretl's death, her son Thomas inherited the villa and lived there until 1971, when he decided to sell the villa, as he lacked the cash required for its repairs. The builder planned to build skyscrapers in the sprawling gardens of the property. This led to protests from architects and historian and the property was declared a protected monument. The property was bought by the Bulgarian government in 1975 and was used as a cultural centre.)

Death of Paul Wittgenstein

(Paul Wittgenstein in old age in the verandah of his house in America)

Paul Wittgenstein outlived all of his siblings. He died in 1961 at the age of 73. Like his younger brother he succumbed to prostate cancer. 

The day after Paul died, a congregation assembled at the funeral home where Paul’s body was placed. There were no prayers and no one spoke. At the front was placed a gramophone and a man put the gramophone needle on the 33 rpm recording of Brahm’s German requiem. Each time a side was finished, the record was turned over until it reached its winding conclusion.

There you have it. The Wittgenstein children seemed to have everything going for them in respect of material wealth. And yet, of the five brothers three killed themselves, and the fourth did not marry. The remaining brother spent the last 23 years of his life estranged from his siblings without exchanging a word with any of them. Of the three sisters, one died alone, a spinster, and the remaining two died unhappy. 

So what went wrong, and when, and where?

Who can tell? In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein:

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent.’