Saturday, 22 October 2011

Death of Muammar Gaddafi: the Curse of Oil

Muammar Gaddafi is gone. He is not just history; he is biology and chemistry. The longest ruling non-royal in the history of modern world was dragged out of the drain pipe in which he was hiding (after the convoy in which he was travelling was  bombed by the NATO forces) by the rebel forces which pursued his convoy out of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town where he was holing out for the past few weeks. The former dictator who was crowned in 2008 as the king of kings was then murdered with a bullet in his head; he was also shot in the chest and abdomen. His body was then dragged through the streets by the forces which are calling themselves liberators of Libiya and promising a new dawn, and which are supported by a number of European nations, notably France and Britain.

The Russians are not happy about this. They have believed for a while that they were duped by the mendacious European nations into not vetoing the action in Libya. They also believe that NATO forces clearly exceeded the UN mandate which was to ensure that civilians be protected. The Russian spokesman has formally accused the NATO forces of acting illegally when they bombed the convoy travelling out of Sirte as no civilians were demonstrably at risk of harm.

The Russians have a point (which they perhaps feel they need to make as countries like Britain have availed themselves of the opportunities in recent times to teach the Russians lessons in morality). Needless to say, though, that these concerns will not be answered by the European nations. Which will be par for the course seeing as one of the European countries meddling into Libyan strife, Britain, even before the UN mandate, tried to smuggle weapons, false passports and currency into that country. (When the ‘mission’ was intercepted, the ridiculous William Hague had the gall to make the ridiculous claim that it was a diplomatic mission.)

On the day of what was essentially an extra-judicial killing of Gaddafi by the ‘liberation forces’ which some of the European countries (e.g. France) hastened to declare as the legitimate government even as the civil war was raging in that country, I watched on Question Time smirking politicians across parties lining up to make trumphalist jingoistic noises (‘A bad man has come to a bad end and we are proud of our role in his downfall’ etc.)

The same day came the spectacularly distasteful advice from the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, to the British firms that they pack their suitcases and head for Libya to secure contracts. These guys really have no shame or decency. Every time they open their gobs it is to say vile things which offend senses and intelligence.

The idiots in the previous Labour government fondly thought that Britain would secure contracts to rebuild Iraq after she had played a major role in destroying that country. Leaving aside the questionable morale of this, that did not even happen. The contracts were grabbed by the Americans and Chinese (and the brave Americans who had no stomach for sending their civilians into what had become an extremely dangerous region, subcontracted Indians in Iraq as also in Afghanistan.)

If what is reported in British media has any truth in it, the death of Gaddafi is generally met with great fanfare and joy and happiness in Libya.

As you watched barely adolescent boys roaming on the streets of Tripoli in frenzy, totting AK  47 and firing into the skies as if they were bursting crackers, you wondered whether this was the same city which, in a different era and different times, was renowned for its libraries and books. It is noted that the Libyan king in the 13th century, when he defeated Christian hordes, demanded books rather than material wealth from the defeated nations.

It is all very sad: a country that once was a beacon of civilization has sunk to a level where a dead ruler’s body is dragged through the streets and his death is celebrated in a manner that would make any civilized person hang his head in shame.

If we look at the more recent history, Libya was a part of the mighty Ottoman empire up to the nineteenth  century, despite its periodic attempts to be free of its fetters. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapacious Europeans, in particular Italy and France (in case of Libya), looking to loot the region and fleece it off its wealth, did what other European nations (like Britain and Holland) had done in other parts of the world. With scant regard for the opinions and wishes of the people the European powers divided the region amongst themselves by signing treaties (as if that made it alright). Italy controlled Tripoli and Cyrenaica. The rest of the region was divided amongst other European vultures like Britain and France. In the 1910s there was even a minor war between Italy and the declining Ottoman Empire (Turkey) over this region. Interestingly, if one reads some of the accounts of that war, one finds out that the war that had begun between Italy and Turkey, ended with Italians fighting and killing Tripolians.

During the First World War, which was essentially a European war, different parts of what a few decades later would become Libya fought against each other, not because they had any animus amongst themselves but because the European nations controlling the regions were fighting against each other.

There is no dearth of jingoistic British ‘historical books’ giving accounts of the war between General Rommel and the British 8th division during the second world war. Suffice it to say that, like the First World War, this was essentially a European conflict in which this part of Africa got involved only because it was controlled by European powers. (The British forced tens of thousands of Indians (who died needlessly)  to fight in the Second World War even though the Indians had nothing to do with the shenanigans in Europe; indeed they had come to hate the British rule so much that they wanted the British to get out.)

When the Second World War ended it was Britain who controlled Tripoli and Cyrenaica while the French controlled Fezzan. 

Eventually, in 1951, Libya as we know it today came into existence. Landlocked on all sides save one, Libya is an African country that also has links (religious) with Arabia.

King Idris became the ruler of the newly created country which was not on the radar of the European countries or the newly emerging superpower, America.

That all changed in 1959. Oil was discovered in Libya. Suddenly America developed an interest in the region. America had already twisted arms of the Saudi King (Mohammad Bin Ibd Saud) to sign a 60-year treaty (the battle ships sent by Roosevelt to the Suez canal went a long way towards the Saudi King swiftly making up his mind) wholly favourable to America, and now similar tactics were used in Libya.

It may oversimplification, but the Western powers essentially took unfair advantage of these relatively less developed regions of the world, and exploited them. The rulers of these countries had no agenda beyond accumulating personal wealth and self-aggrandizement and were bought. In return the regions became legally and officially open to the multinationals to dig for oil. This is what happened in Libya.

This was also a period marked  by Arab nationalism. Gamal Abdel Nasser with his anti-American Arab nationalism inspired many in the region. He became the idol for many in the region. One of them was Muammar Gaddafi, who came to the conclusion that the only way to stop the looting of his country by the Western Powers which King Idris was allowing was to remove Idris from the power.

On 1 September 1969 Gaddafi engineered a bloodless coup and Idris was removed. Thus began the regin of Gaddafi that would last for 42 years and end with bloodbath and destruction of the country. Along the way Gaddafi, who wanted to stop the wealth of his country being siphoned off, himself became corrupted by the absolute power he came to yield over his vast country.

That Gaddafi became a tyrant and began abusing human rights in his country is without a doubt. It is also beyond doubt that the Western powers became very concerned about it only after Gaddafi became too big for his boots and started creating obstacles in Western multinationals' plans to dig oil from Libya and generate profits of billions of dollars. One wonders whether America would have been so concerned about Gaddafi’s abysmal human rights record if he had not (as if on a whim and without any warning) nationalised the American companies in Libya in the 1980s.

Until Gaddafi was favouring the Western oil companies nobody cared what he did in Libya. Gaddafi’s grandiloquent plans in the region (remember his quest to unite Libya and Egypt in order to combine the oil-wealth of Libya and the population and skills of Egypt?), his pan-Arab ambitions, and his economic alternatives to the Capitalist and Communist systems (he turned Libya, officially, into the Great Jamahiriyah, which meant State of the Masses; he expounded in his ‘Green Book’ how formation of committees everywhere would supplant the need of any form of government; and in his second volume dedicated to solving ‘economic problems’ he envisaged  a society that banished the profit motive and made money redundant) made many wonder whether the Libyan ruler’s connection with reality was becoming faulty. 

It was never going to work. Gaddafi’s pan-Arab ambitions were frustrated; Egypt which was an ally became a vicious enemy that fought a border war. Gaddafi now turned to more and more propaganda and openly started supporting what he described as ‘revolutionary outfits’ and the West described as terrorist organizations. He became America’s public enemy number one when he rejected American sponsored peace process in the region.

It was around this time that Ronald Reagan, a second rate actor of B grade Hollywood movies, who had become America’s president (and was probably showing early signs of senility) described Gaddafi as ‘the mad dog of Africa’ (very classy). From this point onwards an image of Gaddafi as an unhinged, slightly buffoonish, but nevertheless sinister, villain took roots in the psych of many in the West (reinforced by images of Gaddafi's near-zombified face). 

I heard the (equally buffoonish) BBC presenter John Simpson (who has the knack making himself the hero, somehow, of any conflict he is covering) on BBC Radio 4. Simpson who interviewed Gaddafi on many occasions said that in his view Gaddafi was totally barking. He (Gaddafi) was apparently on so many pills towards the end (according to Simpson) that it took him half an hour to take them all. (This seems like a typical Simpson exaggeration.) I read in the Guardian that a ‘soldier’ of the rebel forces which captured Gaddafi and killed him said that in his last moments Gaddafi was ‘blabbering like an idiot.’ Apparently Gaddafi was repeatedly saying, ‘What is going on? Where am I? What have I done?’ The ‘soldier’ said they could not believe this was the same man who had ruled Libya for 42 years.

It is also true that towards the end Gaddafi's public utterances became increasingly erratic, and it was difficult to make up one's mind whether he was being sarcastic or just incoherent. In his 2009 speech to the United Nations, Gaddafi accused the UN for failing to prevent a total of 65 wars; he demanded that Security Council had too much power and should be abolished (some sense in that; why are countries like France and Britain still permanent members of the security council? It does not reflect the changing power equation in the world); and also demanded that European powers pay their former colonies 7.7 trillion dollars in compensation or else face mass immigration. (He had a point, although how he had arrived at the figure of $7.7 trillion was not clear.) 

Gaddafi  is frequently accused in the West of sponsoring terrorist acts (e.g. Lockerby bombing). According to WikiPedia, as early as 1969 British Special Air Force was planning to assassinate Gaddafi in an operation dubbed ‘Hilton Assignment’, but the plan was called off at the last minute because United States (Britain was America’s lackey even then) pulled the plug, deciding that Gaddafi was ant-Communist and therefore acceptable. The dement Reagan famously bombed Gaddafi’s compound in 1986 in the full knowledge that several civilians would be killed along with Gaddafi (Gaddafi survived, having left the compound shortly before the bombing, after being tipped, but his adopted daughter was killed.). A renegade British Intelligence officer (who was hounded out of Britain) claimed that MI6 had assigned hundreds of thousands of pounds in the 1990s to assassinate Gaddafi. All these assassination plots were hatched in countries which claim to be civilised and democratic. The secret services and air forces and armies are ultimately accountable to politicians. If Gaddafi was a terrorist for the activities of individuals in Libyan intelligence (as in Lockerby bombing) what do these failed assassination attempts on Gaddafi make the Western politicians who must have known about (and in all probabilities authorized) them? Murderers? Terrorists?

The irony of course is that Gaddafi (like Saddam Hussain in Iraq) was also hated by Islamic extremists as well and a few of the attempts on his life were carried out by Islamic extremist organizations.

Ultimately it comes down to oil. If Libya did not have oil nobody would have cared what went on in that country. (Do any of the countries, always eager to invade oil-rich nations care about what is going on in Burma or Zimbabwe?) Libya alone is pouring millions of barrels of oil every day into the world; the oil is of such quality that not a great of expenditure is needed to purify it. If Gaddafi had been content in remaining the poodle of the Western powers and allowed the Western multinationals to dig oil and make profits worth billions of dollars, no one would have cared what he got up to in his desert country.

It is the curse of oil.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Julian Barnes Wins the Booker

I am very pleased that Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers, has won this year’s Booker. He was the only one amongst the short-listed whom I had read, and one of only two I had heard of before the short-list was announced (the other being Carol Birch).

I always feel somewhat cheated when the Booker short-list is announced, as most of the short-listed novels have come out only in hard-back editions which I don’t buy (can’t afford and no space to keep them). The occasional novel which is available in paperback is usually by a less well-known author and I think to myself that I’d buy the novel only if it wins the Booker (it usually doesn’t).

It is not a problem per se. There are so many books which I’d like to read but haven’t that waiting for several months—as in case of The Finkler’s Question, last year’s Booker winner, which I read this year, after it came out in paperback—for the papaerback edition to come out is not a catastrophe. I am a patient person.

At 150 pages, The Sense of an Ending is a slight book (by volume); but there are occasions when slim novels have won the award, for example, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore which may well be the shortest novel to win the Booker (not her best, though) and Ian McEwen’s Amsterdam (weak story with flawed ending).

It was fourth time lucky for Julian Barnes in 2011. For the third time in a row the Booker has been awarded to an established British writer, and, like Hilary Mantel (2009 winner) and Howard Jacobson (2010 winner) before him, Barnes is a worthy winner. (I hope the next year’s Booker judges will take note of this trend; Martin Amis’s new novel is coming out next year.)

Below are five of my favourite Julian Barnes books.

Published in 1984, this was Barnes's first novel to be shortlisted for the Booker. This is one of my favourite novels. Its Flaubert obsessed narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is tracking down a stuffed parrot that once sat atop the writing desk of the great French novelist.  Flaubert’s Parrot is not a tightly plotted novel in that there are many chapters where Braithwaite (who strikes you as an amusing pedant) pontificates on Flaubert’s life that has no direct relation to the quest of the stuffed parrot. Braithwaite has an animus against literary critics whom he dismisses as professional misinterpreters; yet he remains unaware that what he is doing is literary criticism. I do not think that Flaubert’s Parrot is a post-modern novel, but it certainly has metafictional elements. The fictional element is Braithwaite’s quest for the eponymous parrot, but Barnes uses Flaubert’s life as a springboard to launch into a treatise on art and reality that is embedded within the novel. It is a clever novel, without being  self-conscious about it (unlike many of Iris Murdoch’s novels, which I don’t find clever at all despite their pretensions) and carries its intellectual weight, as it were, effortlessly.  

This novel came out in 1991. It is a black comedy involving a love triangle involving, as love triangles do, two men and a woman. The novel is painstakingly schematised and the shifting angles of the love triangles are very deliberate; but the story is told with great brio and it sucks you in. The novel bursts with witty remarks and observations. I think I first came across the term nicklef**ker in this novel: it describe a person who is reluctant to spend money.

This novel came out in 2001 and tells the story of Stuart, Oliver and Gillian whom we first meet in Talking It Over ten years on. You can call it a sequel. I read the two books in the reverse order. Barnes’s essayist inclinations (very evident in Flaubert’s Parrot) are reined in here, and the novel is much darker, sourer, than Talking It Over. The psychological evolutions of its characters (i.e. if you have read the two books in the order in which they came out, and in quick succession, so that you remembered the first novel) is a bit shaky; but the novel is like a breeze, and even funnier than its predecessor.

This novel has some superficial similarities to Flaubert’s Parrot, but is very different in many other respects. Like Flaubert’s Parrot, the novel has a real-life person at its centre: Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes (the Arthur in the title). However (unlike Flaubert’s Parrot) there was no metafictional element. Barnes employs historical realism as he tells the story—without any deviation from the plot and does not meander into post-modern narrative—of a relatively less known episode in the life of the great writer when he took up cudgels on behalf of George Edalji (the George in the title) and successfully reversed a miscarriage of justice. The novel suffered at times (especially in the second half) from  information overload about Edwardian England, but on the whole it worked for me. Arthur and George was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005, but lost out to John Banville’s The Seawhich I have reviewed on this blog.

This is the only non-fiction book of Barnes, his musing on mortality, I have read. I read it last year and enjoyed it a lot. I have reviewed it on this blog.

I shall read The Sense of an Ending—I’d have read it even if it hadn’t won the Booker. Will I read any of the other short-listed novels? Two seem interesting. A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops which is publicised as a riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter’. I heard A.D. Miller (Snowdrops is his first novel) speak about it on Radio 4 last week. Snowdrops apparently is English translation of the Russian slang for corpses buried under snow. From what I heard, Snowdrops probably does not project the Russian society in favourable light. The other novel that seems interesting is Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues which is about black Jazz musicians in Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War. That sounds promising. (The poor lady came all the way from the Canadian Prairie, with her eight-weeks-old child for the award ceremony, only to be disappointed. Surely she deserves a consolation prize of some sort for her efforts.)

I do not expect The Sense of an Ending to come out before next year. While I wait for the the paperback edition to come out I shall read England England, the third of Barnes’s novels to have been short-listed for the Booker (before he won it with his fourth) and which I have in my collection for a while but haven’t got round to read it.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Book of the Month: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

Last year I heard Jonathan Franzen in a literary programme being asked what he thought of the literary courses purporting to teach would-be fiction writers the tricks of the trade. Franzen heaved a deep sigh (which would have been heard at the back of the auditorium even without the microphone), his body posture suggesting this precisely was the sort of dross he was afraid he would be asked. His answer was surprisingly sincere and unironic. He said that the literary courses would not make a writer of you if you did not have the requisite talent; however they could teach you the technical aspects of novel writing which you would otherwise take a long time—as he did—to learn. He concluded by saying that he did not enrol in any literary course but taught regularly in several.

Franzen was on a promotion tour of Freedom which was published with a tempest of media hype not seen since Ayatollah Khomeini took out a fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of Satanic Verses. The interviewer was fawning over Franzen in a manner that was disrespectful to her age, receiving every utterance of the writer as if he was revealing the secret   formula for the elixir of life.

Franzen then read out an extract from Freedom. If I remember correctly it was about a telephonic dialogue between someone called Joey and a woman named Carol. Joey used to go out with Carol’s daughter but had not called her since he went to university and Carol was (rightly) thinking that he was planning to ditch her daughter and was unhappy about it. I did not find the extract particularly riveting but that could have been down to Franzen’s peculiarly leaden and monotonous style of reading aloud.

Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, catapulted him to the position of a literary star. Accolades were showered on him like confetti by the critics; the novel won the National Book Award for that year (though not the Pulitzer), and was an international best seller.

I read Corrections during summer holidays a few years ago, and while I liked the novel a lot I wasn’t sure that it was the greatest novel I had read.

Freedom is Franzen’s first work of fiction after a long hiatus of nine years since Corrections was published. This time round the media frenzy was even more. (The word ‘frenzy’ should be interpreted advisedly. The frenzy surrounding the publication of a literary novel is not to be mistaken for the frenzy outside White Hart Lane when Spurs play Arsenal in Premiership Football; no one gets hurt. A few gushing Interviews in the culture sections of broadsheets and ‘lively discussions’ on book blogs qualify, in my view, for literary frenzy. To be fair Franzen’s mug did appear on the front cover of the Time magazine, the first novelist to do so in ten years since Stephen King; and that’s supposed to be a big deal.)

I read Freedom after it came out in paperback, thinking, as I started reading the novel, let me see what the fuss is about. In my experience the ‘long awaited’ follow-ups to literary masterpieces rarely live up to expectations. Donna Tartt’s d├ębut novel, The Secret History, was sensational. She followed it, more than a decade later, by The Little Friend, which was a damp squib.

I was therefore not sure that I was going to like Freedom; but tell you what, I loved it; I loved it more than The corrections.

In Freedom Franzen tells the story of a middle-class Midwestern couple—Walter and Patty Berglund—, their two children Joey and Jessica, and their friend Richard Katz. These are the main characters. There is a raft of secondary, peripheral, characters that enrich this magnificent novel.

The novel is divided into several sections. In the opening section Franzen introduces the reader to Walter and Patty, the baby-boomers who once lived in St Paul, Minnesota, a run-down district before it was gentrified by the likes of Walter and Patty.  The novel opens with the omnipresent narrator (whose presence is felt in all sections save those which are memoirs of Patty Berglund, entitled ‘Mistakes were Made’) informing the reader that Walter, who now lives in Washington D.C., has made a mess of his professional life by getting embroiled in projects of dubious ethicality. The minor notoriety Walter has attracted, the reader is informed, is in stark contrast to the liberal, left-of-the-centre views the neighbours of the Berglunds in St Paul associated him with.

The panoramic introduction gives the readers some idea as to the direction the novel will take. In the subsequent sections the reader is treated to a grand tour, via various detours in the marriage of Walter and Patty, and lives of other protagonists, the state of health of American society, including but not limited to (as I understood it) the slow yet steady decline of liberalism. It is also a compassionate commentary on the struggles and foibles of the developed-world middle classes. At the heart of the story is the family of Walter and Patty Berglund; Freedom is a family saga. Both Walter and Patty have their baggages to carry. Patty is the eldest child of a New York Jewish mother with left-leaning political views and ambitions, and an ‘exceedingly gentile’ father who is a barrister. Patty, who had a potential career as a basketball player—never encouraged by her parents—that was thwarted by an injury, wants to put as much distance—physical, emotional and cognitive—between herself and her mother. Her ambition is to be a good housewife and mother. Walter, a third generation Swede, is the middle child of his parents, and has spent his whole childhood disliking his alcoholic father and sociopathic brothers. He too wants to lead a life different from his parents. Walter and Patty meet first in college and Patty is secretly attracted to Walter’s best friend and roommate Richard Katz (a colonel Gaddafi look-alike), another product of a dysfunctional family, who has musical ambitions. Richard whose friendship with Walter—as Walter acknowledges at one point—is characterized by brinkmanship covets Patty, but it is the slow and steady Walter whom Patty marries and settles into what she hopes to be a life-time of marital bliss. In due course they have two children—Jessica and Joey. Patty comes to have such intense relationship with Joey that his only way not to be suffocated by the possessive love of his mother is to rebel in a manner calculated to enrage his parents. Joey starts a relationship with the next door neighbour’s daughter who Patty thinks is ‘totally unsuitable’ for her son, not least because of the difference in the social status of the two families. Walter, a devoted conservationist, gets entangled in morally questionable schemes of a multi-billionaire coal baron (with close links to Neo-cons) who is apparently obsessed with creating a protected habitat of the rapidly declining songbird, which necessitates shady dealings with other multinationals and involve blowing off mountain tops. Walter, hired by the coal baron at dizzying salary, convinces himself that what he is doing is going to be of benefit in the long run even though it may make him look like a conscienceless hypocrite in the short run. Walter is ably assisted in maintaining this mirage by his attractive Indian assistant Lalitha. Lalitha, engaged to an Indian neurosurgeon, has clearly fallen for her boss; and Walter whose marriage to Patty, who is sinking deep into middle-age depression and problem drinking, is floundering, is also attracted to Lalitha; however he is not going to be waylaid into an affair because of his notions of fidelity to his spouse. What Walter and Patty definitely do not need is trouble that would jeopardize their relationship further. The trouble arrives in the form of Richard Katz who, after years of obscurity as a musician, has, to his discomfort, hit the popularity jackpot. Patty sleeps with Richard in the Berglunds’ holiday cottage, bequeathed to Walter by his mother, while Walter is running the busy schedule of enabling multinationals to inflict further damage on nature and fending off come-ons from Lalitha. This will, in due course, precipitate a crisis in the Berglund marriage. Walter’s son, in the meanwhile, is running his own profiteering schemes, in partnership with other unscrupulous characters, which involve fleecing the US army in Iraq with faulty army vehicles for exorbitant prices. Joey has Republican sympathies and Walter’s own lucrative dealings with the Neo-cons do not temper his horror at his son’s betrayal of the ideology.

It all ends well, you will be pleased to know, for the Berglunds (well, more or less). When the novel ends Walter and Patty are back together (Lalitha having the decency to die in a tragic road crash), and their children are settled.

Freedom is a neat novel. Despite its various strands and the vast expanses of time covered (a large part of the novel focuses on the years after 2001, but the time period stretches from the 1970s to present day), Franzen brings everything neatly together towards the end, yet succeeds in not making it appearing too neat or formulaic.

Via the Berglund  family saga Franzen touches several contemporary issues relevant both to America and wider world: the atrocities at the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq; destruction of the natural habitats of birds and animals (a subject apparently close to Franzen’s heart; he is particularly fascinated by the songbird—as mentioned in his 2007 memoir The Discomfort Zone—which Walter so valiantly tries to protect) and the effect on environment; and fatigue and decline of liberal thinking in America (Franzen presumably is a Democrat, but Walter, the fictional democrat, opines at one point that there is nothing wrong with his wife’s mental state that a job wouldn’t resolve). All these themes blend so well in the narrative structure of the novel that at no stage do they seem like an unnecessary add-on.

That is not all. One of the many reasons why this novel has struck a chord with wider book-reading public (I think) is that it touches upon and gives sometime-ironic-sometimes-sincere comment upon many contemporary issues close to the heart of the developed world middle-classes. In that sense the novel is similar to The Corrections, only better, as it is not as inward looking as The Corrections.

Ultimately, though, the novel succeeds because of Franzen’s eminently believable, well-rounded and compassionate portraits of the worlds of his protagonists. The story of Walter and Patty and their children and their friend Richard is the story of you and me. And it is told in a manner that is funny, witty, compassionate, humane, and, above all, utterly absorbing. (Not easy, this; Ian McEwan could not pull it off in Solar which is on the theme of global warming; there is a cheeky nod to McEwan’s Atonement in this novel, when Joey struggles to interest himself in the descriptions of rooms and paintings.) Freedom is a very well-written novel. At almost 600 pages it is humongous, but it is also a literary page-turner.

In her memoir Patty Berglund mentions that she is reading War and Peace; she even compares herself at one point to Narasha. Has Franzen written a modern day War and Peace? I wouldn’t know, as I haven’t read War and Peace.  Is Freedom the Great American Novel? I wouldn’t know about it either, because I haven’t read many American novels. What I can say is Freedom is a smashing good read, one of the most enjoyable novels I have read so far this year. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Steve Jobs Dies

I would be lying if I said I was a fan of Steve Jobs. That is not to say I was not a fan of Steve jobs. I just had no views on Steve Jobs, not being a techno-geek.

My relationship to technology is roughly the same as that Dawn French’s to low carb diet. I don’t understand it; I am suspicious of it; I can do without it; and I can’t understand others who make a fuss about it.

Yet even I had heard of Steve Jobs as some sort of visionary (who was also an immensely wealthy man).

It is not my intention to write an obituary of Steve Jobs, here. However, when I did a google search and went through some of the obituaries I learned some facts about his personal life which I thought were interesting.

There were several facts about Steve Jobs that I did not know. I am aware that there is nothing sui generis about these facts, and they assume interest (to me) only because of what Steve Jobs went on to become.

I did not know that he was half Arab by birth. His biological father was a Syrian Muslim by the name of Abdulfattah Jandali  (who later became a political science professor). His mother, Joanne, was American of German-Swiss ancestry.  Both his parents were very young college graduates when Joanne fell pregnant. Her father would not allow her to marry an Arab and under pressure from her white, conservative, Christian family Joannae went to San Fracisco on her own where she gave birth to a boy. It was arranged that the child would be adopted. Years later, in a speech Jobs recalled that his biological mother was very keen that the adoptive parents be college graduates. Accordingly a rich lawyer and his wife were all set to adopt Joanne’s child. Except that they changed their minds at the last minute and decided that they really wanted a girl child. Paul and Clara Jobs, a childless Armenian couple that was on the waiting list, was contacted in the middle of the night and asked whether they would want to adopt a boy, and they said yes. Joanne was very unhappy when she learned that the prospective adoptive parents had never been to college. She refused to sign the adoption papers. She relented after a few months only when Paul Jobs promised her that the boy would go to college one day. The adoption finally went through and the baby was named Steve.

Abdulfattah Jandali was not involved in any of this. Years later he recalled that at that time he was very much in love with Joanne, but her ‘tyrannical’ father who was ‘like a dictator’ refused to accept him as his son-in-law because he was a Muslim and a foreigner. According to Jandali, Joanne just ‘upped and left’. He had apparently no idea where she had gone.

The irony is: within 10 months of giving away their son for adoption Abdulfattah Jandali and Joanne married, and very soon after that her father, so opposed to the inter-racial marriage, died. The couple went on to have another child, a daughter, who is Steve Jobs’s biological sister. The marriage did not last and, in the early 1960s, Joanne and Abdulfattah Jandali divorced (or he walked out on his family). Joanne married again and their daughter, Mona, took on the name of her step-father and became Mona Simpson.

I had never heard of Mona Simpson before but apparently she is a novelist who has published five novels.

Paul Jobs kept the promise he had given to Joanne. When he was 17 Steve Jobs enrolled in Reed college that was, as he recalled later, as expensive as Stanford. Almost all of his working class parents’ savings were spent on his college education and he did not even like the course. After  a year he dropped out of the course and began dropping in on courses that looked interesting. He slept on the floor of his friend’s room, returned coke bottles to buy food with and every Sunday walked 7 miles to a Hare Krishna temple where he would have his only square meal of the week.

I did not know that at the age of 19 Jobs travelled to India where he stayed in an ashram of an Indian mystique, the intriguingly named Neem Karoli Baba. When returned to America several months later, he had shaved his head and he was wearing traditional Indian clothes. He had become a Buddhist.

Steve Job stayed Buddhist for the rest of his life (although his published photos in the last decade of so show suggest that he stopped wearing traditional Indian clothes).

Steve Jobs started Apple in his parents’ garage when he was 20. The rest, as they say, was history. It would however be fair to say that it was not smooth sailing all the way for Jobs. In the mid-1980s he was publically ousted from Apple. He founded another company named NeXT, which was not the whopping success he thought it would be; but the other company he formed, Pixer, went on to produce the first feature length animated film, Toy Story, the first of the many successful films Pixer produced  in partnership with Disney. In 2006 Disney bought Pixer in a reported all-stock transaction worth $7.4 billion dollars.

In 1997 Apple bought NeXT and Jobs made a triumphant return to the company he co-founded twenty years previously in his parents’ garage.

In the 1970s Jobs had a relationship with a Bay area painter named Chrisann Brennan, his first serious girl-friend, and had a daughter, named Lisa, from that relationship. Jobs, who was very wealthy by that time initially refused to accept that he was the father and swore in a  court document that he could not possibly be the father because he was ‘sterile and infertile’, and therefore physically incapable of procreating. He later accepted that he was the father and was reconciled with her. He financed Lisa’s university education at Harvard. He married Laurene Powell in a Buddhist ceremony in 1991 and the couple has three children.

In 2004 Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which is generally considered to have very poor prognosis. However he apparently had a rare form of cancer which could be treated with surgery. For several months following the diagnosis, Jobs reportedly refused to follow doctors’ advice to undergo surgery and experimented with Eastern (presumably unproven) alternative treatments. He accepted to undergo surgery after nine months. The surgery gave him seven more years to live, helped, one assumes, along the way by another major surgery—a liver transplant—in 2009.

Jobs was, for all outward appearances, not very curious about his biological parents. At one point he is believed to have made the observation that he did not believe in genetics but in experiences. He considered his adoptive parents as his real mother and father. However he is believed to have tracked down his biological mother with the help of a private detective in the mid 1980s and also met his novelist sister to whom he became very close. Jobs was invited by Mona Simpson at the launch of her debut novel Anywhere But Here’. Jobs invited his biological mother to some of his big launches.

Jobs never publically discussed his biological father, Abdulfattah Jandali; and it is very probable that the two men never met in life. Indeed it is possible that Jandali was not even aware until a few years ago that the son given away by Joanne for adoption all those years ago, whom he had never seen in person, was the famous Steve Jobs. However it seems inconceivable that Jobs (who had gone to some lengths to trace and contact his biological mother and who was close to his biological sister from mid-1980s onwards) did not know who his biological father was.

Abdulfattah Jandali, a non-practising Muslim (who nevertheless ‘believes in Islam—doctrine and culture’) never met his son. After he left his wife and young daughter Jandali drifted from jobs to jobs before he left  academia altogether and  for decades has lived in Reno where he is a well-off vice-president of a casino. Jandali, the only son of a Syrian ‘self-made millionaire’, was educated in Beirut and came to United States when he was 18 and obtained a PhD in political science very swiftly. As reticent as his famous son, Jandali never spoke about his famous son until recently. None of his erstwhile colleagues in the academic world, nor his colleagues in Reno (save some close friends), knew that Jandali was Steve Job’s father.

In August this year, the month Jobs stepped down as Apple’s chief, Jandali broke his decades long silence on his famous son (incredibly to a British tabloid). He expressed regret that he never got to know his famous son. However he also clarified that he was not prepared ‘even if either of us was on our death bed to pick up a phone and call him. Steve would have to do that.’ Apparently the Syrian pride ‘does not want him [Jobs] to think that I am after his fortune.’ But he longed to meet his son. He hoped that ‘before it is too late he [Steve Jobs] would reach out to me. Even to have one coffee with him just once would make me a very happy man.’

Jobs did not respond to this very public appeal from his father.

When contacted by newspapers in Reno after the death of Steve Jobs was announced Jandali declined to comment. ‘I really don’t have anything to say,’ he said, ‘I know the news.’

A statement from Apple announcing Jobs’s passing on said: ‘In his public life Steve was a visionary. In his private life he cherished his family.’

In a speech he gave to the students of Stanford University in 2005 Jobs had this to say about death:

‘No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.’
After a very remarkable life Jobs has gone to his final destination, the very best invention (as he said in his famous Stanford speech) of life. May his soul rest in peace.

Another Round of Quantitative Easing: It Won't Work

The Bank of England (BoE) has finally announced what many pundits were predicting it would do. It has decided to print more money. (I know! I know! This is primarily a book blog, but my escape clause is I have given myself permission to write on any subject that happens to interest me at a given time).

Let’s recap a bit, shall we?

We are in the middle of the worst recession since the Black Death. Europe is crumbling; America, according to many economists, self-appointed experts, and financial hacks is heading for a double dip recession; and Japan enjoys the dubious distinction of having interest rates that are even lower than those of the BoE (and where has it got them?). Some might hope (in desperation) that the emerging giants of Asia—China and India—will be the engines to kick-start world economy, but it ain’t gonna happen. China and India are bubbles. This notion that there are more than 2 billion people out there, all salivating at the prospect of buying Western goods, while it might make a compelling narrative to hack out an article for some financial mag, is ludicrous. If anything, chances are that the European and Western demands for Chinese trinkets and plastic dolls will go down and China may have to look to its domestic market to maintain its growth (which is slowing, suggesting that the economy is overheating), and whatever else the Chinese peasants might need, I am guessing they would do without a Barbie doll. The Chinese property market is heading for, as they say, a hard landing; and the time is not far off when the Chinese regime will have to think hard about how many more dams it is going to build. Not good news for exporters to China.

Let’s also give it a thought why we are in recession. OK, the monetary crisis was triggered by the dodgy shenanigans of the banks which began speculating money they did not own in riskier and riskier endeavours.

But that is not the whole story.

We in the West have been living way beyond our means for a long time; and now it’s payback time. Debt is never good, especially when you’re paying it down. When the time arrives to pay back your debts, the good time you’ve had with the debt is a faint memory. I accept that there is no escaping debts in the modern (capitalist) societies. However, there are—to paraphrase football jargon—debts and there are debts. If you’ve a mortgage that is an essential debt. If, on the other hand, you’ve built up huge credit card debts buying crap you have watched advertisement of on the idiot box or some other junk you’ve got to have because some vacuous friends of yours have bought it (building their own mountains of credit card debts), then you are the author of your own misfortune.

A friend of mine who recently bought an i-pad (which he can afford but does not need; at least I don’t think he needs, as he has a perfectly serviceable lap top, which, incidently, he upgrades every two years; the guy is a manager of a warehouse) told me that ‘research’ has apparently shown that people owning i-pads are happier than people who own androids, or some such nonsense. It astonishes me that someone would find this worth researching (but it wouldn't astonish me at all to know that the ‘research’ was funded by a grant from the UK government); but even if it is true, you'd agree with me that it says more about the state of collective British psych (or, if you are pedantic, the colelctive psych of people interviewed in the survey) rather than inherent antidepressant properties of i-pad.

It never ceases to amaze me seeing people entrapped in the cage of consumer debt, the walls of which they have lovingly built themselves. For too long people in Britain have been building up debts to service lifestyles which they can’t afford (and probably makes them more miserable; I mean if your self-esteem and inner peace is entirely determined by whether you own a posh car, or show off a fancy hand-bag made from the hide of an animal, or own some ridiculously priced gadget which is the absolute tops until the next absolute tops comes along the next day and you hanker after that, one does not have to be an Indian guru to figure out that it is going to come crashing around your ears sooner or later). It can’t go on, and now the time has arrived to swallow the bitter pill.

(It further astonishes me to see middle classes, which I would have thought ought to know better, getting entangled into the debt trap. They have assets (which they risk of losing) if they can’t pay their debts, yet some of them carried on spending money, tying the money in harebrained schemes etc.,  and building up debts. If you don’t own any assets, if you are one of the beneficiaries of the benefit system, sure, carry on with your hedonistic life-style. What have you got to lose? Just say the right things to your doctor who, for no other reason than to get you out of his office, will support your disability claim, and you are off.)

OK, enough ranting against the consumerism plaguing the British society (in particular the middle classes). Back to macroeconomics.

The way I see it we are in recession (or almost in recession) because ultimately there is not enough money in the system. That could be either because there is not enough money available or not enough money is changing hands.

So what is the answer of the BoE? They are going to create money electronically. It is not the money that is coming into the system from some outside source, mind (e.g. exports, although, come to think of it what is it that Britain produces, other than weapons of mass destructions that are sold to the African and Middle Eastern despots, that is desired by the world?, although, in recent years we have tried to export hooliganism). This money is simply printed and poured into the system. The 64 million dollars question is: will the money go to the part of the economy that needs it? The BoE will give money to the banks and its big hope will be the banks will start lending money. But will they? They did not do it the first time round (paying down as they were their own bad debts). What if the banks may once again decide to hoard the cash? In which case the money will not come into system at all.
Suppose the banks do decide to lend the money. Will there be appetite amongst people to take it, especially if there is job insecurity? Take the housing market as an example. The house prices in Britain—barring some crazy parts in London—are generally considered to be down, and they are expected to fall down further next year. Why might that be? Obvious answer is people are either unable or unwilling to take out a mortgage (which is ultimately a debt). The commonly held assumption is that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there, itching to get on the housing ladder, but can’t because they can’t secure mortgages. Even if this is true, there may be very good reasons why at least a proportion of them is unable to secure mortgages: the banks have become more careful when they lend. Gone are the days of 100% loan (now that was a bubble) but many banks may require 15-20% deposits, and if you can’t afford that, they are not going to lend you. What I am saying is: just because BoE has decided to print money, it does not mean that banks will relax their lending rules any time soon or there will be a sudden demand for incurring more debt.

The inevitable consequence of printing money is an increase in inflation. That is if it works and the BoE achieves its aim of getting more money into the system. If there is a lot of money sloshing about, it stands to reason that its value will be lowered. Which means the prices of everything from utilities to commodities will shoot up. And that is potentially a risky thing. Controlling inflation is like riding a Bengal tiger. There is no guarantee that you will be able to control the beast. And with the public sector salaries frozen for the foreseeable future, that is going to hurt. Shadeloads of people in the public sector are going to lose their jobs in the coming years (primarily because the jobs were probably non-jobs in the first place, created by the previous Labour government, which had no real answer for the big structural deficits in the British economy, and simply created public sector non-jobs from the money pumped into the system by the City), and there is no way the private sector has the capacity to accommodate the orphaned (as my friend, the warehouse manager, puts it, who needs strategic manager for waste disposal system?). That will put more strain on the system, as these people will turn to the government for support at a time when less money will come to the government by way of taxes.

And to make the miseries of those, who still have jobs and are thrifty, complete, the interest rates are at what the BBC never tires of repeating ad nauseum historic low. Anyone in Britain with an ounce of sense will be focusing on paying off their debts, worried that they may not have the job security; and with the inflation looming the tendency would be not to spend (saving money for the rainy day and all that. (I know of some people who are now buying shares and, worryingly, dabbling in riskier practices such as spread-baiting to see their money grow, as the interest rates are ridiculously low).

This, I believe, is the Keynesian paradox where everyone becomes thrifty at exactly the wrong time, although I also think that the moment of spending your way out of recession—the Keynesian solution to Great Depression— is long gone. Much as I hate to admit it, dodgy Dave—smoother than snot on the doorknob—is right when he said in the Neo-Nasty party conference that we need to man up and pay down our credit card debts or some such cheap lines his speech writer wrote for him.

Quantitative easing is an exercise in futility. It will not work. It did not work in Japan, and it won’t work here.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Why there aren't Many Jewish Writers in Britain

When Howard Jacobson won the 2010 Booker Prize I was pleased for two reasons: firstly, Jacobson is one of the writers I have enjoyed reading. Even when he is not at his best, as in Who is Sorry Now?, he is entertaining. And when he is firing on all cylinders, as in Coming from Behind and PeepingTom, he is absolutely first rate. This was the first time Jacobson was short-listed for the prize and the award was a long overdue recognition of a writer who has produced high quality novels over a long period.

The second reason I felt pleased was the novel, The Finkler Question, was described as a comic novel. In an interview after the award, Jacobson was at pains to clarify that he was a comic / serious writer. He was not comic light. (Who can be described as a comic light writer? P.G. Wodehouse?) The Finkler Question, he (somewhat pompously) declared, was comedy taken in to troubled and tragic areas. Whatever. I love reading comic novels (both comic/serious and comic/light), and I was pleased that after a long time a comic novel was considered worthy of a literary and fairly influential (at least in the UK) award.

It did not occur to me to be pleased that Jacobson was also a Jewish writer.

I read The Finkler Question last month and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I am not going to review The Finkler Question here.  It is a typical Jacobson fare, about a middle aged man obsessed about Jewishness, the twist being he is not actually Jewish. It is a very funny novel, and very moving in parts (perhaps that’s what meant when he said he was a comic / serious writer).  It is, like most of Jacobson’s earlier novels, a very Jewish novel. But I do not immediately think Jewish when I think of Jacobson. He is a British writer.
However, judging by some of the comments Jacobson made in the wake of his Booker triumph, his Jewish heritage in the wider context of British culture was very much on Jacobson’s mind when he wrote The Finkler Question.

‘The Question of anti-Semitism in this country [Britain] is vexed,’ Jacobson said. ‘Do we Jews imagine it, do we half want it to define ourselves by, do we contribute to it by harping on about it (a particularly sinister suggestion)? Such are the questions the characters in The Finkler Question discuss—a reflection of what the British Jews are asking each other.’

So The Finkler Question, at one level, by its author’s admission, a novel about what it means to be a Jew in modern day Britain. Fair enough. Does that make Jacobson a Jewish writer? The man himself appears to be ill at ease with this idea of being defined by his Jewishness. In one of the many post-Booker interviews he gave, Jacobson, when directly questioned about it, said:

 ‘Although I talk about things Jewish, when I hear anyone saying, “another book about Jewish identity from Howard Jacobson”, I think that's not what I'm writing about. For me the Jewish world is one of the worlds that I happen to know. It was the world I grew up in, so it's full of references for me. It's almost like the miners in DH Lawrence or the sailors in Joseph Conrad. You don't go to Joseph Conrad because you want to read a sea story, or to DH Lawrence because you want to read about miners, that's just where it's set. Essentially, without being grand about it, you're just writing about humanity. If you asked me is this book about being Jewish or being a man? I would say that it's more about being a man.’

Jonathan Safron Foyer remarked that had Jacobson been born in America and had written exactly the same kind of novels he would have been considered up there with Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, the two great twentieth century Jewish-American chroniclers.  Jacobson has always disliked the epithet ‘British Philip Roth’ bestowed upon him by some, and once remarked semi-jocularly that he considered himself to be the love child of Philip Roth and Jane Austen.

However, the comments of Jonathan Saffron Foer (whom some consider to be the 21st century writer in the tradition of Roth on the basis of two novels he has so far published) raises a curious point: there really is no tradition of Jewish-British literature the way there is of Jewish American literature.  Why might this be?
One obvious reason (to me) is that there aren’t very many Jews in Britain. This is a country of more than 60 million, of which less than 0.5% are Jewish, not a huge pool. So realistically how many novels are you going to get about Jewishness? Not many I would have thought. So a simple answer to the question why there aren’t more Jewish writers in Britain is that there aren’t many Jews in Britain.

Another reason could be Britain’s curiously monolithic, inward looking, (some might say self-satisfied, self-important, and smug) culture. I remember coming across a comment somewhere that Britain is country with great past and no future. That is obviously a hyperbole, but, like all hyperboles, there is a kernel of truth hidden somewhere at its core. The English are very sure of their place in the scheme of things (at the top rung of the ladder) and have an exalted and unchanging view of the past. The Jews, like the Irish, were just about tolerated; they were invited to take a ringside seat and spectate; but neither of the communities was thought to have anything worthwhile to contribute to a culture that was already formed. Prime Minister’s Cameron’s assertion that state multiculturalism has failed in Britain, while it might not be factually incorrect, is symptomatic of the sentiments bubbling just under the surface, attempt as it does to put the blame for this failure at the doors of the ‘other’, ‘minority’ cultures. Although I doubt very much that Cameron had the Jews in his mind when he made his crass speech—he was aiming at the British Muslims, majority of whom come from South East Asia—if we try to apply these sentiments to Jewish literature, we can perhaps begin to understand why there isn’t as well-known a tradition of Jewish literature in Britain as there is in America. There was a great pressure on the Jews, one of the only two ‘ethnic minorities’ in Britain (the other being Irish, but the Irish have always had their tradition of literature, primarily, in my view, because they had their own nation-state where the Irish way of life and Irish traditions could be preserved) before the arrivals of the migrants from South East Asia and the Caribbean, to assimilate. And many Jews did assimilate. Assimilation, in its extreme form, demands that the assimilator jettison his cultural, religious heritage and embrace in totality the culture surrounding him. Unlike in America, the Jews in Britain did not (could not) contribute to the construction of the national identity. The English knew who they were, what they were, and did not want foreigners speaking strange languages and with curious customs to sully the matters, thank you very much. The ‘minorities’, migrants if you will, have two choices: either forget your identity and embrace the main-stream culture (even though that would not make them ‘propha’ English); or live in a ghetto.

In his 2004 novel, The Making of Henry (which I have reviewed earlier on this blog), this is more or less Jacobson says (far more elegantly than I ever can) via the novel’s curmudgeonly eponymous protagonist:

‘In America [Henry says] the Jews had taken on a version of the national identity, had made the American cause their own, had even shaped it, sometimes dangerously—tempting fate, risking a backlash—in their own image. Not in England, not in Manchester, not on the Pennines. Yes, they were dutiful citizens; they paid their taxes, fought in wars, performed charitable deeds, gave service to the community—but only for the right, at last, to be left alone to notice nothing, and not be noticed noticing it.’

At one point in the novel, Henry’s girl friend, who insists she is non-Jewish (although he is convinced that she is), tells Henry off about his ‘self-conscious’ Jew thing.

‘I think it is childish, Henry [Moira says]. No one is asking you to pretend that you are somebody other than you are . . .But it is provincial to keep going on about it. And insecure. In my experience people who can’t stop talking about themselves aren’t easy with it. The man of the world accepts who he is and the influences which have made him and then gets on with living in the world. The big world.’

(Henry feels no obligation to take on board the above advice and keeps up with his Jewish thing, making The Making of Henry, a very Jewish novel. In another interview Jacobson said that Kalooki Nights was his most Jewish novel. I can’t imagine how any novel can be more Jewish than The Making of Henry, but, as I an Americans friend of mine is fond of saying, I sure am gonna find out.)

Things do not necessarily become easier for the children of the migrants who grew up to be British. As Linda Grant, one of the finest Jewish writers writing in English today (although many would not identify her as Jewish) said once:

‘How does someone in Britain born into both an observant conservative Jewish family but going to school every day in a non-Jewish environment, construct an identity they can use as a writer?’

This is a dilemma faced by, I suspect, almost all ‘ethnic’ minorities, not only by the Jewish community. The ‘minorities’, Jewish and others, with their distinct pasts, cannot, will not, be absorbed into Britishness—cultural, communal or territorial—into the bargain a sense of inferiority would be imposed upon them (as evinced by the attacks on the Muslim community, majority of which is law-abiding, by politicians of all ranks and parties and the barely suppressed Islamophobic atmosphere that pervades the majority community). If one dares to look into one’s community the entire time one risks getting pigeonholed and, linked to it, stereotyped. It is interesting that Monica Aliand Zadie Smith, who burst on to the UK literary scene with their debut novels which can be loosely described as having been derived from their part-cultural (‘part’ because both had one parent English) background, felt compelled to move away from the ‘ethnic backgrounds’ in their subsequent novels. Jhumpa Lahiri, the 2000 Pulitzer winner, has taken inspiration from her culture in her published output so far. Lahiri was born in London, but went to live in America at a young age with her Indian parents; and one wonders whether that has anything to do with the nature of her literary output and the unfaltering manner in which she ‘allows’ the influences that have shaped her to enter, dominate, even, her fiction. 

So, why aren’t there more Jewish writers writing Jewish fiction in the UK?  The answer: there aren’t many Jews in Britain. And the British culture discourages strong expressions of identity when it (the culture) does not conform to the hidebound ideas of the majority community of what elements go on to make a rich culture.

Here is a WikiPedia list of British Jewish writers. I don’t know how complete the list is. Not all on the list were born in Britain.

Of the list, the ones I have read (and liked) are Anita Brookner, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson, Ruth Prawer-Jhabwala (not born in Britain and hasn’t lived in Britain for decades), Arthus Koestler (not born in Britain), Marghanita Laski (have read only one novel and absolutely loved it), Bernice Rubens (winner of the 1969 Booker), William Sutcliffe (didn’t know he was Jewish. His Are You Experienced? is a laugh out loud romp), Zoe Heller (listed as Jewish in WikiPedia because her father was Jewish; has immigrated to America), the great Muriel Spark (although she converted to Catholicism), and last but not the least Elias Canetti (Bulgarian born, but lived in Britain for 20 odd years. Auto da Fe, Canetti's only full length novel is, in my view, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, although Canetti wrote it before he arrived in England, and the novel is not set here).

Then there are Stephen Fry and Will Self (both Jewish from their mothers’ side) whom I have read but don’t rate too high.  

I have read a novel each of Naomi Alderman and Lisa Appignanesi, and while I was not bowled over by tem, I have kept an open mind. 

Finally there is Simon Sebag Montefiore who has written a novel (which I haven’t read) but is more well known as a historian.