Sunday, 9 February 2020

George Steiner, 1929-2020

 © National Portrait Gallery, London
1. In my teens George Steiner was on the telly a fair bit, talking about really great writers and themes in history; and I mean scheduled shows on BBC2 and Channel 4 (who had him as a pundit when they broadcast live coverage of the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution in 1989.) Having Steiner talk at one through the television made a big impression on a boy who hadn’t grown up with many significant literary works lying around the house.

2. It was on one Channel 4 book-show (about the life and work of Kafka) where Steiner proposed that Kafka was the only great author (i.e. besting even Dante or Shakespeare) who could be thought to ‘have made his own a letter of the alphabet’ – which is such a sharp and charming apercu.

3. I will also never forget hearing Steiner describe the true function of the critic as that of a postman: one who knows precisely where to deliver the missives of men & women of letters. (As I recall, he attributes this image to Pushkin?)

4. Understandably, a great many literary critics rate themselves in the mirror as major wordsmiths, and Steiner no doubt had a sound ego; but he also served a warning here: ‘Cruelly, perhaps’, he wrote in Real Presences (1989), ‘it does seem to be the case that aesthetic criticism is worth having only, or principally, where it is of a mastery of answering form comparable to its object.’

5. Subsequent to hearing the news of Steiner’s death last week I saw a piece from 1996 in Prospect, by James Wood, heavily and rather showily (i.e. ‘hatchet’-like) criticising Steiner’s rigour and high-flown manner, and the windiness of certain propositions, especially Steiner’s insistence on the aspiration to transcendence in great art. Wood thought a writer couldn’t seriously argue this without religious belief of their own, vested in a specific form of faith. 'All great writing,' Steiner insisted, 'springs from le dur desir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation.' Personally I think the hope is sufficient – the belief that the human spirit points us to the possibility, still, of something more than our mortal consciousness. I don’t believe, but most of my favourite art is religious art of a sort.

6. Wood and others mark Steiner down as something of a conservative figure from the 1960s, a button-down among longhairs and so forth. Maybe accurate when viewed from a generational lens, but Steiner certainly wasn’t shocked by or immune to strains of new and daring thought – he just took a view on them as phenomena. His two 1960s-era essays on sexual explicitness in fiction, 'Night Words' and 'Eros and Idiom', I would happily teach today, and I don’t feel the same about a lot of celebrated and f*ck-laden fictions of that era and subsequent.

7. Steiner was quite modest about the few fictions he published, but The Portage to San Christobal of A.H. is a remarkable dramatic-philosophical piece, potent enough for Christopher Hampton to make a play out of it.

8. Like many writers who teach writing, I find it useful to refer to the published and unexpurgated versions of the stories of Raymond Carver, before and after Gordon Lish got to them. They’re a good test of the worth of the sort of literary minimalism which has been critically valorised for all the years that I’ve been reading and writing. Minimalism has its pros and cons, and Steiner was very good on the cons, remarking a few years back that writing "seems to me too often, in this country, at the moment, a minimalist art. Very, very non-risk-taking. Very tight – often admirably, technically. But finally one thinks of the nasty taunt of Roy Campbell, the South African rightwing poet: I see your bridle, where's the bloody horse?"

9. Steiner had a bit of a snub from Cambridge in his early academic career, and believed, if I have it right, that his foreignness made him a bit of a figure of suspicion in the circles where he’d hoped to practise. He certainly fired some bullets in the direction of Cambridge’s circular culture when in 1980 he wrote of Anthony Blunt as ‘The Cleric of Treason.’

10. I was only in the same room as Steiner once, 1998, I think, when the London Review of Books and New Left Review jointly hosted a sort of symposium on Israel/Palestine given by Edward Said. Steiner made some comments from the floor, more in sorrow than anger over things, noting how long he and Said had been writing in the field. Afterward there were drinks in the low-ceiling basement bar of a Bloomsbury hostelry, an unseemly buy-your-own crush with crazy-loud music, and I remember watching Steiner pass alone amid the throng, en route – or so I was hoping, for his sake – to the exit. As a sodality it was hopeless; but still he wore the small, curious smile of this that I’d got used to seeing on the telly.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Above Average at Games: Wodehouse on Sport

In stores this week is the second anthology of PG Wodehouse that I’ve had the tremendous fortune to edit for the Hutchinson imprint. The first, in 2016, was on booze; this one concerns sport. No-one can be expected to pursue happiness in moderation; and when a masterful writer such as Wodehouse turns his eye upon such life-enhancing pursuits as these, then the sum of human happiness grows.

Wodehouse was certainly a master - one can argue about the breadth of his range, but not about the perfection of his pitch, founded as it was on plot-building and sentence-making of surpassing elegance. Sports were among his true passions in life, and he wrote stories about them as well as anyone has, before or since. So, I'd concede, this new volume is for the sports fans above all, if not exclusively.

2019 has, of course, been a remarkably dramatic year in sport. Anyone watching the cricket and rugby World Cups, say, or Tiger Woods at the Masters, or Naomi Osaka versus Coco Gauff at the US Open, must surely have felt at times that sporting contests at the pinnacle of excellence contain their very own artistic perfection, which a storyteller can only envy and labour to imitate. Wodehouse, though, is one of those rare writers who makes sport on the page nearly as pleasing as sport on the pitch.

I’ve titled my anthology with a nod to Wodehouse’s biographer Frances Donaldson, who contended that ‘[n]o boy who is good at games ever has a bad time at school,’ and that Wodehouse felt it important to have been ‘above average at games,’ not simply because of the peer approval that followed but because, in his later writing life, he could convey both a participant’s pleasure in and a technical understanding of the game in question.

Above Average is, then, a selective tour through the sporting side of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, beginning with his early school sports journalism (where we find him limbering up and trying out his muscles as a humorist, working towards ‘the voice’ that will see him durably through a 70-year writing career.) It drives onward to extended extracts from certain novels, and noteworthy short stories in their entirety.

Prior to this delightful assignment I had a decently rounded sense of how good Wodehouse was on cricket and golf. I’d less of an appreciation for how well he’d done rugby, athletics, boxing. In the early school novel The Pothunters, for instance, there is a terrific account of a mile-race that puts the reader right in the thick of the tension and adrenalin of timing a kick to the finish against an adversary hard at one’s shoulder (‘Everything seemed black to him, a black, surging mist, and in its centre a thin white line, the tape…’)

As to the boxing: The White Feather – a portrait of an artist as a young and not wholly willing pugilist – is consummate storytelling wherein a boy goes to learn to fight for the good of his mettle and is surprised to discover the immense skill in the thing. (Wodehouse boxed for the school at Dulwich College though he later admitted to an interviewer that he was better on stamina than technique: ‘After three rounds I was always willing and anxious to go on and could never understand why the decision went against me, as I couldn’t remember the other fellow hitting me at all. This although I was streaming with blood…’)

Wodehouse’s principal cricket writing is the sequence of fictions from 1907 to 1910 starring the boy-batsman-prodigy Mike Jackson. Now, batting has always seemed to me a very high-order accomplishment, whatever number you come in at. It’s a lot to do with the demands on concentration, and the high odds that your day will end very prematurely and dismayingly due to a single misjudgement or twist of fortune. It would be annoying, then, if Wodehouse’s Mike were never prey to such anomalies.

Mike is seen to be exceptionally gifted but Wodehouse often shows his talents being first underrated. He was fully aware of the storytelling conventions here, too, as described in Mike and Psmith: ‘In stories of the ‘Not Really a Duffer’ type, where the nervous new boy, who has been found crying in the boot-room over the photograph of his sister, contrives to get an innings in a game, nobody suspects that he is really a prodigy till he hits the Bully's first ball out of the ground for six.’

That set-up is indeed as old as Metheuselah, but Wodehouse doesn’t play it like so: there’s nothing nervy about Mike, indeed he exudes self-assurance whenever he attains the crease. And in asserting the accuracy of this character-type Wodehouse hits the middle-stump: ‘An entirely modest person seldom makes a good batsman. Batting is one of those things which demand first and foremost a thorough belief in oneself. It need not be aggressive, but it must be there.’

Still, it’s fundamentally boring if the hero of a tale flies through every test. Just when the reader might think Mike never fails with the bat, Wodehouse has him out for a duck – because even Don Bradman had days like that. Wodehouse also suggests that the level of Mike’s investment in the game makes him at times a little one-note and sharp-tongued to anyone who interferes with his practice of the art: to that extent, he’s maybe too much of a sportsman, and it might be why Wodehouse began to favour Mike’s friend Psmith for more stories.

The obsessiveness that we bring to playing games has its comical side – the mono-browed pursuit of victory, of the personal best, approximate at times to the larger follies of humankind. The game of golf is especially suited to such comedy: is any sport more thoroughly afflicted by miniscule adjustments to complex rituals, by coaches and expensive quack-remedies? (Thus did Norman Mailer write of ‘monumentally boring golfers who work for years to improve their swing and never stop talking about it.')

Wodehouse, who loved the game, also knew this stuff was ripe for mockery. His golf stories have no giant bestriding the links, analogous to Mike – rather, they tend, as Wodehouse usually didn’t, toward men-and-women stuff, ‘love interest’, and situations of romantic embarrassment badly in need of a solution. John Updike, a big aficionado of these stories, wrote of ‘mock-epic Wodehousian matches, often played for the hand of a comely girl.’ In at least one story the girl wants no part of the outcome. But more commonly golf in Wodehouse proves to be a means for lovers to unite and tee off together forever.

Wodehouse remains top-drawer reading pleasure, even for those hold-outs historically put off by books about people who have butlers. I loved putting this anthology together and I hope readers, too, will get a big kick out of its sporting line-up - a programme near as packed as Grandstand or World of Sport back in their day...

Friday, 1 March 2019

Talking Politics: Best Political Novels

Recently I sat down in Cambridge for the Talking Politics podcast with host David Runciman and fellow guest Kasia Boddy, and it was as grand a conversation I’ve had in years - now online here. Being a long-time admirer of the podcast I felt much as thrilled to be part of it as I guess pop groups used to feel about getting asked onto Top of the Pops.

Our subject was Political Fiction, and that is dear to me, of course. I got to talk about the making of Crusaders and The Knives, and a host of memories returned in the process. Both are political novels, to be sure. 

Crusaders got its title from Harold Wilson’s famous and incorrect assertion that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or nothing, and it addresses the ideas of Christian Socialism and Methodism-over-Marx as elements of Labour thinking and history. Tony Blair appears in it, and the central character, Reverend John Gore, is, if you squint, maybe an image of what Blair might have become if he'd gone into the Church instead of politics.
The Knives is more expressly about the practice of politics – how make policy and law about identity cards or domestic violence, say, or why sign a police surveillance warrant – but also, in its conflicts between characters: about ‘politics’ as a bunch of things in which people believe, and which influence their personal behaviour e.g. my fictional ex-army Home Secretary Blaylock and his human rights QC ex-wife.

In terms of other political novels I love, it wasn’t the right place but I would have liked to put in one more word for After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima, which drew so effectively upon real Japanese politics that Mishima was hit with a lawsuit. Mishima’s alarming political postures in life tend to overshadow the intelligence of his fictions; and in After the Banquet he used a brilliant device – the female proprietor of a restaurant popular with senior government officials – as a means to enter ‘the whirlpool of politics.’

The ‘timeliness’ or otherwise of fiction in addressing our times is always a slippery business. Crusaders was much concerned with Thatcherism and New Labour, two ideas that, judging by the conditions of Conservative and Labour parties in 2019, feel like they have moss growing over them in some tomb. With The Knives, which I finished in early 2016, I still think a lot about the scene in the novel where Blaylock goes to Brussels and ponders the whole game as a fairly thoroughgoing Eurosceptic who, in the ‘real world’, would nonetheless certainly have voted Remain.

Is our current moment, then, good or bad for political fiction? It had better hang on a bit yet: I have another political novel in the works. Spy writers of a certain age clearly miss the Cold War era, unlike most of the rest of us. Cultural veterans of the 1980s might well remember how useful Thatcherism proved to their store of ideas and convictions. In 1939 Brecht pronounced that it was ‘a bad time for poetry.’ It certainly was, as John Willett puts it, ‘a bad time for humanity.’ But German literature had just gone through an extraordinary efflorescence, and that continued, for Brecht and other contemporaries. Whether or not poetry makes anything big happen, the tragedies of our times very obviously bring forth great writings that survive and sustain us.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Critical Quarterly: Sherlock Holmes Redux

Critical Quarterly is a fine literary journal founded in the late 1950s by C.B. (Brian) Cox and A.E. (Tony) Dyson. Cox – a scholar and poet who was soon to become a leading figure in the national debate about education – was an avowed believer in 'the moral importance of literature,' with a particular love of poetry and a passion for ensuring that good contemporary writing had its day n the sun, rather than suffering in the shade of the Great Tradition.

The brilliant Colin MacCabe became CQ’s chief editor in 1990; and I’ve had the privilege of seeing my work in the journal’s pages since the mid-1990s. Matthew Taunton, Senior Lecturer at UEA, is now CQ’s deputy editor, and he and I worked together very happily as co-editors on the journal’s latest number, Sherlock Holmes Redux: a revisiting of Conan Doyle’s deathless canon and some of the many intriguing variations still being played within it.

Matthew took charge of a number of critical commissions, new writings on Doyle’s Sherlock, and those fruits are as follows:

- Daily bread: food and drink in the Holmes canon by Simon J. James
- Sherlock Holmes and risk by James Purdon
- Holmes the narrator: ‘Here it is that I miss my Watson’ by Lauren Owen
- Fair exchange?: Between the afterlives of Holmes and Raffles by Matthew Ingleby
- Escaping the Strand: the paratextual Sherlock Holmes by Katharine Brombley

My side of affairs was a sequence of interviews with creative individuals who have produced adaptations of Sherlock designed for contemporary audiences; and I threw in an essay of my own about the strange case of Sherlock and his famous contemporary Dr Freud of Bergasse 19:

 - A criminal and a crime‐fighter’: the Sherlockian Freud and the Freudian Holmes by Richard T. Kelly
- ‘Playing in the sandpit of Sherlock Holmes’: an interview with Jonathan Barnes
- ‘Near to the hem of his garment’: an interview with Sarah Perry
- ‘Was it better to slap him or kiss him?’: an interview with Louise Brealey

I recommend the whole package unreservedly to anyone with an interest in Holmes, the crime-detective genre, 19th-century literature more generally, and the crafty creative business of adaptation. On that score I also recommend Jonathan Barnes' raft of new Sherlock audio adventures for Big Finish; Sarah Perry's new Holmes story ‘The Problem of the Kentish Ghost’, written for Sophie Hannah’s compendium Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women; and, of course, Louise Brealey’s performances as the intriguingly non-canonical Molly Hooper in the BBC series Sherlock. Louise is also our edition’s cover star, and living proof of the novel transformations that still exist to be wrought upon the great consulting detective.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci 1941-2018: a phantastic guy

Name a filmmaker who maybe, maybe, spent a shade too long in psychoanalysis; Woody Allen’s name might spring to mind. But it was true, by his own admission, of Bernardo Bertolucci, who famously greeted the winning of a barrel-load of Oscars with the quip that Hollywood had become, for him, ‘the big nipple.’ He couldn’t stop himself.

That same year, 1988, John Boorman had done the rounds of Hollywood functions because he, too, was promoting a movie with multiple nominations; and in his diaries Boorman recorded a wonderful exchange with his fellow auteur. He asked Bertolucci quite why he’d done so much time on the analyst’s couch, and the reply was, as I recall: ‘Because I kept on making beautiful movies and nobody went to see them.’

The thing is, you can see Bertolucci making that joke, in all candour, with the delighting, semi-rueful smile that travelled halfway up the side of his face.

But, of course, not nearly so neglected! Bertolucci was, is, will be famous for Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. The Conformist is widely considered his masterpiece, one of the all-time great movies. Before the Revolution and The Spider’s Stratagem are hugely admired. Much else in his body of work is extraordinary and brilliant. That’s plenty, no?

It’s The Conformist for me, too. It’s about politics, about Italy and fascism; but it’s about cinema, too – helplessly, ravishingly. Bertolucci would own up, candidly, to a case of ‘the disease of cinephilia.’ In this movie, he made plain, you could see Ophuls, Sternberg, Welles. But you saw Godard, too – the father he offended by taking Paramount’s money to distribute the film. You saw Bresson: Bertolucci, who venerated the great man, cast Dominique Sanda fresh from Une Femme Douce because, he quipped, he wanted to steal one of Bresson’s virgins, put her in a beautiful dress and take her to a party.

Bertolucci was always honourable towards his great collaborators, too, as on The Conformist: the visual powerhouses Vittorio Storaro and Nando Scarfiotti, and Franco ‘Kim’ Arcalli, who helped him reconstruct The Conformist in the cutting-room (‘an ex-Partisan, fantastic guy!’ as Bertolucci would describe him to years later.)

Bertolucci’s cinema has given me so many more joys: that apartment in Last Tango in Paris, with its strange Christo-like shroud; the umbilical links in Luna, and the pop-culture joys of Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Matthew Barry’s café-jukebox dancing; the toast in The Last Emperor to ‘The Lord of Ten Thousand Years!’; The Sheltering Sky’s heartbreaking scene between Malkovich and Winger on the rocky plateau, that film’s heartbreaking score, its exquisite ending with Paul Bowles…

Bertolucci’s ambitions were so grand and romantic, his conception of sex and politics so heady, that you’d be hard-hearted not to see the life-enhancing charm of them, even if he sometimes bit off more than he could chew. If I remember it correct he wanted Novecento to be co-founded by Hollywood and Mosfilm, with US and Soviet actors in the two leads, as a means of engineering a little creative détente. That plan was doomed, a shade too schematic: as is any cinema, in my view, that tries to score points based on theories, that wants to editorialise rather than dramatise. Some of Bertolucci’s movies aren’t as dramatic as they ought to be; but they’re always ravishing.

When I was a research student at the British Film Institute in the mid-1990s I wrote a thesis on Nando Scarfiotti and his work, to which Bertolucci, with great grace, contributed in loving memory of his friend and colleague. I met him on the Tuscan location of Stealing Beauty, where he was commanding matters with the charisma I expected. Darius Khondji was the DP – no mean substitute for Storaro, who wasn't available, as he sometimes hadn't been ever since he was, in Bertolucci’s impish words, ‘unfaithful to him with Coppola’ for Apocalypse Now

I will never ever forget that day, that conversation, all I saw on Bertolucci’s show. I have one or two friends who are filmmakers, and I like to address them as ‘maestro,’ jocularly, but in respect, too – because it’s very hard to make a good film. Bertolucci made some great ones, and when I watched him make cinema I was so struck by the easy way in which he was addressed repeatedly by his collaborators as ‘maestro.’ He certainly was.  Buona notte e buona fortuna, maestro.