Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Good Out of Bad: The Best Novels about Politics

Strange bedfellows: Gore Vidal, Anthony Trollope, Yukio Mishima

'What we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.' Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

In 2011 I wrote up a list of my ten favourite fictional politicians in literature for the book-loving Nudge website. That list has now disappeared into web ether so I’m re-posting it below, ‘remixed’ to the extent of one substitution. My special interest in this topic is that for the last three years I’ve been at work on a novel about a senior politician and his personal and professional travails. As is my wont I researched this novel as actively as if it were to be a piece of non-fiction, and all that legwork was highly absorbing. The books in my list constitute an argument that you can't entirely make this stuff up.

I must admit I don’t think I could have made my list go as far as a top fifteen – there’s not an embarrassment of riches in the literary rendering of politics and politicians, unless you’re really keen on varieties of stage villainy writ large across a page. The challenge, as I see it, is how to render accurately both the politician’s trade in all its defeating complexity, and the politician as a human creature rather than a straw man ‘leaking sawdust at every pore.’ Here are ten fine examples of rising to said challenge – or nine, let’s say, and one black joke straight in at #10.

10. Sir Danvers Carew MP in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Sir Danvers is a mere cameo in this, the greatest of all supernatural tales, but he looks like the sort of politician we could approve of: a ‘beautiful gentleman with white hair’, exuding an ‘old-world kindness of disposition.’ This before Edward Hyde beats him to death with a walking stick – the sort of punishment that the public has, at times, seemed to think appropriate for its less reputable tribunes…

9. Roger Quaife MP in The Corridors of Power by C.P. Snow (1964)
Since so many political fictions are about the unprincipled and/or nakedly populist pursuit of power, there remains novelty in C.P. Snow’s tale of one politician who commits career suicide. Roger Quaife is a rising star in a Tory government, who lands his first big job in Defence yet confounds his admirers by seeming initially to be ‘a trimmer and a time-server’. However Quaife has set his heart on a sole accomplishment in office, namely the voting down of Britain’s nuclear deterrent – which Snow’s novel quite properly imagines as a high-risk game of stealth.

8. Senator James Burden Day in Washington D.C. by Gore Vidal (1957)
Gore Vidal was always considered to be ‘of the Left’ but you could argue he was really a party of one. The politician he admired most was his own grandfather, Oklahoma senator Thomas Gore, whom he described as ‘a genuine populist [who] did not like people very much.’ And in Washington D.C., Vidal’s contemporary-set political fiction, the character who commands most readers’ (as well as the author’s) sympathies is Burden Day, a reactionary southern Democrat senator, fiercely opposed to Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, as was Senator Gore of Oklahoma...

7. Tom Fool in Tom Fool by David Stacton (1961)
Stacton’s protagonist is a loose likeness of Wendell Wilkie, the beaten Republican presidential candidate in 1940: a liberal conservative (once a Democrat) who stood against Roosevelt while sharing his readiness to enter the war against Hitler (though wishing to annul the New Deal.) In the novel’s first half Tom stumps across America by rail, failing to cut through with the electorate and sensing the team at his back, especially the husband-and-wife PR duo known as ‘the Pattersons’, have their sights fixed on future campaigns with better-fancied candidates. In Part II the defeated Tom is a sort of global ambassador dropping in on the world’s new powers in a converted US Army bomber, brooding over which of them ‘would get the world’ if not the USA. Faber were sufficiently afraid of Stacton having libelled the living (if not Wilkie himself, who died in 1944) that they consulted the not-then-infamous Peter Carter-Ruck but he gave the novel a clean bill.

6. John Strickland in A Married Man by Piers Paul Read (1979)
Strickland is only an MP for the last 30 pages of the novel but his journey is the novel’s personal/political core: that of a solid bourgeois barrister, uneasy in midlife, who is revisited by ‘unfulfilled ideals’ from his Labour-supporting youth and wonders if there is still ‘time enough left to serve them.’ This vague yearning acquires focus when an old friend alerts Strickland to the imminent vacancy of a safe Labour seat in Hackney & Harringay. But is this serendipity or siren-call? Read’s severe Catholic conservatism allows only one answer.

5. Governor Arthur Fenstemaker in The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer (1961)
William Brammer composed this roman à clef, a collected trio of novellas, not long after an exhausting stint as speechwriter for Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who reportedly read the book with a deal of distaste: a case of not caring for the mirror’s reflection, since the rest of us can only be compelled by Arthur ‘Goddam’ Fenstemaker, a canny Texan who keeps himself at the heart of his home state’s politics. ‘You want to overturn the existin' institution, that's fine’, he tells a young protégé. ‘The thing to do is work through the institution… An' I'm that institution currently...’

4. Plantagenet Palliser in The Prime Minister (1876) and others by Anthony Trollope.
Trollope’s compendious cast list offers a wealth of choice but I will take Palliser, political ‘big beast’ whose career spans the posts of Chancellor, President of the Board of Trade, and finally Prime Minister of an ill-sorted coalition government – a role for which he is nonetheless well suited, especially given his smart conviction that ‘the idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd.’

3. Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe in Democracy by Henry Adams (1880)
Bertolt Brecht’s legendarily sardonic suggestion that unpopular governments ‘dissolve the people / And elect another’ seems to tell a perennial truth about how politicians can lose their sense of the populus who voted them into power. No such delusion afflicts the pragmatic Illinois schemer Silas Ratcliffe in Adams’ great novel. ‘No representative government’, Ratcliffe instructs clergyman’s daughter Madeleine Lee, ‘can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’

2. Yuken Noguchi in After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima (1960)
Readers familiar with the gory extremity of Mishima’s real-life politics will likely be surprised by this deft novel about the elegantly middle-aged Kazu, proprietor of a restaurant popular among government officials, who finds herself charmed by the grace and gravitas of ex-cabinet minister Noguchi. No sooner are they wed, though, than she is pulled into ‘the whirlpool of politics’ as he seeks office once more. Noguchi is a figure drawn from life all too adroitly: the retired politician Hachiro Arita sued Mishima successfully for invasion of privacy.

1. Governor Willie Stark in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Stark, famously, is a re-imagining of the Louisiana demagogue-populist Huey ‘Kingfish’ Long, autodidact farmer’s boy who build his career on massive public works, pledges to redistribute wealth, and mastery of the black arts. The grand theme of Penn Warren’s magisterial novel is that, politically, ‘the good’ is not necessarily brought about by politicians who are pure in heart. Willie Stark knows himself to be a fallen creature, ‘conceived in sin and born in corruption’. In power he resolves to improve the lives of the poor – but, necessarily, by foul means. For in Stark’s view the good must be made out of the bad, ‘because there isn’t anything else to make it out of’ – an unsettling analysis that gives this novel its drama and grandeur.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Kafka's The Metamorphosis: It Lives, Again...

Kafka postcard, available at zazzle.co.uk
If Franz Kafka were living today do you suppose he could get a start in the writing game, recessive type that he was? You’d hope so; but then it is a self-promoting business, not ideal for one who reviewed his life’s work and concluded that the bulk of it ought to be consumed by fire. On the one hand it’s hard to imagine Kafka on Twitter; yet undeniably the man had a gift for aphorisms. 'In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world' – that’s 65 characters right there.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) turned 100 this year. At least, 1915 is when it was published, which is to say finished; and Kafka, of course, didn’t finish all that much. He did the main work on the story in the autumn of 1912 and completed a version of it on December 7 of that year. However, negotiations with publishers were complicated, and circumstances – inter alia The Great War, during which one prospective publisher (Robert Musil!) was called up, and another stopped printing – got in the way. But in 1915 it finally appeared, and has since come to be considered among the most famous, and greatest, short stories in the history of literary fiction.

On this centenary occasion I’ve had the pleasure of writing a long preface to the reissue of a rare translation of The Metamorphosis by A.L. (Albert Lancaster) Lloyd (known as ‘Bert’), which was, as of 1937, the first complete single-volume English version. (Lloyd, a folk musicologist, singer, arranger and author, was a key figure in the reflorescence of English folk music after the Second World War.) You can buy this edition as a Faber Find priced £4.99. 

Meanwhile BBC Radios 3 & 4 are about to launch a major commemorative celebration of Kafka's work, for which playwright Mark Ravenhill has written a new adaptation of The Trial. Mark and I were on Radio 4's Open Book last week talking to Mariella Frostrup about Kafka's imaginative genius, his women troubles, and his great and strangely neglected sense of humour. It starts at 13:16 if you follow this link.

Myths have accumulated around Kafka, largely because they are compelling myths, and this is one of the greatest of writers – as George Steiner has argued, perhaps the only author one can be thought to own a letter of the alphabet. Kafka made his own world on the page – recognizable but not quite real, precisely detailed and yet dreamlike – and it still feels original and hugely influential. Once you know that world, you do tend to see it around you.

Though his great fame was posthumous Kafka did have a reputation to speak of during his lifetime. Something else that happened in 1915 was that the winner of the prestigious German-language Theodor Fontane Prize, dramatist Carl Sternheim, bestowed his prize money upon Kafka as a mark of writer-to-writer respect. (Imagine a Booker Prize winner today declaring from the dais that he wanted to hand his £50,000 to another more deserving scribbler.)

One danger with great writers, though, is that you can stop reading them, and so lose sight – or retain only a stale notion – of what constituted their greatness. The trappings of the ‘Kafkaesque’ are easily recalled, especially the sense of an individual at the mercy of a big impersonal bureaucracy, feeling after a while that he can’t but take it personally, and haunted by the sense that perhaps, after all, he deserves it. And anyone who has glanced at Kafka’s biography knows about The Father: Hermann Kafka, strapping son of a butcher, ex-serviceman and purveyor of fancy goods, against whom Franz (Hermann’s only son) felt inadequate in every way

Certainly Kafka suffered neurotic misery, but then that is the making of many a writer. In his case he seemed to feel it could be no other way and probably ought to be so: writing, he decided, was to be in ‘the service of the Devil’, a pact that never turns out in one’s favour. (As he wrote in a letter of July 1922, two years before his death from tuberculosis: ‘I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.’)

But Kafka, though a wounded man, wished nonetheless to make an exhibition of his stigmata. And there’s something almost chilling in how he could step aside from himself, perceive his own plight, and twist it with such finesse into supple fictional shapes that had the force of parable.

That’s only the bare scratch of a start, though, in all one might say about Kafka. Revisiting him in order to write about him I was struck anew by how many stories he composed from the perspective of creatures: Investigations of a Dog, A Report to an Academy, Josephine the Singer, The Burrow. Simply put, it’s as if Kafka were saying, ‘You’re in the body you’re in, it makes the problems it makes, and the soul protests its fate whatever.’

Josephine and The Metamorphosis were recently re-imagined for children in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs, written by Matthue Roth and illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. I find this a pleasing and fresh turn in the more tired anthropomorphic bent of books aimed at kids. But that’s not to say the original wouldn’t work for them. For instance, I began composing my Metamorphosis preface beside a swimming pool during a family holiday last summer, and at one point a nine-year-old friend of my elder daughter picked up my old Penguin edition of Kafka’s original and started to question me about it, closely and with mounting curiosity. I like to think she had sensed something wise - sacred, even - in those pages. Kafka will tend to make you feel that way about books - such was his presence, now, then and, one somehow imagines, always.

Friday, 10 April 2015

My course in Non-Fiction Writing at The City Lit: April 24 - July 10 2015

From April 24 to July 10 I'm going to be teaching a class in Non-Fiction Writing at the City Lit in Covent Garden. Simply put, this will involve me and the students reading and appreciating the works of some high-order exponents of contemporary non-fiction, and the students producing their own written work for class discussion on a weekly basis. I think it'll be fun. Anyone is welcome to book a place, please do tell your friends etc.

Among the writers whose work I expect we will be looking at are:

Simon Armitage (Walking Home)
Gordon Burn (Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son)
Ian Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam)
Roger Deakin (Waterlog)
Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking)
Ian Hamilton (In Search of J.D. Salinger)
Robert Hughes (The Fatal Shore)
Janet Malcolm, (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Norman Mailer (Miami and the Siege of Chicago)
V.S. Naipaul (Area of Darkness)
Gitta Sereny (Cries Unheard)
Claire Tomalin (The Invisible Woman)

Among the issues I imagine I'll be exploring with the students:

- Structure, narration, point-of-view; 
- how to work up your inchoate ideas; 
- how to be honest on the page; 
- how to explain the way that a thing works; 
- how to describe what people and places look like; 
- how to convey the ways people speak; 
- how to explain a sequence of events interestingly; 
- how to fathom one’s memories accurately...;
- ... and how not to fabricate them; 
- how to bear witness to human misery;
- how to write about people and things of which you disapprove; 
- how to keep good notes, how to conduct interviews; 
- how to begin a piece of writing; 
- and, oh yes, how to end it.

What I Saw at the Danish Revolution: Dogme Days

Somehow, always imagined that mermaid would be bigger...

'Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television’ was one of Gore Vidal’s many quotable frivolities. Approving at least the second half of the sentiment, last month I was filmed in interview for Swedish television, as a small contribution to a forthcoming series entitled Scenes That Changed Cinema. The scene I was asked to talk about was ‘Christian’s speech’ from Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998.)

It's a terrible thing to watch, still, which is why it's so good; and all shot, of course, on a Sony PC-7 consumer camera no bigger than a man's fist, such that the effect is to make you wonder who on earth is operating while all these awful things are being said. The actors are all totally 'on', for sure, and it's amusing to recall that Vinterberg didn't tell his extras anything in advance about what Christian was going to say, hence the rather 'true' reactions he gets.

But anyhow, look at it again for yourself:  

My credentials in Danish cinema come from having written a book about the Dogme 95 movement a full fifteen years ago now: The Name of this Book is Dogme 95. It was commissioned by Walter Donohue at Faber, and that commission led me to collaborate with director Saul Metzstein and producer Paula Jalfon (also the starry cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) on a companion-piece Channel 4 documentary. That doc - The Name of this Film is Dogme 95, natch - is scarcely seen nowadays but I was pleased to see a complete transcript with stills online here.

Dogme already seems a long time ago but I still get asked about it, and according to my friend Louise Anderson who teaches film the book still gets taught in schools and colleges. It’s out of print, inevitably, but available electronically. The titles of both the book and the doc are, of course, nods to the title of Talking Heads' 1982 live album, itself derived from David Byrne's on-stage introduction to Heads gigs back in the day.

I’m not sure I gave of my absolute best to the Swedish documentary crew. We shot outdoors on a London street-corner at a chilly hour of a March morning, and over time I became preoccupied less by the conversational matters at hand than by the stone-cold coming up through the soles of my boots. However it was fun to look back on a good bunch of films and some happy times spent in wonderful Copenhagen – I learned so much. I wrote this piece for the Guardian in 2000 and it's probably still true or true-ish. 

Festen was a low-budget Danish film that went around the world, so we have to say its dramatic punch proved to be universal. Nonetheless it’s a very “Danish” production, as Thomas Vinterberg admitted in his charming manner when I met with him back in 1999. He spoke of having ‘touched something Danish’, also, amusedly, of having ‘spat in the eye of Danish tradition.’ The rape of children is a powerful, indeed unbearable subject for a drama and that, too – to the shame of humanity – is, perforce, a universal theme. But Vinterberg made use of it intelligently to fashion a little dramatic microcosm of a consensus society, suspicious of difference, permitting of hypocrisy.

(Let me just say that, personally, everything I saw and experienced in Denmark in the course of this project was right up my alley. I thought the place was great. I'd go live there like a shot, anytime. But then I'm a Lutheran kind of guy.)

Applying the austere rules of Dogme 95 tended to make for films that looked a lot messier than audiences were accustomed to, and even though 'shaky-cam' and natural light and so forth enjoyed a stylistic resurgence thereafter there are moviegoers, still, who can’t be doing with any of that. But Festen will always stand up as a piece of cinema because of its strong, indeed classical lines as a piece of drama, a Scandinavian chamber piece that obeys the Aristotelian unities and has shades of Hamlet (‘something rotten'!) and Ibsen in its tale of a family, a grand occasion, a secret, and a war between father and son. 

Festen put Dogme 95 and a 'Danish wave' onto the map, but these waves, of course, break and roll back. Still, 1998 was a moment when the idea of what a movie was or should be underwent a useful change. It's not the fault of Lars von Trier and his comrades that, in retrospect, the influence of Dogme looks most apparent in 'found footage' horror movies, cheaply made rom-coms, and an unsatisfactory little sub-genre of 'films about film' from such luminaries as Steven Soderbergh and Mike Figgis.

The Dogme manifesto - with its reviling of the commercial bourgeois cinema of spectacle and its vaunting of movies with a moral outlook meant to ‘force the truth’ out of fiction - was up my street, too, in its day and I'm fond of it still. Roberto Rossellini, who knew all about this stuff, was right when he said 'There doesn't exist a technique for capturing truth. Only a moral position can do it.' In the end it's not about rules, it's about the artist and artistry. But all artists have rules of sorts - cf. Bresson: 'To forge for oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty.'