Friday, 10 June 2016

Esquire (July 2016) now on stands: George Best

I haven't written about football at any great length since this, about Zinedine Zidane in 2006, but I'm pleased to report that I have another long piece about another truly great player - George Best - in the new Esquire. The Best essay is rather more concerned with class and culture and money and celebrity in the UK over the last 50 years than it is with what goes on inside the mind of a true master when he's out in the middle of the park - which was and is my interest in the great Zidane. But Best's gifts have been well examined, I have to say, and remain available to the eyes of newcomers on tape. What has happened to the national game in light of socio-economic changes in wider British society still has work to be done on it, in my view, and I will have more to say on that myself in a new book next year.

In footballing terms, though, there's just one thing I'd want to add to what's printed in Esquire, related to this notion of a comparison between supreme athlete and megastar musician that has advanced with the more the former receives in remuneration and adulation. The performance anxiety of a footballer ought really to exceed that of any rock star: the crowd is tougher, plus there’s an opposition whose job is to stop you playing. But Best relished adversity. In the European Cup Final of 1968 against Benfica, he was targeted, fouled, and repeatedly felled – a lesser man might have been psyched out of the game. Instead Best scored a crucial goal that put Man United on the way to their first European trophy. Not just a pretty face, to put it mildly.

Ken Adam's Imaginary Architecture

To BFI South Bank last week for a superb tribute to the late great production designer Ken Adam, he of numerous Bond films, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, etc.  The Broccoli family/EON Films, I believe, put the whole thing together; Chris Frayling emceed it fluently, and a very fine array of speakers paid tribute in-between some well-crafted clip montages.

Adam had quite some twentieth-century life experience before cinema. A German Jew who fled Berlin perforce in the 1930s, he served with valour in the RAF (the story is here), and one of the most memorable tributes on the night came from a current senior officer in 609 Squadron.

Among a few paeans delivered on film – Roger Moore was dryly funny, I must say – the most thought-provoking was perhaps from Lord Foster, who sounded truly enthused about the notion of an alternative history of architecture, based on the influence of buildings that were never actually built – or, rather, fabricated only temporarily, on a sound stage, as imaginative space for scrutiny by a camera lens. Any film-goer can name a favourite edifice in this regard, a space they would love to have inhabited or visited, except that it lives only in cinema. (Apparently Adam’s widow Laetitia would get quite emotional come the day of shooting day on any given Bond picture when an action sequence called for some glorious set of her husband’s to be blown to bits.)

I explored my own passion for production design in my long biographical study of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and pictures that he designed as diverse as The Conformist and Scarface still work that sort of wish-you-were-there enchantment on viewers.

Alan Bennett, who became friends with Adam in the filming of his Madness of King George, attended the tribute in person and spoke intriguingly of a unique feeling he’d had and professed to not quite understand – namely that knowing Adam had made him feel part of a ‘European culture’. I briefly thought this might herald some reference to the EU referendum, but Bennett left the sentiment there, and it resonated. When the lights came out and I wandered out with the filmmaker friend who’d invited me long, we shared a few wistful thoughts of the ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ variety, related both to movies and to people. There’s an obvious aesthetic to the old movie world of built sets and spaces dressed for celluloid, one that gains lustre as more and more films are very evidently made by computers. And there’s no point being overly nostalgic for the sorts of costs that the old studio-style model necessitated.

But cinema is the supreme time-based art form, and so many pleasures, even of a melancholy variety, derive from that very truth.

A still-neglected piece of Adam finery (fine work, indeed, from the whole cast and crew) is Pennies From Heaven (1981). This is the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

It lives...

My new novel is now in 'bound proof' form, as above. It's a fine thing that a publisher does to help raise pre-publication awareness of a title in this way, and hats off to Faber who make, I think, a particular good fist of the process.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Un film de Sean Penn: The Last Face

The Last Face (2016, c. River Road Entertainment)
I haven’t been to the Cannes festival in a lot of years, probably not since 1999 (which was a pretty wonderful edition, what with the Dardennes' Rosetta and Bruno Dumont's Humanité.) I do rather wish I was there this week, if only to get an early look at Sean Penn’s new film The Last Face, which is premiering in competition and looks to me like a work of big promise, given its bold big-canvas subject matter (conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone, international aid and the role of the UN) plus Penn’s considerable artistry as a picture maker.

One of the most purely enjoyable bonuses of my having written a long study of Sean’s life and work with his participation is that I've had a fair few opportunities to watch him at close quarters while he works, both as actor and writer-director. I visited the location of The Last Face in late 2014 and, as usual, found it a hugely absorbing experience to observe the "big electric train-set" in motion; the new element was seeing Penn at the helm, right in the thick of that fast-flowing decision-making torrent that is directing a movie.

Penn’s attention to detail in creative matters is fairly well-documented (not least by me). But artists do define themselves by the things they pay attention to in life (cf. Bresson's injunction to 'show [the spectator] things in the order and the way that you love to see them and to feel them’); and Penn’s special investment in what he does is quite a powerful thing to be around. Here as elsewhere there's nothing 'armchair' about him.

Barry Ackroyd, DP on The Last Face, and Lake Geneva
Movies are made inch by inch, of course, so as a rubbernecker in those situations your sense of the whole is about as refined as what an insect perceives while crawling up a Byzantine mosaic. But while I was knocking around the location I was excited to see some rough assemblies of sequences that Penn’s long-time editor Jay Cassidy was putting together in the now-standard manner of movie production, and they struck me as highly powerful and affecting in their drama. So, here’s to the finished item, or Bonne Projection! as they say in the Palais de Festivals.

It's worth saying that Cannes, the best of festivals in this regard, has championed Sean as a director from the start, and the official brochures for the 2016 edition will note that his body of feature film work also includes The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995), The Pledge (2000), and Into the Wild (2007). 

These films are full of feeling, made with great verve and command of the tools of cinema (also very characteristic of their maker, who wrote the first two and has had a hand in the scripts of each subsequent project); and I think they repay a look from any discerning film fan.

Monday, 18 April 2016

To Belfast, for 'Alan Clarke in Northern Ireland'

This weekend just past gifted me a chance to revisit the work of Alan Clarke and my book about his life and times. The past beckoned me in for more than one reason, too.

I was at the Belfast Film Festival, which was presenting a sidebar of Clarke’s films on Northern Irish themes, and I gave a talk before the screening of Elephant (1988), the 38-minute tour de force that Clarke co-conceived with then-producer Danny Boyle and Steadicam maestro John Ward. The venue was the Queen’s Film Theatre, splendidly refurbished since its amiably distressed lecture-hall ambience in the 1980s when as a teenager I sat and watched Battleship Potemkin and Rashomon and Blue Velvet.

The Festival grew out of West Belfast, and its Feile an Phobail founded in 1988 subsequent to a particularly dreadful passage in the ‘Long War.’ It’s gradually expanded itself into a city-wide offering. The environment is good and buzzy, the programming by Stephen Hackett is superb, and the festival has an admirable commitment to community outreach, also to archival work and introducing the tools of film and their worth to a wider public. On the liaison side I was very well met by and enjoyed the company of Jim Meredith and Sean Osborne. And one great perk of the event was that I got to chat to Jennifer McAufield and Paul Clarke, who actually worked with Clarke on Elephant (as First AD and Designer respectively.)

My lodging in Belfast was the famous Europa Hotel, also vastly improved (for starters we drove right up to the door and I walked straight in) since Clarke and Ward stayed there in 1988 during the production of Elephant: I recall John Ward describing to me the inevitable bomb scare he and Clarkey endured back then, the precautionary piling of mattresses against windows by staff, the plying of guests with free booze as if to stiffen resolve.

Belfast's Europa Hotel, April 2016
If you stroll the centre of Belfast now the surface effect of years of peace dividend are clear; also the fruits of how much European money underwrote post-conflict reconstruction. That said, the visible campaigning for the Stormont elections in May would remind you that politics there retains a whole horde of familiar hostilities. And you don’t seriously assess the health of a city by its main commercial thoroughfares, agreeable as they are these days.

But, be there no mistake, it’s only one of a million things that speak well of the political processes of the last twenty years – and the resultant opening-out of the society – to say that all sorts of films can now be made in Northern Ireland. I only wonder what kind of film Alan Clarke might have made in Belfast today, had he lived?

Moreover – you see I did some thinking – how was it that back in the 1980s Alan Clarke became such a voice on the subject? Fair enough, quite a few of his contemporaries (Loach and Leigh inter alia) came to Belfast and made films: it was obvious, pertinent, arresting subject matter. But Clarke’s Northern Ireland films aren’t like anyone else’s. They’re pretty exceptional in the history of film, full stop.

Here’s the thing, in my view. The 1980s are when Clarke began to evolve from the loyal, driven collaborator of writers like Roy Minton and David Leland to being an auteur of the TV play: a director who put his signature on the work through formal choices with the camera and in the cut that were so bold that the script began to seem only a point of departure. And Northern Ireland by the 1980s was increasingly a terrain for storytelling where traditional three-act narrative looked inadequate to the thorny reality – the issue of what side you came down on leaving the filmmaker liable to run into dramatic dead ends just as implacable as ‘peace walls’.

Clarke, moreover, saw things with a different eye; and it was useful that he didn’t hew to an ideological line. I remember asking Roy Minton what were Clarke’s ‘politics’. Roy replied, ‘He didn’t have any... I was Left, and it got as bad as joining The Communist Party. But what Alan had was the indignation, he recognised injustice.’   

Psy-Warriors (1981)
Of the three Clarke films showing in Belfast, David Leland’s Psy-Warriors (1981) has aged least well, I’d say. Its premise is that three suspected terrorists are being interrogated in special cells following a pub bombing near Aldershot army barracks that bears the hallmark of the IRA. The viewer isn’t spoon-fed this information: the film is aggressively disorienting in its use of sound and space and cutting, Clarke wants you to feel a bit of the deranging nature of interrogation. Leland had been inspired by Peter Watson's book War on the Mind: The Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology

Gradually you sense Psy-Warriors really wants to advance an idea of a symbiotic relationship between governments and terror threats, as oft inferred from Reginald Maudling’s infamous line about an ‘acceptable level of violence’ in Northern Ireland, and the attendant theory that the six counties were a kind of policy laboratory for the security forces of the British state. Colin Blakely, the late great character actor from County Down, is very good as the chief interrogator. Yet when he speaks in high solemnity about the rationales of the Baader-Meinhof gang, you can feel the film’s intended critique of the repressive state succumbing to the fallacy of taking all self-declared revolutionaries on their own terms. If violence is really to be read as a kind of communication, you’re best to read what it’s really saying with some care.

Sean Chapman as the commander in Contact (1984)
Contact (1984) is my favourite among Clarke films, but it travels some way from its source material, which is A.F.N. (‘Tony’) Clarke’s memoir of commanding a paratroop patrol on border duty in Crossmaglen in 1976. Tony Clarke certainly wrote a script, and the film extracts a concentrated essence of something that strikes you on the page of his book: the loneliness of command when leading men on hazardous operations against a largely invisible enemy in ‘bandit country’. But Alan Clarke’s film replaces Tony Clarke’s frank, unleashed, first-person voice with the sense of the camera at a remove from the fray, an austere God’s-eye observer, as close to birdsong and trees and to carpets of green field as to the soldiers moving warily across them – at least until ‘contact’ occurs, at any rate.

Clarke had his cast drilled within an inch of military discipline, and during the shoot he steadily pared away the script’s exposition and dialogue. He put long lenses on a moving camera and the actors began to lose that sense of the line between being ‘on’ and ‘off’, such that they just behaved as soldiers like they’d learned how to. For the viewer it becomes redundant to ask whether Contact is sympathetic or otherwise to the presence of the British Army in South Armagh. To appreciate the film properly you just have to try to walk a mile in a squaddie’s boots. Contact is as pertinent a study of soldiering now, in the age of the Three-Block War, as it was in 1984. But it’s just masterful filmmaking by any measure. According to John Ward, who did time on Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick was a big admirer of Contact. And Kubrick knew about war films.

From Elephant (1988)
Elephant (1988) is unique and unclassifiable. Ironically, Danny Boyle arrived in Northern Ireland as a BBC producer with the express aim of encouraging writers and dramas that weren’t inexorably bound to accounts of paramilitary killings. He shepherded scripts by Paul Muldoon, John McGahern, Anne Devlin, Frank McGuinness – and those films were all very different and distinctive. But Boyle really wanted to work with Alan Clarke, whom he revered, and it just so happened that what they did together emerged as the ‘Troubles’ statement to end them all.

Clarke and Boyle resolved to present a series of fatal shootings, with no context or dialogue or identifying marks. Clarke and John Ward figured out how and where to film these, like a sequence of short films, two a day. Once in the can they were laid end to end, ‘a remorseless way of presentation’, as Boyle described it to me. Clarke would re-jig the original running order, and he left out a couple of pieces he’d shot. But you can’t really imagine any other final cut of this film.

Some of the killings happen swiftly and starkly, on a doorstep, in a car-park or a petrol station forecourt. More breath-catching ones that build up anticipation and dread occur in a swimming pool and a municipal park. There’s no slack: each assassin shoots straight then makes their escape. But it does get steadily more upsetting. You start to watch each new scenario and think, who is the gunman here, who the victim? Or from which edge of the frame will the threat appear? And can nobody escape their seeming fate? That feeling is especially acute in the sequence where two gunmen, one with a shotgun, stalk a victim who makes a hopeless effort to crawl to safety after sustaining a leg wound. The final sequence – an enigma – depicts a man being escorted through a deserted factory to the site of his own execution.

It’s an obvious thing to observe that Elephant is a film about a ‘cycle of violence’, with that degree of pained futility about it. One or two commentators, I think, have linked it to a later endeavour, the great literary obituary of the Long War, Lost Lives (1999, ed. McKittrick et al); but then that book makes very clear that murder was something inflicted on over three thousand named individuals in very specific places, and that those people had life-stories of their own. The subject of Elephant, though, is just the process of cold-blooded killing; and your mission as a viewer, should you choose to accept it, is to ponder that subject – in the dark while the thing unspools, and in your head afterward once the lights have gone up.

For me it was certainly a thing to watch it and think about it one more time in Belfast, 28 years - but only a short walk away - from where it was made.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The BFI's 'Complete Alan Clarke'

The late Alan Clarke is one of those artists whose reputation is like a rumour, or a challenge. The body of work is attended by controversy, and those in the know tend to say that no-one did it better or tougher than when Clarkey did it – the ‘it’ in question being plays for television, the ‘when’ being the dramatically rich era of the 1970s and 1980s.

I’m always keen to have a hand in spreading the good word about Clarke. In 1998 I wrote his biography for Faber and Faber, my first published book. I say ‘wrote’ but it was really a work of oral history, George Plimpton-style, where I interviewed a wealth of his friends and family, collaborators and lovers, and stitched those transcripts into one multi-vocal life story. And I daresay Clarke’s life tells you as much about Britain, class and society in those years as his films do. My favourite review of the book, you’ll not be surprised, is this one by David Thomson, he of the Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, who was a big early champion of Clarke among the film-critical fraternity.

Now, Clarkey fans are living in exciting times, because at the end of March the BFI will start rolling out a huge tribute, ‘The Complete Alan Clarke’, with events and screenings at the South Bank and a comprehensive DVD/Blu-Ray boxset. There have been other such celebrations since Clarke’s death in 1990 – I helped Lizzie Francke and the Edinburgh Film Festival with one such in 1998 – but the BFI platform gets a huge boon from having the Clarke oeuvre packaged up so marvellously in one collectable digital set. 

Sam Dunn at the BFI has been the overseer of this great undertaking, and I’ve been happy to chip in a few embellishments to the boxset: new essays on Road and The Firm for the booklets, and an audio commentary with national-treasure actress Janine Duvitski for Diane, one of Janine's earliest screen roles, possibly her best. My book is going on sale again, and I think I’ll be giving a public talk or two once the season goes out and about countrywide.

Looking again at just a few of Clarke’s films I was pleased but unsurprised that age doesn’t wither them, because they were made with such care and conviction, such focus and force. Clarke was only interested in strong-meat subject matter, and he cut to the bone and cast aside the fat. I would love to see what new audiences will think and feel as they come for the first time to Penda’s Fen or Made in Britain, Scum or Elephant, Contact or Christine, et cetera.

Working on the book was a very happy time for me, one I owe to Walter Donohue, editor of the Faber film list who had input in that moment from the brilliant soon-to-be award-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald. It was late November 1997 when Kevin gave me the green light to start writing Alan Clarke – on the proviso that I deliver in March 1998 so that finished books could be ready for Edinburgh that summer. I made it, just, having met about 70 remarkable people over 16 weeks, some of them now gone, alas – such as producer Mark Shivas, cameraman John Ward, and the great Brecht scholar John Willett, who helped out Clarke and David Bowie with their remarkable Baal.

One of my treasured souvenirs from publication was a handwritten letter sent me by Christopher Eccleston, who wrote to say that Alan Clarke was the whole reason he became an actor, and that he felt my book ought to be set reading in all British film and drama schools. Well, what a lovely thought, and I wouldn’t fight it, you understand… The book, though, is only a useful companion to a body of work that ought to be required viewing for anyone who respects film. One good friend of Clarke's among my interviewees, typically mischievous, told me he thought I ought to become ‘Professor of Alan Clarke Studies at the University of Scum.’ Well, if that were the badge I’d wear it proudly.

Postscript: One of the trickier parts of biography is conveying the sense of humour of one's subject, especially if that person was/is routinely said by those who know them to be 'very funny' in person. Everyone I met thought Alan Clarke was really, really funny, and I could see why. The challenge, then, is how to adduce the right examples of witty remarks, behaviour etc so as to encourage the reader to imagine all the fun they'd have in such company. (I had the same challenge down the line with Sean Penn, who's also really funny.) 

The trouble in the case of Clarkey was that the examples my interviewees tended to offer me were either a) things that didn't work on the page, such as puns and other bits of verbal dexterity, or a certain way of looking at someone, or b) things that were, at least in the opinion of my manuscript's early readers, un-printably rude/filthy, even if in good sport. So most of those gags hit the cutting room floor... but they were certainly funny at the oral stage, in the telling and the hearing, and I do sometimes share them with other Clarkey fans in the right circumstances, i.e. when propped up agreeably at 'Mahogany Ridge'.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Robert Harris on The Political Novel @ the LSE

In 2009 I reviewed Lustrum, the second of Robert Harris’s 'Cicero Trilogy', for the Financial Times. Praising Harris’s ‘distinctive excellence’, I wrote that he ‘understands politics and how to dramatise them: their necessary imperfection, their dependence on the embrace of lesser evils and shabby means that serve higher ends.’

Last night I went along to the LSE Literary Festival to hear Harris talk with Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times on the theme of 'The Political Novel' – an event organised in association with the Royal Society of Literature. Harris’s ability to discuss his working process, his view of the world and how he conceives his fiction is matchless in its assurance. As a huge Harris fan, and having spent the last few years writing and researching my own novel of politics The Knives (forthcoming from Faber this August) I could hardly have passed a more thoroughly engrossing ninety minutes. My notes from the evening are as follows:

1. In his early twenties, having been president of both the Cambridge Fabian Society and the Union, Harris contemplated seeking selection as a Labour MP. But he came to the view that the ‘modes of thinking’ for a politician and for a writer were too far apart, and that he preferred the latter. Having done that much hard thinking, though, he readily admits still to a ‘sneaking sympathy’, an ‘instinctive empathy’, for working politicians. He told the audience in tones of relief that it was some peoples’ jobs to get up in the morning and think about Brexit or the junior doctors, but not his.

2. He was shrewd and amusing about his early career path: how, post-Cambridge, having set himself on journalism, but having come from ‘the provinces’, he had no intention of going back there to serve a necessary Fleet Street apprenticeship; and so went for and secured a BBC traineeship. Later he was again acerbically funny in pointing out that, while his path through university and media would have made easy enough material for the sorts of English novels “that have been written by others” he felt this was inadequate material for good fiction.

3. In digression, some of his liveliest tales concerned his association, beginning at Cambridge, with the ‘controversial’ historian David Irving, who certainly knew that the so-called ‘Hitler Diaries’ were a forgery. I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ account of the kind of hair-raising ‘wit’ a writer will expose himself to if keeping Irving’s company.

4. Harris was fascinating on how his bestselling fictional debut Fatherland began as a non-fiction project, ‘a Baedeker guide to a world that never existed’, until he realised the freedom he needed to start making things and characters up.

5. Also v intriguing: his description of how, instead of Pompeii (2003), he nearly published – spent quite some considerable time on – a dystopian novel about an America whose politics fall under the sway of a Disney-like corporation. Clearly he chose well to jack that US-set book in and find another imaginative way to write about an empire under threat.

6. His two big tips for an aspiring novelist? 1) Have some sense of what your ending will be, where you are heading, even if you detour along the way. 2) The point-of-view of the narration determines everything.

7. An additional tip for the thriller writer: have a tight time-frame. Then shorten it.

8. Really fascinating for anyone who knows cinema (i): Harris talked about admiring and wanting as a novelist to emulate the film directing career of Stanley Kubrick, who, he felt, ‘could do any place.’ I suspect this wish is rather a common one.

9. Really fascinating for anyone who knows cinema (ii): Harris was very funny about his collaborations with Roman Polanski – to wit, how he sent Polanski the manuscript of An Officer and a Spy (the idea of a Dreyfus project Polanski had, after all, initiated), and then received copious notes on his prose from the maestro down the telephone.

10. Asked if he would contemplate a contemporary Westminster-set novel, comparable perhaps to the works of Trollope (which Harris ‘loves’), he admitted to some reluctance – that the Commons is no longer the most powerful legislator in the world as in Victorian times, that the drama and the stakes are just not the same. That said, he was surprisingly passionate – surprising even himself perhaps – when he talked of the drama he discerned in the ‘coded battle’ that had taken place in the House just the other day between David Cameron and Boris Johnson; and he evoked the ‘Shakespearean’ falling-out of the Miliband brothers and ‘what had happened to the Labour Party’ because of it.

11. Asked for his thoughts on political fiction that emphatically set itself on one ‘wing’ of a political argument, Harris was emphatic, saying that he felt for a novelist to try to ‘animate an ideology’ was a ‘fatal move.’ Though a Labour supporter still, he made clear: ‘I can’t believe that virtue is all on this side.’ This is as near as dammit a quotation from Trollope, and an eloquent gesture from one master of the form to another.

12. In my view Harris's early non-fiction works should be read just as keenly as his novels, for all that he has firmly chosen the latter camp now for his output. But at one point last night he looked a little wistful in remarking that his The Making of Neil Kinnock (Faber, 1984) is probably 'not much read these days.' It should be read by anyone interested in British politics - "now more than ever", perhaps. 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Writing Reviews at the City Lit, Jan-to-March 2016

Two whom the critical establishment know to be masters...
Everyone’s a critic, they do say, and they’re right. But obviously some people criticise better than others and as cultural consumers we’re better off when they do – it makes a valuable guide as to how we should spend our leisure time. Reviewing a piece of art, though, is also a little art of its own, and ought to be a mutual literary pleasure into the bargain. For those reasons I’m going to be teaching a 10-week course on Writing Reviews at Covent Garden’s City Literary Institute starting next week, Thursday January 14, and finishing Thursday March 17.

Each week we’ll be exploring specific issues about the skills and styles and principles that make for good (and bad) reviewing, looking at some masterly practitioners of the reviewer’s art (plus a few who do it much less well), and class members will share their own freshly written reviews for group discussion.  

We’ll study work across the spectrum of art forms – high and low and somewhere in-between; and examine all sorts of diverse and recognised ways of covering the arts, from the 1000-word appreciation to the capsule column review, the top-ten highlights list to the ‘hatchet job’.

Content will be shaped in part to the interests of the group, but I have a notion that over 10 weeks we will peruse for interest the celebrated movie writings of Pauline Kael, the TV columns of Clive James, the theatre reviews of Ken Tynan, the art criticism of Robert Hughes, the thoughts on music of Alex Ross and Greil Marcus, the book reviews of Christopher Hitchens and the expansive thoughts on culture of Susan Sontag and of Stanley Crouch.

Whether you’re a novice in the reviewing field or someone who’s tried it out and wishes to hone their craft further, I do believe you’ll find something useful here. Some fun, too.

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
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.