A History of the Christmas Story: Not Altogether Christmas but Christmas All Together – Electric Literature
Winter darkening brings its own intensities: snowdrifts on rooftops, red berries in the trees, and for the lucky few, maybe a pub fire roaring in the grate. As the nights draw in and the season’s grand finale approaches, many of us still brighten our world with carol singing, high street lights and Christmas stories – key ingredients in the mix of paganism, consumerism and religion we call Christmas. The stories we read now first appeared 150 years ago. Dickens established the modern form, publishing one in most years of the mid-nineteenth century, and soon everyone from Trollope to Alcott was trying their hand. Few could resist the temptation of sentimentality, and a reputation for the maudlin persists. “The very phrase Christmas story had unpleasant associations for me,” says Paul Auster’s narrator in “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” (1990), “evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush.” Despite this, Auster understands that though the Christmas story is a low form (a literary ‘turn’), it sets challenges few writers would run away from, which is why so many grandees (Tolstoy, Waugh, Spark, Updike) have bothered with it. Part of the attraction is that Christmas is one of the few events still bound by tradition, making the Christmas story – a thing of retrospection and repetition – peculiarly literary and self-conscious.
The rest of this essay can be found at Electric Literature where it went online on 16.12.2015.
“Mystery comes through clarity” is how Rupert Thomson recently described the effect he was trying to achieve in writing. It’s an apt phrase for his latest book, Katherine Carlyle. Thomson has previously published nine novels but has never achieved wide public recognition, partly because of their lack of uniformity. This, though, is what has attracted other writers who admire his range, the visionary and haunting nature of his stories, the precision of his imagery, and his lack of agenda. For these, Jonathan Lethem has called him “a pure novelist”. Katherine Carlyle displays all of these qualities, and may well come to be thought of as his defining book, but it is also a work with limitations. The story, told in the first person, is of a young woman conceived by IVF. A prologue informs us that as an embryo Katherine was frozen for eight years before being implanted into her mother. Following her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s long absences from home, and her consequent sense of abandonment, she has come to regard this early state of suspension, when she was made but unwanted in the world, (“like being a ghost, only the wrong way round”) as the ruling metaphor of her life.
Now, as a nineteen year old living in Rome, Katharine attends a screening of Antonioni’s The Passenger, and afterwards overhears scraps of a conversation: a man’s name and address. With only these fragmented “messages” to guide her she cuts all links to her former life and takes the train to Berlin where she tracks him down. He is beguiled by her youth and beauty and she stays with him for a while before taking up with other men, discarding them as they lose their usefulness. Her trajectory is mysterious and, rather like Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Katherine makes something of a private religion out of her ecstatic quest, looking for signs to guide her next move among the city’s tribes of wealthy, criminal, and peripheral people. But these “experiments with coincidence” are belied by a larger design, suggested in fantasies about her father’s reaction to her disappearance, and in the way her longing for him is acted out in queasy relationships with older men who want to fuck or adopt her. What seemed like a bid for freedom looks increasingly like an act of revenge. Katherine leaves Berlin, travelling to a Russian mining settlement, a blasted, Tarkovskian wasteland near the North Pole, dark for much of the day. She is warned of danger, but stays, finding a job as a cleaner in an unvisited museum, moving into an abandoned flat. In this obscure, freezing, inhospitable place, she makes herself at home.
Both The Passenger, often alluded to in Katherine Carlyle, and Frankenstein, which supplies one of its epigraphs, provide background frames for Thomson. Like the Jack Nicholson character in The Passenger, Katherine’s father is a foreign correspondent, and her behavior – acting as if life were a game, playing at being someone else, treating others instrumentally – all resonate with Antonioni’s masterpiece about freedom’s romance, cruelty and difficult abstractness. Similarly, Shelley’s tale of hubristic science and its “hideous progeny”, of a monster abandoned by his maker, taking revenge and seeking the extremes of the world, finds its modern incarnation in Katherine. The collision of these narratives – one an escape from, the other a longing for, home – creates the mystery at the heart of Katherine Carlyle, and, as Thomson suggests, this is intensified by the lucidity of his writing, the exactness of. his metaphors, the precise individuality given to even minor characters. As with Michael Ondaatje, whose work Thomson’s resembles, there is a palpable desire to foster and protect ambiguity. Unfortunately Katherine Carlyle loads the weight of its mystery onto one final sentence, a trick of sorts which realigns the story. Worse, in order to create this effect, Katherine is subjected to a nasty sexual assault, jolting her out of her visionary pursuit and returning her to her senses. Thomson clearly means to break the spell under which Katherine is living, but in some odd way, by shattering the suspense he chooses his novel over his character.
This review first appeared in the Spectator as ‘The Loneliness of Katherine Carlyle’ on 5.12.2015.
After a recent reading by shortlisted writers for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize – a prize given for innovation in fiction – the first questioner from the audience asked the panel to comment on the relationship between formal experiment and subversive politics. Tom McCarthy shot back that one necessarily entails the other. Representations of the autonomous bourgeois self, claims of authenticity and originality – these are signs of realism’s bad faith. The innovative novel (sometimes referred to as experimental, postmodern or self-reflexive), by contrast, assumes that we are radically inauthentic: in this view even the most private areas of our lives are commodified, and we speak or write under the influence of others, in an echo chamber of language. Such ideas, of course, have been around for a good while, but in the face of realism’s persistence, their expression in fiction still seems worthy of a gong. Perhaps if the Goldsmiths Prize had been established a few years earlier it would have featured in Number 11, Jonathon Coe’s sequel-of-sorts to his satire on Thatcherism, What A Carve Up! (1994). The function of prizes in capitalist culture is the subject of just one of many mini-essays and set pieces in Number 11, a dazzling tour de force with as much to say about Britain under austerity as the state of the contemporary novel.
In its conjectures, self-doubt and formal game-playing Number 11 is avowedly postmodern, yet it clings to realist ideas about common ground and the virtue of the ordinary. Similarly, it is nostalgic for the past while critical of our failure to move beyond it. To reflect this, the story begins in pastiche of the gothic (a genre concerned with the overhang of history), its gullible heroine, Rachel, trapped in a tower and terrorized by her brother’s joke. Rachel becomes connected to the Winshaws, the exemplary Thatcherite family from What A Carve Up!, and the novel goes on to examine how, in the aftermath of Blair and Cameron, the family’s belief in money has come to supersede all other values.
As the earlier novel reached its climax when Britain launched weapons against Saddam Hussein, so, here, the death of David Kelly haunts people like Rachel’s grandparents, making them mistrustful of government claims about the need for austerity. In this climate, and despite a massacre at the end of What A Carve Up!, killing many of the Winshaw family, those still standing remain insanely competitive. A memorial prize in their name turns, predictably, into an über-contest, pitting prize against prize in Britain and then – following the Man Booker – in America, ultimately consuming global awards such as the Nobel Prize. Giles Trending, a PR man, boasts that the prize’s “fundamental meaninglessness” is its “whole point”.
The destruction of meaning is just one of Coe’s charges against the Winshaw’s rampant and indiscriminate money-making (across generations they move from selling arms to defusing landmines, both equally profitable), and there is concern throughout Number 11 about the impact of a financially obsessed culture on access to knowledge; on the credulity of those who do not read. So, for example, the Winshaw Prize is launched at the £187-million Library of Birmingham, funded by a council who soon cut its opening hours and close down “less prestigious” local branches.
Underscoring the prize’s ideology, Trending declares that it is intended as a “poke in the eye to all those sentimentalists who still believe that artistic creation is [a] haven from competition… some sort of socialist utopia in which different creative spirits work…in parallel and in sympathy.” To judge whether this is satirical exaggeration, dilated merely for comic effect, it’s worth considering how many in the literary world are currently talking about the market’s capture of the arts and its impact on the imagination. At the Goldsmiths Prize, for instance, another contestant, Max Porter, an editor at Granta Books, lamented that his first novel would be the last he ever wrote in that haven “outside the market”, free from contracts, sales or prizes.
In Number 11, this question of comedy’s effect exercises PC Pilbeam, a detective seated at table number eleven during the launch of the Winshaw Prize. He is known to his colleagues as Nate of the Station because of his belief that to solve crime, a policeman needs to understand contemporary ideas about the state of the nation. Faced with the murder of two comics his automatic thought is, “It was time to do some reading”. With bookcases filled with “history, politics, sociology, cultural theory, media studies, Marxist philosophy, semiotics and queer studies”, he undertakes research on comedy, noting Descartes’s argument that humour expresses superiority; Freud’s belief that jokes are shortcuts, their punchlines bringing together disparate material; Kundera’s feeling that satire is the lowest form of comedy, because it has a point; as well as the theories of the potential murderer who writes in a “particularly well-argued and particularly unhinged” blog that comedy is quietist, defusing political anger. In the echo chamber of Coe’s novel, all of these come back to haunt the reader.
Where What a Carve Up! traced lines of familial descent, the narrative in Number 11 – studded with references to social media and the web – spins out across Rachel’s network of family, friends and acquaintances. Her best friend’s mother, Val, a one-hit-wonder of the pop world who dreams of making a comeback, is lured onto a TV competition where celebrities are humiliated for the public to laugh at. Despite suffering from arachnophobia, she agrees to be trapped in a jungle full of insects, but her willingness to collude with the programme-makers counts for nothing: she has not understood that she is the fall guy. Vicious outpourings on Twitter turn Val into a pariah, and she falls into debt. Soon, too poor to heat her home, she is reduced to circling on Birmingham’s number 11 bus. As she consoles herself with the thought that her fellow passengers are “Ordinary people. Decent people”, she is confronted with an old woman hissing, “Why don’t you piss off back to the jungle where you belong?” – a line all the more disturbing for its possible racist double meaning.
Another more seductive dream, but one that also turns into a nightmare, is told to Rachel by her Oxford tutor, Laura. In a novel comprising many tales of the irrational, full of phobias, phantoms and manias, this one exerts a particular fascination. Its power derives in part from the jewel-like image of a winter garden under ice. But it also comes from Coe’s understanding of how the elusiveness of the past, and of stories (aporia), can lure readers to a never-ending quest for meaning until they “cross the border” into fixation. This one, about Laura’s husband, an expert in “paranoid fiction” who becomes obsessed with finding an obscure film glimpsed in childhood, seems to have originated in the pages of Coe’s 9th and 13th (2005), which relates his own passionate search for a lost piece of cinema. But the pull of aesthetics and memory is not the whole story here, there is also political critique. Angered by her husband’s retreat into the “blanketing safety” of a past he felt kinder, more paternalistic and less blighted by “choice”, Laura takes revenge by adapting his cultural ideas for the benefit of a think tank measuring “everything in monetary terms”. And she treats her son with a frostiness designed to stop him from ever romanticizing his childhood.
There are ways in which Coe’s novel resembles Kundera’s essayistic fiction, sharing an understanding of the novel tradition as one of rationalism springing from sceptical laughter. As a writer of the Left, Coe also harbours some of the same anxiety about stories put in service (a reaction to Stalinist thinking on art), rather than ones that multiply meaning. So he includes Kundera’s argument as one among many possible choices for the reader to consider – a measure to outflank and outwit the Czech writer. Similarly, while open enough to number Marx, Gramsci and Lukács in Pilbeam’s lexicon of necessary thinkers, Number 11 employs a very British vernacular, its anti-elitist intelligence forged by the lessons of those, like the detective, “set apart” in lifeless suburbs, or rotting in decimated places such as the ones on Birmingham’s ringroad, whose names toll out, “Perry Barr – Handsworth – Winson Green”, as Val trundles through them on the number 11 bus.
This belief in the ordinary (despite veins of bigotry and nastiness), and the messages of popular culture intelligently read, mean that when Coe shifts genre once again and the money-monsters finally crawl out from their lair, imperiling our heroine’s sanity, Rachel is able to recognize the plot others remain blind to and fight her way out of it. No longer the unsuspecting girl of an old-fashioned gothic novel, she is now the paranoid star of her own slasher movie. But for all Coe’s experiment, he retains some of that Lukácsian doubt about the free-play of the imagination. So while he dissolves the solidity of realism, breaking the borders of genre, he also tells us that off the page transcendence is not possible. In this world, “phantoms” are unseen migrants, Dracula’s descendants are financiers “draining the life” out of our cities, and breaking borders means madness – a sign that our obsession with money is making people lose their minds. Finally, Number 11, risking nostalgia, returns to Rachel’s grandparents, to their modest life now broken by austerity’s mean resources. And yet in their summer garden there is a tree where Rachel sits biting into its powdery, juicy plums – an image of bounty to share which refutes the Winshaw mantra of scarcity and competition. A last joke, collapsing disparate worlds and ambiguous enough to satisfy even Kundera, suggests that if the economic argument seems lost, our progress in social relations may yet have a bearing on the doctrine of money. When her gay best friend proposes they become a couple, Rachel quips back: “Dream on…this lady’s not for turning”.
This review appeared in the TLS on 27.11.2015 with the title, ‘A poke in the eye’.
Gretchen Schultz, Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France – TLS
“For Lesbos chose me above any on earth to sing the secret of its flowering maidens”. Baudelaire’s claim of anointment was just one of many hints and explanations – often self-contradicting – given by male, nineteenth century French writers as to why they placed lesbianism so prominently in their work. Kraftt-Ebbing had noted the tendency: “it is a remarkable fact that in fiction, lesbic love is frequently used as a leading theme, viz Diderot…Balzac…Feydeau…Belot…Rachilde.” In Gretchen Schultz’s ambitious cultural history Sapphic Fathers, she shows just how broadly the preoccupation ran: novelists, poets and scientific writers were all fascinated by the secret world of lesbians, or “tribades”, as they were often called. Schultz examines the relationship of these discourses, showing from her readings of symbolist, decadent and naturalist writers, and of popular and pornographic fiction, how literary texts informed scientific understanding of homosexuality. In a concluding chapter she also traces their influence upon readers of twentieth century lesbian pulp fiction – an audience, Schultz supposes, that earlier male writers “could never have imagined”. As studies of influence can be, this is a rather scattered work, and the confusion about its focus isn’t helped by a title alluding only to nineteenth century France while the jacket features American pop art from the 1950s. But if the book fails to cohere in a single convincing narrative, in its separate strands, Schultz shows herself to be a fine close reader and energetic literary detective.
Schultz begins with a discussion of the poetics of identification, looking at the depiction of lesbians in the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. She argues that despite Baudelaire’s infamous loathing of women – so abominable in their service of nature – he found in the “barren” lesbian a more sympathetic subject, one that intrigued and inspired him. The original title of Fleurs du Mal (1851) was ‘Les Lesbiennes’. Here, Baudelaire envisages the descendants of Sappho as largely ahistorical figures, living in erotic limbo. His “femmes damnées” are, as the poet imagines himself to be, noble in the face of social exile. Baudelaire considers them “grand spirits disdainful of reality”; and it is in “their repudiation of materiality”, Schultz thinks, that their greatness lies. Both poets deploy lesbian speakers as a way of exploring more fluid identities: in Baudelaire’s work this means he can “flirt with femininity” while avoiding having to portray a male love object; in Verlaine, it is often the opposite case: lesbian desire becomes a cover for expressions of love between men. This intersubjectivity in their work, Schutz argues, is an important part of what makes their poetry so revolutionary. Verlaine’s ‘Ballade Sappho’ (1889), for instance, has a slippery narrator, “prince or princess”, who identifies with both the figure of the poet and the female lover of women. It is a poem, Schultz says, “startling…for the sapphicization of its male speaking subject.”
If the symbolists discovered in gay women a potent image of the poet’s condition – at once alienated and alluring – male novelists in the latter half of the nineteenth century tended to represent lesbians as a bellwether for social and political ills. Among the naturalists, who claimed a scientific or objective basis for their fictions, fears about crime, prostitution, social instability and sexual contagion all coalesced in the figure of the lesbian. Among the decadent writers, she was often a vehicle for anti-clericalism (think of all those nuns corrupting their infatuated pupils). Lesbians also featured in much of the popular fiction of the time, and Schultz raises the question of the extent to which in portraying them, writers of the period were simply speculating on the public’s taste and out to make money. The success of Adolphe Belot’s wildly popular serial Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) about a man who unwittingly marries a lesbian went through 45 editions in five years, infuriating Flaubert: “Public mentality seems to sink lower and lower. To what depths of stupidity will we descend?” Belot’s readership far outstripped even Zola’s – one of the few ‘serious’ writers of the time to achieve a large public for his work. Zola, however, was less hostile. His novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been inspired by an earlier Belot novel and in return he reviewed Mademoiselle Giraud, defending it against accusations of immorality. He claimed (as Baudelaire had of his own lesbian poems) that Belot was representing sapphism only to condemn it. When Zola came under attack for his novel Nana (1880), which depicted a sapphist courtesan laying waste to the men of Paris, he fended off accusations of sensationalism and depravity, arguing similarly that his purpose in writing was to shine a light on depravity.
Two final chapters consider the great extent to which early scientific and medical writing about lesbianism, absent of any actual data, was based on these literary representations. Schultz investigates particularly the work of Julian Chevalier, who wrote the first significant history of homosexuality in France, and who was alarmed about literature’s power to incite: “sapphism by literature”, he thought, was a contributing factor in the spread of “the vice”. It was precisely this idea of contagion and inexorable dissemination which Michel Foucault turned on its head in The History of Sexuality (1976) where he described “the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objects”, and which Schultz follows here in her closing argument about the lasting influence of French sapphic fathers on the readers of American pulp novels (Mademoiselle Lesbian, Appointment in Paris, The French Way). Even if the majority of nineteenth century representations of lesbians had “very little to do with the lives of the women they portrayed”, were voyeuristic, moralizing or abject, Schultz concludes, they still bequeathed to excluded minorities a heritage which placed them inside the culture, providing a store of knowledge, available, as Foucault noted, for their reuse.
These are my notes for an event at Autograph BP Gallery in Shoreditch, East London, 4.11.2015, marking Syd Shelton’s exhibition of photographs from the RAR movement. The other panel members were Syd and Paul Gilroy. We played three records each and then talked about why we’d picked what were not necessarily the best songs, but ones that said something particular about the times. The event was chaired by Mark Sealy, Autograph BP’s director.
- Winter of ‘79 — TRB (written in 1977)
I chose this because of the way it captures the apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat, of the postwar settlement breaking apart. There were tanks in Belfast, bomb threats in London, and soon riots in cities up and down the country. Many of Robinson’s songs reflect the jittery feeling on the streets at the time, you can hear this especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and ‘Up Against the Wall’. But there are similar warnings of imminent catastrophe in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, the Ruts’ ‘Babylon’s Burning,’ and in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’s ‘Ghost Town’. It’s the sound of things breaking down and falling apart, of warning signals fired across a radio that no one in authority was listening to.
Tom was the first person who made me think about how you could build a network under the radar and turn it into something strong and effective – even when cultural gatekeepers like Melvyn Bragg and the South Bank Showtold you that no one was interested in RAR and they were planning a programme on Eric Clapton instead. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. I was then 17, working in Debenhams on Oxford Street and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden Town who went by the names of Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of Czech immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Norhtern Ireland, alienated from the other soldiers around him, and Anna Gram, an Irish girl who lived on the estate behind my mum and dad’s house in Clapham. Anna approached me on the tube one day – my badges giving out a signal — demanding to know if I was the Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.
Not long after I gave up the Debenhams job to became RAR’s first full time worker; making connections was an important part of what we did there, too. The people Tom put me in touch with and a bunch of other kids would gather at RAR’s tiny office in Clerkenwell Close (this was before we were firebombed, and moved out to a shop front in Cable Street). In all-night letter-writing sessions, we sent out the message, linking together RAR supporters who had contacted us with stories about the racism they experienced in school or at work. They sent in their loose change and SAE’s in return for badges and dayglo stickers. A nation of kids horrified by the spectre of the National Front and bored out of their minds, living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at 7pm, trying to discover the world out there by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading bits of James Baldwin with a torch under the covers.
We told them: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, put on a gig, get out a fanzine, and challenge the local NF. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in RAR’s magazine, Temporary Hoarding, The Mekons — stalwarts of Leeds RAR group, one of 80 or so in the UK — wrote an article explaining how to build your own PA, while The Au Pairs described how they recorded their first single by borrowing their mum and dad’s holiday money. The explosion of punk and reggae meant that there were groups all over the country hungry for gigs. And there was massive energy and frustration everywhere you turned, which RAR tapped into and transformed into action.
On stage, the TRB often dressed like the schoolkids they sang about – “sullen, unhealthy and mean” – and Tom had 302.0 stenciled on his shirt: the code for homosexuality in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases. One of the things that marked him out from many of his contemporaries was that along with his displays of insolence, he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together, of building alliances.
It was not enough to complain about discrimination against gays if you ignored what was happening to your “brothers in Brixton, backs to the wall”. Homophobia, racism and sexism – he made it clear these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together. This is why he was so important to RAR, which was about routing racism, but also a much broader cultural politics. He understood how to express and channel anger, but he was also hugely charismatic and convivial — something you can see in Syd’s great shot of him at the first RAR carnival in Victoria Park in 1978. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, embracing the crowd.
2. Oh Bondage Up Yours — X-Ray Spex (1978)
There were many women who started to appear in pop at this time, in particular the girl bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, or women who fronted groups such as the Au Pairs or the Selector. But many of these were tribal, slotting into the already established indie or ska scenes. Poly Styrene, though, couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Part Somali, part Scottish-Irish, she was like the advance party for the new self that was going to reinvent Britain. And her music was equally sui generis. I think she captured the spirit of the time like no one else
Poly got started, as many others did, after seeing a shambolic, end-of-the-pier Pistols gig, and deciding that anyone could do that. The basic Punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone can do it, and the more the merrier or rowdier. It’s in direct opposition to today’s X Factor competitions and commercialization, where the singer is a puppet and the winner takes all.
In ‘Oh Bondage’, Poly moves between two voices: the masochist “Bind me, Tie me”, and the refusenik “Up Yours!”. She begins by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yells “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours”, and the music kicks in. It was like a declaration of war: women weren’t going to put up with it any longer. Poly was here to tell us she had something to say and she was going to be heard.
But her sense of herself as a performer also says a lot about punk. She didn’t think of herself as a tortured artist writing about her own suffering, but as someone who was playing with ideas and words, or sending things up. So at the Victoria Park RAR carnival, she dressed in a tweedy twinset suit combined with brightly coloured headscarf and socks – as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher.
Punk is often tagged as angry and nihilistic, and there are endless arguments about its origins and purity – were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically British or singing in an American drawl? – but in fact, its main mode was either reportage of under-reported places and behaviours (the Members’ ‘Sound of the Suburbs’ does this brilliantly), or parody: mocking the idiocies of racism, sexism, homophobia, and – in songs like ‘GermFree Adolescents’ and ‘Warrior in Woolworths’ – capitalism.
When Poly sang about ‘Identity’ she wasn’t talking about her own, but the idea of it as something manufactured: “Did you do it before you read about it?”, seh mocks. There’s a sophistication here that much of pop lacks now and which many of the RAR bands, particularly those who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Racism), also had: bands like the Gang of 4, the Mekons and the Au Pairs.
RAS was set up by Lucy Toothpaste (who, along with Syd, Ruth Gregory, Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, David Widgery, Robert Galvin, John Dennis, Wayne Minter, and I, was on the RAR organizing committee), with the aim of challenging sexism in the music business. And that meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Paris interview I did with her for Temporary Hoarding (reproduced in Syd’s book), and in another we worked on with the Gang of 4, she’s particularly interested in power and aggression in pop – what it means, whether it’s necessary, how the musician-audience dynamic works, how a woman controls the stage.
If you look at the statement made recently by Grimes (“I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized”) you can see that the problems RAS posed haven’t shifted that much, not least because Grimes still feels she has to answer that ‘man-hater’ tag which fierce women always get stuck with. Much of the anti-racism RAR was arguing for has become second nature in Britain today, but RAS’s demands have proved more elusive, perhaps because of the way feminism continually flares and then falls out of fashion, having to remake itself all over again.
3. Sonny’s Lettah — Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)
This is an example of the reportage record — news from the front line, conveying what it felt like to be an immigrant in the UK. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham, Southall, and at a succession of anti-NF demos, and these had been widely reported. But this LKJ song described something the TV and newspapers weren’t talking about: attacks on individual black people – the casual, everyday assaults and insults meted out on the streets and in the back of police vans.
‘Sonny’s Lettah’ is about SUS — the stop and search tactics the police started to deploy at this time under the cover of a nineteenth century law: the 1824 Vagrancy Act. It reveals a commonplace cycle of state violence, self-defence, then criminalization.
The singer, Sonny, finds his innocent brother, Jim, picked up by the police and roughly handled (“Jim start to wriggle and the police start to giggle”). Sonny responds angrily and the incident ends with Jim charged with SUS, and Sonny charged with murder. The whole thing is told in the form of a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in Caribbean. The song is also interesting because of the way it contrasts the respect and tenderness shown to Sonny’s mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges them. ‘Fight Dem Back’, LKJ sang in another song, and “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it”.
The question of respect in the midst of disobedience and insurrection was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police said, or as politicians or the press reported, aliens or savages, but people with a culture and history.
For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible something that had previously been invisible. These values of culture and respect injected something new into the punk spirit of disaffection. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of a RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting – as Misty in Roots sang, “People Unite” — a sentiment unavailable in the vernacular of punk.
“What on earth inspired you to write that?”, the parents of the eighteen-year-old Françoise Quoirez asked when she finally showed them the novel she had written the summer before. It was the Spring of 1954, and within weeks Bonjour Tristesse would be published by Julliard, becoming one of France’s greatest literary sensations. Quoirez changed her name, choosing the nom de plume Sagan (stealing it from Proust), and the novel in turn changed her life. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about her story is that despite the way in which others tried to fix her as a perpetual enfant terrible, Sagan remained true to herself. After she won the highly prestigious Prix des Critiques, François Mauriac declared, with the condescension shown to the young woman by many of France’s aged literary patriarchs, that she was a “charming little monster”. None of the above, Sagan replied, just an ordinary girl; and besides, she rebuked the critics trying to put her in her place, she wanted a life of “nightclubs, whisky and Ferraris…not cooking, knitting or making do”.
To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s son asked the novelist and journalist Anne Berest to write something in commemoration. The work that resulted, Sagan, Paris 1954, is, as Berest confides, “neither a biography, nor a journal, nor a novel.” At times she calls it a “diary” of the few short months it took for Sagan’s book to be published and to take off so spectacularly. The confiding tone is present throughout, though whose confidences are on offer is ambiguous as Berest inserts her own life – a recent separation from her husband, her desire to break from “boxed in” thinking – into the life of the teenage Sagan, then on the verge of success and contemplating the contours of a writing life. This staged intimacy between the author and her subject conveys, in a very French way, the thrill, and the presumption, of biographical writing: “I slip into the mindset of Françoise Sagan as if I were slipping on a pair of silk stockings”. It also dramatizes the biographer as a figure of uncanny power, a Frankenstein animating her creation: “I can wake Françoise up, I can get her to rub her eyes like a child, as she does in a photograph taken in Saint-Tropez in which she is wearing a check nightgown.”
Berest conveys the postwar atmosphere in which Sagan grew up with many sharp aperçus and an eye for sartorial detail. There is the strange interim feel of the 1950s when war ghosts inhabited every building, and, against this, the desire of the young to break free, to live wrecklessly, happily, knowing, as children of war, that “the real God is Chance”. Sagan’s closest friend, Florence, was the daughter of the writer and resistance fighter André Malraux and the two girls were voracious readers, swopping books “as others swopped taffeta frocks”. Berest also describes the masculinity of French literary culture. The fifteen judges of the Prix des Critiques who did so much to advance Sagan’s career were, except for one woman, male, elderly and august. Berest suggests they may have given the prize to such a “budding author” because its protagonist – the gamine, precocious seventeen year old Cécile – not only expresses admiration for older men, but raises the spectre of sexual relations with them.
To help place her subject, Berest conjures other cultural figures of the time. So Sagan is watched from afar by Jean Cocteau, she passes Claude Lévi-Strauss on the street, spies Marguerite Duras asleep in a car, and runs into Pasolini in a restaurant. Some of this is imaginary and it leaves Berest worrying about the “strange form” her book is taking. But an interview with Florence Malraux lets her off the hook: literal truth is not important, what matters is she “write things that ring true”. There is a fine line here between deconstructing creative practice and constantly spotlighting oneself. Literary relationships and studies of influence are, of course, perfectly valid subjects, but the reciprocity Berest imagines between her and Sagan can seem both ersatz and self-justifying. By the end of her book she assures us “I have had the good fortune to become the object of a special affection on [Sagan’s] part…we spoke to each other almost every day.”
Perhaps this kind of fanciful communing (and Berest knows it is fanciful, constantly calling the legitimacy of her enterprise into question) can only be carried off when underpinned by strong insight. The problem is that for the most part she avoids giving a reading of Bonjour Tristesse, concentrating instead on the way in which Sagan has affected her life – a kind of enacted critical response which she translates into the self-reflecting prose of the book. But her actions cast doubt on the depth of her understanding. She visits a clairvoyant who declares that Sagan’s message to her is “Let yourself go”. So she makes a bid for freedom, taking a much younger man to a casino and having a one-night-stand with him. But when he refuses to visit Saint-Tropez with her, she feels the need to lecture him with life lessons (“At your age…”), just as in Bonjour Tristesse, the new lover of Cécile’s father uses her experience and moral certainty to belittle Cécile. Berest’s last book, How To Be a Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits (2014), displays a similar confusion: advertising itself as free-thinking, it is full of rules on “how to be a woman”.
In Sagan, Paris 1954, Berest provides a creditable introduction to the young writer and the milieu from which she emerged, but her attempts to use Sagan as a model for her own liberation are less successful. She tells the young man that Sagan’s ultimate “message” is: “seek what is important, don’t seek to be important”. Her own advice – “the most charming thing of all is to be attractive without trying” – belongs to the impossible rules of French etiquette for women which encourage self-absorption and limit freedom – the very thing Sagan is at pains to decipher in Bonjour Tristesse. Ultimately it is Berest’s inability to let go of herself, to move beyond her own narcissism, that prevents her from really inhabiting Sagan’s bohemian “mindset”.
Just over a century after Virginia Woolf declared that “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, the American novelist, Hanya Yanagihara, has announced a new shift in consciousness. Jude, the lead character in her novel, A Little Life, is known to his friends as The Postman, “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past”. The obscurity of his origins (left at birth in a garbage bin) and a childhood of horrific abuse mean he is determined to draw a veil over his past, making him the most mysterious of the four male New York friends at the heart of Yanagihara’s story. However his condition is only an extreme – and negative – version of the ambiguity that characterizes all the people around him, among whom identity is continually in flux and up for renegotiation. When one friend, Malcolm, declares that he is not black, and another, Willem, that he is not gay, it is not because they are ashamed of being either, but because they are insisting on a complexity these terms do not allow. The past still infects them (a third friend, JB, paints himself as Steppin Fetchit and ridicules Malcolm as an Uncle Tom), but in the main they have unparalleled liberty to create themselves as they wish, embodying a new kind of self, one with more freedom than ever before.
Some American critics have hailed A Little Life as a great gay novel, pointing to how its melodrama fits the tortured sensibility of much queer literature, and how its portrayal of isolation, fear and shame, but also of enduring friendship, reflects the experience of many gay men, particularly those who lived through the AIDS crisis. But gays are just the advance party for the culture that Yanagihara describes here, their networks of cooperation now the organizing principle of many urban lives in which traditional structures of support have collapsed or been jettisoned. Jude’s illness, a matter of non-specific painful “episodes” and a body riddled with sores, is deliberately not named as AIDS, in keeping with much else that is left vague or seeming implausible.
Like Karl Ové Knausgaard, who in equally vast novels has also tried to represent the new self, Yanagihara achieves great psychological realism through her reporting of the stifling repetitions of daily life, the sense of entrapment, in Jude’s case, exacerbated by his defensiveness and horror of intimacy. But at the same time, her story is so excessive it seems to levitate out of history, edging towards the mythic or incredible. As a child Jude meets cruelty everywhere; in adulthood, equally unlikely, nearly everyone shows him kindness and constant solicitousness, including the couple who materialise, as if in a fairy tale, wishing to adopt the thirty year old man. More than this, there are no dates or political events, women are almost entirely absent, and though in this enchanted place everyone becomes successful and travels the world, nothing external makes any impression upon their wealthy New York enclave.
As the novel proceeds the narrative becomes even narrower, focusing on Jude and his inability to thrive in this free world, to overcome his almost Victorian sense of being “ruined”. Soon he stops working in the District Attoney’s office and starts defending pharmaceutical and insurance companies. It is a move neither he nor his friends approve of, but the professional anonymity provides a safe-haven from his fear of exposure and temporary respite from the cutting he inflicts upon himself – the only control he can exert over his tortured body and emotions.
The interesting question about A Little Life is why Yanagihara makes the choice to so relentlessly pursue Jude, magnifying his pain and isolation, but also indulging the narcissism of his little life. One answer might be that it allows her to deepen an exploration of what adulthood means for this generation, largely unconstrained by spouse or children and vulnerable to accusations of immaturity. In the context of their radical individualism, Jude is a nightmare of unfreedom: a child who can’t grow up, sickened by his weakness and dependency. This condition is so shameful it transfers itself to everyone he comes into contact with, spreading guilt among the freedom-seekers like a contagion.
As her story unfolds, Yanagihara risks a good deal of vulgarity – relying on the secrecy of child abuse to create narrative tension, sensationalizing horror of the disabled body – but the payoff for her daring is that it yields complexity. If Jude is full of shame, it is induced by forces beyond his control. And he has resources of hope, continually trying again after every setback or failure. In this way, he epitomizes our struggle for autonomy, but also all the forces that militate against us. Ultimately Jude loses the battle, and Yanagihara’s greatest risk is that she suggests we see in his defeat an adult choice, a final act of sovereignty over his little life.
This article appeared in the Spectator as The Lonely Struggle of Jude the Obscure on 14.8.2015.