Evelyn Waugh, “Vile Bodies” (1930) – The Jazz Age, a time period reading Americans instinctively think of as “Great Gatsby” territory, gets the Waugh treatment in this, his second novel. Waugh came out the gate an extraordinarily assured and controlled writer — “Decline and Fall,” his first book, is well worth reading — and while he anchors “Vile Bodies” in pathos (helped by a bit of future prognosticating), it lacks the occasional dip into the bathetic Fitzgerald was known to take, or that his fans have read into him if we’re feeling charitable.
A couple, Adam Symes and Nina Blount, stand as centerpiece of this brief but panoramic view of Jazz Age London society. They get engaged and disengaged as Adam’s fortunes go on a madcap up-and-down run over a period of weeks: getting his manuscript (Adam is a “bright young thing” writer), winning bets, losing checks, gaining and losing newspaper employment, etc. Waugh accompanies this central theme with further illustrations of a society out of kilter, unmoored from traditional verities (he wasn’t lachrymose about the loss- yet). The constant in and out of parties that wander from place to place, a well done (if slightly heavy-handed) public motor race gone out of control, and the occasional brief speech from a savvy Jesuit (this is around the time Waugh converted to Catholicism) underscore the theme of post- (or inter-, anyway) war moral chaos. “Vile Bodies” nails a mixture of humor (Waugh was a cutting humorist, which did not mix with his, err, unfortunate racial opinions well, but it doesn’t come up much here) and angst where the two relieve and enhance each other.
In the end, it’s all pointless, as Waugh prognosticates another, even more destructive war than World War One on the horizon (I don’t think you needed to be a Nostradamus to do that, but it works for Waugh’s purposes). One wonders how long and fervently Waugh hoped for the war he eventually participated in, World War Two, and wrote about extensively… though his war novels never reached the acclaim of his earlier work or of “Brideshead Revisited.” You could call this a search-for-meaning novel, but really, Adam doesn’t want meaning as much as he wants a break on the financial-cum-nuptial front- he’s a reflection of his times, including his time’s self-reflexiveness, not a rebel against it. Those times were well made for Waugh’s critical literary eye. ****’
Hey everybody, I have started a substack newsletter. If you’d like to get these posts in newsletter form (possibly as a digest? Maybe I’ll send one out weekly? Or maybe I’ll just send one out per review… who knows), sign up here: peterberard.substack.com
Karan Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs” (2016) (narrated by Neil Shah) – To paraphrase Adam Clayton Powell: “I am against the dismal novel of bourgeois angst. But until the dismal novel of bourgeois angst is done away with, I believe the Indian bourgeoisie deserves the same chance to be minutely depicted as the Anglo-American bourgeoisie.” Divorce, the classic subject matter of such novels, now has competition from terrorism, the departure point for “The Association of Small Bombs.” We get to see how a “small” bombing in a Delhi market scarred the lives of a survivor named Mansoor, some of his friends, and the parents of two child victims of the bomb.
I guess I shouldn’t have started on such a down note, this book isn’t great but it isn’t terrible. Predictably, but also aptly, enough the bomb becomes a metaphor for the forces fracturing the marriage of the Khuranas (the couple whose kids were killed), stunting Mansoor’s life, etc. Paul Auster’s problem was a lack of good verbs; Mahajan’s tic is odd adjectives and descriptive language, a less damning flaw but still notable. The worst one that comes to mind is describing a computer keyboard as being made up of “plateaus and inclines” when I think you’ll find your keyboard is actually pretty flat and regular, etc. There’s some interesting interactions between young people over Islam and porn (the two forces battling for the soul of the internet, one says) and a pretty good scene where the dad Khurana tries to show his bratty sons (before they get killed) how the other half in Delhi lives, but the poor aren’t being squalid enough to get his point across. There’s a lot of less interesting stuff about marriage and real estate.
Probably the most interesting part for me wasn’t the Khuranas’ bad marriage and apartment deals but Mansoor and his friend Ayub. They meet in activist circles, trying to resist the Indian police’s unfair treatment of Muslims (including people involved in the bombing that injured Mansoor years earlier). Here, Mahajan takes his place in the long litany of bourgeois writers who depict politics of any stripe, from Gandhian pacifist protest to Salafist terror, as motivated by an individual’s ennui, boredom, and status-seeking, and not by anything like ideas or a genuine desire to see the world different. This facilitates the slide of Ayub from one of those poles to the other- a girl in his activist group breaks up with him, so he joins the Kashmir separatist terrorists. There’s a little more to it than that — Mahajan is nothing if not interested in observing the psychology of his characters — but that’s basically Ayub’s story, which sucks Mansoor in and ends the book. All told, an Indian-American (Mahajan was born and currently lives in the US but was raised in Delhi, I understand) entry into the mold of bourgeois literature, for better and for worse. ***
Varlam Shalamov, “Kolyma Stories” (1972) (translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield) – Conservative moralists squat on top of the literary memorialization of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag, even though the pair I have in mind, Elie Wiesel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn respectively, are both dead. Both are well worth reading but both also seek to isolate their particular instances of evil from history and politics, insisting on their metaphysical uniqueness and priority. This impulse has, ironically, loaned these historical memories to political projects of many blunt, history-distorting, and violent kinds, starting with the totalitarianism school and ranging from Zionism to post-Communist revanchism in Eastern Europe to whatever nonsense Jordan Peterson was selling before he took his current protracted disco-nap.
Wiesel and Solzhenitsyn got the Nobels and, more importantly, sit the perch where one is taught to generations of western high schoolers and undergrads as the definers of totalitarianism. Other voices were always out there and some, like Primo Levi, even had pretty good traction, though no Nobels, for those playing the home game. Gulag memoirist Varlam Shalamov has been published now in English both by Penguin and in those snazzy NYRB Press editions, but to the best of my knowledge hasn’t penetrated the western public that much.
That’s a shame, as he’s a great storyteller. He was a Trotskyite, sent to the Kolyma mining colonies in the far northeast of Russia during the great purges of the 1930s, and stayed out there for seventeen years, until things started cooling off after Stalin’s death. Shalamov credits his longevity to having made it, after a few deathly years in the mines, into a paramedic program, and the stories he began writing after his release have a sort of medical acuity to them, an eye for symptoms and diseases, pain and humor. He gives a depiction of life stripped down its most brutal basics: the hunt for food, warmth, and security in an environment lacking all three. At bottom, he reiterates in several places, the camps strip the humanity from their inmates (and staff, in a different way), leaving only anger out of all the sentiments. His fellow Trotskyites came in already dehumanized from the tortures they experienced before being sent away; others, like the prisoners of war who had the bad luck of escaping from German captivity only to be sent to the Gulag, fought back more. But mostly, these are stories of work, food, theft, negotiation over the stuff of life.
One obvious difference here with the Solzhenitsyn school of memorializing the Gulag is that Shalamov doesn’t moralize, or moralizes differently. For one thing, he went in a communist and as best I can tell, came out one, just of a shade disapproved of by Moscow. Shalamov harps on two things, and you can tell they were the preoccupations of someone who was still thinking like a camp prisoner: first, don’t romanticize criminals, as Russian (and other) intellectuals are wont to do. The gangsters in the camp made everything worse, an additional transaction tax of shit added to the already shitty situation they were in. Second, nothing about the experience of forced labor was ennobling, as the Soviets insisted on during (and after?) the high point of the Gulag system, and going through it didn’t grant any metaphysical insight. You can see why this appeals to western audiences looking for Cold War or post-Cold War morals less than other writers of the totalitarianism experience, but it also reads true. *****
Eamonn McCann, “War and an Irish Town” (1974) – Being a Trotskyite from the North of Ireland… talk about sectarianism inception! Eamonn McCann has fought for justice in Derry, the north’s second largest city, for decades, and has plenty of stories and even more analysis to show for it. It’s lightly surreal- I’ve read more than one account of organizing victories and woes in my day. I don’t think it’s too much to say there’s something of a Trotskyite “house style” of these things that transcends the many divisions within Trotskyism: the minute attention paid to organizational structural detail, the occasional doctrinal sermon aside, the inevitable partial success that would have been a fuller one had others listened to the voice of the people/the organizers doing the writing. What’s surreal is reading about the positional warfare of organizing committees and agitprop in Derry while an actual war, the Troubles, was starting at the same time.
There’s something ridiculous about these small sectarian groups grousing each other and puffing up their importance as though their position vis a vis the massive explosion of sectarian — real sects, with centuries of blood behind them, not the sunderings of Internationals of yesteryear — violence. But, as McCann shows, it’s not like the IRA or for that matter the Protestant paramilitaries were immune from the same sort of doctrinal, strategic, and personal wrangling. At the end of the day, it was small groups of people trying to harness an explosion of popular energy using the best tools they had.
McCann is a good storyteller and is surprisingly generous for a guy with an axe to grind. Unlike other socialists I’ve seen speaking on the Irish question, he manages to make his points against the IRA — ramifiers of sectarianism, insufficient attention paid to class — without missing the obvious part of their appeal. That appeal was simple and practical: the IRA, and particularly the Provisional wing, were the ones ready(ish) and willing to fight when the Protestant mobs came howling to destroy the Catholic communities that had dared to peacefully campaign for their rights (inspired by the black freedom struggle in the US). The various Irish socialist groups from the Labor party on down weren’t and never really were, some small guerrilla cells aside. McCann never denies this, even as he does something of a victory lap in his 2018 introduction about how the Good Friday Accords wrote sectarianism into the constitution of the North and that we’re no closer to a united, socialist (which even the IRA claimed to want, though they played a complicated game with red-baiting) Ireland than we ever were.
The memoirs part, of the rise of the civil rights struggle, the turn on the part of the Orange establishment and the British military to armed violence and the Catholic people’s response, and the atrocity of Bloody Sunday, is probably the best part of the book, due to McCann’s keen storytelling instincts. His analysis of the political economy of Ireland is also pretty good, though not being an expert on the field I can’t judge it too much. His most controversial claim, it would seem to me, is the claim that the Protestants in the North were encouraged to fear union with the rest of Ireland by the ways in which the southern Irish elite, led by walking disaster Eamon de Valera, cuddled up to the Catholic Church, letting them set much of social policy and covering for the political elite’s betrayal of the Irish working class and embrace of capitalism. By insufficiently distancing themselves from the “Green Tories” of the south, the IRA only made everything worse, appearing to be an army for Catholic theocracy to the working class Protestants who “should” have been on the side of overthrowing their social arrangements.
McCann is persuasive here but it gets to the basic problem of class-reductionist approaches to Ireland, or anywhere really. It’s ironic- if anyone should get that sectarianism is a real, material force, it should be Trotskyites, of all people! Did the Protestants of the North of Ireland really require lessons to hate Catholics? The “psychic wage” paid to the Protestant workers by Orange supremacy is never taken into account, though McCann is honest enough to acknowledge that the Protestant working class, presented with the tableau of their police beating the shit out of Catholic working class people fighting for basic civil rights, backed the cops every single time, and soon enough participated in pogroms against the Catholics. That would seem to suggest something not entirely dependent on economic self-interest, or anyway, something that complicates self-interest.
But, in the way of leftist pains-in-the-ass, McCann stubbornly points to issues that aren’t going away by waving the green flag or settling for Good Friday. He persuasively argues that the class structure as it exists on both sides of the line in Ireland can’t allow for a prosperous and free nonsectarian working class- too much of the pie is eaten up by the bourgeoisie, and you’ll seldom find a more crooked and backwards bourgeoisie than either the Green or Orange Tories of Ireland. That the Republic is basically a parking lot for Apple’s loose cash at this point makes it clear enough. To be honest, I don’t see how an independent united Ireland — which I was raised to believe in and still think is a sine qua non for a just future there — can, on its own, sustain itself as a modern, prosperous economy. The only answer is internationalism, as McCann calls for- revolution not just in Ireland but in Britain and everywhere else too. 32 counties of independent socialism is good- add 92 more from Britain and then you’re really cooking with gas. Here’s to the day. ****’
Corey Robin, “Fear: The History of a Political Idea” (2006) – Corey Robin is most renowned (and controversial) for his work on conservatism, but his first book largely deals with fear and liberals. Emerging from the post-9/11 gestalt where pro-war/pro-security-state liberalism ala Chris Hitchens was the big new intellectual thing, “Fear” comes to grip with both the history and the contemporary practice of political fear. As it turns out, it’s liberals — Robin specifically focuses on Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, as well as the less categorizable Thomas Hobbes — rather than reactionaries that have most defined our relationship to fear as a political factor. The… fear factor, if you will.
Hobbes stood at an inflection point in the understanding of political fear, Robin argues, as he did so many other concepts. Ancient and medieval political writers understood fear as having a moral/political object. So, too, did Hobbes- the fear of death in the state of nature impelled men to create society, with rules and a sovereign. But he also predicated later writers who would come to place fear outside of the political, as a force on its own that short-circuits political thought and action, an emotion to be indulged in just so much as to fend off the larger fear a given writer projects. So you have Montesquieu with his concept of despotic terror coming, essentially, from the personality of the despot, or Tocqueville with his anxieties stemming from the deracination of the new mass man of the nineteenth century. Both of these types of fear were meant to be feared themselves, and acted against, through the usual liberal prescriptions of intervening institutions, civil society, divided powers, etc. Arendt, for her part, both took this depoliticized fear to its apotheosis — her concept of total terror even went so far as to depoliticize Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags — but she turned against this conception, in Robin’s telling, with “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” where she brings the political (and personal responsibility) back in.
I’ve read all these thinkers but am no expert on any of them. Robin’s accounts seem reasonably illuminating and they hold together well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if experts on any of the four, and more likely the further from the present you get, would have quibbles. Robin makes no secret of his agenda- an intervention in the post-9/11 climate of political fear and discourse over political fear. This comes out more clearly in the second half of the book, “Fear: American Style,” where he discusses mostly McCarthyism and the discourse around 9/11. American domestic political repression has, at least as targeted against those thought of as part of the polity (Native Americans, Filipinos, and others received altogether different treatment), less bloody than other examples from the twentieth century. But this isn’t because liberalism isn’t repressive, Robin argues- but that American liberalism has refined its particular tools to such a pitch that it need not be so sanguine. These tools map neatly, in Robin’s telling, to the things that are supposed to make liberalism immune from repression: division of powers (which enabled things like the congressional committees that hounded supposed subversives during McCarthyism), civil society (with its inclusions and, more to the point, exclusions), the primacy of the free market (and the power this gives employers). Any tool is a weapon, potentially- any tool of power is potentially oppressive. This, along with his rejection of fear as a potential political unifier (a prominent post-9/11 theme), is his great apostrophe to the readership.
All of this is argued passionately and persuasively. One weird thing is that he doesn’t define what he means by “liberalism.” Maybe this is only irksome to someone who’s been following his project for the better part of a decade now. He shows no such hesitation in defining conservatism or reaction- indeed, he’s gone a long way to defining it for a whole generation of critics as the ideology of the defense of power and privilege. His history, like Arno Mayer’s, resembles a constant back and forth between those who would distribute power downward along social hierarchies and those who would distribute it ever more upward- he roundly rejects the (frankly asinine) linguistic argument that conservatives are particularly interested in “conserving.” Where do liberals fit into all this? Robin doesn’t explicitly say. I once suggested on his facebook that liberalism represents the idea of a harmony of interest that either harmonizes or neutralizes the struggle between redistribution of power and retrenchment. He dismissed it out of hand, if memory serves. Fine by me, I’m just some guy with a blog. I’d like to go forward with a schema for including liberalism in Robin’s system, though, as I think Robin’s ideas will be important for political work and our understanding of modern history going forward. ****’
Albert Cossery, “The Jokers” (1964) (translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis) – If you were ever tempted to believe that a “both sides are bad, real wisdom is a matter of mocking ironic distance” was a new and bold stance… well, chances are some Greek or Roman somewhere would prove you wrong, but definitely French humorist Albert Cossery shows that it’s at least as old as the mid-1960s in this short novel. Egypt-born, Cossery wrote a few novels set in the Middle East, most of them satirical farces from the looks of them, like “The Jokers.”
Everything in the unnamed Middle Eastern city the book takes place in is a joke: the government’s a joke, the rebels against the government is a joke, love is definitely a joke (though in classic French fashion, misogynistic lust is taken pretty seriously). The main characters are part of a coterie dedicated to mocking all and sundry through underground subversions.
The issue here is that this is more of a sketch of a novel than a novel… one is tempted to say like how “both sides-ism” is generally a sketch of an idea more than an actual idea. The government is proven to be bad because it persecutes beggars and other street people- a good start. The actual antics of the joker gang, described as hilarious, are never actually laid out. They make a poster about the virtues of the governor, a grotesque figure they praise in equally grotesque terms- Cossery tells, but doesn’t show us. He doesn’t show them doing anything else funny either. If anything, he comes closer to the hectoring that he claims to despise in revolutionaries, as the jokers try to convince a revolutionary of how revolution is stupid and laughing at everything is cool. The revolutionary does a lot less preaching than the supposedly care-free jokers.
I get that different cultures have different senses of humor. And for all the physical proximity of France to England and England’s sort-of descendant America, the senses of humor are miles apart. Maybe if I were more French I’d find the jokers lusting after women they despise funnier, or find something inherently funny in the situations Cossery doesn’t bother to elaborate upon. Maybe I’m just a thick Anglo who prefers, say, John Kennedy Toole’s baroque literary comedical set-pieces over whatever is on offer here. But if I am, I am, and Cossery doesn’t seem liable to change that. **
Joan Vinge, “The Snow Queen” (1980) (narrated by Ellen Archer) – Do people ever call fairy-tale inspired grown-up fiction “fairy-core?” Or perhaps “tale-core?” Either way, this Hugo-award winning novel is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name the basics of which, characteristically, I either forgot or never really knew.
What I can tell you is that on the planet of Tiamat, there are two century-plus-long seasons, winter and summer. During winter, the Winter tribe rule, during summer, the Summer tribe, and they sacrifice each other’s rulers at the end in a big masked ceremony. Winter coincides with the periodic opening of a wormhole to the rest of the galaxy, and the arrival of interstellar travel, which brings some advanced technology and notional rule by the “Hegemony.” Summer comes and they destroy all the technology and so the cycle goes.
The current Snow Queen wants to change all that, and so has a number of clones of herself created in one of her schemes to prolong her rule. One of these clones, named Moon, lives among the idyllic Summers and becomes a sibyll, a sort of galactic hive-mind portal. She’s betrothed to her cousin Sparks, but when he fails to become a sibyll, he runs off to the big city of Carbuncle. After predictable urban-bumpkin misadventures, he catches the eye of the Queen, who sees both a potential new lover and a way to get her clone back.
This is just the setup. A lot goes on- this one of those Hugo-bait overstuffed scifi novels with plenty of bells and whistles and worldbuilding. Vinge rigs the world with a deft hand as Moon, Sparks, the Queen, and some galaxy cops all try to reach their respective ends. There’s immortality juice that comes from some local manatee-like critters who turn out to be more than they seem, galaxy cop bureaucratic back and forth, wind-control duels, space chases, secrets of the sibylls revealed, on and on.
I call it “tale-core” less because of any Andersen inspiration and more because of the feel. Moon and Sparks are star-cross’d lovers, and Moon will do anything to get back to Sparks, even after Sparks takes a pretty major heel turn. Moon isn’t some drip- she survives a lot, and takes on another lover in the meantime, but still, her goal remains the same. There’s a lot about masks, both real ones and the ones we wear in society (man) and the assumption of mythic identities. I think there might have been a fair amount of tale-core going around at the time- it was Star Wars’ time, after all, which is basically a fairy tale in space. It produced an interesting book here, though the ending more sets itself up for the inevitable sequels than anything else. ****
Sylvie Tissot, “Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End” (2011) (translated from the French by David Broder with Catherine Romatowski) – This fascinating work of sociology (and, I’d argue, either social history or historical sociology, depending on definitional boundaries I don’t fully grasp) examines the transformation of Boston’s South End from a “skid row” slum in the mid-twentieth century to the yuppie conspicuous-consumption domicile it has become today. More than that, French sociologist Sylvie Tissot looks at the formation not just of gentrified space, but of the gentrifying class- the upper-middle class that created the contemporary South End. Taking issue with monochromatic depictions of the bourgeoisie in chronicles of urban gentrification, she seeks to create a more nuanced picture, though not so nuanced she can’t make judgments, as is all too often the case when “nuance” gets invoked.
The beginnings of the gentrification process in the 1960s saw a gestalt of factors come together to create a unique situation. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, famously smash-happy and fresh off of destroying the old West End utterly, started taking a second look at its approach. Urbanist critics like Jane Jacobs had begun singing the praises of mixed-use and mixed-class urbanism. The radical movements of the period inspired tenants unions and other groups to fight draconian “redevelopment” plans. So South End, despite its slum reputation, was spared the West End treatment.
But underneath all of this was a more class-driven dynamic, where younger, largely white, professionals with money started seeing potential in the South End. Its Victorians could be converted to single family homes or condos in a way the “high modernist” apartment blocks the BRA might have built could not. “Pioneers” began moving in, self-consciously trying to both live an urban lifestyle and manage the urban experience according to their own lights. The metaphor of rehabbing old Victorian houses extended to “rehabbing” the neighborhood at large. This entailed the new homeowners coming together (sometimes in alliance with older slum landlords) to both fight new housing developments (in the name of “historical preservation”) and police the habits of the older, less moneyed and white residents, often on their way out of the neighborhood.
An urban experience with lots of different kinds of people was always (notionally) valued by the settlers of the South End, but “diversity” became a buzzword in the nineteen-nineties as the neighborhood was transforming beyond all recognition. Tissot tries a high-wire act of both acknowledging the hypocrisy of the yuppies and hipsters of the South End, with their obvious fear of black and poor people, with the kernel of truth of their investment of diversity. They’re not just lying when they say they want diversity. It’s that “diversity,” conceptually, has always been a bourgeois concept that meant an order of things managed from above to produce a pleasing effect, not a genuine pluralism or even a laissez-faire policy towards who lives where.
Hence the ironic parade Tissot runs by the reader of old South End ways being twisted around into new ones for a new population. The pioneers of South End gentrification deplored the frequent drunkenness of the inhabitants and the sheer amount of bars and liquor stores, and deployed considerable political muscle at City Hall to get many of them shut down… but the social life of the contemporary South End runs on alcohol, just higher-priced and in chi-chi bistros instead of working-class bars. The new South End swapped out the diversity of people from all over — black, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and numerous European immigrant groups — for an equal diversity of ethnic restaurants, most of which the remaining non-gentrifying residents, shunted into public housing around the edges of the neighborhood, can’t afford. Instead of gay cruising spots there are gay families. Most poignant to me (and, I think, to Tissot) are the dogs. The prevalence of dogs and their shit was a common complaint for early South End gentrifiers. Now, dog-ownership is a major part of South End yuppie identity, gay and straight, often a substitute for the children they don’t have or delay. In the name of the dogs, South Enders fiercely control public park space, clearing out people (predictably, mostly the poor and people of color) so their dogs can roam. The dogs are something Tissot, coming from France where they’re less sentimental about them, is clearly put off by in a kind of amusing way.
All told, this is a very worthy addition to the history of the present. Gentrification narratives tend to be either all too moralistic (those damn hipsters!!) or mechanistically economics-driven, and Tissot gracefully avoids both. She tries to do in contemporary miniature what E.P. Thompson did with the English working class- show how a class, in this case upper-middle-class gentrifiers, came to an awareness of themselves through collective action, and she succeeds markedly. *****