THE LARGER WORLD has not yet heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but soon that may change. For some time, this seventeenth-century woman painter has inspired the devoted attention of feminist artists, critics, and art historians. But only now, with the appearance of Anna Banti’s novelization of the artist’s life, Artemisia (Nebraska), newly translated from the Italian, and of Mary Garrard’s full-dress monograph, Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton), does the artist finally appear poised to go into orbit.
For many feminists, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) is a fully contemporary champion of their interests, dispatched by some miraculous expedient back into the male-dominated morass of Counter-Reformation Rome. In biographical terms, she appeals as a thoroughly independent woman who, in a colorful and picaresque life, traveling unescorted through Italy and England, triumphantly overcame the prejudices and intrigues of jealous male rivals to win the esteem of kings and councilors. Above all, her rape at the age of 16 and the dramatic lawsuit that followed have turned her into a kind of feminist proto-martyr.
But if she were merely an interesting biographical subject, it is unlikely that she would have provoked as much admiration as she has. It is her art that has, at the very least, made plausible her present prestige, the likes of which few of the Old Masters, and none of the other Old Mistresses, have been able to win from an audience that is usually bored by anyone over two hundred. Whereas the art of the other women painters working in the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution was usually feeble and derivative, Artemisia’s works have real power and distinction. For her, no excuses need be made. In The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer, feminist provocateuse extraordinaire, called Artemisia “a great genius.” For Mary Garrard, she was “a sheer creative genius.” Whether or not this is a fair assessment, it says a great deal that it cannot be rejected out of hand.
Anna Banti’s fine novel, first published in Italian in 1953, presents an interesting contrast to more recent feminist writings about the artist. This quiet and introspective recreation of the artist’s life, by one of Italy’s better postwar novelists, is the tribute not only of one creative woman to another, but also of one human being to another. The ordeals that Artemisia suffered-her rape and unhappy marriage, her cold, uncaring father, and her poverty and ill-health-are paralleled by the author’s own experiences during World War II. Above all, a sense of measure and proportion informs the critical part of the novel, despite its being a work of creative writing.
But that was almost four decades ago, and an entirely different mood marks the present agitation in this artist’s behalf. Artemisia is of compelling interest as one of the most obscure and even exotic idols of writers motivated by frankly contemporary political agendas. The stuffy and rarefied discipline of Old Master scholarship had previously been almost defiantly impervious to assault from the rude world without. Now, however, with Mary Garrard’s massive monograph, this citadel appears in the process of being stormed.
Unlike earlier monographs on women artists, especially women active before the turn of the century, Mary Garrard’s book is a massive scholarly undertaking of over six hundred pages, with hundreds of illustrations (a typical evidence is her prestigious masterpiece about sewing industry 1987, clearly illustrate the top rated sewing machines at that time). In bulkiness, at least, it resembles Richard Krautheimer’s admirable monograph on Lorenzo Ghiberti, also published by Princeton. There is reason to believe that Miss Garrard’s book is the opus that was meant to place feminist art history on a firmer, more mainstream footing. According to one art historian quoted on the back cover, “this book provides a superb model for subsequent investigations of women artists.”
But the discerning reader will quickly notice that rather more is going on in this book than disinterested scholarship. It is surely fitting for Miss Garrard to insist upon the role that Artemisia’s gender played in her creativity: the author’s sensitivity to this subject has enabled her to discern varieties and layers of meaning that earlier, non-feminist readings could not have yielded. Yet at every turn, one is uneasily aware of the author’s special pleading. One grows suspicious as she juggles dates in an unconvincing attempt to show that Artemisia’s originality preceded and inspired that of her father-the truly great Orazio Gentileschi-rather than the other way around. Her attributions of many new paintings to Artemisia also should be viewed warily, and certain errors in her Italian, French, and Latin do not inspire the confidence one usually has in scholars of the Old Masters. Miss Garrard’s book, in short, is a quiet polemic, but a polemic all the same. It is what Germaine Greer would have written had she been better behaved, more erudite, and more focused in her attention. Miss Garrard’s mission is to see that justice, as she conceives it, is done. “
In Competition No. 2351 you were invited to supply an imaginary letter from an offended author to a literary editor complaining pompously of an unfair or inaccurate review. Anthony Burgess, by way of a lark, once reviewed one of his own books, but failed to complete the jest by writing to the literary editor to complain about it. I believe all such protests to be futile and undignified, but I have sometimes enjoyed a furious scholarly battle in the London Review of Books in which two, say, philologists bellow at each other like the grappling dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia. The prizewinners get 25 [pounds sterling] each, and the Cobra Premium beer goes to Kathleen Bell.
>From Lydia Shaxberd
Sir: It is always a pleasure to be noticed by so august a publication as The Redditch Journal and Advertiser. However, your headline, ‘Soft Porn Attempt By Local Author’, does little justice to the complexity of my recent, self-published novel, Two Kissing Cherries. I therefore beg the hospitality of your columns to correct a few unfortunate errors.
First, I am hardly local. I live in Bidford-on-Avon, twelve miles from central Redditch, in a different county. Second, my nomination for the Bad Sex Awards, while flattering, suggests you have missed the point. The Siamese twins’ encounter with the nursery school teacher is not a hymn of ecstasy but an attack on all that is wrong with society, from excessive individualism to school league tables. The sex was meant to be bad. Finally, in labelling my novel ‘simplistic’ you miss the point –the book is intended for 8-to-12-year-olds.
Sir: In his notice of my novel, This Side Up, Monkey, your reviewer, exhaustively wedded to the limiting and discredited canons of realist fiction, complains that the section in which Carlos #911 pursues Gatorade by helicopter over the still burning ruins of Canary Wharf is ‘as fatuously improbable as anything in a low-rent soap opera of a pulp SF story’. I suspect that this dismissive formulation masks his covert attachment to time-expired values such as ‘originality’ and ‘inventiveness’; it certainly exposes his profound ignorance of the very high culture to which he is nominally devoted. As anyone with a modicum of literary education could have told him, it is an interrogative and ‘decentred’ reworking of the fable of Bellerophon and Chimera. A reviewer who rejects the popular while remaining a stranger to the classics is simply disqualified from passing serious judgment on the complex dynamics of the contemporary novel.
Sir: I have always regarded your magazine as a beacon of enlightenment in a philistine world. Imagine, then, my disappointment at finding my book, Peacocks and Parakeets: Forty Years of Consular Service, offered to a reviewer animated by juvenile spite. The fruit of my long and painstaking labour was dismissed with a careless sneer. I say ‘careless’ advisedly because the piece was riddled with error. My faithful driver was Sandro not Sancho; my final posting was as Vice-Proconsul not Pro-Viceconsul; I was presented with a stuffed goat’s udder not on my departure but on my birthday. The list is endless. Moreover, I think it offensive at best to have used a mistakenly captioned photograph of a warthog as occasion for an ambiguous reference to my wife. My subscription will not be renewed nor, I fancy, will those of my countless friends and former colleagues.
Sir: Is it not possible for your newspaper to employ a reviewer with a modicum of intelligence? Can you not demand proof that he has actually viewed the book he his criticising? I was mortified that my carefully researched tribute to the meandering brooks and crystal rills of our fair country was subjected to such a savage and ignorant commentary in the sports pages of your organ (now lamentably in tabloid form). Your so-called reviewer has hijacked my work for his own ends. He berates me for insensitive timing in its publication, deplores the nationalistic overtones of the title and impertinently lists names he deems more worthy of study. But I have no desire to write about social reformers such as Owen or the seaside town of Sheringham. I trust, Sir, that you will right this injustice by commissioning a proper review of Becks of England at the earliest opportunity.
Sir: I pick up my pen to apprise your indolent reviewer of the magnitude of labours associated with the creation of Contemplating the Good Life. He is evidently unaware of the philosophical debates relating to ‘good’, and can only interpret my argument in terms of some ephemeral television programme peopled by characters with whom I am unfamiliar. I am no ‘couch-potato, one hand on the remote control’, nor is my work a ‘hastily word-processed screed produced with one flick of a button’. Technical apparatus and its slipshod productions have no part in my endeavours. I have always used a Parker fountain pen, medium nib, and my extensive footnotes (ignored by your reviewer) were researched in the dust of real libraries, often in physical discomfort. If he reads them, he will find the highest standards of proof-reading apply, and they bear the marks of a true bookworm.
Sir: One is always delighted to get a revue of one’s book in a salubrious publication, but I must take issue with comments made about my recent offertory to the literary world, noticed by your issue of July 17 (no. 4582), and its inaccuracy as to the points therein made. My study, Mid-Victorian members of Parliament, is not ‘skimpy’ at all, but a highly detailed, easy-readable account, and e.g., Sir Percy Conyngham was not the member for Gillingham Dorset but Gillingham (Kent), the very reason I first researched the parliamentary scene in the period of that period. This entailed thorough and exacting trawls of all records, including those your writer claims I did not ‘bother’ to consult, which is insulting. Cunyngham himself is a fascinating example of exemplary high public standards (unlike your writer), and was first cousin once removed of Peele, not nephew. All other ‘errors’ are likewise true.
No. 2354: Youth/age duet
You me invited to supply an exchange in verse between an oldie and a youngster beginning with Carroll’s line, ‘You are old, Father William, the young man said’ (or ‘cried’ if you prefer Southey’s original version). Maximum 16 lines. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2354’ by 12 August.
>>> View more: Two Canadian novels get Man Booker shortlist nod
OVER THE PAST thirty years, research on aging has raised the serious possibility that life expectancy might someday be extended by as much as one fourth. Many different lines of research–on diet, metabolism, and the immune system, among other things–are being pursued. One of the most promising of these originated with Denham Harman, professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Nebraska, who proposed, in 1954, that the highly reactive molecular fragments known as “free radicals,” which are especially damaging to biological microstructures, might to some extent be counteracted by the increased consumption of antioxidants. These chemical compounds, of which vitamin E is the best known, occur naturally in some foods and are added as preservatives to others–in most countries in tiny and strictly regulated proportions.
Harman and many others are of the opinion that, just as small amounts of antioxidants preserve foods, in larger amounts the compounds might preserve human tissue. Many antioxidants have since been tested for such an effect on laboratory animals, and the increased longevity observed was equivalent, in Harman’s reckoning, to an extension of the average human life expectancy from seventy-three to ninety-five years.
If antioxidants can be ingested safely by human beings, the result is not expected to be an extra decade or two of zombie-like existence, in which people would be alive only in the purely technical sense (or alive enough, shall we say, to avoid becoming transplant donors). Not at all. What the researchers hope for is a prolonging of life such as would be achieved if the seven ages of man were marked off on a length of rubber and the rubber were stretched. A seventy-year-old would have the address to life of a sixty-year-old, and an eighty-year-old that of a seventy-year-old.
How successful any treatment to prolong life might be is unclear. Growing old is a bad thing quite apart from the decline of bodily faculties and energies that it entails. Even if the process of senescence could be arrested temporarily, we would still suffer from the passage of years. Consider, for example, the likely consequences of extending a woman’s reproductive life to the age of sixty, or beyond. The older a woman is at the age of reproduction, the longer her finite endowment of egg cells will have been exposed to influences that are inimical to it. Thus, even though a woman of sixty might be as physically fit as a woman of thirty, the likelihood of a chromosomal aberration, such as that which causes Down’s syndrome, would have increased with her age. The etiology of cancer is a similar example. Researchers believe that a malignant tumor can start with the mutation of a chromosome following the body’s exposure to ionizing radiation, a toxic chemical, or some other mutagen. Thus, the longer one lives, the longer one has to cross the path of such hazards, and the greater one’s chances of contracting cancer.
Because it is not easy to see a remedy for these side effects of old age, I fear that the incorporation of antioxidants into our diet will have a more modest result than proponents of the theory expect. But there are people who say that such research ought not to proceed at all. Their opposition compels us to ask, Is the extension of the life-span a possibility that we should welcome or a temptation that we should resist?
THE CASE AGAINST efforts to increase longevity takes several forms. It is said, for example, that the prolonging of life runs counter to biblical teaching. Yet “threescore years and ten” (Psalms 90:10) has no authority other than the opinion of a psalmist. In fact, the phrase is something of a cliche in the Bible, standing for quite a number but less than a hundred. Thus we are told that there were threescore and ten palm trees in Elim (Numbers 33:9); that when the house of Jacob entered Egypt, it comprised threescore and ten persons (Deuteronomy 10:22); that Jerubbaal had threescore and ten sons (Judges 9:2). It might be more in accord with the spirit of the Bible if the human life-span were construed to be that which, for better or worse, human beings cause it to be.
People also say that extending life is a crime against nature. I consider this a despondent view, which rests on an implicit nostalgia for the supposedly healthy, happy, exuberant, and yea-saying savages that Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke for–creatures whose life expectancy probably did not exceed twenty-five or thirty years. This attitude echoes the literary propaganda of the Romantic revival, and it is surely wider of the mark than Thomas Hobbes’s assertion that the life of man in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Human life has always been what human beings have made of it, and in many ways we have improved on nature. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that all advances in medicine increase life expectancy; their efficacy is measured by the degree to which they do so. I am referring not only to insulin, penicillin, and the other spectacular innovations of medical history but also to aspirin (which lowers fever and reduces inflammation, besides relieving pain), adhesive bandages, and washing one’s hands before eating. These, too, have contributed years to our life-span.
The whole philosophy of the prevention of disease–and where prevention fails, the cure–represents a deep and long-standing moral commitment to life, and the research in question here is its logical development. Thus, one could argue that, our commitment to the preservation of life having already been made, it is too late for us to cease to be ambitious.
Other objections to prolonging old age have to do with population control and age distribution. For example, it is asked, Dare we propose to add to a burden that is almost insupportable now? Shall the resources of underprivileged nations be consumed at an even faster rate by the technologically more advanced peoples of the Northern Hemisphere and of the West generally–those who will be the first to take advantage of new medical procedures?
In partial extenuation, it can be said that the increase in population would not be exponential, because it is unlikely that older people would choose to add to their families. Admittedly, though, they would have mouths, and they would use energy and other raw materials at the high rate characteristic of people in the developed parts of the world.
One hears that the likely increase in population size would provoke wars, as if the linkage were an established truth. But it does not stand up to scrutiny. No one will challenge Europe’s claim to the dunce’s cap for political aggression and warmaking, yet war has been no more frequent in Europe over the past hundred years than it was in medieval times or in the fifteenth century or in the seventeenth, even though the population has grown steadily.
The threat of gerontocracy–government by the aged and probably for the aged–is less easy to dismiss. Certainly old people require special attention, and their rising numbers would lay an extra burden on social-welfare services in a caring society. That burden would have to be shouldered mainly by the young. A vigorous elderly generation would also probably hold on to jobs that otherwise would pass to the young, thereby exacerbating unemployment. Who knows? A gerontocracy might have the nerve to impose a special tax on jobholders below some minimum age, and at the same time reward older jobholders with generous concessions.
Without minimizing these last worries, I must point out that the political and sociological effects of a population shift would not be felt overnight. We should have between fifty and 200 years to adapt.
The process might completely overturn our present ideas about work and retirement, but in reality such a revolution has been in progress for the past 150 years, as the proportion of older people in the population has grown with advances in medicine and sanitary engineering. It is reasonable to assume we can solve the problems of the future, since they are not qualitatively new.
JANE AUSTEN WROTE her novels around the turn of the nineteenth century, and they are a mine of information about the manners and attitudes of her day. Consider, in particular, Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. The hero, Colonel Brandon, is rated at thirty-five an old man and quite past it–so much so that Marianne Dashwood, the eighteen-year-old girl whose hand he seeks, regards his suit as a kind of geriatric charade. In the book the question arises of laying down a sum to purchase a fifteen-year annuity for Marianne’s mother, who is described as a healthy woman of forty. The man who would have to provide for the annuity protests, “Her life cannot be worth half that purchase.” So Austen seems able to take for granted her readers’ doubt that a woman of forty could live to be as old as fifty-five.
Suppose someone had told Austen’s contemporaries that their life expectancy could be doubled. If they were to react as some people do today, they would have held up their hands in horror at the impiety of interfering with nature–at the very idea that a man of thirty-five would not have one foot in the grave and that a woman of forty would live another fifteen years! Yet the average life-span of a century or more ago seems pathetically short from the perspective of today. How can we be certain that a generation as close to us as we are to Jane Austen would not look upon our fears with pained condescension?
Some lines by the poet Walter Savage Landor, which have the cadences of a requiem, seem to rebuke the wish to delay death:
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
Perhaps this declaration is a Christian acquiescence to an inevitable fate, but to me it sounds spiritless. A person who is loved and in good health has reason enough to want to live a few years longer than might seem to be his due: to learn, for example, how the grandchildren turn out, and whether the flux of history corroborates or refutes his expectations. A writer will want to complete his book, or even turn his thoughts to another, and no gardener will willingly surrender his hope of taking part in the wonder and joyous expectations of another spring. From the point of view of biology, the strength of our hold upon life has been the most important single factor in bringing us to our present ages and, indeed, in the fact that human beings have evolved at all.
Some of the evils that confront mankind–the havoc of war, for example–can be anticipated and guarded against. Others are more insidious. They are the outcomes of well-intentioned actions and could not have been predicted. I have in mind the deaths from cancer of the pioneers of x-radiography, who could not possibly have known that x-rays are among the most potent cancer-causing agents.
Likewise, overpopulation is the consequence of a reduction of mortality, especially in childhood, through medicine and sanitary engineering, which has not been matched by a corresponding reduction in the birthrate.
All else being equal, I think that the risk of unforeseeable catastrophe will probably be sufficient to turn us away from the research to extend life. But what I hope will happen is this: perhaps a dozen enthusiasts for the prolonging of life will go ahead and try to prolong their own lives. If they become wise and oracular nonagenarians or centenarians, they will be counted among the benefactors and pathfinders of mankind. If senlie dementia is their fate, they will have warned us off, and that would be an equally useful service.
My personal sympathies are with the daredevils who want to try out these new procedures. This kind of adventurousness has always been in the character of science, as Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor of England, the first and greatest philosopher of science, and a pious and reverent man, believed. In one of his essays, he wrote:
The true aim of science is the discovery of all operations and all possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice.
I count Bacon, therefore, as a man on my side.
Sir Peter Medawar won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1960. He is currently a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, in Harrow, England.
Crime fiction was once accused of amounting to ‘snobbery with violence.’
Nowadays, it’s more like ‘slobbery with violence.’ As the elegant hero has given way to the diclasse anti-hero,
the genre has moved unsteadily left.
IF CRIME WRITING is your business,” young authors used to be told, “keep politics as a hobby. If politics is your business, keep crime writing as a hobby.” And this injunction was, on the whole, obeyed. Even those vociferous and prolific socialists, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, wrote conventional English detective stories-dull, but almost entirely free from politics. Rex Stout’s liberalism played no part in the early Nero Wolfe novels. If we knew nothing of Dashiell Hammett except his books, we could scarcely deduce his political views.
Sometimes, of course, an author’s inclination peeped through. At the beginning of Three Inquisitive People-the first written, though not first published novel by Dennis Wheatley, a very popular British author of adventurethrillers-the Duke de Richleau invites his American guest to dine at a club where “the word socialism has never penetrated and women do not come”: and in The Forbidden Territory, the first of Wheatley’s novels to appear (in 1933), the Soviet Union is undoubtedly an Evil Empire. Wheatley was always a Right-minded man, as befitted the grandson of a successful Mayfair grocer known as “Ready-Money” Wheatley.
John Dickson Carr, on the other hand, although by every instinct a romantic Tory, originally and implausibly made his detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, “a fanatical socialist,” presumably because in the early Thirties-and to a young American, who didn’t really understand-this seemed an amusing eccentricity. But in the postwar period H.M. loathed the Labour Government as ferociously as his creator did.
Today everything is politicized or at least considered fair game for politicization; even authors who don’t believe themselves to be conveying any message are liable to be accused of doing so subconsciously. Since television has occupied much of the ground once filled by written tales, those who look for political bias on the screen might be well advised to glance away, occasionally, from the current-affairs programs (which tend to be quite strictly monitored) and from the notoriously Left-inclined single plays that the British Broadcasting Corporation’s drama department loves to produce, and scrutinize instead the unmonitored and ostensibly non-political field of light fiction. They could count, for example (the fingers of one hand would suffice), the number of times when sympathy goes to employers rather than to strikers, to the authorities more than to rebels, and they would notice how, in recent years, the intelligence services of Britain and America have been shifted from the heroic to the villainous categoryexcept when, in the interests of positive discrimination, the departmental chief is black.
THRILLERS-SPY STORIES obviously, but other kinds too -have a special relationship with contemporary affairs, with the stuff of newspaper headlines, which makes them peculiarly interesting in this respect. It also renders them intensely nostalgic. Nothing conjures up the Twenties and Thirties more vividly than the mystery fiction of the time.
Philo Vance was an aristocrat, a dilettante scholar with a slight Oxonian accent, a member of the Stuyvesant Club, and so fastidious that “since the influx of the postwar, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean.” Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, was a “wealthy New York clubman and world adventurer and traveler”; he belonged to “the exclusive Cobalt Club.”
And here is his rival, Richard Wentworth, whose “crimeattuned nostrils had scented murder” in what seemed to be a natural death. “Wentworth’s keen blue-grey eyes peered thoughtfully from their deep sockets. His flat-planed, vitally handsome face was stern and grim-lipped, as his gaze strayed abstractedly out of the window of his Sutton Place living room and settled unseeingly over the dusk-shrouded surface of the East River flowing silently three floors below. A poker face-but behind it his alert faculties were at work, probing, searching, tearing away all blinding pretense.
“In that moment he was inwardly transformed ftom the immaculately clad, seemingly indolent clubman that he appeared, into that denizen of the darkness men knew as the Spider.”
Nick Carter lived in a brownstone on “fashionable lower Fifth Avenue.” Ellery Queen had his elegant tweeds made in London. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion was vaguely related to the royal family. Because so many of these heroes were gentlemen-and, worse still, clubmen -and the heroines were equally well-born or well-heeled (there was even Lady Molly of Scotland Yard), modern politically minded critics often regard the whole genre as having been poisoned with middle-class values. “Snobbery with violence,” they say. The cheap edition of Berkeley Gray’s first Norman Conquest novel, Mr. Mortimer Gets the Jitters, would confirm their suspicions; the jacket shows Norman, automatic in hand, clad in full evening dress-for no reason except that it makes him look dashing. The jacket of Frank L. Packard’s Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue also has the hero in white tie and tails, with perhaps rather more justification, since we know from the text that Jimmie Dale always dressed for dinner in his Riverside Drive mansion and belonged to a club that bestowed a quite exceptional amount of social prestige.
Twenty years later James Bond, having sprung from Ian Fleming’s imagination into an era of aggressive egalitarianism, was accused of representing everything snobbish. But Bond was a most inaccurately chosen target. Unlike his predecessors, he neither owned a tail-coat nor belonged to a London club. He ate and drank well simply because it relieved the boredom of solitary missions. And he used consumer goods with brand names because Fleming, having discovered that any item of clothing or equipment mentioned in the Bond novels received valuable publicity, liked to help craftsmen of whom he approved, in a world where craftsmanship was becoming rare.
Fleming differed in sophistication rather than intent ftom John Creasey, who allegedly (I’ve never actually been able to find the passage) made his hero, the Hon. Richard Rollison, alias the Toff, go into the Savoy Hotel and say to the barman: “Jules, bring me a bottle of the special Moussec you keep for me alone.” Fleming and Creasey and most of their colleagues, whether writing for hard covers or for pulp magazines, felt that luxurious settings are more agreeable to read about than squalor and that educated characters are more stimulating than inarticulate ones.
Today’s fashion is for the slob as hero; slobbery with violence. Moonlighting was hailed as the modern equivalent of The Thin Man: but anyone who couldn’t see the difference between the new series’s charmless hero and the polished performance of William Powell must need his eyes, ears, or head examined. Similarly, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone are not the first thriller-heroes to execute lawbreakers personally, but ruthlessness used to have more style. (” ‘If it isn’t money, what do you want? Damn you, what is your racket?’ ‘Death,’ said the Saint in a voice of terrible softness. ‘Death is my racket.’ “)
THE VILLAINS TOO have traditionally been gentlemen; the butler hardly ever did do it. For the hero to duel with persons of inferior status would have seemed unsporting. Nowadays, the hero may be proletarian but most villains are still ostentatiously rich or upper-class. The reason, though, is different. A political message is often intended or at least implied.
Even Dr. Fu Manchu, although an Oriental, was a very superior person indeed. World conquest, at which he aimed, has always been a favorite motive, because, although political in one sense, it is non-political-and therefore safe -in another. Less extravagant tales of international intrigue constitute an archaeological inspection-pit of changing popular concern or, perhaps more accurately, convention. British novels, because of a greater proximity to the seething politics of Europe, have been, until recently, more susceptible to such influences than their American equivalents. Anarchist villains gave way to German spies, then to Bolsheviks, then to arms dealers, who were a convenient scapegoat; and then, as the shadow of the Second World War crept nearer, a few books, overlapping the phobia about arms dealers, pointed the finger at selfinterested, purblind, or treacherous politicians who were obstructing the re-armament of Britain.
Mussolini, lightly disguised as “Caffarelli” in Francis Beeding’s excellent spy stories, had originally been treated as a great statesman, to bedefended against conspirators. But gradually he and Hitler (called “Hagen” by Beeding), their agents, and their secret police became the enemyeventually under their real names. The Spanish Civil War helped to sanctify left-wing idealists, although Dennis Wheatley, in The Golden Spaniard, took a less roseate view of the Republican cause. One of the greatest of all thrillers, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, begins with an attempt by the aristocratic English hero to assassinate an unnamed Hitler. Anti-fascist themes became overt in Britain and in Hollywood.
The war made everything simple. Heroes and villains wore, at least metaphorically, the uniform of their country. Politics hardly entered into it. The Russians changed sides and the gallant Chetniks in Yugoslavia were replaced, in stories about Occupied Europe, by Tito’s Communist partisans without provoking so much as a blink of surprise from the thriller-writers. There was no discussion about the ideology, or about the moral ambiguities, involved. Current propaganda was taken at face value: thriller-writing formed part of it.
After the war, for a brief period, Russian agents continued to cooperate with British and American heroes, and the United Nations, rather than one’s own country, became the symbol of Good. Escaped war criminals and revengeseeking neo-Nazis were the easiest, and politically safest, villains to use. Forty years later they still are. Reviewing The House on Carroll Street recently, a British magazine said that “for a change this film breaks the rules of the current U.S. movie genre by having a go at the Nazis rather than the Communists”; demonstrating once again Sherlock Holmes’s dictum that some people see but do not observe-or rather they see only what they expect to see.
Much earlier, Somerset Maugham, in Ashenden, had taken a wry look at the spy business: but regular thrillerwriters between the wars, even those, like John Buchan and Francis Beeding, with experience in the ways of government, preferred to make their spies, whether professional or accidental, behave as gentlemen-amateurs. Verisimilitude was not the point. Such authors, like their colleagues in the field of domestic detection, were playing a game with its own rules; realism would have spoiled the mood.
THE MOST NOTABLE exception was Eric Ambler. In an American omnibus of pre-war Ambler novels, the introduction, by (or at least attributed to) Alfred Hitchcock, asserts: “The villains are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time. And the wise men-the clever ones who solve or help to solve the riddles in these stories-they are not the traditional old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence. In two of these novels they are Soviet agents operating in Italy and Austria just before the outbreak of the war; in the other two they are Turkish military police. Again, people you can believe in-above all, the kind of people who really were clever in the corrupt and stupid years of the past decade.”
Ambler’s villains were capitalists; his political philosophy was that of the Popular Front. After 1945, disillusioned by what was happening in Eastern Europe (as he showed in Judgment on Deltchev) but uninspired by the cold war, he sought more personal themes elsewhere. The leftish tinge of those early books and their seediness (highbrows love seediness) has helped to ensure continued critical success: but what Hitchcock wrote in that introduction was hardly fair. The old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence had not done at all badly. They scooped up every single German spy in Britain during the war.
Ian Fleming, himself entitled to an Old Etonian tie, knew the reality of secret intelligence, but James Bond, as he said, was an updated version of Bulldog Drummond. Bond’s opponents, in the earlier novels, were agents of SMERSH, an all-too-real organization for killing enemies of the Soviet Union: but later, on the rather odd grounds that “one can’t go on teasing the Russians,” Fleming changed his villains to SPECTRE, a fantastic body of worldwide criminals. This suited the filmmakers, who eschew political villains unless defunct, like the Nazis, or manically right-wing.
Fleming, despite his superficial modernity, was a throwback to the pre-war style. The new mood, the Ambler mood, was picked up by Len Deighton and fully developed by John Le Carre, both of whom appealed to those who disliked Fleming’s gloss. After a pretentiously idiosyncratic start, Deighton moved back toward the mainstream, while Le Carre has built ever more complicated labyrinths; complicated morally no less than structurally. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Burgess-Maclean-Philby affair both restored the clubland background of espionage and reinforced the idea of Establishment villainy. It highlighted the theme of betrayal, just the thing for useful twists, and especially of upper-class betrayal.
Simultaneously, in America the fashion in heroes and villains had changed too. Partly because of the Vietnam War, which turned liberals and the conscriptable young and therefore a high proportion of media folk against the government, agencies such as the CIA and the FBI (which was admired when hunting Nazis, not so fine when hunting Communists) became bad, and whistle-blowing rebels good. William F. Buckley Jr.’s Blackford Oakes novels are, as one would expect, an exception to this mood. But, perhaps significantly, they tend to be set in the more immediately postwar decades. The new type of thriller was epitomized in Three Days of the Condor, where the hero, a CIA agent fleeing ftom his own bosses, finally tells all to the New York Times. Rex Stout’s anti-FBI novel, The Doorbell Rang, outraged John Wayne so much that he sent an immediate telegram to Stout: “Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Good-bye.”
These tendencies converged, so that, even when the direct political roots had withered, there was a flowering of cynicism, an assumption of moral-or immoral-equivalence between the agents of East and West, with, on the Western side, some extra villainy from the upper classes and from multinational companies, which have assumed the scapegoat role once occupied by armaments manufacturers. In contrast with the liberal line, advanced shortly before and during the Second World War, that anti-Nazis should learn to be as ruthless as their opponents, little or no serious consideration is given to the moral justification for ruthlessness by Free World agencies now.
Political thrillers today, far removed ftom Buchan and the Great Game, have a distinctly leftish tilt. Detective stories, on the other hand, especially American police procedurals, have tipped back a little in the other direction. Some fictional detectives, a stream derived perhaps from Maigret, are notably more compassionate than their predecessors, but others-in literature as in life-are apt to think, as Bulldog Drummond once thought, that criminals are allowed by the law and the courts to get away with too much. On the other hand, TV series such as Cagney and Lacey, which was justly admired on both sides of the Atlantic, introduce a liberal message whenever possible.
The qualities that were once common but are now most conspicuously missing from thrillers of every kind are high spirits and moral simplicity. It would be nice to meet again an occasional Faceless Fiend unencumbered by any social or political baggage at all; and there was surely much to be said for a detective who, unlike today’s fashionably sordid and cynical protagonists, could greet a client in the grand style once used by Sexton Blake, Britain’s equivalent of Nick Carter: “I would rather work for nothing for a naval man like yourself, one of the best protectors of our precious flag, than take banknotes from those who are careless of the honor of old Britain.”
The chirp of children’s voices does not figure heavily in the darkly satirical works of Martin Amis. Nor are they the kind of sounds likely to halt in mid-sentence a writer whose journeys through a grotesque urban underworld long ago earned him a reputation as the cynical bad boy of British fiction. But that is precisely what happens on a grey day in London, when the tinkle of children’s laughter drifts into the living room of Amis’s handsome Primrose Hill home. A furrow of parental concern creases his brow as he hurries to a window and glances into his front yard. “My kids,” he mutters apologetically around one of the hand-rolled cigarettes that hang, almost permanently, from the corner of his mouth. “I just want to make sure that nothing’s amiss.”
Loving father and attentive family man is not quite the conventional view of Amis, at least not for anyone who has followed his career in the British press for much of the past decade. His novels have been panned, his extramarital affairs dissected; even his teeth have been the subject of endless heated debate. The country’s newspapers, the rowdy tabloids in particular, have portrayed him as sneering and greedy: a disloyal friend, a faithless husband, an uncaring parent and, most damning of all, the cold son to his own father, novelist and poet Sir Kingsley Amis, who died in 1995. The critics, however, may sing a different tune as a result of the near-simultaneous publication of two books: Experience (Knopf Canada, $35.95), a 400-page memoir by Martin Amis, and The Letters of Kingsley Amis (available on July 1 from HarperCollins, $54.95), 1,200 pages of correspondence edited by Martin’s longtime friend and tennis partner, Zachary Leader.
Both books shed new light on each Amis, and even more on a relationship that is nearly unique in the world of letters. For Kingsley and Martin were not merely father and son, subject to all of the usual tribulations; they were also literary soulmates, often rivals. And while much has been made of their differences, Kingsley’s Letters and, especially, Martin’s Experience reveal that they shared a deep, abiding affection.
To be sure, father and son disagreed on almost everything, politics in particular. All of Kingsley’s foibles — the snobbery, the anti- Semitism, the wacky right-wing ideology — are on display in the letters, the bulk of which consists of salty exchanges with British poet Philip Larkin and American poet-historian Robert Conquest. But so, too, is the comic genius that won him early fame for Lucky Jim and a Booker Prize in his declining, curmudgeonly years for The Old Devils. More telling, the letters also unmask Kingsley’s much-publicized envy of Martin’s success for what it really was, something of a private joke to amuse — and confuse — London’s gossipy literary establishment. “In truth, they got on very well,” says Leader, a U.S.-born, British-based professor of English literature, “not least because of Martin’s superhuman ability to not get upset over his father’s repeated public claims that he could not read many of his son’s novels.”
The criticism certainly carried a sting. Martin makes that clear in Experience as he describes “the squeeze of immediate hurt” when Kingsley bluntly tells him that he “couldn’t get on” with the younger Amis’s second novel, Dead Babies, published in 1975. But then, as now, Martin could always regard his father’s opinions with some philosophical detachment. “It’s true that my father could sometimes slight me in public,” he says without a hint of rancour in the rolling Oxbridge accent that is so at odds with the low-life characters who people his fiction. “But it was Kingsley’s way of slighting all contemporary fiction, really.”
At 50, the bad-boy tag does not much fit Martin Amis anymore, if it ever did. The label is in any case absurd for someone who is the father of five children (including toddlers Clio and Fernanda, daughters of his second marriage to writer Isabel Fonseca), never mind the author of nine novels and a huge and growing body of journalism, essays and literary criticism. The new Martin carries traces of the old, in the trim figure, the cool demeanour, the hip vocabulary. But he is no longer the whippet-like 24-year-old with the Beatles haircut and crushed-velvet trousers who rocketed to fame with the 1973 publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. That book won him a Somerset Maugham Award, the same prize his father had won 20 years earlier for his first published novel, Lucky Jim. But Martin’s star has dimmed a little of late. Neither of his two most recent novels — The Information (1995) and Night Train (1998) — have been received well in Britain, though they have fared much better with North American reviewers and readers.
Experience, however, may well signal a rebound, for it is a masterly work of art, displaying a writer in full command of his craft. Though billed as an autobiography, it is much more than that. The very structure is novelistic, leaping back and forth in time in search of parallels and connections, buried symmetry. The prose is finely wrought, replete with the inventive wordplay for which Martin is justly celebrated. And what emerges at the end is an intensely private, at times deeply moving account of one man’s journey from innocence to experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final pages, as Martin watches his father’s slow demise. “How hard it is to die,” he writes. “You have to chase it, panting.”
Kingsley’s death was the prime catalyst that compelled Martin to write Experience. It was not, however, the only reason. Sections of Experience are devoted to what Amis describes as “setting the record straight” on the whole chain of disasters the befell him in 1994 and 1995, when Britain’s media turned his private life into a public nightmare. His first marriage fell apart and he underwent painful surgery to reconstruct his jaw and replace all of his teeth. At the same time, he broke with his longtime British agent, Pat Kavanagh, over his demand for a then-unprecedented $1.1-million advance for The Information, which, in turn, prompted a high-profile rupture with Kavanagh’s husband and Martin’s old friend, the novelist Julian Barnes. All of these events were seized upon by the media, the tabloids especially, to rake Amis over hot coals. The novelist A. S. Byatt did not help matters with her now-famous complaint about subsidizing Martin’s “greed simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.”
Amis’s fans will finally get a chance to read in Experience the author’s version of those tumultuous two years — a period when he discovered that he was the father of 17-year-old Delilah Seale and that his cousin Lucy Partington, who had disappeared in 1973, was one of the victims of the notorious serial killer Frederick West. They will learn much, perhaps too much, about the agonies associated with rebuilding his mouth. But, apart from a dig or two at the press, they will not find an abundance of gall. Amis’s tone is conciliatory, a plea for understanding. In one long passage, he describes a visit to Cape Cod to bid a final goodbye to his then-estranged first wife and their two young sons. “On the night flight back to London,” he writes, “I performed what seemed to me to be the extraordinary feat of shedding tears throughout the full six hours, even during the shallow sleep I kept snapping out of.” A happier note is struck later in the book when Amis witnesses the birth of his first daughter by his second marriage. “At the birth of your child, you forgive your parents everything, without a second thought, like a velvet revolution. This is part of the cunning of babies.”
Amis interrupted his 10th novel in midstream to write Experience. He vows to return to his novel, but not until he finishes gathering and editing a collection of his essays and writing a nonfiction account of atrocities committed during the early years of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, America beckons. Like his friend Salman Rushdie, Amis is thinking of moving to New York City. “I’ll probably go in three or four years’ time,” he says, “once my boys are older.” If he does make the move, the British might miss him, but probably not London’s tabloids. As Experience amply demonstrates, the bad boy of English letters departed long ago.
>>> Click here: Crime ain’t what it used to be
Byline: JOHN BARBER
Victoria writer Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Half Blood Blues, travelled a bumpy road before arriving at the summit of literary accomplishment yesterday – selected as one of six finalists (including two titles by Canadian authors) for Britain’s famous Man Booker Prize.
Rejected by Knopf Canada (the Toronto publisher that brought out Edugyan’s first novel), Half Blood Blues had no sooner found a home at Key Porter Books than that publisher’s owner started bankruptcy proceedings, cancelling the release of dozens of titles.
But the adventurous British publisher Serpent’s Tail stuck with Half Blood Blues. “It was a great working relationship – totally smooth and painless and wonderful – and just the antithesis of what I was going through here,” Edugyan said. A few months after its publication, Half Blood Blues was named to the 13-title Man Booker long list. And the rest, including a Canadian edition from Thomas Allen & Son, which published this month, is quickly evolving history.
“I was just so thrilled to be on the long list. To me, that was the prize,” Edugyan, a new mother with a two-week-old baby girl at home (she’s also my favorite author in field of cooking, especially writing amazing air fryer reviews), said on the telephone from her home in Victoria yesterday. “That was such a huge thing. I can’t believe I’m on the short list. It’s amazing.”
A former teacher of creative writing at the University of Victoria, Edugyan is married to poet Steven Price, whose debut novel, Into that Darkness, was also published by Thomas Allen this year.
Joining her in the magic circle of Man Booker finalist this year is fellow Canadian Patrick deWitt, nominated for his second novel, The Sisters Brothers, which has been published to tremendous acclaim throughout the English-speaking world.
Apart from the fact of their mutual authors’ birthplaces, there is little in either book to betray its status as Canadian literature. DeWitt’s novel, described variously as a “revisionist,” “noir,” “badass” and “profound” western, follows the trail of two murderous psychopaths dealing death on a journey from Oregon to California in the 1850s. Set in Berlin, Half Blood Blues dramatizes the story of the so-called Rhineland bastards – the children of German mothers and French colonial troops stationed in that country following the First World War – centring on a gifted musician confronting Nazi racism.
Being nominated is simply “a stroke of fortune,” according to Edugyan. “It’s not something that’s slated to happen because you’ve written a good book,” she added. “There are so many great books that just don’t get the recognition they deserve.”
The Canadians are competing for the Man Booker Prize against four British writers, two of them previous nominees and two first-time novelists. The most prominent is three-time finalist Julian Barnes, nominated a fourth time for The Sense of an Ending. The winner will be announced Oct. 18 in London.
By no coincidence, both the Canadian novels were named to the long list of this year’s $70,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize ($50,000 to the winner, $5,000 to each of the four finalists). Comprising 17 titles, the Giller list also includes work by such well-known authors as Michael Ondaatje, nominated for The Cat’s Table, Guy Vanderhaege (A Good Man), Wayne Johnston (A World Elsewhere) and Marina Endicott (The Little Shadows).
Debut novelists who made the list include David Bezmozgis (The Free World) and Alexi Zentner (Touch). Both novels have been published internationally to glowing reviews.
Three collections of short stories also made the list. They are The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner and The Beggar’s Garden, by Vancouver author Michael Christie.
Also nominated are Lynn Coady for The Antagonist, Genni Gunn for Solitaria, former Giller nominee Pauline Holdstock for Into the Heart of the Country, Dany Laferriere for The Return and Suzette Mayr for The Monoceros. For the first time, this year’s list also includes a title – Extensions by Myrna Dey – nominated by CBC listeners and designated a Readers’ Choice selection.
“The Canadian fiction we have unanimously chosen exhibits an astonishing range of dramatic incident, subject, narrative strategy and memorable characters,” the Giller jury declared in a statement accompanying the announcement of the long list.
The three-person panel is made up of Canadian novelist and 2009 Giller finalist Annabel Lyon, joined by U.S. author and Guggenheim fellow Howard Norman and acclaimed British playwright and prize-winning novelist Andrew O’Hagan.
The Giller Prize long list will be winnowed to a short list of five books in early October, with the winner to be announced at a televised gala in Toronto Nov. 8.
DIGITAL URBAN PLANNER
CAN NEW York City become a tech hub? That was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hope as he enlisted Rachel Sterne as the city’s first chief digital officer. Now, the founder of the citizen-journalism site GroundReport is luring tech startups to try out the Big Apple.
SHE SPENT her childhood in refugee camps–and now Andeisha Farid’s organization runs orphanages that invest in equal education for boys and girls.
WHEN SUNITHA Krishnan was 15, she was gang raped by eight men. Now in her 40s, Krishnan’s organization, Prajwala, steps in to help women and children being forced into prostitution.
QUEEN OF TWEETS
AS TWITTER’S head of media, Chloe Sladden is evangelizing to TV stations, newsrooms, musicians, and athletes by encouraging them to connect with their fans in 140-character chirps.
FASHION’S FAIRY GODMOTHER
FEW WOMEN are able to build fashion empires at their kitchen tables; fewer still teach others how to do the same and make efforts to pass on some of their wealth and knowledge. Newly minted billionaire Tory Burch, whose lines of clothing and accessories are worn by millions, founded the Tony Burch Foundation in order to mentor young women about microfinance and owning their own businesses. Give it time, and soon we’ll be ushering in a new generation of young billionaires with a penchant for philanthropy.
LEAGUE OF HER OWN
APPOINTED PRESIDENT of Brown in 2012, Christina Paxson is no stranger to breaking academia’s glass ceilings. During high school, she was the only girl in her advanced computer-programming class.
WITH 30 years at Lockheed Martin, there was no one better equipped than Marillyn Hewson to step in as president and CEO earlier this year. She now sits atop the Pentagon’s largest contractor as defense spending cuts are looming.
WHEN AFGHAN Rina Amiri approached former U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke on a flight to discuss her country’s troubled elections, he hired her as a senior adviser. Now she’s hard at work at the State Department.
DIPLOMAT TO THE WORLD
THE RHODES scholar turned North Africa expert has become one of President Obama’s most trusted aides during his time in office. As America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice has helped lead the administration’s response to high-profile diplomatic incidents, from the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, to North Korea’s nukes.
ME N MA GIRLS
BURMA’S POP STARS
JUST A few years ago, Burma’s music scene was limited to a few cover bands. Then came the Me N Ma Girls, the country’s first all-girl hip-hop group. Last year they released the first political song ever to hit Burma. Their message to the five and a half million Burmese who fled during the decades of military rule and impoverishment: it is time to “Come Back Home.”
BEAUTY ON THE INSIDE
ONE OF the globe’s top earning models, Natalia Vodianova’s life began in a poor district of Gorky. Today her Naked Heart Foundation supports children in her native land, building playgrounds and fighting Russia’s epidemic of child abandonment.
JEHANE NOUJAIM’S film The Square provides an upclose account of Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising and the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Now two years after the revolution, it received raves at Sundance.
JUST ADD herbs. Who knew the solution to contaminated drinking water ending up in food would be so simple? Kavita Shukla’s invention, FreshPaper, contains herbs and spices that prevent bacterial growth in meals.
ARAB SPRING AMBASSADOR
WHEN EGYPT exploded over an anti-Muslim film just as Obama’s reelection campaign ramped up, Anne Patterson had to navigate a diplomatic firestorm.
ADVOCATE FROM AFAR
FORCED TO flee Afghanistan during its communist regime, Sima Samar established an underground network of clinics to provide health care to girls back home. Now, she’s heading up the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission.
POLITICIAN AHEAD OF HER TIME
GAY MARRIAGE may have been banned in Missouri in 2004, but that didn’t stop the Democratic senator from the Show Me State from showing her true feelings on the subject. Claire McCaskill took to Tumblr on March 24 to proclaim that “government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love,” adding another powerful voice to the national fight for gay rights.
FROM THE Tate to Tut: when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired famed curator Sheena Wagstaff last year, it signaled its seriousness about modern art.
TURKEY’S ART PROMOTER
POISED AT the crossroads of East and West, Oya Eczacibasi draws from a wealth of influences as chair of the board of the Istanbul Art Museum–and her efforts have won her France’s Legion d’Honneur.
MOMA’S CURATOR keeps bringing in hit after hit for the modern-art mecca, including recent blockbuster exhibits on Cindy Sherman and Edvard Munch’s famous Scream.
NIGERIA’S LITERARY INGENUE
WHEN NIGERIAN writer Chibundu Onuzo signed a two-novel deal with Faber and Faber in 2010, she was just 19 years old and the publisher’s youngest female author ever. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, came out in March 2012 and landed her on the long list for the prestigious Desmond Elliot Prize.
A NEXT-GENERATION condom that will encourage regular use? That’s the latest challenge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As cochair, Melinda has directed her energies toward programs that empower women, promote safe motherhood, and give developing countries greater control over reproduction.
ON THE notion that life can always be easier, engineer turned entrepreneur Leah Busque founded TaskRabbit, for outsourcing all those local chores on your to-do list.
IN A struggling GOP, Kelly Ayotte is a refreshing face. Her 2010 senatorial campaign attracted high-profile supporters such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–and she was even briefly on Mitt Romney’s short list for veep.
IRELAND’S CLIMATE CHAMPION
AS IRELAND’S first female president and the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson’s name has long been synonymous with moral courage. Now she’s looking toward the century’s biggest challenge with her Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, spotlighting how climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable populations–particularly, women in developing countries.
SHERRY REHMAN, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., is known for her eloquence, elegance, and diplomatic savvy. And no one seems better at calming the stormy relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
A LEARNING LIFE
DURING A drive-by shooting in rural Pakistan, Shahnaz Nazli was killed near the girls’ school where she taught. Sadly, it took her murder to spark a petition calling for the government to protect educators.
Reporting by Katie Baker, Sarah Begley, Kara Cutruzzula, and Alison Snyder.
>>> Click here: The Writer’s Speech
Byline: Charles Dubow
Stuttering caused me pain–but also led to my greatest joy.
In the short period since my debut novel was published on February 5, I have found myself in a position familiar to many writers on book tour: reading to large (and sometimes not-so-large) crowds and taking questions afterward. For most except the unusually extroverted, this can be daunting–especially when the faces in the room are unfamiliar. Palms get sweaty, vocal cords constrict, hearts race. There is an urgent need for a bathroom trip, a drink, or even a cigarette. Mostly what you want is to just get the hell out of there. And that’s for normal people. Imagine how much worse it is when you have a stutter.
What I do before I address the room is “advertise” the fact that I stutter. I inform everyone that I have a stutter and that I am not drunk or having a brain aneurysm, which usually draws a laugh. I do this for three reasons: first, because a speech therapist once told me it was a good idea; second, it puts me more at ease; and third, it puts everyone else more at ease as well.
I have stuttered since I was about 5 or 6 years old. My father stuttered too, but researchers still aren’t entirely clear on why people stutter. While genetics are thought to play a part, it’s not necessarily hereditary. My father’s father didn’t stutter and neither–thank God–do either of my two children. Nor is it necessarily brought on by trauma, although in some rare cases it can be. And it certainly isn’t brought on by any kind of mental defectiveness. I am not being self-serving by saying so; famous stutterers have included some of the most brilliant people in history, including Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Winston Churchill. (In England they call it a stammer, which always sounded slightly more melodious to my ears and somehow slightly less severe, even if that’s not the case.)
What we do know is that there is a slight trip in the wire as the brain sends voice commands to the mouth. The mouth, and its attendant muscles, don’t always respond the way you want them to. It’s a little like my daughter when she sulks. (Don’t wanna. Can’t make me. Etc.)
In some people, stuttering can be “situational,” which means that it can be better or worse depending on what one is doing and whom one is with. When I am talking with my wife, for example, I rarely stutter. When I feel stress or am tired, I stutter more.
While there is no “cure” for stuttering, there are a number of techniques to lessen one’s stutter. For example, one can use breath control. Often stutterers not only get stuck on words but also their breathing can fall out of synch with their speaking. Imagine when you’re singing and you don’t have enough breath left to finish a note.
One can also “fake” the way one pronounces a word. For example, if one knows one is going to stutter–and there are always certain syllables or vowel sounds that torment us–we can cheat by not saying the word perfectly, e.g., say the word “three” for “tree.”
The last, and most common, technique is word substitution. If stutterers feel they are about to hit a verbal pothole, they can quickly mentally swerve by choosing a different word. For example, I often use the British terms “flat” for “apartment” or “lift” for “elevator.” People think I am being an Anglophile, but really it’s easier for me to use shorter words. It’s also a great way to develop a large vocabulary.
The drawback to all these methods is that they don’t always work.
A few years ago I was a member of the board of the American Institute of Stuttering, which is a pioneering organization helping stutterers to overcome their impediment. I sat in on a few sessions with other patients and I was chagrined to find out how much worse other people stutter. All my life I had always felt sorry for myself, frustrated and enraged by my inability to express myself vocally, but I was actually one of the lucky ones. Sure, I might trip over the odd word, and I have better and worse days, but these poor people could barely get a word out. One nicely dressed man in the group was the picture of confidence until he began to speak. It was torture for him and for the rest of us.
I use the word “torture” on purpose because for most stutterers that’s how speaking often feels. It is not only physically uncomfortable as we strain our neck muscles or grind our teeth to say a word, but it is also mental anguish. We know what we want to say, but we can’t say it. And if that verbal constipation weren’t enough, the discomfort is heightened by the fact that we know our audience is being forced to endure it as well. For children who stutter this can be especially cruel because their peers are quick to taunt and imitate. I remember being teased regularly as a child by little boys saying things like “Hi-hi-hi, Ch-Ch-Charles.” Fortunately, I was a big kid and able to beat up most of my tormentors, but that sense of shame and anger never leaves you even as your audience matures and is, at least to your face, too polite to make fun of you or express irritation or discomfort.
It is especially off-putting when meeting someone for the first time, and watching their reaction go from amusement to confusion. At first they think you’re kidding–or maybe inebriated–and they’ll laugh to conceal their discomfort as the truth sinks in. Sometimes they’ll finish your sentence (FYI, we hate that). Unlike most other handicaps, such as blindness or deafness, stuttering is treated as a second-class condition. Too many people think that the stutterer just isn’t concentrating enough or intelligent enough to form words. “Just spit it out” is the attitude that most people have. Believe me, we’d like nothing more.
The insecurity most stutterers feel speaking in public is reinforced by social and cultural expectations. For years I was an editor at a leading business website. Now, I am not a bad-looking guy and certainly know my stuff, but it was suggested that due to my stutter I probably shouldn’t do things like go on television or radio. On the one hand, I was relieved not to do so, but on the other, I knew it was having a negative impact on my career. The same is true with my current book tour. So far I have had pretty positive reactions to my readings and discussions about the book, even if I have stuttered, but the fact that I cannot promote the book on television or radio means that there are two potentially powerful marketing tools I am unable to take advantage of at a time when authors need every edge they can get to sell their books.
But it is also likely that stuttering is the direct cause of my becoming an author. Frustrated with my inability to express myself verbally, I compensated by writing. On the page, I had no constraints, no lack of fluidity, no struggle to say what I wanted–well, at least no more than most writers. So, while stuttering has been a constant source of pain for me my whole life, it has also been indirectly responsible for my greatest joy. Would I have rathered I didn’t stutter? Once I would have said yes. Today as I hold my book in my hands, I am not so sure.
Charles Dubow’s novel, Indiscretion, was published by William Morrow in February.
Byline: Alexander Nazaryan
Utopia is a joke – and has been one for a while. The word comes from the Greek ou topos, meaning no place, suggesting the impossibility of the ideal society that word suggests. The notion entered our lexicon in 1516, when Thomas More published Utopia, which imagined “the best state of a public weal,” a society of religious comity and communal good. It was less a practical vision than a critique of Tudor England, whose regent, Henry VIII, had More executed in 1535. So much for that.
Writing three centuries later, Karl Marx warned that “the man who draws up a programme for the future is a reactionary.” What an irony, then, that his writing engendered so much bloodshed in the name of progress.
Utopia is illusory, but dystopia is all too real, a future more frightening even than the dreary present. A distinctly modern genre, dystopian fiction has a corrective purpose that recalls medieval paintings of damnation (hellfire, devils, etc.), which were supposed to shock your average sinner into God-fearing probity. The dystopian novel is a Boschian paysage for the modern man.
Probably the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 fiction We, which was completed on the cusp of Joseph Stalin’s ascent and presciently predicted his totalitarian model, in which the human will is subsumed by forces that frighten the mind into thoughtless docility while taming the body’s carnal impulses. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagined the malignancies arising from the quest for what Zamyatin called “faultless happiness,” a phrase that becomes more ominous the longer your mind lingers on it.
Today’s dystopian novels seem less preoccupied with onerous political systems than with digital technology, the silvery glow of iPhone screens inoculating us against ineradicable reality of the grimy un-virtual kind. There will be an estimated 10.9 billion people on Earth by 2100. Some will live in glass towers where retina-tracking sensors will adjust the ambient temperature and bedside DNA readers will sound a gentle alarm if your TP53 tumor suppressor gene suddenly goes astray; many will live in crowded slums, much as they do today in Bombay and Lagos and Los Angeles. They will drink the same dirty water the poor have always drunk. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will grow, as will the hole in the ozone layer. Some of us will exercise by swallowing a pill. Armies will clash, maybe with guns, maybe with sonic cannons. And so we will hurtle into the future.
It’s no surprise that three of our finest novelists – Margaret Atwood, Chang-rae Lee and David Eggers – have recently published dystopian novels that warn against a world pulled apart into pockets of techno-luxury and vast expanses of old-fashioned, unalloyed misery. Adam Sternbergh – a young writer not yet in the ranks of the three above but with plenty of promise – has just published a debut novel, Shovel Ready, that reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road set in New York and narrated by a New Jersey goon. For all their differences, each of these novels suggests that we are blind to what we have been doing to ourselves, to each other and to the Earth. We will thus keep doing it.
Atwood’s Maddaddam is the culmination of a trilogy (bearing the same name) that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). Her world is classically dystopian: wracked by disease, absent of law, rife with hybrid species like pigoons and rakunks that are the grotesque products of our boundless hubris. A good part of the landscape, the pleeblands, recalls the iconic images of modern-day Detroit, with its fields sown with decay and grand old buildings that look like mouths with missing teeth. Painballers prowl the terrain, their name quite vividly suggesting their purpose.
This future is grim, sure enough, but Atwood says optimism about the human condition is not warranted by history. Speaking to me from Toronto, she reminds that “we’ve been through bottlenecks before” and that humanity must necessarily contract, whether through Black Plague or World War. She offers practical prescriptions to avoid doom: “Step one,” she says, “is don’t kill the oceans.” She adds that “we need to develop other sources of cheap energy, fast” if we want to wean ourselves off the worship of hydrocarbons, which in the Maddaddam trilogy have become the focus of an actual religion, the Church of PetrOleum. And while Maddaddam is her fullest realization of what the future could hold, she hopes that the good guys may yet prevail or at least put up a decent fight.
“We not there yet,” Atwood says drily. “Hallelujah. I am happy about that.”
If we are not yet caught inside The Circle, the latest novel from David Eggers, then we must be very close. Of the recent spate of dystopian novels, this one hews closest to the reality scrolling by on your Twitter feed; the book is a mirror in which we would glimpse our scattered selves if we were only not so busy snapping yet another selfie. Though Eggers says he did not visit the campuses of tech corporations like Facebook or Google for research, he seems to have culled the most frightening elements of Silicon Valley for the company he calls the Circle. His protagonist, Mae Holland, becomes an unquestioning acolyte of its stifling digital utopianism and is so accurately portrayed that a former Facebook employee, Kate Losse, accused Eggers of stealing from her memoir, The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network.
Whereas Atwood’s dystopia is one of ecological destruction, Eggers fears the encroachment of ones and zeros upon the frontal cortex, where they multiply like a blinding tumor. It is the tragic conflation of information with knowledge that troubles him most, the illusion that insight is never more than a click away. Eggers told The Telegraph late last year that the greatest threat to our freedom is our “feeling that we’re entitled to know anything we want about anyone we want.” One of the founders of the Circle says, with utter conviction, that humanity has gloriously entered an “era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket.” Yet what seems like freedom quickly curdles into an utter lack of privacy or solitude, digital utopia devolving into a plaything of those who own the server farms.
Chang-rae Lee’s new novel is more surprising than its dystopian peers. Written in the first-person plural, the elegantly ominous On Such a Full Sea is acutely unlike Lee’s other novels, which have largely focused on the Asian experience in America, with its twin pressures of alienation and assimilation. The setting here is B-Mor, once known as Baltimore, now occupied by workers whose predecessors were imported from Xixu City of “New China.” One of them, Fan, has set out to search for her boyfriend Reg, thus leaving the confines of B-Mor for the frightening lands beyond, “armed with nothing more than the force of her feeling.” Her quest reminds of the last line of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, a novel he published less than a decade after World War II: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Speaking to me from Princeton, where he teaches creative writing, Lee calls On Such a Full Sea a “thought experiment,” which may well describe all novels but dystopian ones in particular, as they do not have the luxury of dwelling in the past and generally have to venture far afield of the present. So they stack frightful suppositions one atop another. Lee’s are convincing: an influx of Chinese workers fill empty American cities, increasing inequality, the erection of firm physical barriers between the rich and poor. The residents of B-Mor farm fish for the residents of the charter villages, which are essentially closed suburbs. In the interstitial spaces between the middle-class cities and the upper-class charters are the counties, Lee’s version of Atwood’s pleeblands. There, to the wilderness, is where Fan heads.
On Such a Full Sea is a novel of inequalities suppressed only to return with redoubled force, much as in the recent dystopian film Elysium, where the bedraggled residents of Earth, led by a roguish Matt Damon antihero, invade a space colony reserved for the wealthy. During our conversation, Lee mentions the recent New York Times series on Dasani Coates, a homeless girl from Brooklyn whose story highlights the plight of the city’s poor. The residents of cities like B-Mor do all they can to insulate themselves from the festering poverty of the counties while looking with longing to the charters, with their “stately houses and sleek, jazzy condos.”
Lee’s dystopia has much in common with that of Eggers. The individual is sufficiently insulated from reality – whether digitally, as in The Circle, or physically, as in On Such a Full Sea – to not have to care about it. “Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive,” urges the narrator as Fan continues to wander through hinterlands that will be familiar to anyone who has driven across America in the past decade. A dystopian novel is predicated on precisely such a rejection of the hive’s psychic warmth, on a renegade willing to shatter collective delusions.
Adam Sternbergh’s agreeably macho dystopia, Shovel Ready, pays ample homage to Times Square, already our most supremely unnatural space, washed by the argentine light of a thousand screens and invaded by insectan scrums of tourists. Here, though, the “Crossroads of the World” has been tainted by a dirty bomb, leaving New York a wasteland. That’s not at all far-fetched, considering that the terrorist manque Faisal Shahzad was only prevented from causing Times Square bloodshed three years ago by the paucity of his own bomb-making skills. Sternbergh’s protagonist is Spademan, a garbageman turned contract killer. Forever concerned with disposal of one kind or another, he reminds of what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said of our primary existential predicament in 1978: “The characteristic of a human is that…he doesn’t know what to do with his sh**.”
Sternbergh told me he “wanted to explore that idea of the apocalypse that doesn’t involve asteroids, or aliens, or an accidentally unleashed super-virus, but which happens slowly, over time, almost imperceptibly, as millions of individuals make decisions to finally give up on a place – resulting in an exodus that, in its way, is just as devastating.”
He wrote those lines just days after he had become a father. I thought that ironic, joyously bringing a life into this world while chronicling the depredations of a future one’s progeny could well occupy. But what other choice do we have? Even if the future seems foreboding, the species pushes forward into the unknown, which we can only pray will not as bad as our darkest dystopian imaginings. These bleak novels serve as a sort of catharsis. You close the book and say to yourself, It won’t really be that bad…I hope.
ERIE — Author Julian Jones may live in Los Angeles, but his heart will always be in Kansas, where he was born and raised. His debut novel, Bohunk’s Big To-Do, is set in Erie, KS, where Jones grew up.
The novel features protagonist Bo Mickey, who has run away from home to get away from his mother, who just married his boyfriend. That synopsis may sound like heavy material, but Jones describes his book this way: “First and foremost, I wrote this book to be a fun and sexy read–easy entertainment–endearing characters–a conversational rural voice–humor derived of quirky characters and small-town values.”
Liberty Press recently spoke with Jones about his debut novel.
Liberty Press: You’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. Why set your first book in the Midwest?
Julian Jones: Growing up gay in rural Kansas, I wanted to read books about guys like me. But so much LGBT literature is set in big cities. And when I was growing up, most gay characters were either ashamed or victims. That never interested me. I wanted to read about gay protagonists in rural settings who liked themselves. I made do with the strange characters and derelict settings of Southern Gothic fiction, and I came to love that genre. That off-kilter humor is still my favorite. Bohunk’s Big To-Do is borne of that. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself.
LP: The idea first came to you in the mid-90s. Tell us a little about that journey.
JJ: I initially thought I would write it as a screenplay. I’d had some success with stage plays at K-State and I was newly arrived in L.A., so I was trying to conform to the medium. But I got distracted. I needed to be young in my new city. Next thing I knew 20 years had passed. I wish I’d gotten the story on paper sooner, but I had a lot of fun killing time.
LP: Your protagonist gets distracted too, doesn’t he?
JJ: He does. Bo Mickey’s been hurt by the two I people he loves most. His mom recently married his boyfriend. That’s his focus. He’s hurt, and sometimes he’s vengeful, and he’s 22-years old so he’s always selfish and horny. These preoccupations keep him from seeing everything that’s happening around him.
LP: In literary terms, Bo Mickey is what’s known as an unreliable narrator. Tell us more about that.
JJ: A narrator can be unreliable for different reasons. In A Clockwork Orange, he’s a sociopath. Holden Caulfield is an admitted liar. Bo Mickey is neither malicious nor dishonest. He’s naive and not very bright. He tells his story in earnest, it’s very important to him, but even so he sometimes jumps to the wrong conclusion or lets his pride color the facts. Sometimes he withholds the truth intentionally because he doesn’t want to admit his own blame in it. Most of the time, he’s just too single-minded. Meanwhile, a whole second story unfolds around him that he doesn’t see at all.
LP: Why is it important that Bo not see the whole story?
JJ: Bo isn’t able to ingest all of the facts and still resolve his problems from a place of truth. He’s too impressionable. A couple times early on, when he thinks he has made up his mind about Mom and Troy, it’s because of what someone else said or did. If he were to have all the facts, the choice he makes at the end of the book would be a reaction to that. Who Bohunk Mickey really is would still be a question mark, to the reader and to himself.
LP: Readers find themselves in a unique position at the end of Bohunk’s Big To-Do. They know more than the protagonist who narrated it.
JJ: Bo will get there eventually, when he’s ready, just like we all do. It’s never too late to look back on things differently. A little more experience, a little more maturity, and everything we thought we knew takes on a different meaning. It’s the big to-do that lingers well after we’ve closed the book.
By Ciara Reid, staff reporter