You often hear Brexiteers say that a second referendum would be ‘a betrayal of democracy’. Now let’s be clear about this. In order for a ‘betrayal of democracy’ scenario to occur, two things would have to happen. One, there would need to be another referendum. And two, there would need to be a majority for Remain. But surely in those circumstances — there’s another referendum and a majority for Remain — any democrat would be forced to agree that the result of the second or more recent referendum should have priority over the result of the first or earlier referendum. Otherwise you’re left in the absurd position of arguing that the result of the first referendum should take precedence simply because it occurred longest ago.
The slogan of the Leave campaign was ‘Take Back Control’. It strikes me, on the basis of the current Brexit fiasco, that the last people who should be in control of our affairs are Theresa May and the current government. So thank you, EU, for showing more leadership and commonsense in one night than Theresa May has been capable of in three years.
Too much has been said and written already on Brexit but FWIW I want to add a brief comment on Theresa May’s deceitful and duplicitous use of language. If it’s true – as the PM is the first to stress – that “we need to heal the deep divisions in our society,” then how can she also claim that the narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU (17 million versus 16 million) somehow represents “the will of the British people”. Likewise, “the country voted to leave”. It didn’t. The country (which country? Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain) didn’t vote for anything. What happened was that a small majority of voters – largely working-class voters from the north of England – voted to leave, partly as a result of the lies fed to them about the guaranteed economic benefits of Brexit and partly because no one knew exactly what they were voting for anyway. This being the case, May’s use of phrases like “the will of the people” and “the clear mandate given us by the electorate” should be seen for what they are: hollow rhetoric, worthless cliches and shameless verbal posturing. Because if it’s true that “the British people” voted for Brexit, does it not therefore follow as the clear corollary of those words that the 16 million who voted Remain do not form part of the British people? You can’t have it both ways.
Following her disastrous tenure as Home Secretary and even more disastrous record at Number Ten, May will be remembered as one of the most inept and incompetent PMs in this country’s long history. She’s incapable of seeing anyone’s point of view other than her own, understands things (or rather fails to understand them) in simple black and white terms, and, like Thatcher before her, is devoid of empathy and fellow feeling. She’s an autocrat disguised as a democrat. For my own part, I mute the TV these days as soon as she appears on the screen, so offensive do I find her image and words. She reminds me of the guest at a dinner party who hangs around till way past midnight, monopolizing the conversation and refusing to leave till everyone else has gone. Someone call her a taxi, please.
I recently reread Jonathan Coe’s richly rewarding biography of BS Johnson, the English experimental writer who committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 40. Johnson is largely forgotten today beyond a cult following, but if there’s one thing people know about him it’s that he believed fiction is lying. How can one write authentically about something that one hasn’t personally experienced? he asks. ‘Telling stories is telling lies.’ In other words, autobiography in one form or another is the only legitimate way forward for the novel. Memory is king and imagination fundamentally dishonest.
The problem with this view is twofold. First, psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that memory doesn’t supply us with a faithful or accurate representation of events – in fact every time we access a memory we change it slightly. If this is the case, then the distinction between memory and imagination already begins to dissolve. And second, as Nabokov pointed out in an interview, ‘Imagination is a form of memory.’ He goes on: ‘An image depends on the power of association, and association is supplied and prompted by memory. When we speak of a vivid individual recollection we are paying a compliment not to our capacity of retention but to Mnemosyne’s mysterious foresight in having stored up this or that element which creative imagination may want to use when combining it with later recollections and inventions.’ QED.
I’m not a fan of Johnson’s novels. They contain moments of virtuosic brilliance but overall they seem to me gimmicky and experimental only in name. One novel has holes cut in the pages so the reader can see through to a later scene. Towards the end of this same novel the author interrupts the fairly conventional narrative about an architect to declare. ‘OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING’, and continues in this vein right through to the end of the book. The chapters of another novel come in separate signatures inside a box, allowing the reader to shuffle them any way he or she wishes (something that had already been done in a more radical way in a novel called Composition No. 1 by French writer Marc Saporta, which Coe shows that Johnson must have known about).
There are other problems with Johnson’s view. Apart from anything else, what does his distrust of the imagination imply about the great novels of the past? Were they all dishonest and therefore somehow unworthy? And doesn’t such an attitude also entail that once a writer has used up his stock of autobiographical material his career must be at an end? That can’t be right, surely, especially as most writers’ lives, once they’ve begun to be published, are extremely dull and mostly consist of sitting at a desk.
There’s another thing that troubles me too. How autobiographical are Johnson’s own novels? After all, they contain fictional characters. Albert Angelo and Christie Malry even appear in the titles of their respective books. And even if these characters are modelled on real people, or on Johnson himself, the fact remains that they’re inventions, they don’t exist. It’s still a kind of lying. In fact Johnson is doing precisely what Nabokov describes above: recombining memories and bits of memories to create something new, something imaginary.
Nor does Johnson compare well with his contemporaries. When one thinks of the sophisticated metafictional games being played by Nabokov or Italo Calvino or John Barth at around the same time — or even somewhat later by Philip Roth, another autobiographical writer, in The Counterlife — Johnson’s experiments begin to seem very tame and obvious and, well, English.
Having said all that, Johnson’s letters to agents and editors and others involved in the literary or publishing scenes, which Coe reproduces at length, are great fun to read. Arrogant, bumptious, overbearing, pompous, self-important – he believed himself to be the equal of his great heroes Joyce and Beckett – Johnson was certainly a colourful character who shook up the world of letters for a while. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to see another Johnson come along today.
The success of Norwegian writer Karl-Ove Knausgaard is baffling to me. His 6-volume Min Kamp (My Struggle) series of memoirs has been an international bestseller. Rachel Cusk calls it ‘the most significant literary enterprise of our times’ and comparisons with Proust abound. What is it that readers find to admire? I confess I’m at a complete loss.
I’ve just finished Volume 1 of the series, A Death in the Family, covering Knausgaard’s early life and the titular death of his father. Virtually every paragraph of this supposed memoir falls into one of the following three categories.
1 Page after page after page of inconsequential dialogue supposedly recalled from decades previously. Something like the following telephone conversation between Knausgaard and his wife:
‘Hello?’ I said.
‘Hi, it’s me.’
‘I was just wondering how things were going. Are you managing OK down there?’
She sounded happy.
‘I don’t know. I’ve only been here a few hours,’ I said.
‘Are you coming home soon?’
‘You don’t need to hassle me.’ I said. ‘I’ll come when I come.’
She didn’t answer.
‘Shall I buy something on the way?’ I asked at length.
‘No, I’ve done the shopping.’
‘OK. See you then.’
‘Right. Bye. Hold it. Cocoa.’
‘Cocoa,’ I said. ‘Anything else?’
‘No, that’s all.’
2 Long lists of common everyday activities, spelled out in stultifying detail. Something like the following: ‘I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch, put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.’
Or he could have just written: ‘I rolled a cigarette’.
3 Endless catalogues of the momentary impressions that supposedly passed through the author’s brain at various times in the past, again apparently recollected with total recall. Something like the following, which ends Part One: ‘A gust of wind blew across the yard. The overhanging flaps of the tablecloth fluttered. A serviette went flying across the lawn. The foliage above us swished. I lifted my glass and drank…’
It’s clear what Knausgaard is trying to do: to capture the texture of lived experience, the welter of ephemeral impressions – sights, sounds, smells, thoughts – that traverse our consciousness moment by moment and are immediately forgotten. Lost time, to use Proust’s phrase. But is the result worth the effort? Does it require nearly 400 pages of dull and often banal prose to make the point? Proust may not be everyone’s cup of tea but at least his sentences, long and complex as they are, are beautifully crafted and laden with meaning. Knausgaard isn’t even a pale imitator of Proust. He’s more like Proust’s dumber younger brother.
I won’t be reading volumes 2 to 6.
Last night I watched BBC4’s Stephen Hawking night. One of the programmes concerned the search for an exo-planet that human beings could colonise. According to Hawking, we need to find a way to reach such a planet within the next 100 years, otherwise we’re toast: asteroids, a global virus, AI gone rogue etc. But hang on a sec. Surely all those things could just as easily happen on the new planet. In fact wouldn’t they be more likely to happen on such a planet where environmental conditions are unpredictably different and probably hostile and the number of colonists initially small?
So why are we spending, or likely to spend, trillions of dollars on such a wild goose chase? It seems to me obscene that we allow millions of people in the Third World to live lives of unrelenting poverty and misery before succumbing to starvation or disease or war while a small cadre of smart privileged scientists and not-so-smart privileged politicians in the so-called developed world pour shitloads of money into what’s essentially a vanity project designed to satisfy a megalomaniac wish for intellectual adventure or egotistical self-aggrandisement. Why not spend all that money on fixing up our own planet instead? Getting population numbers under control, curing disease, ending poverty, rewilding the landscape. Everything we need is here on our doorstep, not on another brave new world that we’d probably end up trashing anyway. All we lack are the wisdom and compassion to see what a baboon could probably tell you if it could talk.
Besides, what’s so special about us? We won’t be around forever because nothing is around forever. Species come and species go. What makes us think we’re so different? If we’re being generous we might call it mankind’s insatiable intellectual curiosity or that vapid term, human exceptionalism. But if we’re being honest it’s just plain old vanity by another name, the same vanity that once led people to believe that the sun went round the earth or that Adam was granted dominion over the animals or that humans are anything other than an evolutionary way station on a relatively insignificant piece of cosmic real estate destined for eventual demolition.
At least that’s one thing the Bible got right: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
One final thought. What if the exo-planet we finally choose to colonise turns out to have other ‘lower’ life forms already living on it? Haven’t we been here before?
An early autobiographical story of mine, ‘The Shed’, is now available as an audio podcast at Audiojam.co.uk. The story is also included under Samples on this site.
Fabula Press’s anthology of prizewinning and shortlisted stories from their Nivalis 2017 competition is now available from Amazon as a paperback and e-book. It contains a story of mine, ‘Stayin’ Alive’ (awarded an ‘Editor’s Pick’), about an elderly couple caught in the Boxing Day floods of 2015.
Currently reading Mark Lawson’s The Allegations, about a pair of male academics accused of historic sex crimes in one case and bullying and harassment in the other. Finally a sane voice – and a smart, funny, literary one too – among the deafening clangour of politically correct nonsense trumpeted by the media. Lawson himself was a victim of allegations of bullying at the BBC and it seems to have virtually ended his broadcasting career. Judging by The Allegations, broadcasting’s loss is literature’s gain. Just a shame no one reads literature any more.
I’ve been thinking some more about the intensity of my reaction to Ali Smith’s Autumn, about how out of step I seem to be with a majority of Smith’s readers. How can it be that I – who after all have a PhD on one of the most ‘difficult’ writers of the twentieth century – find Smith’s books as sham and vacuous and dull (the worst literary sin of all) as I do when just about everyone else thinks she’s great?
Here’s what I think sometimes happens. A writer comes along who is granted a certain reputation on account of the fact that they are innovative and experimental and eschew conventional storytelling techniques. The writer continues to publish their barely-readable novels and readers and reviewers continue to admire them for their innovativeness, setting aside any considerations of their overall quality as works of fiction. As a result readers now come to those books with a freight of expectation: the writer is successful after all, they have achieved a certain prominence, so their books must be good. The fault, if there is one, must lie in me, in my not being smart enough to penetrate their many layers of subtlety.
You can see this in the Goodreads review of Autumn I quoted in my last post. The review continues as follows: ‘Most likely, I am not the right person to read Ali Smith. Sorry I cannot do better.‘ Or another review from Goodreads: ‘To speak quite frankly, I think Autumn is a novel that is a touch too smart for me to properly wrap my head around.’ Or yet another: ‘I wasn’t sure I was getting it or what Smith was trying to convey, but I enjoyed the ride anyway.’ You can even see this same dynamic at work in the NYT review I quoted in my previous post: ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence.’ (Yeah and you know why it’s hard to grasp all the nuance? Because there is none other than what you unjustifiably attribute to the book.)
I’m not suggesting that readers deliberately lie about their response to Ali Smith. What I am suggesting is that a form of cognitive dissonance is going on, resulting in a kind of collective delusion or socially agreed fiction: this book is good not despite the fact that I can’t make much sense of it but precisely because I can’t make much sense of it.
I should also point out that ‘experimental’ writers were amongst my earliest literary enthusiasms: John Barth, Italo Calvino, Alasdair Gray. Equally there have been avant-garde writers I haven’t had much time for: Georges Perec (experiment for the sake of experiment, in my view) and BS Johnson (a literary cul-de-sac) spring to mind. It’s not the experimentation I object to in Smith, it’s the lack of substance or method or purpose behind it.
I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography (unimaginatively titled Born to Run, no doubt at the behest of his publishers) and there’s more wit and cleverness and poignancy and sheer good writing in a single paragraph of Bruce’s book than there is in the whole of Ali Smith’s Autumn. Give the Boss the next Nobel Prize!
I recall many years ago reading an article by Martin Amis in which he posed the question: when will someone blow the whistle on John Fowles? Now I happen to quite like some of Fowles’ novels, especially The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I want to ask the same question about Ali Smith, whose latest offering Autumn (shortlisted for the Booker Prize but losing out to the quite brilliant and mesmerising Lincoln in the Bardo) I’ve just finished.
Autumn is the third Ali Smith novel I’ve forced myself to read – a couple of others I’ve abandoned halfway through and flung across the room in sheer frustration and exasperation — bewildered by her success. Do people really enjoy this stuff? Why? Autumn for example is no more than a series of random meditations (or, let’s be honest, random jottings) on a variety of unrelated subjects that seem to have caught her attention in the last year or so, So we have short chapters about: the Brexit referendum (but nothing interesting to say about it), the Christine Keeler scandal of 1963 (ditto), an obscure female painter from the same period, the antiques show Bargain Hunt (here rechristened The Golden Gavel), various other books (A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, The Tempest) and so on. These are strung together on a thin necklace of a narrative about an art history scholar, her mother and their ancient next-door neighbour. What’s the point of any of this?
I imagine Smith’s thinking went something like the following: I’ll cobble together all these disparate random elements and hope they add up to a novel in the end. If they don’t, well, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll write them all in a quirky (for which read silly) style, so people will think I’m being bold and experimental. And I’ll call the book Autumn – though it has precious little to do with autumn other than the odd reference to Keats and a few descriptions of falling leaves – because that way I can make it part of a notional sequence and get three more books out of it. I find myself wanting to ask, like Amis, not just who will blow the whistle on Smith (a regular presence on the Booker shortlist) but how do her books even come to be published at all? If a novice writer sent this stuff to a publisher, it wouldn’t get beyond the slush pile.
The Guardian called Autumn ‘a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities.’ The New York Times calls it ‘the first great Brexit novel’ and ‘this beautiful, subtle work’ while conceding that ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence, especially in Smith’s most Woolfian stream-of-consciousness moments.’ Among all the admiring reviews on Goodreads I found only one that came close to replicating my own experience of the book. ‘I don’t know,’ the reviewer writes. ‘I don’t know what to write about Autumn. I don’t even know what I’ve read. What was I supposed to get from this book, what was the purpose? Was it a Brexit novel? I don’t think so… As you can see, I cannot write a coherent review because I did not think the book was coherent either. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience.’ Hear hear to that.
For the record, here’s a short extract from the book’s opening chapter, which should give an idea of the sort of stupid, pointless, drunken style the book’s written in: It is perhaps rather fine, after all, being dead. Highly underrated in the modern western world. Someone should tell them. Someone should let them know. Someone should be sent, scramble back to, wherever it is. Recollect her. Affect her. Neglect her. Lie detector. Film projector. Director. Collector. Objector.