Friday, 10 April 2015

Dangerous Fantasies

We imagine a door. On that door two names are written: Tarabas by Joseph Roth. The door opens. A man walks out, he looks like a character from Dostoevsky.  We hear him speak, and are sure that we have met him before; scurrying through the pages of The Idiot. This man’s mind is populated by pixies and dwarves; it is saturated with mystical signs and personal portents; it believes in fate; convinced that its owner is foredoomed to be both saint and murderer. The book is even set in Russia, at a time the country itself was suffering a mental breakdown. 

Yet there is a crucial difference between Roth and his Russian compadre. In Tarabas, as in nearly all of Roth’s books, the hero (or more accurately: anti-hero) is situated within a community; Tarabas forming part of ensemble which, although described lightly, is caught with miraculous fullness. We therefore recognise this hero as a powerful and complete human being; he is not some moral imbecile or a mad tyrant but a mature product of all the influences that surround him. This man is human; albeit he is qualitatively different from any of his colleagues: more extreme, more aloof, more capable of cruelty and self-sacrifice than anyone else. But: Tarabas is no superman. Like all the other characters in this novel he submits to forces more powerful than himself.  We watch how the world affects him. We see how peace and the rise of the new nationalisms quickly restrict his freedom; taking away not only his power but the honour and recklessness of his life as a frontline officer.  When the war ends he, like all the other soldiers, is forced to bow down to the bureaucrats.  The clerks are in charge now.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Strange Dreams

Led Zeppelin were playing when we walked in. Nothing has changed! Thirty years and I return to the music of my youth. I look around, and recognise the same faces, the same clothes, the same casual eagerness; and yes, that same easy confidence is still there. Nothing has altered. Only the accents are a little more homogenous than before. All the differences belong to me. The most obvious is the most terrifying - I look into the mirror of these pretty faces to see the uglinesses of age. I panic.  A friend tries to calm be down. It is no use. I stupidly ask for a black marker and an eraser… Gently she tells me what a fool I am.  Time, she says, is not a badly written exercise we can rub out and start again.  So wise. I do not listen; of course I do not. I am crying on the floor when an old couple walks past. Glory be to God Almighty!  I get up. Wave.  And blow kisses in their direction. My friend pulls me down with her gentle sardonic smile.

A university is an Eden, where adolescence lives on for all eternity. Time has actually stopped on this campus; around about 1974, is what I roughly calculate, based on this brief visit. My friends certainly felt it. Tonight we have come to enjoy a few hours of nostalgia. Though we need to keep our irony close at hand - for should we really be feeling sentimental about a bunch of perverts and sexual predators? But we cannot help it.  What a joy it is!  For time civilises all things; turning a once aggressively avant-garde play into a homely period piece that even grandma can watch. The 1970s. What days they were!  A decade when transgression was as innocent as an episode of Blue Peter.1

As a teenager I thought about literature only through the filter of politics. Insensitive to the shades of meaning that exist between the words - literature evokes meaning it doesn't denote it, a lesson it took me a decade at least to learn - I needed some big ideas to take the place of these invisible mysteries. Politics was the perfect helpmeet and substitute. A child of the times, I grew up in a decade still experiencing the excitement of political evangelicalism, I therefore had plenty of help around. The radicals only too willing to tell me that artists are the fools of Capitalism and the servants of the exploiting classes.2 It seemed so exciting back then. We could be rebels.  And at virtually no cost. It was so much fun. And we were so righteous! Because of course we were on the side of the Good and the Just. We knew that we were right. Knowledge and Reason were our allies. Anybody who stood against us was without question stupid, ignorant and silly; or worse: we suspected that most of our enemies were covert Nazis; their liberalism undoubtedly a sham. It was all so easy. We were going to change the world with our words. Well, not quite our’s exactly; Marx’s, Gramsci’s, Althusser’s…3

Tonight, as I listen to Led Zeppelin, I return to these times, and I wonder: could I really have been such a klutz.  Did I really think all that

When the song ends I have my answer….

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


We need to put this film into more comprehensible terms.  A girl reaches puberty and has her first period.  At the same time a band of travelling players enters her home town. They are joined by a group of missionaries.  Both will entertain the inhabitants for a week. There are to be many stories, much licentious behaviour, some sermons and plenty of ascetic bloodletting. The burning of witches is set to be the highlight of these seven tumultuous days. Put into such workaday prose the picture is clear: the Lord of Misrule has come to this medieval town.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Friday, 13 February 2015

Wake Me Up!

I’m falling asleep.  Not work. Not the company of bores. Not even the after-effects of an opening night in bed with a beautiful woman. No. The usual culprits are not to blame. It is art, yes, the very thing that should be keeping me awake, who is today’s criminal.  To be more precise: it is this film, The Colour of Pomegranates, that is guilty of this most serious of crimes.  It is too rich.  We eat a king’s meal of thirteen courses, and the belly wears the crown. My poor mind! Smothered with snoozes, it is reduced to dreaming for this obese master. Such a terrible servitude. My stomach rules my imagination. I am satiated with imagery.  

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Self-Portrait with Aureole

The rough jabs of a craftsman’s knife carves out some simple elegancies. A refined person. A saint. The face of a gentlemen climbing out of a peasant’s head.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

France: A Forgotten History

The summer of 1914 found the Moulin family following their usual programme, setting out on the train to Avignon to spend two months in their house in St Andiol. The newspapers were reporting the trial in Paris of Madame Caillaux, wife of a former prime minister Joseph Caillaux who was both a powerful ally of the Radical Party and an ally of the socialist and anti-militarist leader, Jean Jaur√®s. Earlier in the year the editor of Le Figaro, hoping to discredit Caillaux who was considered to be insufficiently bellicose, threatened to publish letters exchanged between him and his current wife before he had divorced his first wife. The minister’s wife, Henrietta, dealt with this matter by calling on the editor in his office and shooting him dead. She was acquitted of murder by an assize jury on 28 July, a verdict which was applauded by radicals all over France, and one which may help explain why France has never acquired a gutter press worthy of the name.


The German arrival had been expected for two days. The last French unit based in Chartres, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Motorised Dragoons, which had been covering the French retreat, had been ordered to withdraw at midnight, after which nothing stood between the city and the enemy except scattered detachments from the 26th Regiment of Senegalese Sharpshooters. The tendency of colonial troops to stand their ground and fight, with or without their officers, causing considerable German casualties, had infuriated General Koch-Erpach and when soldiers of the 8th Division of the Wehrmacht captured Senegalese soldiers in the Eure-et-Loir they shot them out of hand. There had been a battle between Senegalese stragglers and men of the 8th Division outside Chartres on 16 June, at the end of which the Germans shot 165 Senegalese prisoners, and stripped the bodies of their name tags. A further fifty Senegalese were rounded up and shot near Chartainvilliers, ten kilometres north-east of Chartres.

These infantrymen, speaking little French and abandoned by their officers, usually recruited from Muslim or animist villages in the West African bush, were the last French soldiers to die in defence of the spiritual centre of Christian France.


In both zones there was an extreme sense of unreality. So, in Bron, a suburb of Lyon, in the Vinatier mental hospital, during the occupation, 2,000 out of 2,890 patients were allowed to die of exposure and starvation. Eight hundred died in the first twenty-nine months between July 1940 and November 1942, and 1,200 in the following twenty-two months. During this period the psychiatrists who continued to supervise their patients noted that their daily calorie level had dropped by forty-four per cent, and used the daily ward rounds to gather data for theses which bore titles such as ‘The delirium of want’. Symptoms of this condition included eating the bark of trees in the hospital grounds, eating faecal matter and drinking urine, habits which had not previously been observed at Vinatier. Starvation was now treated as a novel form of mental illness. What was significant about this situation was not the shortage of food in the hospital of Lyon - there was a general and serious food shortage throughout the city for most of the war - but the reaction of the psychiatrists, who attempted to explain away the fact that their patients were starving to death by means of a bland professional formula. (Patrick Marnham, The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost)