The book is about a murder. It is called Confession
of a Murderer. And yet, even after the book is
finished, we wonder who has been killed.
The author, it seems, has too much respect for his readers to tell us
the obvious. We boil the
kettle, make the tea the colour of dark chocolate, thinking of the novel we
have read. We pick up scenes and images; look under the rugs, pull the wardrobe
out, searching for the corpse Golubchik has said he has created. It is only after much searching that we
find it, and are pleased.
Pauline Kael wasn’t keen. She can see its strengths all right – the character studies,
some of the imagery, the film’s seriousness –; however, they are not enough to
capture her consent. The famous critic doesn’t like Wanda. The character is too dumb and passive;
the towns too ugly; the film’s atmosphere too grim, too monotonous. Two hours in America’s backwoods is far
long for Pauline Kael; she wants to be back in New York, with the beautiful
people; always charming and sophisticated, and perpetually stimulating.
It is an extraordinary film. Even more so when you consider the time it was made, in the
very late Sixties, at the beginning of the feminist movement; when women were
aggressively questioning the old stereotypes, and asserting their independent
political will. Watching it I
wondered if the period had distorted the film’s memory, changed its influence,
projected the times back onto a work that resolutely rejects them, concerned
only with seeing the world in its own way. Then I thought of how many people actually know of its
existence; a few thousand at most - a tiny community keeping this movie alive;
who carry out the heavy labour of periodically resurrecting yet another work of
art that has vanished from public view.[i]
Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the trilogy is a good one;
and he reminds me that Hamilton is a better writer than I remembered – thus his
description of Ella’s admirer, Mr Eccles, for example, as “not unlike a parrot
diving into its feathers” when looking for his visiting card. And he is absolutely right about the
surface texture: Hamilton catches London pub life between the wars extremely
well. However, his statement about
Hamilton’s ability to write about class is questionable:
[H]e is an expert guide to
English social distinctions, with all their snobbish mimicry and fortified
non-communication. He describes
wonderfully well how the hyphenated upper classes, yelling at their dogs,
splashing in their baths like captured seals, and writing their aloof letters
in the third person (like broadcasters recounting an athletic event), remain so
mysterious to the lesser breeds.
(Introduction to Twenty
Thousand Streets Under the Sky)
Regarding the superficial aspects, yes, indeed. For here, in these three books,
Hamilton is more a painter than a psychologist; which Holroyd also recognises,
perhaps unconsciously, by that last reference to the working classes ignorance
of their betters; which is a strange way (especially as there are no
aristocrats in these novels) of illustrating a point about social distinctions;
which you would have thought relied on some knowledge of their differences -
how else can such comparisons be made?
Of course, the artist or bohemian is supposed to skip between the two,
socialising with both, and understanding them equally…
The less you know about someone the more certain you are… that you understand them:
[They say] “You don’t know the Jews. All they understand is force”, with as much conviction as their opposite numbers, who are equally certain that they “know the Arabs, who understand only force,” though they have never met any Arabs… (Sylvian Cypel, Walled)
The relationships between the Jews and the Arabs are not equal though, as the author notes:
Almost all of them have no contact with Israelis other than soldiers or settlers, the two figures of the occupation.
Yet while Cypel is rightly critical of the anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism he is perhaps a little too keen to judge both camps equally. For although he acknowledges the role of Israeli policy, and its devastating effects on Palestinian society, he overestimates the human tolerance for abuse – only a few people can emulate Jesus Christ and turn the other cheek; or reason out the differences between people they do not know; exempting the ignorant and well-meaning. The anti-Semitism of a young Palestinian is a reaction to daily experiences, 40 years of occupation; while for the Israeli it arises from control of that occupation, and from a much smaller amount of contact; or just news reports and demagoguery. That is, we should criticise the anti-Semitism, but understand it and contextualise it to eventually place the blame where it belongs - on Israel for creating the circumstances that produce it. By treating both side’s prejudice as commensurate we are in reality equating cause with effect; or even reversing them: a scream responsible for the punch that caused it.
You want to be free?
Stop reading the newspapers!
You won’t? OK. Prepared to be trapped, yes trapped,
within another’s worldview - the corporate media’s; following their lead even
as you resist against it; led by the mouth even as you bite at the bit. Obsessed by the news they feed you,
though convinced of its paucity and bias, which you want to shout out to the
world, you will, using your finite time and most of your resources, be able only to react
against it; too feeble, after the effort, to create a universe out of your own
design. The result? You accept the general framework that
the press provide, seeing the world through their viewfinder, only to give it
a different spin; so that each news story generates its own battle; and every
event becomes an ideological prison; the opponents shouting at each other from
their different wings.