Saturday 30 April 2016

Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (revisited)

I write about this experimental novel in the current (April) issue of Literary Review. You can read the opening paragraph here, but for the rest you'll need to take out a subscription.

Here's the cover of Dodge Rose (published by the excellent Archive Press). The white wrapper looks odd against A white background, so you'll have to supply the outline yourself.

The author is Ausrtalian. He was born, raised and educated in Sydney and now lives in Paris. He is 26. I know nothing more about him and his publishers were unforthcoming when I emailed them for details.

Dodge Rose has attracted a lot of attention, not all of it favourable. Houman Barekat, writing on the website Full Stop, describes it as 'so turgid with mannered prolixity as to try the patience of even the most dedicated logophile', a sentence which itself falls foul of the very standards it aims to promote.  

I'm all for any cultural artefact that leaves critical opinion divided, or fragmented, because when two people agree about something one of them is unnecessary. So I'll happily take issue with Barekat because I disagree with his vinegary judgements about Dodge Rose and its author; both the book and its author strike me as very much more than merely promising.

Barekat again, later in the piece, delivering the coup de grâce:

Dodge Rose is a high-rent throwback, accomplished in its way – a virtuosic demonstration of command of technique, a testament to faculty time well spent – but derivative and parodic in the time-honored, fanboyish tradition of those works that are condescendingly, and often disingenuously, labeled ‘promising debuts.’

'High-rent throwback' ? I'm not even sure what that means, but it sounds like a Bad Thing. My view is that Dodge Rose has a place in the great re-boot of modernism currently under way, and initiated by Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (written when she was about the same age as Cox). Other writers under forty are revisiting the avant-garde tradition that came to a sudden halt with the publication of Finnegans Wake in 1939, when other more urgent priorities emerged. Experimental fiction is in pretty good shape right now and I think I'm up to speed with the latest developments but  - and here's a confession - I was completely wrong-footed by Dodge Rose and said as much in my Literary Review piece:

The second decade of this century is shaping up to be the most exciting and fertile period for experimental writing since modernism's heyday in the 1920s, and Dodge Rose is an extraordinary and unclassifiable achievement. Whether it adds up to more than the sum of its intriguing parts is anyone's guess. To tell the truth I really have no idea quite what to make of this wholly original work of 'literalture'. Where are our writers leading us? 

Where indeed. It's a good time to be a reader. IBut it's never a good time to be an experimental author, which makes it all the more worthwhile. Cox's 'literalture' (a term unlikely to catch on as it's all but unpronounceable) takes risks, none of which a sceptic would admire but all of which give me a thrill of recognition, the beneficial shock of the new. His lengthier passages can be hypnotically dull and opaque and many readers may lose their nerve, admit defeat and grab the nearest James Patterson by way of relief.

I said in my review:

Some passages in Dodge Rose are utterly baffling (pages 106-7 had me on the ropes) but Cox's exhilarating prose will repay attentive re-reading and (in time) will attract no end of critical elucidation and commentary.

I've revisited those pages, am still none the wiser and stand by what I said. But this is not a question of opacity, rather one of density. Poetry - real poetry - never surrenders its full and only meaning on a first reading, or even after several readings. It probably doesn't even have a full or only meaning. Some prose can be like that. Having read Eimear McBride's first novel closely half-a-dozen times while preparing to write a book about her book, I was repeatedly stopped in my tracks by something I'd overlooked, or failed fully to appreciate, or which I'd simply forgotten from an earlier reading. Some novels - the best novels - remain in a state of flux, constantly reconfiguring themselves, never fully settling down. They can never be finally and definitively read. Ezra Pound's lovely definition of what makes for a great novel comes to mind: “a certain eternal and irresponsible freshness”.

And since we're name-dropping - I expect it was Henry James (because it usually turns out to be Henry James) who said that with certain writers and with certain books, as with certain valued friends, we do not see the flaws but admire the qualities. Indeed, what others may regard as flaws are precisely the qualities that engage us as admirers. Some of these qualities may be quite troubling, of course, but they remain qualities.

Literature  - real literature - is the opposite of advertising. It doesn't produce an effect by bludgeoning a mass audience repeatedly with a simple message.  It may not even have a 'message'. In the case of Dodge Rose I'm still agreeably nonplussed, still floundering, which is not a bad state to be in. A lot of reading is like eating without digesting, because there's no associated process of internalisation and reflection. What I need from fiction is to find something that changes the way I think and feel, and not only the way I think and feel about about fiction. Dodge Rose creates new boxes to tick, and ticks them.

For a brilliant extended consideration of this extraordinary novel see here.

Cover image © Dalkey Archive Press

Friday 29 April 2016

Experiments with severed heads

I've been dipping into a very odd book by the great publisher John Calder called The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett (2002). It's as much about Calder as Beckett, and often moreso.

One extraordinary  thing snagged my attention. Calder recalls a series of macabre experiments in Paris after the war in which the severed heads of condemned criminals, following execution by guillotine, responded to questions by flickering their eyelids. This could go on for several seconds. Calder claims that Beckett was deeply impressed by the thought and that this may have led to (for instance) the stage presence of the isolated mouth of Not I and the three babbling heads in pots in Play.

What an idea!

It seemed a peculiarly modern setting for what one imagines was an 18th century line of enquiry. Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and I'm sure you already know the reason that the Creature had to be assembled from miscellaneous cadavers was to avoid any charge of blasphemy by suggesting the revival of a single dead body, which would technically have been a resurrection, which could only be attributed to that episode with Christ and Lazarus, 'the one occasion,' according to Beckett's character Murphy, 'on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark'.)

I looked up the subject of communicating with recently-severed heads, using the internet they have these days. Needless to say I found no end of horrible stuff. But I also found this absorbing and scholarly piece by Mike Dash on his excellent blog A Blast from the Past which I'd like to share with you (A few 18th century paintings aside, there's no graphic content, but some haunting accounts of (mostly) French investigations into a weirdly compelling aspect of consciousness).

Thursday 28 April 2016

Salman Rushdie and Geoffrey Archer

The late Christopher Hitchens once recalled a dinner party at which Salman Rushdie, invited to retitle any Shakespeare play using a Robert Ludlum-style title, immediately came up with The Elsinore Equivocation.

Ludlum's novel titles traded on the formulation: 'definite article + proper name + abstract noun'; titles that suggested a kind of Platonic ideal of conspiracy. He was pretty good at that.

Geoffrey (or is it Jeffrey?) Archer, aka Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, is another very popular writer, though hardly in the Ludlum League (which is in itself a potential Ludlum title). Archer. when choosing a title for his latest perpetration, tends to go for scrag-end off-cuts of language - especially proverbs, or bits of the Bible or Shakespeare. He has published, among others, the following novels and short story collections:

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976)
First Among Equals (1984)
A Matter of Honour (1986)
As the Crow Flies (1991)
Honour Among Thieves (1993)
The Fourth Estate (1996)
The Eleventh Commandment (1998)
Sons of Fortune (2002)
Paths of Glory (2009)
And Thereby Hangs a Tale (2010)
Only Time Will Tell (2011)
The Sins of the Father (2012)
Best Kept Secret (2013)
Be Careful What You Wish For (2014)
Mightier Than the Sword (2015)
Cometh the Hour (2016)
This Was a Man (2016)
Heads You Win (2017)

A noble body of work, I'm sure you'll agree. Archer is a somewhat faded figure these days  - his readers are dying out as he approaches eighty. So I thought I'd lend him a hand with a bundle of titles he might care to use. Here they are, to be read aloud in an Archery voice. You know the kind of voice I mean.

A Stitch in Time
Many a Mickle
Down but Not Out
The Vast Majority
Pop Goes the Weasel
More's the Pity
Don't Mind if I Do
Spare the Rods
And Spoil the Child (sequel to Spare the Rod)
The Biter Bit
A Sting in the Tail
Where's the Fire?
A Touch of Class
Or So They Say
All in a Day's Work
The Oldest Profession
You Scratch My Back
And I'll Scratch Yours (the sequel to You Scratch My Back)

But already my interest is beginning to flag. I need a Rushdie-quality contribution. Call it The Salman Intervention.

Is it, by the way, Jeffrey or Geoffrey? Are they even the same person?

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Beckett list

No prizes for identifying the source of the following exchanges:

ESTRAGON:  That's the idea, let's abuse each other.

They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.

ESTRAGON:  Vermin!
VLADIMIR:  Abortion!
ESTRAGON:  Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
VLADIMIR:  Cretin!
ESTRAGON (with finality): Crritic!

He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

This second act exchange does not appear in the original French text of En attendant Godot, in which Beckett gives only a stage direction: (Echange d'injures. Silence.) I wonder if any Beckett scholars out there can tell me why that is. The author was fluent in French - practically bilingual - so it cannot be that he felt unable to manage Gallic invective.  But the insults seem random. Is it that Beckett did not trust English actors and directors to improvise and exchange appropriate insults? That they would go, as it were, off book?

The progression moron / vermin / abortion / morpion / sewer-rat / curate / cretin and the coup-de-grace crritic would be, in a literal French translation: idiot / vermine / avortement / morpion / rat d'égout / vicaire / crétin / critique.

'Morpion' is the word for a crab louse (the one that nests in the pubic regions) and more commonly used in French, so it remains unchanged. Do not look for an image of one of these creatures online (as I did) as they tend to be photographed in their natural habitat, and in stomach-turning High Definition. Perhaps there's a niche market for this sort of thing - but yuk.

'Morpion' has an aural echo of moron, of course, as does 'cretin' of 'critic', while 'curate' links obliquely to cretin's root word 'Christian'. Is there anything else going on during the exchange of insults?

I've written before about best production of Waiting for Godot I've ever seen (or am ever likely to see),  at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre in 1908. It ran for five weeks from mid-November before transferring to London and I must have seen it a dozen times (front row day seats were less than a quid at a time when pint of bitter cost about 35p. Directed by Braham Murray it starred (that really is the word) the great Max Wall as Vladimir and Trevor Peacock as Estragon. 

Wall was perfect. His music hall background and broken vaudevillian presence enriched the role and his personal back story (messy divorce, public obloquy and a shattered career) brought the depth and pathos to the part that regular actors cannot approximate. His timing was astonishing, his physical movements spellbinding - a great clown. His nasal voice, relishing Beckett's dialogue while seeming to despise it, and the play, and the audience, and the very building in which we sat, is the voice I hear when I read the play todday. His performance was intensely memorable and very funny. That generation has gone - there are barely a handful of performers who started their careers in what was then a fading tradition. Could Ken Dodd be Vladimir? To (say) Michael Barrymore's Estragon?

Text © The Estate of Samuel Beckett / Les editions de minuit

Tuesday 26 April 2016

On L. T. C. Rolt and the Talyllyn Railway

Unpacking a box of books the other day I came across a favourite from my childhood: Railway Adventure by LT.C. Rolt, published in 1953 (and my copy, published by Pan Books in 1971 by Pan Books at 7 shillings (35p) is shown below). It described his involvement in the preservation of the decrepit and picturesque narrow gauge Talylllyn Ralway in Wales, and it was this  book that inspired the Ealing Studios production The Titfield Thunderbolt. (I've often wondered why the film wasn't shot on the Talyllyn itself.)

It was Rolt (known to his friends as Tom) who more or less single-handedly started the whole industrial heritage industry (if that's what it's called) - the maintenance, largely by dedicated unpaid volunteers, of old railways, canals, mills, pumping stations, tramcars and so on. 

He was born in 1910. An engineer by training, he published around forty books including two notable biographies of engineers: Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Telford. (lSee Adrian Vaughan's thoughtful demolition of the Brunel myth promoted by Rolt and still circulating today.) I've read only Railway Adventure and his brilliant three-volume autobiography Landscape with Machines (1971), Landscape with Canals (1977) and Landscape with Figures (1992), the latter two published posthumously. They are all recommended, as is this website dedicated to the man and his works.

What I wanted to include in this blog - but could not find online - were some of the wonderfuldrawings by the artist James Boswell included in Railway Adventure, which caught perfectly the look of the old line before restoration when the route was little more than an overgrown undulating footpath between Towyn and the abandoned slate quarry at Bryn Eglwys (the original line's raison d'être). Boswell will be the subject of a future blog. The preserved railway of today has a certain charm, but the original - as described by Rolt - was the stuff of dreams. Here's a delightful short film from the 1950s, made for North American audiences, that captures the gorgeous dereliction of the line in the early days of preservation, running thorough 'the gaunt and silent heights' of west Wales.

It's the dilapidation that is so attractive, the spectacle of something on its last legs but still - just about - serviceable, and (to stretch a point) an image of Britain after Suez. The prompt to conservation was to the amateur, or the professional on his day off, and I wonder now whether there wasn't some underlying memory of the General Strike in 1925, when public schoolboys and Oxbridge undergraduates were drafted in to drive buses and keep the railways running (a minor aspect of a strike involving nearly two million workers who had come out in support of coal miners whose wages had almost halved over seven years). At school on learning of all this I recall siding with the miners, although we were all being quietly groomed as potential strike breakers in the future - what larks!

I visited the Talyllyn railway as a boy in the early 1970s, and took my own son there when he was eight. It was great fun, the scenery was lovely and our engine (one of the originals, called Dolgoch) chuffed and hooted confidently up the line without missing a beat. But what had been an eccentric bolt-hole for railway enthusiast was now a major tourist attraction - the line relaid to very high standards, no longer a meandering grassy path with rusty iron rails, the unlurching carriages no longer hemmed in by shrubs and trees, with Welsh sheep wandering along  the track. The new bogie carriages were very smart, the engines all gleamingly restored and as good as new; there was plenty of catering and shops and a big museum. Dare I say it? I wanted a more comfortless and unpredictable experience. I wanted the train to come off the rails, or the engine to run out of steam or something mechanical to drop off. I wanted to drink a mug of stewed tea from a big urn and munch spam sandwiches. I wanted a sense that our driver, like a wartime bomber pilot, was 'nursing the old crate back home'. What I wanted, in fact, was to experience the railway before it was preserved, as described in Railway Adventure because it was the run-down condition of the line that made it worth preserving. I wanted to share his joy. But all that was already long, long ago. The line's original locomotive Dolgoch, built in the 1860s, had been so throughly restored that very little of the original locomotive remained ('perhaps one of the buffers' a wag in the engine shed told us). So the old engine was like the philosopher's broom with two new heads and three new handles - a broom still, but not the broom.

Preserved railways tend to be wholly preserved now - perhaps it's time to let them become run down and dilapidated again?

Monday 25 April 2016

The Habit of Art

I recently came across this short clip on YouTube featuring the late and much-missed Richard Griffiths playing the role of an actor (Fitz) playing the role of W. H. Auden in Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art. This prompted me to look up a  review I wrote back then for the W. H. Auden Society Newsletter, and I thought it worth re-cycling here in a shorter form as I expect most blog readers will not have seen the play which (as it turned out) was Griffiths' last stage performance before he died in March 2013.

It appears with the kind permission of Edward Mendelson, executor of the Auden estate and the Newsletter's editor.

The Habit of Art

Peter O’Toole once described the actor’s craft as “farting around in disguises” and there’s no shortage of flatulence and dissembling in Alan Bennett’s latest play, based upon an imagined encounter between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden in Oxford in 1972. The Habit of Art opened to general acclaim at the Lyttelton Theatre on 5 November 2009 and played to packed houses throughout its run.

The play is set during one afternoon in a brightly-lit rehearsal room, a replica of the actual rehearsal spaces in the National which are normally off-limits to the theatre-goer. As the Lyttelton audience files in, so the actors drift on stage and what we get to see is in fact a read- through of another play, Caliban’s Day, which centres on an imaginary 1971 meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten, who is at an advanced stage in the composition of Death in Venice. While just six years separates the two men, Auden is already cracking up and his cheerfully repugnant personal habits are gleefully portrayed by Fitz (Richard Griffiths), a cantankerous prompt-dependent actor still learning the role and eager to get away early to do some lucrative voiceover work for Tesco. The actors clash with one another, with the Stage Manager (a wonderfully droll performance by Frances de la Tour), with the script, the props, and with the hapless author Neil, played with long-fused exasperation by Elliot Levy.
The arrival of a young Humphrey Carpenter to interview Auden for the BBC leads to a farcical mistaken identity:

Carpenter: I am not a rent boy. I was at Keble. 
Auden: Really? Well, that can’t be helped.

This gets a big laugh. The real-life Carpenter would of course go on to write important biographies of both Auden and Britten, but in the play cannot help but be a rather clunky device. Although he re- mains on stage throughout as a kind of recording angel, Carpenter is a wavering presence, serving principally to mediate chunks of bio- graphical data about the protagonists, but having little dramatic defi- nition. As we shall see rent boy and biographer are later mapped against one another.
Alex Jennings is impressive and convincing as a brittle, an- guished Britten, although one doubts whether the composer was real- ly as diffident and uncertain of his own genius as Bennett suggests, and Adrian Scarborough, a fine comic actor, does what he can with the underwritten part of Carpenter, who sets the tone in his opening lines:

I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men, their fears and their failings. I’ve had enough of their vision, how they altered the landscape.

This rather begs the question: why? Why do we want to learn about the shortcomings? Bennett’s rather unilluminating view is that “[b]oth Britten and Auden’s works were in better taste than their lives.”3 So we get all the dust and some of the Eros. Auden pisses in the kitchen sink, breaks wind noisily, summons local rent boys for punctual blowjobs, lives in squalor and for much of the play appears to be little more than a lavish repertoire of eccentricities, a bundle of autistic flaws rather than an assemblage of living qualities. Britten agonises over his attraction to boys, his unfulfilled desires, and there is some tense dialogue skirting the tricky issue of the protagonists’ ephebophilia, and the role of compliant mothers offering their adoles- cent sons as disposable muses. Auden in the play is cheerfully un- worried about the legality and probity of such desire, while Britten is all but incapacitated with guilt and shame.

The dissident Fitz tackles the Author about the warts and all ap- proach, pre-empting audience criticism:

Fitz: I just feel it diminishes him.
Author: “The facts of life are the truth of a life.”
Fitz: It’s like the peeing in the basin. We keep focussing on his frailties, putting a frame around them. It’s—as he says himself—impudent. It’s impertinent.

Richard Griffiths gamely stood in at the last moment when Michael Gambon, originally cast as Fitz/Auden was indisposed, and this production makes a virtue of that necessity. That Griffiths looks nothing at all like Auden, despite occasionally donning an eerie latex mask, is the stuff of much rather forced comedy. What Griffiths brings to the role of Fitz is a poignant sense of his own failing powers: his memory is starting to fade and an irascible temper barely hides a real sense of dread at some impending loss.

Bennett recycles some of the surrealist techniques originally deployed in The Dog Beneath the Skin, so we are treated to articulate poeticising furniture in a so-so pastiche of Auden’s 1930s theatre verse, and a direct address to the audience by two of the poet’s deep facial crevasses resulting from Touraine-Solente-Golé Syndrome (a nod to Right Foot/Left Foot in Dogskin). If the play fails to dazzle, this is partly because the structural conceit—a rehearsal of a work in progress— inevitably comes across as, well, unfinished. The distancing effect of the play-within-a-play is however largely forgotten in the second half as the central characters engage more closely, the Pirandellian scaffolding melts away and Auden and Britten talk them- selves to the brink of collaboration on the Death in Venice libretto. It is a thrilling and beautifully paced sequence as Auden warms to the challenge, unaware of Britten’s increasing dismay at the prospect. This all has the ring of truth.

A further problem of course is that Auden at this stage of his life had become a garrulous, clock-watching bore. The charismatic young man of the 1930s is touchingly recalled by Britten: “[Y]ou didn’t ever want to be with anyone else. And talking always. People went to bed with him to stop him talking . . . though it didn’t.”

Other flashes of Auden’s brilliance do occur—the odd aphoristic line, the occasional quote from the poems and in Fitz’s moving deliv- ery of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”—but what we have here is Auden diminished and at bay. Bennett’s take on genius is essentially philistine and crowd pleasing, and might be summarised as “he may very well be a clever poet but just look at the state of his underwear, if there is any.”

As to the Bennett/Carpenter line, perhaps in our dire celebrity culture we do want to see our public figures demeaned and degraded and exposed as fallible and all-too-human. By way of balance Bennett makes a case for the Ortonesque rent-boy, Stuart (Stephen Wight) as an excluded, marginal yet essential figure. But Stuart’s address to the audience, reminding informed spectators of Auden’s Caliban in The Sea and the Mirror, entirely fails to convince:

When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.

We are all rent boys then, more or less. Those of us who are not great men are necessarily excluded from posterity. This hardly seems the basis for complaint, and it is surely the achievements of writers and musicians that act as a consolation to our individual failure to enjoy even the Warholian fame-ration of fifteen minutes.

The Caliban echoes are rather lost in any case as the rent boy’s brief monologue is barely coherent, let alone eloquent. Bennett’s sympathies nevertheless seem to lie with Stuart, who confidently dismisses Henry James as “a tosser” yet doesn’t seem to know who Caliban is. He describes himself as “fodder for art.” Aren’t we all?

The playwright himself doesn’t seem to hold Auden’s work in especially high regard:, as he says in the introduction to the published play script:

I don’t think I’d read much of his poetry or would have un- derstood it if I had, but when Auden gave his inaugural lec- ture as Professor of Poetry [...] I dutifully went along, knowing, though not quite why, that he was some sort of celebrity

But Auden was never a celebrity, and certainly not in the degraded modern sense of the term. He was a very great writer who grew into premature curmudgeonly old age, developed some unat- tractive habits and died alone in a hotel room. For those of us who admire Auden— and to paraphrase the tosser, James—there are qualities only, and not flaws, and this perspective extends beyond the work to the life, no matter how ramshackle it seems by conventional bourgeois standards.

The Habit of Art may circle the globe to repeat the international success of Bennett’s previous play, The History Boys, although I feel it’s unlikely that a large popular audience exists for the spectacle of two Highbrows camply bickering, however brilliantly staged and however well portrayed by talented actors, farting about in disguises.

Quotations © Alan Bennet / Faber and Faber

This review first appeared in the W. H. Auden Society Newsletter issue  34, November 2011
Visit the W. H. Auden Society webpage  here.

Sunday 24 April 2016

An American on Paris

I blogged about the world's best-selling author yesterday, and have just read his latest novel Private Paris, co-written with Mark Sullivan and published in the States by Little, Brown and Company.

From the publisher's website:

When Jack Morgan stops by Private's Paris office, he envisions a quick hello during an otherwise relaxing trip filled with fine food and sightseeing. But Jack is quickly pressed into duty after a call from his client Sherman Wilkerson, asking Jack to track down his young granddaughter who is on the run from a brutal drug dealer.

One thing leads to another and the Wilkerson case elides into a sinister plot to destroy French society as we know it (or at least as Patterson knows it). An apparently Islamist group known only by the graffiti tag AB-16 is picking off the nation's 'cultural elite": the director of the Paris Opera is strangled by a stage curtain rope; Rene Picus 'arguably the greatest chef in all of France' is drowned in his own chicken stock; Lourdes Latrelle, 'one of France's foremost intellectuals and best-known writers' is smothered by a pillow in an orgiastic night club; a famous fashion designer stabbed in the heart with a six-inch leather awl. The French culture minister, gets off lightly and is merely shot. Their corpses are left hanging upside-down, an inverted crucifixion. 

This is a terrific idea for a Houellbecquian satire. But Patterson and Sullivan are no Houellbecqs and what we get is what I expect the publishers would call a white knuckle ride. In fact a theme park roller coaster has a lot in common with this kind of novel, and is about as rewarding to criticise. Roller coasters are (theoretically) safe and exciting, and offer customers a controlled, stylised sense of achievement, a quick thrill and an adrenaline rush.  Nothing wrong with that, and if EuroDisney is your idea of France then Private Paris will certainly melt your butter.

Patterson and/or his co-writer Mark Sullivan make it easy for a new reader to join a long-running series that already features more than a dozen novels. The hero, Alex Morgan, ('athletic, blond, hazel-eyed') runs an international security agency called Private - 'the Pinkerton's of the 21st century' - and has a background in the marines, having served in Afghanistan. His marine training kicks in at appropriate moments, and these moments come thick and fast. Confusingly Morgan's ability to speak and understand French  comes and goes as the plot requires, although it hardly matters as there's barely a word in French throughout(and the first is, tellingly, pomme frites). Morgan, who has the cultural gaucheness of Donald Trump turned down to 11, is astonished to meet a bilingual woman ('I shook her hand, wondering bow she could speak both languages with such perfect accents'). She is an art professor and graffiti expert, Michele Herbert - 'beyond-belief good-looking and off-the-charts smart and creative. And yet she didn't seem to take herself too seriously'. She has a chic bob and a tiny mole. Surprisingly they exchange no more than a chaste kiss in the final chapter (admittedly she's coming round from surgery after being shot in the stomach), but if the novel contains one surprise it's the fact that she and Morgan don't become an item. 

At other times he is more self-assured. 'This is the school for artists in France, correct?'. Morgan's brisk interrogation tells us all we need to know - and all we'll get to know - about L'Académie des beaux-arts. I wish I could write this badly so well. 

Although there are seemingly limitless company resources available, Morgan is never happier then when chasing baddies on foot and having moments of supernatural intuition. Alternate chapters cut between his first-person narrative and third person accounts of the bad guys (Major Sauvage and Captain Mfune, two French soldiers who are behind the AB-16 campaign). Morgan doesn't know the names of these two so he calls them respectively 'Whitey' and 'Big Nose'.

We are in a Paris made legible for American readers by a process of rigorous demystification - a city with sidewalks not trottoirs, and a handful of iconic locations. Morgan's surprising familiarity with French-set Broadway musicals (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) also gives the reader a prompt, but most of what happens might just as well take place in Manchester, Detroit or Bucharest.  

At moments of exposition Morgan's employee and sidekick Louis Langlois speaks fluent Wikipedian, as when he introduces Morgan to the Institut de France:

'On a practical level, the institute oversees about ten thousand different foundations concerned with everything from French historical sites to museums and castles,' Louis said. 'The five academies within the institute were formed back in the days of Louis XIV, and designed to preserve and celebrate the French culture, language , arts, sciences , and our systems of law and politics, The members represent the best of France, and must be voted in.'

Here's the original Wikipedia entry, by way of comparison:

The Institut de France […] is a French learned society, grouping five académies, the most famous of which is the Académie française. The Institute, located in Paris, manages approximately 1,000 foundations, as well as museums and châteaux open for visit. 

Patterson, or Mason, or perhaps Langlois himself, subtly increases the number of foundations managed by the Institute by a factor of ten - those European republics with their centralised governments and spendthrift socialist economies! 

But enough already. Private Paris cannot be criticised as a novel because it really isn't a novel at all. It's a verbal storyboard for a film - or rather 'a major motion picture'. It's a relentlessly linear, painstakingly chronological narrative, with most chapters given a precise location and time of day (MONTFERMEIL, EASTERN SUBURBS OF PARIS, 10 P.M.). The action consists largely  of breathless chases punctuated by lurid murders, shoot-outs, snatched naps, shaving, showers (lots and lots of showers) and litres of coffee. Between showers the continuity is perfunctory, the twists and turns preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, and nobody involved - including the Parisian police, especially the Parisian police - seems to have the faintest understanding of anything procedural. Langlois (never more than a device) has an unlimited cohort of specialists on tap who (devices all) keep things bowling along. When he injures his knee he admits, almost bashfully: 'I have an old friend, Megam, who specialises in knees'.

I suppose the thinking is that at great speed one doesn't feel the bumps, and to be fair the plotting is so erratic and slapdash that it attains a kind of serene meaninglessness, afloat in a galaxy of random coincidence and happenstance. But when the plot is all bumps then speed isn't really an option, and becomes a dogged if inconsistent disposal of logic, character or plausibility. The chase scenes reminded me of that endless corridor along which the Scooby-doo characters run, passing the same chest of drawers and lampshade every few yards. In fact the whole novel, in its fragmented incoherence, has a cartoon feel.

Patterson adds to this a shrewd top-dressing of current political and social malaise - the Charlie Hebdo murders are referenced, and there's a good deal of anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by a number of the French characters (though not by Morgan). The tough eastern bandieus where young migrants eke out impoverished and marginalised lives are evoked with a degree of sympathetic understanding that passes in a flash as the real business of running around and letting off firearms takes over.

Is it a page turner? Certainly. The chapters (of which there are 111, spread over 410 pages) rarely exceed four pages in length and it's difficult to resist the temptation to read just one more, then another, and another.  In this respect if no other Private Paris has something in common with Melville's Moby-Dick. 

The prose is brisk and utile with only a few oddities: 'Startle' as an intransitive verb ("I startled awake") occurs three times, at each use of which I startled too. There's the new (to me) adverb 'hostilely'. The dialogue aims at a laconic, world weary tone but is merely weary. Morgan is no Marlowe because Patterson is no Chandler. After staying awake for more than thirty hours Morgan unsurprisingly needs some sleep or, as he puts it, 'some much needed sack time'. This is typical of Patterson's approach, which never really amounts to anything as distinctive as a style: the mundane gets the fancy treatment (cellphones are constantly 'punched' and 'stabbed' and while you or I might simply pull a gun from our pocket, Louis Langlois yanks a Glock), while the dramatic is presented in a downbeat, off-hand manner:

"Merde!" Louis shouted at one point. "Hold on!"
    Cars skidded and honked all around us.
    Cars crashed all around us.

I admired that (and we can leave it to the movie to flesh out the details at great expense).

Would I read another Patterson, or Patterson? Yeah, sure; but when to find the time? Would I re-read Private Paris? Of course not. Would I watch a movie based on the novel? Hell yes. But in a hotel, or on a plane. Not at home and not at the cinema. Ideally with Jack Morgan played by a woman. And the setting changed to Vancouver or Sydney. And the whole thing played for laughs.

As a boy I gobbled up the novels of Alistair Maclean - he of Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles dare, When Eight Bells Toll, The Guns of Navarone and many more. He doesn't have a dedicated website - surely now the only sign of literary afterlife. Is he even in print now? Patterson sees himself, with good reason, as a brand and is happy for books by other writers to appear under his name What will endure of Patterson's huge oeuvre isn't likely to be any individual novel but his ability to oversee, to endorse, a steady supply of the kind of thing that the people who enjoy this kind of thing like. 

Quotations © James Patterson / Mark Sullivan / Little, Brown and Company.

Saturday 23 April 2016

On James Patterson, authors

How best to express it? 'James Patterson are a writer'? 'James Patterson is writers'?

In any consideration of the work of this spectacularly successful American author (born 1947), Rimbaud's Je est un autre ('I is another') comes to mind because Patterson is not so much a writer but a brand - he contains multitudes. He published his first book in 1976 and over the past forty years has published 147 novels, although that number is likely to have risen by the time you read this. Sales to date are well over 300 million. Three. Hundred. Million.

His approach is collaborative. Patterson works with a cohort of co-authors including Maxine Paetro, Andrew Gross, Mark Sullivan, Ashwin Sanghi, Michael Ledwidge and Peter De Jonge, all of whom I am sure make a good living from their second billingPatterson is, he says with bracing candour "simply more proficient at dreaming up plots than crafting sentence after sentence." 

Fair enough. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst don't hand-craft their artworks, leaving such detail to studio assistants; David Beckham doesn't distil and bottle and distribute his male fragrance; actors have stunt doubles. We all of us need a hand in what we do.

The reason for this blog is that I've just read my first Patterson, which was co-written with (or by?) Mark Sullivan. The book was left behind by an American guest on her way to Paris and (surely no coincidence, as she clearly wanted to read up on her destination) it's called Private Paris. I'm sure I'm not the only reader to mistake that title for Private Parts. Glance at the cover and you'll see what I mean:

Image © Little, Brown and Company

The first American edition was published on March 14th this year. Private Rio - trailed at the end of Private Paris -has appeared since, and there's no shortage of cities yet to appear in a series that includes Private London (2011), Private Berlin, Private L.A. (both 2013), Private Sydney, Private Vegas (both 2015) as well as many other 'Private'-prefixed titles (including 2014's snigger-inducing Private Down Under). The series (one of many bearing the Patterson brand) is unlikely to run out of steam any time soon. With news that 'James Patterson' plans to release four books every month in the future. It will be a few years before we get to Private Hull.

I approached Private Paris without preconceptions or prejudice. Really. I expected the literary equivalent of 'a major motion picture event'. Nothing too demanding, intellectual, formally ground-breaking or even particularly credible. I wanted entertainment, diversion, distraction. What did I get?

Find out tomorrow.

Friday 22 April 2016

The Curse of Celebrity

Prince, then. Or the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. I blogged earlier this year about the impact of death in a celebrity culture - see here. Some more thoughts on celebrity follow.

My American readers may be astonished to learn that I'd never heard of the Latina performer Charo, who is (I'm told) quite a big star in the States, a household name. I came across her online recently in a 1970s article entitled 'The TV Talk Shows' (Washington Post, July 14th 1977 (Style section, page B1)). in which she was cited as an early example of the way in which public over-exposure could damage a celebrity's popularity . 

The so-called "Q score", organised by one Steve Levitt, founder of Marketing Evaluations, Inc., was (and perhaps still is) a celebrity popularity rating service, and - to the surprise of many - Charo's Q score actually declined as her public exposure, her visibility as a celebrity, increased.

Before becoming nationally famous on talk shows in 1975 she was 'recognised' by 57% of the national television sample audience with a 'popularity quotient' (PQ) of 9%. By 1977 she was 'recognised' by 80% of the audience but her PQ had fallen slightly to 8%. Levitt noted sardonically: "If she was known by 100 percent of the world, chances are her popularity might go down to 7 or 6%". This is a counterintuitive result in the age of the Kardashians, but might serve tot make public figures think twice before appearing on chat shows, or come to that before appearing in public at all.

A Q score of 19 is considered the minimum level of likability for a celebrity to have any purchase on the public's affection and regard. In a 2005 survey of the dead celebrities most missed by the American public Lucille Ball came first, with a Q-score of 52, followed by Bob Hope (51) and John Wayne (48).
I have to say that the Bob Hope figure astonished me - has there ever been a less likeable performer?

Prince has died, and he was my age. Other than that we have little in common, although I was surprised to learn that he had at some point become a Jehovah's Witness, a fact that gives me pause when invited to reflect on his musical genius. Michael Jackson was another member of the cult, and was raised in it with troubling results. And (less illustriously) there's Hank Marvin of the Shadows. Prince was shrewd in managing his great fame, not least in spending several years recording and performing without a name at all, but a symbol. This elective anonymity simply added to the appeal. He was certainly recognisable - but I wonder what his Q score was, if any?

As for Charo, she's really something: a very accomplished Flamenco guitarist and, it seems. a force of nature. like Little Richard (who was surely the prototype for Prince). Her real age is a matter for speculation, but whatever age she is she doesn't look it. She was once married to the bandleader Xavier Cugat, if that's any guide. Her look is a kind of 1970s Bardot, turned up a couple of notches. Her excellent catch phrase is 'cuchi cuchi'. She has a quite astonishing energy and vitality, and I can see how repeated exposure to such an intense performer might wear thin with audiences. But in small doses she's terrific. Here's a link to something you might enjoy as much as I did: her appearance in, of all things, a Burger King training video

Thursday 21 April 2016

On 'grammar snobs'

Watch the journalist Mona Chalabi deliver an eloquent two-minute straight-to-camera piece for The Guardian online. The accompanying text reads:

Why is it that some people feel proud to be called a grammar snob? Mona Chalabi argues that those who correct others’ language are clinging to conventions that are unimportant. She says grammar snobbery is often used to silence those who have less of a voice in society.

I agree, more or less, with much of what Mona Chalabi has to say about social exclusion (although language expresses tribal allegiance throughout society, from the slick sound bites of your average politician to the torrential loquacity of rap lyrics), but I feel she makes a bad case so let me add what used to be called my' 'two penn'orth'. (And what follows will make more sense if you watch the short clip before reading this.)

With just two minutes in which to make her case Mona Chalabi makes no distinction between grammar, punctuation and vocabulary, and this is unfortunate. Like most people with strong feelings on such matters, she is not an expert but entirely confident that she is right. But she also makes no distinction between spoken and written language, or between the many registers within those two categories (formal/informal, for instance). Her assault on the anonymous cohort she labels 'grammar snobs' fails to gain traction and becomes a general complaint about how language is the property of one particular class. excluding 'those who have less of a voice in society'. 

It was Noam Chomsky (I think) who said that grammar is 'a set of complicated rules to which there are exceptions'. Exceptions are what 'prove' such rules (and 'prove' in this case always means 'to test to the point of destruction' rather than 'to confirm'). What we have instead of rules, as any linguist knows, are patterns - some of them high frequency, some not - although many people, vaguely remembering their schooldays, tend to think that such patterns are rules that cannot be negotiated. They are wrong.

Grammar 'rules' (i.e. high frequency patterns) are essential for:

a) learners of any foreign language
b) teachers of learners of any foreign language
c) writers creating learner support materials for learners and teachers of any foreign language

The 'rules' are a way in, a means by which non-native users can get an early handle on the language. Not by any means the only way, or even the best way, but certainly a way. An example might be the 'rule' (or established convention) surrounding the order of adjectives before a noun in English - we tend to write and say 'the little red engine' rather than 'the red little engine' because a high frequency pattern among native speakers is to place adjectives of size before adjectives of colour.  No big deal, but worth knowing if you're a teacher or a learner or anyone with an interest in how language works. A French student, for instance, would find the idea of a 'colour' adjective coming before the noun as rather outlandish, because in her language it's the opposite - le petit train rouge -  different pattern, see? 

Chalabi builds her case on assertions unsupported by evidence, and such assertions can equally be rejected without evidence. (As a data journalist she might be expected to know this.) She says, inter alia, (and the use of that commonplace Latin phrase will probably strike her as typically condescending and patrician but it's quicker  for me to type those two words than 'among other things', or would have been without this defensive digression) that:

"It was once considered incorrect to begin a sentence with 'and' or 'but''.

Really? That's news to me. Considered 'incorrect' by whom? When? Where's your evidence? Is it now considered correct? Again, if so, by whom? Are we invited to suppose that in this hypothetical period in the unspecified past nobody began an utterance with either word? Or is this only in relation to writing? In which case a quick sniff around will find plenty of examples from novelists who broke this and every other 'rule'. Or don't novelists count? I can find nothing in Fowler's Modern English Usage to support her claim (and while Fowler is not such an authority today he certainly was in the past).

Here's another assertion:

'What about the rule that the standard pronoun would be 'he''?

I see what she's getting at - but there was never any such rule, only a widely-observed style convention (still contested). There were guides to writing in which recommendations were made; Fowler's Modern English Usage was the standard reference for anyone working with the language, although Mona Chalabi seems to make no distinction between descriptive and prescriptive analyses of language, or (and again) between spoken and written forms. That all such conventions were observed or ignored by many literate people is another matter.

She next, having despatched the matter of grammar, tackles vocabulary and defends the commonplace use of 'literally' (not, surely, anything to do with grammar at all but, in common with 'like', a high frequency word among younger speakers, as in 'so I'm like . . ' instead of 'I said').  Chalabi attacks those hypothetical critics who object to its use. Fine, but her scattergun approach does her case no favours - she simply adds to a list of things she assumes annoy 'grammar snobs' (whoever they are) and insists that they are legitimate because - well, because that's how people talk (though not write, surely?). She defends the use of 'literally' as a kind of slipshod intensifier, which is just fine by me. I wouldn't correct speakers who adopt this commonplace trope ('I'm literally snowed under'), because I'm not a 'grammar snob' (whatever that is). I note the use, and ignore it - as one might ignore spinach on somebody else's teeth. The commonplace use of 'literally' has nothing to do with Chalabi's position - it's more to do with one generation's irritation at another's collective idiolect (and Mona Chalabi had better brace herself for what will happen to her idea of English in around thirty years' time)

She claims that 'grammar snobs' are sure to be 'older, wealthier, whiter' than those they criticise. This is another assertion without supporting evidence although I suspect she's right. Her view is illustrated by a library image of a white, bearded middle-aged man in bottle bottom glasses, thin-lipped with fury. So - by implication - are the grammar slobs (see what I did there?) likely to be younger, less wealthy and less white? Where does that get us?

Chalabi is presumably capable of writing and speaking English to a level of proficiency required by her profession. She has influence, and with this comes responsibility. That she smilingly makes a deliberate grammatical howler in her summing up ('the grammar what they say it with') is itself a condescension - she knows the form is 'wrong' but deploys it self-consciously to demonstrate her lack of affiliation to a simple rule - or pattern - informing the use of relative pronouns. Would she make such a 'mistake' in a written document? Would she find any editorial intervention in her writing a mark of the grammar snob? Or is she capable of recognising that other standards than her own may prevail and that she (like all of us) always has something new to learn about the management of the language?

By suggesting that there are no standards in written and spoken English against which effective communication can he measured, Mona Chalabi invites learners to be complicit in their own marginalization, to settle for less by ignoring attainable standards of appropriate speech and writing. And standard spelling, while we're at it. But that's another blog for another time.

Of the more than 2,000 responses to this online moment the majority (or to use the more usual formulation 'the vast majority') are hostile to Chalabi's point of view. This may tell you something about The Guardian's readership (traditionally seem as progressive, liberal/left-leaning and educated) or the use of provocation to increase the number of website visits - 'click bait', I believe it's called.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

On deodorants

Let's talk about personal hygiene. 

For years I favoured the Mennen Speedstick - the green ones (see below). I was introduced to this excellent male grooming product by a pal who had spent a few years in the States and associated the aroma with the good times he had there. Here's one:

Mennen products are hard to find in Britain (perhaps I'm looking in the wrong place) but can be picked up in France in any branch of Monoprix. I stock up on trips (or ask a well-disposed friend to do so) but ran out a few weeks ago. So the other day I went to a large store in North London to find what's on offer for chaps today. Not much, was the grim conclusion.  There were a few familiar brands - Nivea, Old Spice, Brut even, which took me back - but fewer than in the past. Lynx seems to be the aroma du jour and aimed at younger types  L'Oreal also (this came a s bit of a shock) and a few others.

Most of the smells I sampled were variants on mango chutney, or scented candles, or car air fresheners and corn plasters and - oddly enough - sweatThey all implied gymnasium locker rooms and the male sodality to be found therein. Showers, manly banter, flicked towels and all that. Not at all my kind of thing. 

Then I found something with the promising name Mitchum.

The labelling (apart from the brand) is in a font too tiny for the human eye to decipher - and I mean a human eye with an electron microscope. Who knows what's in there?

Before exposing my firm manly bod to the stuff I naturally looked up the ingredients on the company's UK website, where they could not be found. But they provide some reassurances. My deodorant of choice offers:

     Ultra powerful sweat and odour control

     Keeps you feeling dry and confident for 48 hours
     Contains aloe and vitamin E to soothe and condition skin
     Goes on clear
     dermatologically tested
     alcohol free

Why the last two features appear in lower case is of no concern. I like the thought of a roll-on deodorant that gives you confidence for 48 hours. So I went back to the store and bought one, for £3.99.

What is in there though? I looked it up. It seems that in the past the active ingredient was Aluminum Zirconium Tetrachlorohydrex Gly (20%), but this has since been replaced by Aluminum Sesquichlorohydrate (25%). Why is that? Further research is needed - but they both sound a tad Quatermass to me. The smell is fine - a bit like Mennen Speedstick to my untutored conk. Greatly artificial.

Mitchum was launched in 1970 by Revlon and was widely known (at least in the US) for its marketing slogan, "So effective you can skip a day". The slogan was dropped in 2007, and I'm not surprised. The French have a saying that loosely translates as 'today's sweat fine; yesterday's non!'

The Mitchum brand was purchased by the Revlon Corporation in the late 1960s from what was originally known as the Paris Toilet Company (why on earth drop that brand name?) and later the Golden Peacock Company (ditto - and I'd like to have been at the PTC board meeting which voted on the change). The earlier companies carried an extensive line of cosmetics and it was a chap called Bill McNutt who is credited with inventing the antiperspirant. 

Before the company was sold to Revlon it had been based in Paris, Tennessee (ah - penny drops). What I haven't been able to establish is any connection between the product and the very great actor Robert Mitchum. What man wouldn't want to smell like him? What man wouldn't, at least for a time, want to be him? Him, and Cary Grant, but for very different reasons. Mitchum was a natural, Grant an elaborate self-invention. They were both, for my money, the greatest screen actors Hollywood ever produced, and I struggle to think of a third. Not Brando. Jimmy Stewart probably, but that's more on account of the films he starred in - he was always the right actor, if not a great one. Try swapping Grant and Stewart around in the films they made with Hitchcock. See?
But back to personal hygiene. It seems to me that manufacturers are missing out on a huge potential market of men (and women to, I expect) who don't want to smell of deodorants or even expensive colognes blended expertly by Penhaligons. What we want (by which I really mean what I want) is to smell of things other than myself or a high street deodorant.

So what aromas would be welcome in a range of male deodorants fit for the modern male (by which, again, I mean myself)?

I'd suggest the following:

a) freshly unboxed Apple laptops;
b) mild creosote (for country weekends);
c) the leather seat smell of mid-century British saloon cars (such as the Morris Oxford);
d) warm digestive biscuits;
e) Plymouth gin with lime overtones;
f)  cordite;
g) plush cinema seating;
h) Paris metro (before they banned smoking);
i) Kettle's Yard (beeswax, linen, modernist artworks);
m) brand new Indian-made traditional leather cricket balls (one of the best of all smells, in my book);

What we need is a revolution in male deodorants comparable to that moment in (I think) the 1960s when plain crisps gave way to cheese 'n' onion, salt 'n'vinegar - and après ça le déluge. We have, I assume, the technology to fabricate any aroma, however niche, just as we can now synthesise any and every taste.

Any takers? 

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Political booklists

How many of these have you read?

Lord Melbourne by David Cecil
Montrose by John Buchan
Marlborough by Sir Winston Churchill
John Quincy Adams by Samuel Flagg Bemis
The Emergence of Lincoln by Allan Nevins
The Price of Union by Herbert Agar
John C. Calhoun by Margaret L. Coit
Talleyrand by Duff Cooper
Byron in Italy by Peter Quennell
The Red and the Black by M. de Stendhal
From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming
Pilgrim's Way by John Buchan

These were President John F. Kennedy's ten favourite books. Perhaps like me you're taken aback by the presence of two off-trail Buchans and a Fleming. But the list prompted me to look up a few other lists by comparable heads of state and sundry other political figures. Ready?

Margaret Thatcher (described by friends as 'an avid reader') admired, among others Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty  and "anything by Winston Churchill”. Her favourite historians included Robert Conquest, Andrew Roberts and Norman Stone. Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal was also reportedly a favourite.

Tony Blair cited Treasure Island, Zola's Germinal, The Lord of the Rings and  Isaac Deutscher's three-volume biography of  Leon Trotsky. Then Walter Scott's Ivanhoe ('a work of genius') and three squirmingly pious   choices Jesus was a Jew by Arnold G Fruchtenbaum, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf and Jon Rothschild, and Muhammad by Martin Lings.

In Cameron on Cameron the PM cites Goodbye to All That and David Copperfield, and claims that Graham Greene is his favourite author. All fine - although most of us will recognise them as GCSE set texts. Has he read anything since?

Nigel Farage? The 39 Steps.

David Milliband (on Desert Island Discs) chose Ulysses, but (and this is unbelievably annoying) did so on the grounds that in such circumstances he"'might get through it". Having your cake and eating it - a solid philistine view, that -  a craven recognition that it's the greatest of novels coupled with a  crowd-pleasing admission that he's never read it, having more important things to do.

Boris Jonson claims to like Wodehouse. His favourite film is something called Dodgeball starring somebody called Ben Stiller. 

Donald Trump? The Bible, of course. It's even better than his second favourite book, but I'm damned if I can bother to type the title of that - it's a book written by Donald Trump, or at leafs published under his name. Od the Good Book he says: “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics,” 

Hilary Clinton? The Brothers Karamazov.
Gordon Brown? The Snail and the Whale.
John Major? Trollope's The Small House at Allington
Diane Abbott? Vanity Fair. ("I admire Becky Sharp – she is absolutely unstoppable")

I could go on.

Monday 18 April 2016

Cisgenderism and the Beats

"The Guardian’s own list of 100 best novels written in English had a mere 21 written by women. How many had strong female characters? How many had lead characters of colour? Or with a disability? Or who identified as anything other than cisgender and straight?"

These and other question posed by the American writer Lynnette Lounsbury in The Guardian (4th April 2016), were prompted by her belated realisation that the Beat writers she formerly admired 'had no place for women'. 

If female Beat writers are marginalised (and she is right to insist that they are) then a factor contributing to their marginalization is readers such as Lounsbury. To put it bluntly: she should read more widely. Female Beat writers include Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cohen, Diane di Prima, Brenda Frazer, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Edie Parker and Anne Waldman, but Lounsbury mentions only two of these in her article. None of them is as well known as the big Beat beasts (and I needn't list the reasons for this), but then many writers of the period, male and female, Beat and whatever-the-opposite-of-Beat-is, are equally neglected. I find Lounsbury's position problematic - she might as well complain that there aren't enough Presbytarians in Middlemarch, and no cats at all in the Holy Bible. Beyond noting the marginalization of women in Beat literature and complaining about it, she does little or nothing to address the issue apart from plugging her own Beat novel.

The 'mere' 21 female writers in The Guardian's top 100 were selected - as were the other 79 - by Robert McCrum. Here they are: 

Jane Austen  Emma (1816)
Mary Shelley  Frankenstein (1818)
Charlotte Brontë  Jane Eyre (1847)
Emily Brontë  Wuthering Heights (1847)
Louisa May Alcott  Little Women (1868-9)
George Eliot  Middlemarch (1871-2)
Edith Wharton  The Age of Innocence (1920)
Anita Loos  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)
Virginia Woolf  Mrs Dalloway  (1925)
Sylvia Townsend Warner Lolly Willowes (1926)
Stella Gibbons  Cold Comfort Farm  (1932)
Elizabeth Bowen  The Heat of the Day (1948)
Harper Lee  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Muriel Spark  The Prime of Miss Jean Brody  (1960)
Doris Lessing  The Golden Notebook (1962)
Sylvia Plath  The Bell Jar  (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor  Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  (1971)
Toni Morrison  Song of Solomon (1977)
Marilynne Robinson  Housekeeping (1981)
Penelope Fitzgerald  The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Anne Tyler  Breathing Lessons (1988)

I've read all of these apart from Lolly Willowes (which is completely off my radar, but sounds interesting), To Kill a Mockingbird (one can't read everything) and the last four on the list (and I really must get around to Marilynne Robinson soon). McCrum ends the series (arbitrarily, he admits) in the year 2000 with Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, another novel that's so far failed to snag my attention.

Are we invited to infer that there hasn't been a novel at least as good as any of these written by a woman during the past three decades? A very thoughtful and good-humoured response to McCrum's list came from Rachel CookeI find myself in complete agreement with almost  everything she has to say and admire all the female writers she cites, although I think she's a bit harsh about H. G. Wells (who surely invented 'mansplaining'?)

Lounsbury's questions bear repeating in reference to the 21 books written by women listed above, and can be answered:

How many had strong female characters? 
Almost all of them, from Emma Woodhouse to Flora Poste, Miss Jean Brodie and the redoubtable Mrs Palfrey. Do many novels past or present actually feature weak female characters? No, because that would not be interesting. From Moll Flanders to Nancy in Oliver Twist, fictional female characters tend to be quite resilient individuals - empowered, even. Jane Eyre doesn't say 'Reader, he married me'.

How many had lead characters of colour? 
Lamentably few of them (but isn't there grounds to suppose that Heathcliff is black?). One cannot re-cast novels in the way one can have, say, an all-black King Lear (a production of which is currently running at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre to huge critical acclaim). That there are few 'lead characters of colour' in the English language novel since Bunyan and Defoe is  not a flaw or omission, simply a fact that cannot be undone, which we may choose to regret, or ignore, or be angry about.  It's a shame that Joseph Conrad's great novel, originally published in America as The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, is unlikely to appear on any future list, given its title. But it is one of the most powerfully anti-racist novels ever written, and should be valued as such.

Or with a disability? 
Again very few. Frankenstein is, I suppose, about a radically disabled man (although the modern Prometheus is in fact assembled from cadavers rather than a single reanimated individual, as the latter approach would have been a blasphemous reference to resurrection and caused the author no end of problems. The Creature is a whole. bunch of guys, a one-man gang). There are, I might point out, plenty of male cripples in literature, and not just physical cripples, from Quilp and Quasimodo to Lord Jim, Tiny Tim and Humbert Humbert. 

I learned recently that the single most read book on American university campuses is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. If undergraduates are reading that instead of Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (published the same year and included in the McCrum 100) that seems to me a Good Thing. But it would be a Better Thing if they were to read both.

Or who identified as anything other than cisgender and straight?
Orlando comes immediately to mind, although Woolf's novel is not on McCrum's list. But this brings me to the real subject of today's blog. The term 'cisgender' was new to me, so I looked it up on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. which told me:

Cisgender (often abbreviated to simply cis) is a descriptor for those whose experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth. It may also be defined as those who have "a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one's sex." It is a complement to the term transgender.

As I say I'd never come across the term before and couldn't understand why it wasn't already covered by 'straight' or even 'heteronormative'. We all know that gender is partly a cultural construct (i.e. the 'role society considers appropriate for one's sex', with the implication that society is likely to be at odds with the non-compliant, the differently gendered). I'd point out to Lounsbury that there is one big reason that there are vanishingly few gay characters in literature before the increased tolerances of the 1960s that followed the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, because to publish novels which endorsed or described homosexual acts was illegal and carried not only harsh prison sentences for those authors and publishers reckless enough to risk their livelihood and freedom) but also social ostracism. Leasbianism was never illegal in Britain, although Radclyffe Hall's  sapphic pot-boiler The Well of Loneliness was subject to prosecution (and is a rotten novel by any standards).  

Back to Wikipedia:

There are a number of derivatives of the term in use, including cis male for "male assigned male at birth", cis female for "female assigned female at birth", analogously "cis man" and "cis woman", as well as cissexism (or "cissexual assumption" or "cisnormativity").

The novelist Ian McEwan came under attack recently when he said in a lecture that . . . but you can look it up for yourself. These are deep and murky waters and we - most of us - navigate with some difficulty. Not, in my case at least, because of any conscious or unconscious 'transphobia'.

I am not immune to reason but am sceptical about the view that any of us is entitled to complete self-realisation entirely on our own terms, not least because some forms of self-realisation are illegal (and rightly), others noisy and anti-social, others offensive. Ultimately, self-realisation on one's own terms may challenge society (the social construct that Thatcher claimed didn't exist) and this is no bad thing, so long as we agree that there is such a thing as society, based on shared standards, beliefs, aspirations, history and allegiances. I'm not talking about North Korea here, but about Britain, a nation with a (more-or-less) shared unity of purpose, a consensus that some things are good and others bad, that tolerance is better than prejudice, that women have equal rights, that forced marriages and domestic slavery and so-called 'honour' killings are wrong, that murder and cruelty and child abuse are intolerable, that evading or avoiding tax by storing money in offshore portfolios is dodgy even if legal, that eating people is wrong,  and so on. 

The fact is that when the rights of an individual are incompatible with the norms of society then something has to give, or there has to be some compromise and accommodation on both sides but (as the line goes in Fiddler on the Roof): "When a poor man eats a chicken one of them is sick".  

It's usually the chicken. Transgendered members of society do not so much threaten the status quo as question it, and any such interrogation is beneficial in a society that claims tolerance and understanding as its core values. What muddies the waters is the overlap with celebrity culture (let's not go there) and the even more pervasive cult of individualism and self-entitlement that comes with late capitalism.

But to return to Lynette Lounsbury's complaint about novels in the past not reflecting today's standards of diversity and equality. We cannot change that, however much we might wish to, and all that is revealed in such a complaint is (in E. P. Thompson's useful phrase) 'the massive condescension of posterity'.