You can't be too careful, you know. Way back, ooh seven years, as a still somewhat fresh-faced blogger, I had this idea that I'd figured out something quite clever. As follows:
Here is what can sometimes happen: one person wrongs another and doesn't know how to come back from that. So they deepen the wrong. They add further or worse misdemeanours, falsehoods, calumnies or what have you to the original one. This is the dynamic: to reinforce the thought that the first wrong wasn't one, anything which might diminish its recipient helps the offending party convince him or herself that the other must be a bad person, so that the first offence against them was somehow deserved. The deepening process is itself the symptom of a moral discomfort that cannot be squarely faced.
Well, then I learned that Tacitus had said the same thing more succinctly, and then that the divine Jane knew it too and, more lately, that so did Tolstoy. Now, in the book I just finished, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, one of her main characters says:
In case you haven't noticed people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because we can't stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it's okay we did whatever we did.
It's a common thought, see. Anyway, maybe I haven't said it before: you'd do well to catch up with Elizabeth Strout if you don't know her books already. WotN has written about her for the Writer's Choice series here.
Isabelle Grey had a teenage crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald, followed by a deep attraction to the thrill of Watergate and the chutzpah of gonzo journalism. She became, first, a freelance journalist and non-fiction author, then a television screenwriter and novelist. Her second novel of psychological suspense, The Bad Mother, has just been published by Quercus. Below Isabelle discusses Joan Didion's Where I Was From.
Isabelle Grey on Where I was From: A Memoir by Joan Didion
Where I was From was Joan Didion's first memoir, published in 2003 and since eclipsed by The Year of Magical Thinking. It begins with her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's birth and ends with her mother's death. 'There is no real way,' she writes, 'to deal with everything we lose.' What is lost in this book is her relationship to the place where she grew up - California. The book both enables the loss and charts it. It is a story of disillusion, disengagement, of 'misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely'.
It is part nostalgia and part recantation (Didion made her name, after all, writing about a California she here disowns), and also typically fastidious. In addition to genealogy she enquires forensically into history, climate, immigration, state finance, cultural values and mythology. I read it soon after finishing Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, with which it dovetails in illuminating ways.
Didion collected her early magazine pieces about California (she was born in Sacramento and graduated from Berkeley) in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968 when I was a schoolgirl. I was a precocious admirer of Watergate-era investigative reporting, gonzo journalism and what Tom Wolfe dubbed the New Journalism, and so was both intrigued by and jealous of her as the only woman in a male pantheon.
I'd been hooked by Wolfe's notion that 'it is possible to write journalism that would... read like a novel', and since then have continued to follow how the way in which reporters put themselves at the heart of their narratives developed into new forms of memoir, biography and autobiography.
From Truman Capote's In Cold Blood through Richard Holmes's Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer to a variety of texts by W.G. Sebald, Suzannah Lessard, Hilton Als or Lisa Cohen, the notion that a writer's relationship with his or her material can be negotiated differently, obliquely, in order to differentiate 'truth' from 'fact', to reveal the many ways in which facts can be untrue, has made for beguiling reading.
Within that canon, Where I Was From is both a revisionist text – a confession that Didion's cherished beliefs about California simply don't 'add up' – and a further development of the genre. Its interrogation of her 'memory' of the old California, of the frontier code taught by her grandfather that you kill every rattlesnake you see so it cannot bite the person who comes after you, also lays bare her 'tenacious wish not to examine whatever it was I needed to believe'.
Didion told The Paris Review in 2006 that she had 'started a book about California in the seventies... but I could never go anywhere with it for two reasons. One was that I still hadn't figured out California. The other was that I didn't want to figure out California because whatever I figured out would be different from the California my mother and father had told me about. I didn't want to engage that.' It is an admission that, in losing her 'memory' of California, she loses a part of herself; it is an assertion that the perpetuation of national myths may be to do with loyalty to family identity. When such myths are dispelled, what remains of us? 'The past could be jettisoned,' writes Didion, '... but seeds got carried.'
Forty years after Tom Wolfe's claim that 'it is possible to write journalism that would... read like a novel', the question has to be asked whether fiction can in fact deal as effectively with such themes of identity and loss as these new narrative forms? What is the 'real way to deal with everything we lose'?
Such 'new memoir' is a modernist endeavour, concerned with the nature of subjectivity, shifting perceptions, the existence of the self in relation to time and to the text. I have been a journalist and non-fiction author, and have written fiction, television drama and docu-drama. There are many ways to convey the 'truth' about people and events, just as there are many versions of the 'I' who writes them.
Where I Was From is about how places appear different when we change, about the ways in which we are changed when our perception of place is altered, about what it means to define ourselves in relation to time and place, and about how where we are from remains as shifting and insubstantial as where we are now.
I remain both jealous and intrigued.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]
Given how long I've supported Manchester United - since 1967 - and given the great names that have been associated with the club in all that time, you might think I'd have difficulty picking a single favourite player. I don't. It's Paul Scholes, without a blink or a second thought. There's a lovely piece on him by Matthew Syed in today's Times. The Times paywall presents a problem; I found it so hard to pick out a single short section summing up the character of the man and the footballer. Every short section seems necessary. I solve the problem without either shame or, I hope, crossing any legal boundary beyond quotation for fair comment, by reproducing much of the piece (£):
It was a brief, almost perfunctory conversation between two men who have lived and breathed Manchester United for a combined period of almost five decades. It took place just outside the dressing room, in the corridor at Carrington, after training on a cold February morning.
"Next season, what do you think?" Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who had dominated the club for 26½ years, said. Paul Scholes, one of his most trusty lieutenants, looked back, wrinkled his nose and shook his head. It was all Ferguson needed to see. "You are probably right," Ferguson replied. "It's time."
In 12 simple words, the curtain had fallen on one of the most sublime careers in the history of English football. "We both knew," Scholes says when we meet at the United training complex. "It was obvious to us both that I was off the pace. I knew it deep down and the boss could see it. We didn't need a long, drawn-out conversation. There will be no comeback this time."
Scholes has enjoyed more than half a lifetime at Old Trafford, winning trophies and plaudits in equal measure. His résumé includes 11 Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, two European Cups and one Club World Cup. According to many of his most illustrious peers, he is the definitive midfielder of the past two decades.
But, when you meet the 38-year-old, his most striking characteristic is a glorious indifference to celebrity. Football is not, for him, a means to an end (stardom or riches). Rather, it is, to quote from Sartre, "the thing in itself".
He finds meaning in the game he has graced for so long and is bemused by the contemporary obsession with limelight and superficial fame.
"I love football, have done since I first started kicking a ball as a boy," he says. "But I am not interested in the things that go with it. For me, it is about the game, a way of playing. The pleasure of striking a ball or finding the right pass. It is not about having my name up in lights.
"I was pleased to retire when I did because I was overshadowed by bigger names bowing out at the same time. I got out under the radar."
Scholes is a courteous person, too, making sure I am comfortable and offering to fetch a drink. Perhaps such characteristics shouldn't need mentioning, but they are significant in a world where so many stars lose touch with the basics of human decency.
Perhaps Ferguson needs thanking for that, too, because grounding is a common attribute among United players. "It is difficult to run away with yourself here," Scholes says with a smile. "You would quickly be brought back down to earth."
I read to Scholes the eulogies that have been expressed by many of the top players of recent times.
Xavi Hernández: "In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen - the most complete - is Scholes." Zinedine Zidane: "My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder." Edgar Davids, while at the peak of his game: "I'm not the best, Paul Scholes is." Pep Guardiola: "He is the best midfielder of his generation. I would have loved to have played alongside him." Cristiano Ronaldo: "Scholes is the best I've played with and he helped me a lot when I was young. He's amazing." Wayne Rooney: "The best player I've played with or against." And so it goes on.
Perhaps no player in the modern history of the English game has been so universally revered. When you ask the most storied and exotic names whom they most admire, they invariably plump for a ginger-haired, quietly spoken Coronation Street aficionado from Langley. As Pelé put it: "If he was playing with me, I would have scored so many more."
Scholes smiles and shakes his head as he listens to the tributes. "It is very nice to hear, very flattering," he says. "But I don't really agree. These guys have won World Cups and European Championships. I think you have to do it on the biggest stage to be considered a true great. I haven't done that."
This humility is not for show. When I press Scholes on his own assessment of his place in history, he is more comfortable talking about his weaknesses (tackling) than his strengths. This is a genuinely self-effacing genius.
When I ask who is the finest player he has played against, he pauses, his inner computer making rapid assessments of the legion of opponents he has faced down the years. He laughs and shrugs. "So many brilliant players," he says finally. "Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. Vieira was a fantastic player, too. But if I had to pick one, I would go with Zidane. He could do it all."
When I ask about the finest player he has played with, he is rather more emphatic. "There are a lot of contenders, but only one clear winner," he says. "The contenders include Keane, Robson, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, Van Nistelroy, all unbelievable players. Nicky, Phil, David and Gary, of course. Brucey, Pally and Irwin were brilliant too. One of the great things about playing at this club has been the quality of my team-mates.
"But the best has to be Ryan Giggs. He is unreal. He can go past players, tackle players, and he can head a ball. He wants to make goals and he wants to score goals. The way he looks after himself is incredible. He is still one of the quickest and fittest players in the world, and he is almost 40. When Gary, Nicky, me and David came into the set-up, we idolised him. In some ways, I still do. He could go on for as long as he likes. He is in a league of his own."
As we move on to his thoughts on the wider game, Scholes's knowledge is profound. His off-the-record descriptions of team-mates - strengths, technical defects and observations on how they might improve - are encyclopaedic in their detail. It is obvious why many of his colleagues regard him as among the deepest thinkers in football.
When I put this to him, however, he smiles modestly once again. "That is because I don't say much," he says. "So when I do say something, people tend to sit up and listen."
Sorely missed isn't the half of it. I already miss him, in advance.
There's some good advice from Daniel Dennett on 'tools for thinking' here. I think my favourite is this one:
BEWARE OF DEEPITIES
A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true - and profound - but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity.
Here is an example (better sit down: this is heavy stuff): Love is just a word.
Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I'm not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn't a word. You can't find love in the dictionary!
We can bring out the other reading by availing ourselves of a convention philosophers care mightily about: when we talk about a word, we put it in quotation marks, thus: "love" is just a word. "Cheeseburger" is just a word. "Word" is just a word. But this isn't fair, you say. Whoever said that love is just a word meant something else, surely. No doubt, but they didn't say it.
Not all deepities are quite so easily analysed.
Some deepities I have grown to love and laugh at are these. There's no such thing as an enduring human nature. Oh, you reply, so human beings don't need to eat or rest? There aren't common abilities like the use of language and such? Comes back the reply: we didn't mean that by human nature; we meant that not all humans are greedy, or power-loving, or interested in unlimited wealth. So it turns out that the denial of an enduring human nature amounts to some changeable or non-universal features of the human character not being unchangeable. What else is new?
In a tutorial I used to run on the Modern Political Thought course at Manchester, I would sometimes ask students if there are any biologically-based differences between men and women. You'd be surprised how many of them answered 'No'. What?! How about the ability to bear children? Oh... we thought you meant differences like being cleverer or more fit to govern. So there are possible differences then? Yes, perhaps.
A more recent deepity, discussed many times on this blog and particularly associated with the name of Karen Armstrong, is the claim that religion isn't really about beliefs; it's about practices, rituals, and other such stuff. Scratch the surface of the claim and it always emerges that the underlying and trivial version of it is that religion is about other things as well as beliefs.
Otherwise known as: there's the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.
The links between cricket and the literary world are many and varied, but here's one I wouldn't have guessed:
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Stacks of books on cricket. I am fascinated by its history. It's a story told in match statistics, but it's also bred some stylish prose. My head is full of the ghosts of men in white playing games that were over before the Great War.
Since starting this blog in late July 2003, I have tried to update it regularly, my aim being to have something new most days and, ideally, more than one post a day. I have succeeded in meeting this objective for much of the time, though with exceptions: when following the Ashes in Australia during the 2006-7 series (a wonderful lifetime experience); on infrequent holidays; during the odd weekend busy seeing family or friends; and some days just because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to blog about. However, a different obstacle has lately arisen for me, which explains some of the falling off readers may have noticed, and I've decided to make the reason for it public because I can no longer guarantee the same frequency of posting as before.
Since March of this year I have become ill. I was first diagnosed with early prostate cancer at the beginning of 2003, not long before starting normblog. Though my initial treatment failed to cure the condition, I have remained asymptomatic and in good health for 10 years under the first-rate care of Christie Hospital in Manchester and the treatments recommended and implemented there. But this decade of good fortune ran out for me at the end of February this year when I learned that the cancer had now spread and, simultaneously, I started to suffer the effects of that. For the last few days I've been not only ill but also in hospital - though I hope it won't be for very long. I am now under the outstanding medical eye and hand of Addenbrooke's in Cambridge. I will just say here, in passing, that my own personal experience of cancer and the treatment of it (as also of my diabetic condition, which is a more longstanding one still) have shown me nothing but the excellence of the NHS.
This is what I see from the window of my ward at Addenbrooke's. Just before the sky begins, in the centre ground of the picture (courtesy of Adèle, about whom no words of loving gratitude for her support in every sense could be adequate to what I owe her) is a place called NineWells, not far from where we now live.
And, looking in from that window, had you been, this is the picture you might have seen of me yesterday (same hat-tip as before).
I mean to carry on blogging to the best of my ability for as long as I can. Blogging has become part of the work - or a kind of adjunct to it - and also of the play that are important in my life. But I can't promise the same regularity as before. Sometimes I may manage it, but it will depend on the outcome of the treatments still available to me.
I don't have the means to judge the comparative exercise reported on at the Washington Post; it's about degrees of racial tolerance across the countries of the world. But I have to own up to liking this among its conclusions:
People in the survey were most likely to embrace a racially diverse neighbor in the United Kingdom and its Anglo former colonies (the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and in Latin America.
At least until the finding is discredited, we don't have to accept as the holy truth what is so often suggested to us by those parties according to whom 'we' are always the worst.
There's an interesting discussion of empathy in a column by Paul Bloom at The New Yorker. Bloom begins by summarizing the generally good press that empathy gets these days, because it is seen as humanizing our responses to the sufferings of others. But the enthusiasm for it, he then says, is misplaced:
Empathy has some unfortunate features - it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We're often at our best when we're smart enough not to rely on it.
What worries Bloom about empathy can be summed up in the phenomenon of 'the identifiable victim effect' - the fact that focusing on a single individual can move us to feel and act more effectively than some large statistic; the tale of one person's plight can take up more media time than instances involving huge numbers of deaths.
I think Bloom's point must be taken. But what, really, is this point? That empathy isn't self-sufficient? It certainly isn't. To operate effectively it needs the assistance of reason and the weighing of empirical evidence. I agree with him too - as I've argued on my own account in a recent paper - that 'it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers'. At the same time, how damning is it of empathy to point out that it is not all we require? Reason is also not all we require, but it is no less precious for all that. Empathy, in conjunction with other human faculties, is an invaluable way towards solidarity with others and humane action.
One other thing: the opposition between the 'identifiable victim' and the big statistic doesn't have to be rigidly maintained. How often have we all read a news story concerning genocide, famine or some other case of mass suffering, which picked out a particular detail, an individual's fate, by way of trying to bring home that the mass phenomenon was composed of myriad personal cases? It's the same point: advocacy for remedying the wrongs of the world has, and needs, more than one resource.
A few days ago I took issue with Matt Hill over the Stephen Hawking decision not to go to a conference in Israel. Against his view that where we have a chance of doing some good consistency doesn't matter, I argued that sometimes it doesn't matter but sometimes it does. Hill has now responded on his blog and comprehensively missed the point.
The demand for consistency - as I explained in my previous post - would be disabling where the costs of generalizing one's action were so great as to impose on the would-be doer of a putative good a burden they couldn't afford to bear. So: if you give n per cent of your income to charity, it doesn't mean you can just multiply n by, say, 10 or 20 and give 10n or 20n per cent, so permitting you to donate to more charities. The sum n per cent may be as much as you can reasonably afford without hardship or sacrificing other key objectives you have. Again: a country considering putatively beneficial regime change in one place can't necessarily take it on in every place where regime change would be a good thing. It may not have the resources. Doing good - if that is indeed what you are doing (but I'm assuming it here for the sake of the argument) - should not always be subject to a rule of consistency.
But with boycotting conferences and/or blacklisting academics on supposed human rights grounds it is different because there are no prohibitive cost considerations for extending activity of this sort from the conferences or academics of one 'bad' country to another, and another, and another. If Israel, why not also Iran, Syria, China? This is the point that Hill contrives not to see. He does so by discovering some costs of boycott of his own. He says:
... any boycott involves costs. Boycotting China or Zimbabwe would involve the cost of not being able to go to China or Zimbabwe, and the effort of having to publicise it (making a website, printing flyers, and so on).
Not going to these countries may indeed be a personal cost of sorts, but (a) it is not a cost of the same kind as those given in my examples, since the personal costs of not going to China, Zimbabwe, another country, another one still, and yet another one, can just be 'accumulated' without ever becoming prohibitive or disabling for whoever bears that cost; and (b) these bearable costs (in which I'll include printing flyers and the like) are the sort of thing one takes for granted that boycotters will have no trouble with since they correspond to a kind of sacrifice would-be do-gooding boycotters profess themselves happy to make. They are not, in other words, materially limiting in the way the costs I spoke of are materially limiting.
Hill misses another important point. The discussion of consistency in this context is not just about the actions of separate individuals. An individual may choose to take action over any human-rights case she chooses without having to do the same in every other comparable case. Each of us can only do so much. I have argued this at some length before - but you can't say everything at once and you can't blog everything in the same blogpost. On that previous occasion, having made the point about the limits of what any individual can do, I went on:
It is different, however, when one is considering large aggregates of individuals: members of organizations, parties, churches, movements, or more amorphously - as in the present case - a great segment of left-liberal opinion in the West. It doesn't just happen that a whole lot of individuals converge on one cause. There have to be reasons. The movement today to institute boycotts of one kind and another against Israel, but not against other states whose human rights records are worse, and often vastly worse, than Israel's... didn't come about simply through a lot of different individuals homing in, for a multitude of personal reasons, on the justified grievances of the Palestinians. Either there are good reasons which can be cited to show why Israel is an especially egregious case, and it is those reasons that have induced so many people to single it out for special prejudicial treatment. Or there are not such good reasons - and then there is at least a prima facie case for thinking some prejudice again[s]t the country or its people may be at work. The supporters of boycotting Israel have yet to provide a good reason for singling it out.
Hill's argument about consistency somehow overlooks Israel's 'specialness' in the boycotter mentality - no small oversight if I may say so.
It seems that the position of chair for the UN Conference on Disarmament is due to be taken over by Iran. The US objects to this and so does Canada. I liked the following statement from Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the US mission to the UN:
The United States continues to believe that countries that are under Chapter VII (U.N.) sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies...
Now, wouldn't that be something? It's occasionally said that the UN can only be as good as its constituent members. Maybe, but by instituting a rule of this sort it would try to live up to the record of the best of them, and the ideals that are supposed to guide it; as it is, with any old rights-abusing country getting to participate on, or even head, UN committees, the world body makes itself a mockery.
In a brief post on combating relativism at the Prospect Blog (£), Simon Blackburn offers us one quick way of drawing its teeth:
Relativism thrives when people do not have to shoulder the burden of actually coming to a conclusion. When it is vital to do so, relativism disappears. Before effecting a turn on my bicycle I need to know whether there is traffic bearing down. If I can see and hear that there is, the thought that for someone else there might be none gains no purchase on me: it means that they are probably deaf or blind. I may be cautious about coming to a judgment, but caution and willingness to listen to countervailing evidence or countervailing voices is not the same thing as relativism. After the bus thunders past, vindicating my judgment that there was traffic coming, I am not likely to entertain the thought that it would have been true for someone else that there was none.
The piece, unfortunately, is too short for what Blackburn tries to do in it, for from 'empirical, perceptual' and scientific issues, he moves on to ethical and political ones. Here too he mobilizes the burden of judgement as obliging us to arrive at a decision. But when it comes to knowing why things are right or wrong, there is nothing quite like an oncoming bus to stand in for objective values, and Blackburn, accordingly, has no quick and simple story to tell. A rather longer explanation is needed to establish whether there are objective values and what they are. (Thanks: KM.)
I haven't been writing much about Syria. That's because I don't know what's best to do. No, I'll rephrase that, since I often don't know what's best to do and I still venture an opinion, saying which way I lean. But on Syria, I'm at a loss. I'm glad, therefore, to have read this piece by Michael Walzer, by whom I've often been influenced:
Many people have been criticizing President Obama for dithering over what to do in Syria. Not me; dithering seems an entirely rational response to what's going on there. The difficulty is that we don't really know what we want to happen - I mean we don't know which among the likely possibilities would be the least awful. Of course, readers of Dissent would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy. But nothing like that lies anywhere on (or near) the horizon.
The aptness of Michael's remark about 'Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill' is brought home by this item from Human Rights Watch:
Human Rights Watch has reviewed graphic evidence that appears to show a commander of the Syrian opposition "Independent Omar al-Farouq" brigade mutilating the corpse of a pro-government fighter. The figure in the video cuts the heart and liver out of the body and uses sectarian language to insult Alawites. The same brigade was implicated in April 2013 in the cross-border indiscriminate shelling of the Lebanese Shi’a villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyed.
Dangerous, that is, according to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and Western according to the same source - though normblog readers might take a different view about so attempting to limit their geographical application. Here's a report from the New York Times:
The Chinese Communist Party has warned officials to combat "dangerous" Western values and other perceived ideological threats, in a directive that analysts said on Monday reflected the determination of China's leader to preserve top-down political control even as he considers economic liberalization.
The warning emerged on Chinese news Web sites that carried accounts from local party committees describing a directive from the Central Committee General Office, the administrative engine of the party leadership under Xi Jinping.
The central document, "Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere," has not been openly published, and most references to it disappeared from Chinese news and government Web sites by Monday afternoon, apparently reflecting censors' skittishness about publicizing such warnings. But what did come to light in the local summaries exuded anxiety about the party's grip on opinion.
What follows gives a clue to the content of those dangerous values: media freedom, judicial independence, the influence of the internet, political liberalization, ideological non-conformity. It's a worthwhile reminder to those who think that liberal democracy is somewhere between a sham and so hollowed out these days as to be nearly inoperative that there are still differences that matter in this area and that the beneficiaries and subjects of dictatorial power understand what they are well enough.
Here's Robert McCrum with a quick-fix solution to various symptoms of literary malaise:
Whenever readers despair of contemporary book culture, pointing to the horrors of Dan Brown or EL James; or to the mind-blowing inanities of "writing classes"; or the death of bookselling; or the alleged crimes of Amazon, I have one simple answer: the name of a writer whose life and work – a strange and deep response to the atrocities of history – has become a wonderful vindication of literary culture in all its subtle and entrancing complexity. His name? Sebald.
McCrum proceeds to elaborate; he speaks of the 'rich and productive afterlife' of Sebald's work. Fine by me: I was already convinced by The Emigrants, then bowled over by Austerlitz.
What puzzles me, however, is why anyone would ever despair over 'book culture'. Now, I'm no theorist in this domain and I don't keep up with the latest in opinion about the state of that culture. I just read one novel and then I read another and then another, and by and large I find this keeps me very happy. True, I am party to a fair bit of discussion between people who know a lot more than I do about it all, and I listen out to what they're saying for likely tips to books that I might enjoy. But I'm not much bothered about whether things are up, down or in the middle so far as the state of literary culture goes; and this is because I figure the said culture has been going so long and contains so many riches that it has enough there to satisfy even the most voracious reader forever. What's more, good books - and indeed great books - will go on being written, you can bet your house on that. The continuity is stronger than anything that could be wrought by some bad current trend. Maybe there's a touch of complacency in this attitude of mine. I'm also not worried about whether jazz is alive or dead.
Here's a footnote to theseriesofposts I ran on the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. It concerns the 'free' choice aspect of people working in unsafe conditions.
The 19-year-old seamstress [Reshma Begum] who spent 17 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed factory building said Monday that she will never again work in a Bangladesh garment factory.
"I will not work in a garment factory again," she said.
From which one may infer that even people in very poor countries prefer not to have buildings collapsing on them. The death toll from the disaster has now passed 1,100.
Vargha Taefi is a financial adviser living in Melbourne and describes himself and his wife as enjoying a good life - except for the pain arising from being unable to see his mother. Taefi explains:
My mother, who is innocent of any crime, has been held in Iranian prisons since May 14, 2008, because of her religion. She is a member of the Baha'i faith. She is serving a 20-year sentence, and this week marks the fifth year since her arrest.
A mother of three, she is an educational psychologist. She is also one of seven people - five men and two women - who served as the ad hoc leadership group for Iran's biggest non-Muslim religious minority, the Baha'i, numbering 300,000.
Her religious belief commits her to obey the law not to be involved in partisan political activity. In fact, as I witnessed it growing up, her life has been one of service to others. But instead of being publicly praised, she has become the target of vicious persecution by the Iranian authorities.
In May 2008, she and her colleagues, the oldest of whom is now 80, were arrested in co-ordinated dawn raids on their homes in Tehran.
For more than four months my mother was held in solitary confinement. In 2010, after 2½ years of detention, during which the seven were physically mistreated, they were charged with baseless accusations of espionage, insulting Islamic sanctities, crimes against national security, and "spreading corruption on earth". Any one of these charges can result in the death sentence in Iran.
During the time of their trial, they were denied access to their lawyer, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. The prison authorities allowed only a few visits from their families. Then, after being subjected to a sham trial, the most shocking news was announced - each was sentenced to a 20-year prison term. There was international outrage but they are still locked up.
My mother is being held in Evin Prison. She was previously in Rajaei Shahr and Qarchak prisons until condemnation of the extremely harsh conditions by international media and governments led to her transfer.
During her captivity she has been confined to a 2x2-metre shared cell. There is hardly any light entering. There is no bed. She sleeps on the floor, even during the extremely cold winters which worsen her sciatica. Her colleague who shares the same cell, Mrs Mahvash Sabet, 60, recently suffered a broken hip owing to poor diet, low calcium and no sunshine.
On rare occasions, when these are permitted her, Taefi gets to have a two-minute telephone conversation with his mother.
One of the books I read for the first time earlier in the year was W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz; so that makes it difficult for me to nominate any other book as the best I've read this year. But I can make up for that by saying John Williams's Stoner, which I finished last night, is amongst the best novels I've ever read. I hope I'm not just generalizing from my own ignorance in wondering why Stoner and its author aren't better known. But until a friend recently passed the book on to me as a gift, I'd not heard either of it or of him. After reading it, I think I've found a novel that belongs with those by William Maxwell, Richard Yates, Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, and other such elevated company.
In the edition I read, Stoner comes with a recommendation from John McGahern. He refers to the clarity of Williams's prose, and that is one of the book's pervasive merits: writing about the subtleties of emotion and the shifting relationships across a man's lifetime, the author is always pellucid as well as economical. The life he describes is in one way unremarkable: of a boy - William Stoner - from a farming background who goes to college to study agriculture but is diverted into a love of literature and becomes an academic and teacher. Stoner's career isn't one of fame or any kind of glory; it could even be seen as pedestrian. But another striking feature of Williams's tale is the drama he brings to the unfolding of this ordinary life in both professional and personal domains, so that Stoner is one of those books you're always keen to get back to. Moreover, it reveals, beneath the routines of 'ordinariness', the depths of a man of consistent integrity, trying to do the best by those around him, the people he loves, the students he teaches, and the profession of teaching itself, the joys and the values of literature and of learning. Williams records a life well-lived, without glamour and with enough of life's disappointments, but one to be celebrated nonetheless - just like the book that contains it.
I wish anyone else coming to Stoner for the first time the same pleasure it gave me. Can I guarantee this? Of course not. But I'm betting you won't regret trying it.
Is it OK to stage an academic boycott on broadly human rights grounds but targeted against one country only and its universities and academics? According to Matt Hill at the New Statesman, it is. But then again he also thinks it isn't in the particular case to hand, namely Israel. He delivers an object lesson in how to swallow your own reasoning with the reasoning that follows it.
The occasion for Hill's piece is Stephen Hawking's much-publicized decision not to attend a conference in Israel, and he begins by making it clear that his opposition to this decision isn't based on 'the usual argument trotted out' by those opposed to boycotting Israel. For him that's what we boycott-opponents do with arguments: we trot them out; as we also, apparently, throw words around. But in any event, Hill writes:
Partisans of Israel often charge BDS with inconsistency, claiming it's hypocritical to single out Israel and not other countries who abuse human rights. But this won't wash. When it comes to moral acts, the question isn't whether we are consistent but whether we have a chance of achieving some good. When activists led a boycott of South Africa during the apartheid years, they didn't wait until their movement could boast a consistent platform on every conceivable issue.
Hill is right about this for the cases to which it applies; but he's wrong about it for the particular case to which he applies it. You don't have to refrain from doing some good just because you can't do all the possible good there is to do. It would be a strange and useless counsel to someone not to donate to one or two worthwhile charities unless they could donate to all of them. And it isn't a sensible norm of international politics for a country to desist from a feasible humanitarian intervention that might save many lives in circumstances where it could only afford to undertake one such intervention though more than one was needed. But boycotting the academics of other countries on putatively human rights grounds isn't like either of these cases. (See this earlier post of mine.)
Not visiting other places to attend a conference and not inviting academics from those places are both generalizable negative activities that do not impose costs on those who undertake them; to an academic boycott of Israel could easily be added boycotts of Iran, China, Syria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, etc, without this stretching the means of the intending boycotters. Fewer places to visit; fewer visitors to entertain, accommodate and, crucially, talk and listen to. So Hill's argument against what opponents of the academic boycott 'trot out' is busted - busted in its own right.
Yet, he doesn't leave it there; because he goes on to recognize that one of words we boycott opponents 'throw around' actually has some merit:
Israel's supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state's right to exist.
It's true that Israel's supporters throw the word 'delegitimisation' around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn't have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel's existence.
Hallelujah the Hill, to coin a phrase. The focus on Israel as a target of boycott is not, then, merely a matter of trying to do some good where you can. There's something about that country that makes certain types of people itchy for denunciation and for punitive action against its academics.