Category: London Review of Books

It was gold

Patricia Lockwood for the London Review of Books
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For the LRB, Patricia Lockwood returns to Joan Didion’s works alongside the new Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold (directed by Griffin Dunne), evincing the ‘pointillism’ of Didion’s style.

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To revisit Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the paperback editions just released by 4th Estate, is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays, the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar – if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life. Read ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’ and see if you do not recognise the man in the modern scene. ‘Actually I was interested not in the revolution but in the revolutionary.’ Where things are moving too fast she fixes a focal point. She captures the way the language becomes more memetic, more meaningless just as the ground begins to swell under the feet – as if the herd, sensing some danger, must consolidate its responses. Her adept turn to political writing in the 1980s and 1990s showed the same prescience; if you are tuned to where the language goes strange, you will anticipate the narrative they’re going to try to sell you.

She herself is now powerful, runs the criticism. There is a danger in her, and it is the same danger she suggests in ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’: that the stories first tell us what it was like, and then they tell us how to live. Like the desert, she imposes a style. ‘Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.’

There is something to this. Her essays take place, for many people, in some innermost hotel room. We are there as she unpacks the items on her iconic list, sets the bottle of bourbon on the desk, calls home to check the time, lies down in the dark when the aura comes. Why are we closer to her? Why do we feel, along with her, the shaking of the hand narrowing down and down to the steadiness of the pen? A peculiarity of my own: among all her books, I had not read The Year of Magical Thinking, because my own husband, whom I married very young, on whom I depend and in whom I store half of my information, has a family history of heart attacks – to be more specific, the men on his father’s side all drop dead in their homes at the age of 59. ‘As long as I don’t read it,’ I often thought to myself, and thought no further, though I kept the book on a low shelf. Whenever the swimming-pool colour of the spine caught my eye I saw a kitchen, and a telephone on the wall with a long curling cord, and my own hands not knowing what to do. ‘As long as I save it, against that day.’

This is personal, but we have seen both the deep personal and the wide diagnostic in her, it is all tied together: South and West, the fracturing 1960s, a line of ancestry across the country. The earth rucking up like a dress bought where, bought when. The wagon train and the plane rides of the sentences. Someone’s on track. The assay scales and the choosing of the words. Her grandfather a geologist, herself a seismograph, her daughter sobbing ‘Let me be in the ground.’ The cowboy and the one who strides beside him, the Broken Man, the childhood bogeyman Quintana and she so feared. These things are together in our reading. Through long investigation into fracture she has brought them together, and somehow we are there in the centre of her thinking, in the place where she is working it all out. We are told it does not hold. It holds.

Perhaps she promises that synthesis, even of a time like this, is still possible. ‘I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ Perhaps she offers the feeling that if you write the facts down, the facts might somehow remain standing at the end, after the end. There is a small, unobtrusive reporter in the corner. She has outlasted everything else.

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Aviators and Movie Stars

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Patricia Lockwood on Carson McCullers for the London Review of Books:

She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a jeweller who was forever tinkering with watches. Her mother, Marguerite, a more vivacious personality, had intended to name her baby Enrico Caruso and bragged to visitors that Carson cried in tune. Marguerite, in the traditional mould of stage mothers in places where stages are hard to come by, believed that her daughter was extraordinary in some unspecified way. She was so set on her being a genius that she was not in the least taken aback when she actually became one. Carson was primed to like applause. ‘In our old Georgia home we used to have two sitting rooms – a back one and a front one – with folding doors between. These were the family living rooms and the theatre of my shows.’

These entertainments were produced out of stultification. All of her longer works are set in the South, and they are sick with not just a small town atmosphere but an inside-the-house one: the nausea and the stuckness you feel when you have looked at the same things for too long – a braided rug, a tear in the screen door, a bust of Brahms, the water oiling itself between brown riverbanks. Under the tutelage of Mary Tucker, perhaps the first woman she ever loved romantically, she practised the piano for hours a day, repeating the same tricky passages until she was a general menace to the neighbourhood. After a bout of rheumatic fever in her mid-teens, she resolved to trade in one set of keys for another, and her first published story, ‘Wunderkind’, is about a girl training to be a concert pianist who suddenly ceases to be able to play well. As an artistic study, it is terrifying. It is about a body that simply stops being able to produce the insight it has been used to.

She escaped Columbus as soon as she could, fleeing to New York at 17 with a large sum of money – though the money, along with the real story behind its disappearance, was lost almost immediately on her arrival. In the summer of 1935, she met a charismatic and literary-minded soldier called James Reeves McCullers, Jr. They married when she was 20 and he was 24, and set up house in North Carolina. The detail that somehow sticks with you is that she wore knee-high socks to the wedding.

At first glance, Carson and Reeves seem like the last people who should have entered into a heterosexual covenant. Despite Carson’s remark that Reeves was the best-looking man she had ever seen, she confided to a friend later in life that she hated sex with men. Instead, she pursued women. Here is Carson falling so in love with the Swiss adventurer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach that she dedicated Reflections in a Golden Eye to her; here she is lying down in front of Katherine Anne Porter’s door at Yaddo; here she is hopelessly infatuated with a random ballerina she saw one night on stage. Here is Reeves entangled with various young women; here he is falling in love with David Diamond, a composer who was a shadow figure in their marriage.

I am thinking of a place called 7 Middagh Street, a fairytale brownstone in Brooklyn Heights whose back windows looked out onto New York Harbour and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was demolished in 1945, but for a while during the Second World War it functioned as a sort of filthy, alcohol-soaked salon. It was the brainchild of George Davis, the loose cannon former fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and for a while housed such diverse inhabitants as McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles and Richard Wright. (Auden seems to have been an especially terrible housemate, complaining about excessive use of toilet paper and telling people their colds weren’t physical but mental.) Carson was one of the original members; she arrived during her first separation from Reeves, who often hung around towards suppertime, wistful and drunk and disgruntled. While Gypsy worked on a mystery called The G-String Murders and Auden and Britten collaborated on a very bad opera about Paul Bunyan, Carson haunted the halls with a thermos full of a tea and sherry concoction she called ‘sonnie boy’ and chiselled away at the book that would become The Member of the Wedding.

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Underground in Raqqa

FILE PHOTO:Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn on the siege of Raqqa for the London Review of Books:

Shortly before the siege of Raqqa began in June, Islamic State officials arrested Hammad al-Sajer for skipping afternoon prayers. Hammad, who is 29, made a living from his motorbike: he carried people and packages, charging less than the local taxis. IS had arrested him a number of times before – mostly for smoking cigarettes, which were banned under IS rule – but he had always been released after paying a fine or being lashed. Attendance at prayers was compulsory and he had missed the Asr, the afternoon prayer, because a passenger had made him wait while he went into his house to get money for his fare after a trip to Raqqa’s old city. Hammad expected to be fined or lashed, but this time he was sentenced to a month in prison. Except it turned out not to be prison. On his first morning, ‘militants blindfolded us and took us in a vehicle to a place that seemed to be inside the city because it took no more than ten minutes to get there.’

Hammad and the other prisoners, all of them local men, were taken to an empty house. In one of the rooms there was a hole in the floor. Rough steps led down about sixty feet before the tunnel flattened out into a corridor, which was connected to a labyrinth of other tunnels. A fellow prisoner, Adnan, told Hammad that IS had started work on what was effectively a subterranean network a year and a half earlier. In other words, construction began in 2015, after IS’s spectacular run of victories ended and it started its long retreat in the face of Kurdish offensives backed by coalition firepower. To escape the aerial bombardment, IS decided to disappear underground, digging immense tunnel complexes underneath its two biggest urban centres, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, to help it defend itself when the final assaults came.

Few people in Raqqa knew the extent of the excavations going on beneath their feet – not even Hammad, who rode his motorbike around the city every day. The entrances were always in districts from which local inhabitants had fled or been evicted. ‘When we got into the tunnels we were amazed,’ Hammad remembers. ‘It was as if an entire city had been built underground.’ IS must have needed an army of workers to build it – but then there were large numbers of prisoners and jobless labourers to draw on. The prisoners were told as little as possible about what they were doing: anyone who asked a lot of questions was punished. Hammad saw rooms with reinforced concrete walls and ceilings, and what looked like boxes of ammunition piled up on the floor. When he asked about the boxes, he says, one of the guards ‘hit me on my back with a piece of cable and said: “Don’t poke your nose into things. This is not your business. Do your job and keep quiet.”’ The foreign fighters on duty were silent and unapproachable, but some of the guards were locals and occasionally talked to the diggers during the ten-hour working day. ‘Sometimes they joked with us because they were bored and tired,’ he says. One day he asked one of them what all this hard work was for. ‘This great construction will help the lions of the caliphate to escape,’ he said (the ‘lions’ were the IS emirs and commanders). ‘They have a message to deliver to people and they should not die too soon.’

IS officials used prisoners to work on the tunnels when they could, but they also hired labourers. One of these was Khalaf Ali. When IS seized the city in 2014, he was selling cigarettes in the street. ‘I was picked up by some militants who took me to a commander,’ he says. ‘They did not take me to prison, but they confiscated my boxes of cigarettes and said that if I sold cigarettes again, they would put me in prison and I would get thirty lashes.’ He started spending his days in a local square with other unemployed men; they would wait for a car or truck to stop and offer them odd jobs – moving furniture, mending broken doors or windows. In April 2016, Khalaf was sitting in the square with the others when an IS security man said he wanted to talk to them. At first they were nervous, but the official said they could have work if they registered their names at an IS office. When they showed up at 7 a.m. the following day, they were told they had to agree to certain conditions: ‘We must not talk about what we were doing in public as it was one of the caliphate’s secrets and, if we violated this condition, they would kill us as traitors.’ They were blindfolded and driven a short distance to an empty house, where the blindfolds were removed. It wasn’t the house Hammad had first been taken to: here, there were no stairs, just a sloping tunnel about 150 feet long, which took them around sixty feet underground.

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At Tate Britain

Brian Dillon for London Review of Books
Tate Britain - Queer British Art

Brian Dillon reviews the Tate Britain exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 (on until 1st of October) for London Review of Books:

On 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest Boulton, music hall artiste and rent boy, and Fanny was Frederick Park, a trainee solicitor. At Bow Street police station they were arrested and charged with sodomy. Stella, it transpired, had been living as the wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP, who promptly died of cholera before the case went to trial. In Westminster Hall, before the Lord Chief Justice, a jury acquitted Fanny and Stella: there was no evidence of buggery, and nobody could determine that cross-dressing was a crime.

There are two studio photographs of ‘The Funny He-She Ladies’, as the newspapers called them, in the Tate’s survey of a century and slightly more of queer British art, from 1861 to 1967, the year male homosexuality was decriminalised (the show closes on 1 October). Here is Lord Arthur doted on by curl-headed Ernest and Fred, who are in masculine mufti, and then crinolined Fanny and Stella à deux: all over each other like sentimental sisters. It was just nine years since the death penalty for the crime of sodomy had been abolished in England and Wales, and 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. (The exhibition includes Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol.) As Neil McKenna points out in his catalogue essay, Boulton and Park would almost certainly have called their evening get-up ‘drag’; but they would not yet have thought of themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’: terms not established till the 1890s. Queer British Art begins at a moment when its theme is both overdetermined – the insistence on anal sex as evidence – and ambiguous, frequently unnoticed or elided.

Consider the range of male artists and male bodies that opens the exhibition. When Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus – doe eyes, ringlets, Cupid’s-bow lips parted – was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1867, it caused no critical stir. But a year later, at the Dudley Gallery, Solomon’s watercolour of the same subject was thought by the Art Journal to depict ‘a sentimentalist of rather weak constitution’. Such euphemism was common enough, but critical reaction sometimes more direct: in 1869, the Times noted that Frederic Leighton’s smooth and golden Icarus, who is billowed about by luscious drapery, also seemed to be showing ‘the soft rounded contour of a feminine breast’. The ‘subtler threads of temperament’ that Walter Pater had adduced in Winckelmann’s Hellenism were more than hinted at in works like Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877), where the goddess is in most physical respects, as writer and artist W. Graham Robertson put it, ‘a fine, upstanding slip of a boy’.

There are considerably fewer female artists, and women’s bodies, in this show than there are men – a fact the Tate curators acknowledge, along with the infrequency of non-white faces: ‘We have been constantly frustrated by the comparative scarcity of material.’ In a section somewhat dutifully titled ‘Defying Convention’, we find John Singer Sargent’s 1881 portrait of an austerely boyish Vernon Lee, and Alvaro Guevara’s Dame Edith Sitwell from 1916. Laura Knight, three years earlier, had been condemned by the Telegraph for a self-portrait with a nude model that lacked ‘the higher charm of the “eternal feminine”’. A few such notable nudes aside, there is a tendency to allegorise lesbian desire in objects and interiors: as in Ethel Sands’s The Chintz Couchof 1911, or the frothy Lilac and Guelder Rose by Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) from 1937. Even Claude Cahun – who here counts as British for having lived on Jersey – is represented not by her shaven-headed self-portraits but by photographs of her delicately Surrealist sculptural assemblages under glass bell-jars.

Such displacements, whether on the part of curators or artists themselves, might seem timid, but they have the fortunate effect of posing the question, more frankly than the Victorian male nudes, what a queer aesthetic might look like, as distinct from mere subject matter. The answers are in some ways predictable: there is a room at Tate Britain given over to theatre, in which one may view Noël Coward’s monogrammed scarlet dressing gown and Oliver Messel’s designs for the 1959 film of Suddenly Last Summer. Style, poise, extravagance: these we might expect. (Consider Glyn Philpot’s 1935 painting of Glen Byam Shaw, who is playing Laertes but looks as though he’s stepped off the set of a New Romantic music video fifty years later.) But it’s a certain texture that seems to signify most, as for example in the theatrical photographs of Angus McBean, who was jailed during the Second World War for his homosexuality. McBean’s 1937 portrait of Beatrix Lehmann twins the actress’s face with incongruous block and tackle, and frames this ‘surrealised’ arrangement with silk drapery. His 1941 study of Quentin Crisp is an astonishing instance of the retoucher’s art, the subject’s burnished flesh so perfect it is hardly there at all.

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At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
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Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

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Fascinated, Repelled, But Not Bored

Mika Ross-Southall on Marina Abramović
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Following the recent publication of Marina Abramović’s memoirs, Mika Ross-Southall examines the life and work of the artist- ‘there is something admirable, if sociopathic, in Abramović’. The full article can be read on the London Review of Books website:

When Marina Abramović dies, she wants three graves. One in Belgrade, one in Amsterdam and another in New York (the three places where she’s lived the longest), she tells us in her compelling memoir Walk Through Walls. Her body will only be in one of them, though, and no one is to know which. To turn her own death into a kind of performance piece is no surprise from Abramović, whose performance art over the past half-century has been saturated in autobiography. At the Venice Biennale in 1997, for example, she sat in a basement on top of hundreds of bloody cow bones, scrubbing them clean with water and a metal brush for four days, six hours a day. Still images of her mother and father flashed on two screens in the background, while a video showed Abramović in a white laboratory coat and glasses telling a story about starving a rat so much that it turns on its own family; she then did a striptease, pulled a red scarf from between her breasts, and danced a jig. The smell was repulsive, but the audience were transfixed by “Balkan Baroque” and she won the Golden Lion.

With this memoir comes another performance. “I come from a dark place”, she tells us, describing her childhood in Communist post-war Yugoslavia. Her parents had a tumultuous, tense marriage: they both slept with loaded guns on their bedside tables. “I used to think my birth destroyed the symmetry”, she writes several times. But her family was privileged; her parents were favoured war heroes, high up in the Party, and they lived in a grand apartment. Here Abramović had a bedroom as well as a painting studio, when the majority of families in Belgrade in the 1950s were crammed into single rooms (art was one of the few luxuries encouraged by her mother, who was the director of the Museum of the Revolution). “Later I discovered [the flat] had once belonged to wealthy Jews, and had been seized during the Nazi occupation”, she says. A revelation followed immediately in the book by a black-and-white photograph of her young parents smiling in their military uniforms. “Our home was really a horrible place.”

Her mother beat her – punishment she was expected to endure “without complaint”. “I think that, in a certain way, my mother was training me to be a soldier like her” with “walk through walls determination – Spartan determination”, she says. But her father had named her after a Russian soldier he’d been in love with: “My mother resented this old attachment deeply – and, by association, I think she resented me, too”. On Marina’s fourteenth birthday, her father gave her an ivory-engraved pistol and took her to a strip club.

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Walking Through Walls is published by Fig Tree (£20.00)

Fried Fish

Thomas Chatterton Williams
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‘The power he does have, the power anyone who is black can have, he decides, is a negative one: it lies in the refusal to buy into the possibility of progress (‘You won’t enrol me in this lie’).’ Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Underground Railroad for the London Review of Books:

In his story ‘The Student’, Chekhov writes of a young seminarian who comes across two widows warming themselves at a fire:

And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown … in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression – all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.

At first this insight dismays him, but he comes to accept that the past ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events’ and that ‘he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.’ He is suddenly relieved. It seems there is a permanence to things that both guarantees one’s own tribulations and makes them merely an insignificant part of a larger unalterable order. The story was written in 1894, in the aftermath of serfdom, but it expresses – however ironically – a sentiment prevailing in many of the most influential parts of black America today.

Over the past few years, roughly the entire second term of the Obama administration, a consensus has taken shape online and also in more traditional arenas of American political activism and cultural production. Inspired by the disproportionate impact of the economic collapse of 2008 and by growing awareness of the failure of the policy of mass incarceration as well as scores of high-profile travesties of justice – notably the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman, which gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – alongside many more ambiguous affronts (such as the lack of nominees of colour at the 2015 Academy Awards, which gave birth to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign), the rapturous, impossibly short-lived post-raciality of the first black presidency has been usurped by a backward-looking social consciousness best expressed by the internet neologism ‘wokeness’. (Chekhov’s student ‘got woke’ that cold night in the Russian countryside.)

In times of strife, there is something seductive, even romantic, about the kind of transhistorical thinking the new social consciousness invokes, articulated most notably in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestseller, Between the World and Me.​ ‘I can’t secure the safety of my son,’ Coates said in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award. ‘I can’t go home and tell him that it’s going to be OK … I just don’t have that right, I just don’t have that power.’ The power he does have, the power anyone who is black can have, he decides, is a negative one: it lies in the refusal to buy into the possibility of progress (‘You won’t enrol me in this lie’). This sentiment, virtually unspeakable eight years ago, now permeates black cultural output, taking in everything from popular music like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, as well as her sister Solange’s A Seat at the Table, to films like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Nate Parker’s much hyped The Birth of a Nation, to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and the poet Claudia Rankine’s award-winning Citizen. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, on receiving the MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, Rankine acknowledged as much: ‘To me, the getting of this honour is … the culture saying: “We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you” … The MacArthur is given to my subject through me.’ The moral of the story is clear: if you are a serious black artist working today, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to wake up.

Before the publication of The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel – a mostly straightforward and historically realistic tale of a slave’s escape from southern bondage into tenuous northern freedom – it would have been difficult to imagine a less obvious candidate for the title of Woke Black Artist of the Year than the 47-year-old Colson Whitehead. He distinguished himself in his late twenties with his first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), an explosively original story set in a fantastical world of elevator inspectors, and quickly won critical acclaim on the strength of a rollicking, hyper-idiosyncratic body of work that refused to adhere to the mandates of identity politics or the constrictions of literary genre. Writing with David Foster Wallace-level verbal firepower, he was prepared to subvert the simplistic clichés attached to blackness – and the impulse towards sentimentality that goes along with them. At the height of black rapture over Obama’s election, Whitehead published an irreverent, almost flippant op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘Finally, a Thin President’, which made a mockery of the notion that an earth-shattering symbolic power was attached to the historic achievement. The next year, he published another satirical op-ed in the New York Times, this one a guide for blocked novelists in search of fresh material. One of his more eyebrow-raising suggestions was what he called the Southern Novel of Black Misery. ‘Africans in America,’ he wrote,

cut your teeth on this literary staple. Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up – the hounds are a-gittin’ closer! Sample titles: ‘I’ll Love You Till the Gravy Runs Out and Then I’m Gonna Lick Out the Skillet’; ‘Sore Bunions on a Dusty Road’.

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The Underground Railroad is published by Fleet (£14.99)

A New Kind of Being

Jenny Turner on Angela Carter
Angela Carter

Following the recent publication of  The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, Jenny Turner examines the life and writing of Angela Carter. The full article can be read on the London of Review of Books website. 

In 2006, the British Library bought a huge archive of Angela Carter’s papers from Gekoski, the rare books dealer, for £125,000.It includes drafts, lots of them, a reminder that in the days before your computer automatically date-stamped all your files book-writing used to be a clerical undertaking. It has Pluto Press Big Red Diaries from the 1970s, and a red leatherette Labour Party one, tooled with the pre-Kinnock torch, quill and shovel badge. There are bundles of postcards, including the ones sent over the years to Susannah Clapp, the friend and editor Carter would appoint as her literary executor, which formed the basis of the memoir Clapp published in 2012; there’s also one with an illegible postmark, addressed to Bonny Angie Carter and signed ‘the wee spurrit o’yae Scots grandmither’. And there are journals, big hardback notebooks ornamented with Victorian scraps and pictures cut from magazines, and filled with neat, wide-margined pages of the most nicely laid-out note-taking you have ever seen. February 1969, for example, starts with a quote from Wittgenstein, then definitions of fugue, counterpoint, catachresis and tautology. Summaries of books read: The Interpretation of Dreams, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Self and Others. All incredibly tidy, with underlinings in red. And exploding flowers and nudie ladies stuck on the inside cover, as if in illustration of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which Carter would have been working on at the time.

What was I looking for when I went to look at the Angela Carter Papers? To begin with I didn’t really know. Partly it was professional completism. Journalists are supposed to do as much research as possible, so it was part of the job, I decided, to take a look at this amazing public resource. Partly there was something cultic about it. There aren’t many places I love more than I love the British Library or writers I love more than I love Angela Carter, so of course I was going to take this chance to sniff at the sacred stationery, served on huge wooden trays by hushed BL staff. But mostly I was looking for an approach. Carter was 51 and at the height of her fame and family happiness when she died in 1992. Her instructions for the work she left behind were that it should be used in any way possible – short of falling into the hands of Michael Winner – ‘to make money for my boys’: Mark Pearce, her second husband, and Alexander, the couple’s son, born in 1983.

As Edmund Gordon says towards the beginning of his biography, Carter was never so widely acclaimed in life as she would be in the weeks and years after her death. The tributes were long, sometimes fulsome, always affectionate, and full of great table talk and funny stories from Carter’s ‘flotillas’ – Carmen Callil’s word – of famous friends. That happens when a well-liked person dies before their time, especially when the death has the long lead-in afforded by cancer treatment, and when they leave a younger partner and small child. It’s probably why Clapp’s memoir feels a bit overstuffed as it gets started. All those cats and birds and scarlet skirting boards, as if to hide and plug the hissing hole.

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The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography is published by Chatto & Windus (£25.00)

The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O'Hagan for the London Review of Books
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Writing for the London Review of Books, here’s the beginning of Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating profile of events and personas that unpacks the myth of Satoshi Nakamoto:

Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said ‘Computer Forensics’; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde. They were looking for ‘originals or copies’ of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile phone records, research papers and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinised, and 32 individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.

Some of the neighbours say the Wrights were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird – to one neighbour he was ‘Cold-Shoulder Craig’ – and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his ‘toys’, but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling ‘the deal’. Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.

At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways – ‘Tailor Made Office Solutions’, it said on a nearby billboard – and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. ‘I tried to intervene,’ one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, ‘and said we would have to call our lawyers.’

Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story – a story too complicated for her to explain – so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On 9 December, after their first night in the new apartment, Wright woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system’ – a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.

By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumours, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it – they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM – and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the 63rd floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the 61st floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realised he’d rushed out without his passport.

[…]

‘After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting’

Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books
easter rising lrb

Writing in the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín constructs a backdrop to the Easter Rising in 1916 from literary and political portraits:

Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, which dramatises the world of stray revolutionaries in London in the 1880s, depends on energy coming from opposites. The novel’s protagonist, Hyacinth Robinson, appreciates beauty and feels excluded from the world of privilege around him. He lives an interior life. ‘He would,’ as James wrote in his preface, ‘become most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.

In a letter to his old Boston friend Grace Norton the year he published The Princess Casamassima, James made clear his deep dislike for Ireland, the country of his grandparents. Ireland, he felt, could injure

England less with [Home Rule] than she does without it … She seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.

Two years later, in 1888, he wrote to Norton again: ‘Here there is nothing but Ireland, & the animosities & separations it engenders – accursed isle! Literature, art, conversation, society – everything lies dead beneath its black shadow.’

In order to write the third chapter of the novel, in which the young Hyacinth Robinson is taken to visit his French mother, who is serving a life sentence for his father’s murder, James visited Millbank Prison by the Thames: ‘a worse act of violence’, he called it, ‘than any it was erected to punish’. Hyacinth is accompanied by the dressmaker who has been looking after him. ‘If the place,’ James wrote, ‘had seemed cruel to the poor little dressmaker outside, it may be believed that it did not strike her as an abode of mercy while she pursued her devious way into the circular shafts of cells … there were walls within walls and galleries on top of galleries; even the daylight lost its colour.’

Millbank Prison had played an important role in creating the atmosphere of terror in London that James dramatised in his novel. In 1867, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), also known as the Fenians, who was serving a life sentence for treason, was moved to Millbank. According to his biographer Shane Kenna, he was regarded as the institution’s most troublesome prisoner; news of the punishments he received for petty infringements of the rules became an important part of Fenian propaganda over the next few years. Two different inquiries took place into the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were being held. After the second, it was decided to release the prisoners on condition that they did not return to Ireland. Thus, in January 1871, O’Donovan Rossa arrived in New York; he was greeted as a hero.

Among the friends he made in America was Patrick Ford, the editor of the Irish World, a newspaper with a circulation of 125,000. In 1876, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa set up what they called ‘a skirmishing fund’ to assist in the planning and carrying out of a bombing campaign in Britain. ‘Language, skin-colour, dress, general manners,’ Ford wrote, ‘are all in favour of the Irish.’ Ford and O’Donovan Rossa were aware of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite compound, invented in 1867. ‘Dynamite,’ as Sarah Cole wrote in her book At the Violet Hour (2012),

held highly idealised associations. It offered new vistas of power, not solely for its potential to wreak destruction but also for its ability to terrify a wide public. The connotations of dynamite for radical politics are hard to overstate. It was the ultimate weapon of one against the many, of any individual with only a smattering of training … the dynamite bomb seemed tiny in proportion to its capacity to do harm; it could fit easily into a small bag or even a pocket.

Using the pages of the Irish World, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa collected more than $20,000 within a year. Even those among the nationalist Irish-American groups who supported the idea of a bombing campaign in Britain viewed with dismay the lack of restraint and caution in O’Donovan Rossa’s violent rhetoric. John Devoy, one of the leaders of Clan na Gael, the main Irish nationalist organisation in America, believed, as Kenna writes, that O’Donovan Rossa ‘had given the British ample warning of his plans through a desire for notoriety and theatricality, thus jeopardising any future or current Fenian initiative’.

O’Donovan Rossa was defiant. ‘I am not talking to the milk and water people,’ he wrote in the Irish World,

I am talking to those who mean fight, who mean war and who know what war is. When an enslaved nation can produce men who are brave and daring enough to risk life and to face death for the mere glory of showing that the national spirit still lives, that nation is not dead and those men should be encouraged instead of repressed.

As the arguments within Irish-America became more heated, O’Donovan Rossa began drinking heavily. ‘He is now so bad that I fear the only way to save him is to put him under restraint,’ Devoy remarked, having discovered that O’Donovan Rossa had misappropriated funds. Even when sober, O’Donovan Rossa made himself into a nuisance for Devoy and his colleagues in the United States who were seeking to make an alliance, known as the New Departure, with Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party in Ireland. Threatening to dynamite Britain would not be helpful in the effort to create a united movement within Irish nationalism.

Increasingly determined, bombastic and indiscreet, O’Donovan Rossa matched his incendiary rhetoric with action. In January 1881 his followers exploded a bomb in Salford, the first time a bomb had been planted in Britain to further a political cause. The bomb destroyed some shops, injured a woman and killed a seven-year-old boy. The British authorities, who began to monitor O’Donovan Rossa’s activities in the United States, observed that he had the ruthlessness of a dangerous conspirator without any of the guile. Micheal Davitt, the leader of the Land League in Ireland, referred to him as ‘O’Donovan Assa’ and called him ‘the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote’. Slowly and without much difficulty, the British infiltrated his organisation. Nonetheless, the movement to bomb Britain continued sporadically over the next few years. Its culmination was Dynamite Saturday in January 1885, noted by James in another letter to Norton: ‘The country is gloomy, anxious, and London reflects its gloom. Westminster Hall and the Tower were half blown up two days ago by Irish Dynamiters.’

Eighteen months earlier, a young Irishman recently returned from America, Thomas J. Clarke, one of O’Donovan Rossa’s Sancho Panzas, had been arrested in London. Using evidence of an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, the Crown charged him and other followers of O’Donovan Rossa with treason. (The plan, it seems, had been to blow up the Houses of Parliament.) Sentenced to life imprisonment, he would eventually become what Ruth Dudley Edwards described as ‘the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web’ that would lead to the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin more than thirty years later. He was, in her words, ‘able, vengeful, focused, selfless and implacable’.

Clarke’s time in prison – he began his sentence at Millbank in 1883, a year before James made his visit there – would include much severe hardship, including periods of solitary confinement. Serving a lengthy prison sentence in English jails would give him the sort of mystique that arose from having sacrificed much for Ireland and survived. It would place him in the long tradition of Irish martyrs and put him in a position of leadership in Dublin once the time came. In prison, he managed to connect with colleagues and allies. Though forbidden to speak, the prisoners found ways to circumvent the rules. Like many Irish revolutionaries of the 19th century, including O’Donovan Rossa, Clarke would produce a volume of prison memoirs, in which he described ‘the dismal, dark side, [so] full of wretchedness and misery that even now I cannot think of [it] without shuddering, and, strange as it may seem, the bright side too, the side which I can look back upon now with some degree of pleasure and pride’. That pleasure and pride included a sense of companionship and a sort of arrogance in dealing with regulations and with the prison authorities.

As with O’Donovan Rossa during his incarceration, a campaign began to publicise the sufferings and ill-treatment of Irish prisoners, including Clarke, in British jails. By 1890, the Amnesty Association had 200,000 members. Slowly, the campaign became more vocal and broadly based. One of Clarke’s prison companions ran for election and became an MP, only to be disqualified as a felon. Pressure on the government to release the prisoners continued until in 1898 Clarke was released.

He was 41. His years in prison had led him to see that spies and informers as well as careless planning had done great damage to a movement whose aims he now planned to further with determination and single-mindedness. He returned to Ireland, spoke at a few gatherings in his honour and fell in love with Kathleen Daly, the 20-year-old niece of one of his comrades. Soon he went to New York, where he continued to conspire against British rule in Ireland. Kathleen followed him and they got married. Having come from a large and noisy family, she found that she was living ‘with a very silent man. Those terrible years developed the habit of repressing every sign of emotion and made him suspicious of every stranger.’

Clarke didn’t find work easily in New York. He started as a street sweeper; at least in prison he hadn’t had to beg for work, he told his wife. He was rescued by John Devoy, who was now setting up a newspaper; he made Clarke his assistant and the paper’s general manager. Clarke was effective and self-effacing. He was in a good position to assess the new generation of Irish revolutionaries who came to New York. In 1907, he concluded that it was time for him to return to Ireland. The police noted the arrival of the ‘ex-convict and dynamiter’ while Clarke, in turn, noted a new energy in the movement for Irish independence, which now included Sinn Féin, the political party founded in November 1905 and dedicated to the cause of Irish self-reliance. ‘The young fellows … who take the lead in the Sinn Féin movement impressed me very much by their earnestness and ability,’ he told Devoy’s latest assistant. ‘I am delighted to find them away above what I expected.’

In the year Clarke returned to Ireland, a book called Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, by Sir Robert Anderson, a police commissioner, was published – it helped inspire Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. The relevant passage was an account of a conversation between Gladstone’s home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, and a police chief. While Clarke was being moved from prison to prison, Harcourt had refused to countenance the idea that he and the others were political prisoners and insisted that they be treated as common felons. (Harcourt generally took a firm line on Irish terrorism, for example putting on the statute books the Explosive Substances Act of 1883, which stipulated a sentence of life imprisonment for anyone involved in making or intending to use explosives, whether the explosives went off or not.) The conversation that inspired Conrad centred on the Fenian bombing campaign of the 1880s. ‘I won’t even try to explain,’ Conrad said in a note written in 1920,

why I should have been arrested by a little passage of about seven lines, in which the author … reproduced a short dialogue held in the lobby of the House of Commons after some unexpected anarchist outrage with the home secretary … And then ensued in my mind what a student of chemistry would best understand from the analogy of the addition of the tiniest little drop of the right kind, precipitating the process of crystallisation in a test tube containing some colourless solution.

As he thought about how to present the secret agent, Adolf Verloc, it occurred to Conrad to have him run a shop in Soho, ostensibly selling soft porn. This would allow strangers – mainly furtive-looking men – to enter and leave at will and information to be passed easily and secretly. The same idea occurred to Clarke when he came back to Dublin. This being Ireland, a shop selling soft porn, while also attracting potentially furtive-looking men, would have caused undue controversy and might indeed have attracted more public opprobrium than a centre for revolutionary activity, which Clarke, like Adolf Verloc, also wished his shop to be. Thus he decided to open a tobacco shop in Amiens Street, near the railway station. Men could come and go, all under the cover of purchasing tobacco.

[…]

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