[3.5] Louise from Sleeper: plenty to like and also plenty to dislike, she wasn't easy or straightforward and that was part of her awkward-squad appeal...more[3.5] Louise from Sleeper: plenty to like and also plenty to dislike, she wasn't easy or straightforward and that was part of her awkward-squad appeal. In the first, pre-fame, half of the book I was reminded mostly of the dislike; I was annoyed and frustrated as I had been nearly twenty years ago when reading her interviews, full of disappointment that someone I thought was cool had said that. And wished, then and now, that I was reading Justine Frischmann instead because she wasn't like this.
That first half was mostly in that semi-humorous nostalgic journalese that thousands of people, including several of my friends, can write creditably probably even on a bad hangover and no sleep. Tapes made from Top of the Pops, people you liked and disliked at school (surnames always given as part of the style, though it rarely seems a fair thing to do) - you know the sort of thing. It gets old unless you really really like the person, the music they're talking about and/or they've got a transcendent writing style. I actually wouldn't swap her childhood for mine, though it, whilst far from perfect, was happier and more normal on balance. Whilst she, like me, felt a bit out of sync due to having older parents, she was just a bit brighter than average, not brilliant as I'd assumed when I was a teenager, and she seemed too content with the mediocrity around her, not weird enough - an asset in her suffocating, bully-riddled Essex school... There are shining moments but mostly it's all very stereotype-Essex, right down to the way she and her friend dress to see a Bowie gig. I used to assume that having spent teenage years closer to London would mean that interesting, less obvious music and culture and people who liked them were easier to find, but this was no better than hundreds of miles further north - and much worse than my school which was at least quite peaceful (even if it couldn't compare, in terms of academic options or interesting people, with the schools many of my university friends had been to).
Much of the meh-ness fell into place later, with this: “Our debut interview was with the NME or Melody Maker, I'm not sure which – both are interchangeable to me. Jon, Diid and Andy have grown up on these papers but they've never been part of my musical landscape.” So that's partly why her tastes stayed so mainstream-pop, why she never even referred to the idea of corporate-sellout plastic Bowie in order to dismiss it, why in her teens she hardly seems to get any more serious about music than she was as a kid. That she didn't have any idea about what you actually needed to do to be in a band until she went to university and didn't even know the difference between rhythm guitar and bass. (The fucking cheek! As far as I was concerned you were a write-off band-wise if you hadn't learned to play guitar etc reasonably well by university time . Not that I, being frequently ill and also very moody back then, would have been any sort of asset to a student band even if I could play. I had several opportunities to talk myself into bands, but wouldn't have dared because you already had to have the skillz. I was in absolute agreement with that, never liked people to see I couldn't do stuff, and simply being an okay singer was not good enough for me if I couldn't play and write. If it hadn't been for illness I certainly would have made a better stab at it, or perhaps I would have been confident enough not to think the keyboard too embarrassing to be worth working at; as it was my hands were too weak for guitar and I tired too easily in the crucial year or two when it may still have been worth seriously learning and practising guitar - pretty often even walking to lectures was too much.Yes I am bitter.)
Oh god, and then there was this bit: “He's a boy. He is very particular about amps and guitars. He's surprisingly reluctant to base his selection criteria on a) which guitar looks the prettiest b) which guitars come in green, c) what guitar Courtney Love is currently using.” [I have one of my bouts of “I'm not actually a girl, I'm something that was randomly allocated the body of one (and usually tries to make the best of this). Though at least she reminded me of an old favourite, Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'... my name is might have been, my name is never was, my name's forgotten, and that power pop chorus angrily celebrating nothing - because you might as well when you've nothing else to celebrate but almost. Words and ideas which sound quite different when nearly twenty years older; I'm just smiling in recognition. ]
And this: “His interview technique is a test of their musical hobbyism, to see if they pass muster or fail...It goes on like this for another half an hour. Endlessly on about favourite rock guitarists and obscure German electronica and not a single question directed to the girly singer. No enquiry into songwriting or lyrics.” Now, there were not a lot of social things I was good at as a fresher, but I am 100% serious that even as a teenager I dealt with equivalent group conversations way better. You fucking well interrupt, you tell them your opinions about music that are as well-informed as theirs, you watch the momentary puzzlement gradually turn to respect, which is a bit of a buzz, and you keep on with the joining in and interrupting - after all they interrupt each other all the time, so once they've noticed you in the first place it becomes equal. In my day there was even a useful comedy reference if they were being twats in certain ways. (Mentioning the Fast Show woman whose ideas were always repeated by men – I used to know her character name – leveraged several apologies. Thank you Arabella Weir.) If I'd been more truly confident and more solid, I should have started referring to them as my Sleeperblokes... It was a great disappointment to me, and I honestly thought it would not be this way as I got older, that I can count on the fingers of one hand the other women I've known who also like this sort of intensively detailed conversation about music – and a couple of them I don't even know very well, mostly just to talk to online in group discussions. Oh yeah, and the “musical hobbyism” thing, and not talking about songwriting? That's because the journo doesn't want to show up his own shortage of musical talent, is trying to create a level playing field with people he envies, and is doing the same for many readers who are in the same boat. Not that I realised this until I was much older...
But then, but then … In that same bit about the interview, just as they're starting to get famous, there at last is the Louise Wener who I remembered, who was the reason to read this bloody book... Not even realising the irony of this whilst making no effort to talk to the woman, the journalist “hasn't stopped banging on about political correctness since he got here. You use the phrase 'right on' a lot, don't you?...it's a bit prescriptive, a bit Orwellian” (p.158) She may have felt like a controversialist cartoon, but if you were a teenage girl with strong, awkward opinions, reading this stuff was seriously inspiring.
Then remembering about when I disagreed with her and agreed with Frischmann. “How does it feel to know boys are masturbating over your photograph?...They are questions male music journalists ask me. All the time...” [Find quote] Justine Frischmann was detached, amused and cool, not angry or especially flattered. Which was even more cool because she didn't look like Claudia Schiffer. Though what I don't remember anyone saying at the time was “So what? If you're not very old or a complete moose (and possibly even then given the infinite variety of humanity and its secret tastes) someone who saw you on the bus this week probably thought about you later on whilst they were having a wank. It's good that they don't tell you...”
It's probably fitting that a post about Louise Wener consists mostly of off-topic, off-the-cuff rants. But yeah, on to the good stuff, because there is also plenty of it. In the pre-fame section 1, her writing really takes off, away from the journalese, with the more melancholy stuff: the chapter on the “groundhog years” of temp jobs, cold flats, rubbish rehearsal rooms and greasy spoons, and on her father's last illness and death. That inspired her to give the band one last push, a sad event but so lucky in the timing: a band like theirs needed to pop up in 1993-4 at the beginning of the Britpop cycle; arrive very late at the party in 96 or 97 and you might only have a few months before you were dropped. (Later, she says that one thing that contributed to the rise and fall of Britpop was cuts in singles prices that record companies couldn't really afford, and in 97 they were put up again. [p.296] Which instinctively makes sense. I didn't buy a lot of singles when I already had the album, but when they were only 99p I sometimes would if I liked a B-side that Lamacq and Whiley had played, or to support a band like a team. I still remember the scorching journey into town to buy the cassette single of 'Country House', in the summer of 1995 which for me as for her is “indelibly hot and sunny in my memory”. I loved to imagine I was somewhere else (Camden), doing more exciting things, but far away in my boring life there was still some magic.)
Films or songs about being famous are often derided, and not of much interest to people who haven't experienced it, but Louise Wener's writing about her few years of fame is often much better, more alive and wiser than the by-numbers schooldays stuff (not entirely free of cliches, but there's a vivid urgency that makes them easier to disregard). I couldn't quite believe it after the disappointment of the first half. She makes me realise stuff I should have worked out years ago: the extent to which bands aren't in control of their own budget, that labels can piss them off by spending stupid amounts of royalties on promo stuff . Or (one that was more between the lines) that the stress of being cooped up with other people and their noise and smells and unending presence on tour buses can make temperamental types who need their space tip from drug use into addiction as they try to cope. I know I would have to be out of it to live with some of that stuff 24 hours a day for weeks on end. Louise Wener feels lucky not to have an addictive personality: ”you can happily regress to a sort of dirty, corrupt state of extended childhood if you want to. Other people will make your decisions for you. Other people will endlessly spin your mistakes. You see it all the time, bands laying down in the chaos and getting comfortable, forgetting to get back up again.” (p.263) I was only ever dimly aware that whilst Louise was in the band she'd been the partner of one of them for seven years, split up with him, and shortly afterwards started going out with one of the others (who she's still with now). And they managed to keep the band functioning reasonably well for about three years, including being in each others' pockets on tour, after that which is pretty impressive. You have to be a pretty solid, non-temperamental personality to pull that off. And it must have been well-managed for it not to become the defining thing about the band to someone who read as much music press as I did. (It's a bit of a shame that she wants to discourage her children from getting involved in music, but I'm not sure quite how serious she was about that bit.)
After the annoyance about pretty guitars above, I was absolutely delighted to read this: “Six hours working out the exact guitar line that fits the newly-crafted chorus. I'm getting geeky about sonics. I'm getting particular about amps and snare drum sounds. I'm not so bothered if my guitar is green or not...Music is slippery and elusive and chasing it, taming it, making it fit together is where the good stuff is. What I love most about all of this, I'm beginning to realise, is the process”. (p.245)
Sleeper may not have been as good as Blur and Pulp, but they did have some decent songs. There were yer classic Britpop character songs ….back in the early 80s one of the seeds was sown: “the [Jam] album I fall in love with is Setting Sons. It's less Vespa and Parka than All Mod Cons, more crafted, satirical and Kinks-ish. It's crammed full of narratives about wasted lives and class rivalries... council houses, rusting bicycles and holy Coca-Cola tins... 'Smithers-Jones': I don't think I've ever heard a pop song with lyrics about a ground-down, pinstripe-suit-wearing middle-aged man before.” (p.54) But it was the songs about love and sex which stuck in my memory most. 'What Do I Do Now?', even before I'd experienced a moribund relationship, was almost too real and painful to listen to, and there's something great about the way it's so simple, so poignant and catchy and jaunty. It wasn't for years, till I'd realised about my own Inbetweeners and my dismissiveness of them that I really heard what she'd been on about in that track. Or 'Delicious', “a frank, gorgeous, throwaway, punky pop gem about the pure lustful joy of having it off with someone [you] really really like”. And which enshrined that word for me; it's rare I use it without thinking of the song. Though I always had to block out the line that created the unattractive image of some hulk of a rugby player gone to seed (“you're a big man but you're out of shape” … her type isn't mine). I never bought the second album – it didn't seem cool and I'd probably disagreed with too many of Louise's interviews – though I've heard a few friends praise it since. Sleeper are maybe a band where you'd recommend a few tracks – likewise I'd like to recommend bits of Just For One Day rather than the whole thing, though books don't really work that way. (less)
This book put two songs in my head*. Harpers Bizarre - I Love You Alice B. Toklas Peter Sarstedt - Where Do You Go To My Lovely?** (mentions of the Boul...moreThis book put two songs in my head*. Harpers Bizarre - I Love You Alice B. Toklas Peter Sarstedt - Where Do You Go To My Lovely?** (mentions of the Boulevard Saint Michel)
It's also a reminder that avant-gardes using simplified, faux-naive writing styles (e.g. Tao Lin and alt-lit) are nothing new. I've said quite a few times this year that I don't enjoy these very basic styles, that I feel some writers under-describe - yet I did rather like the Autobiography. It's not a flat sort of basic, conveying depressed anomie, it's an account of interesting things (time spent with artists and writers; experiences of war work) written conversationally.
It was easy enough to read - the sentences were so simple that one can actually apply what Stein says: commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath. (A perverse agreement with the reader who edits in their own head.) For a while I did also miss semi-colons, colons, brackets and dashes - which after all exist to be used, do they not? Yet after a while I stopped adding imagined punctuation. Except for the question marks; too many sentences needed to be read twice for lack of those.
And most importantly, the book is quite funny. "...in the centre of the room stood a huge man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful. When he was really cheerless..."
And as it's more of a non-fiction subject, I didn't have the sense of something missing, because facts are conveyed perfectly well in their context. (It is a context of someone talking about people they know, so there isn't much in the way of biographical background. It's unusual to find a Penguin Modern Classics edition with no introduction or footnotes, but this lacks both. It would have been nice to have some notes, especially for the less well-known figures, without having to look them up online. A more casual alternative in keeping with the narrative tone would be to have a few bunches of pictures - of paintings and people - inserted every now and again as in biographies - with some further info as captions.)
And like non-fiction on some subjects, I found it unemotional in a relaxing way (not a failing-to-say-something-about-these-characters way). Something which tallies with Stein's intentions: "the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose" (p.228), "exactitude, austerity, absence of variety in light and shade" (p.57, quote from critic Marcel Brion).
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is famously not what it says on the tin, being mostly an account of Gertrude Stein's friendships with painters. Whilst I found it all quite interesting, it would be more so to someone who's a fan of cubism and so forth. Whilst it's obviously interesting as a development, unforunately I've always found it ugly, and if I'd been around at the time I would have been a right middlebrow stick-in-the-mud, preferring Art Deco and Nouveau to sideways blue and yellow cyclopes etc. It's very much a gut reaction which has never changed though I have tried: much cubist and surrealist art gives me a feeling of slight background nausea, headache, fear and sometimes annoyance. (Of the Matisse on the cover, all I like is the little line-portrait of the woman in the top left corner: very elegant.) I was quite delighted to hear snippets, though, about Apollinaire, Bertrand Russell, Jean Cocteau, Satie and Scott Fitzgerald.
What I most want to know is: what did Alice B. Toklas herself think about this book, later in life? Did she edit and amend it? Did she want to?(I admit to being knackered and to making no effort so far to find out, beyond Wikipedia.)... Your partner, a writer, urges you to write an autobiography. You don't get round to it as soon as they'd like so they do it for you - and, whilst they at least get the voice right, they make most of the book about themselves rather than trying to step into your shoes. Bloody cheek. From a more serious stance, it could be interpreted as quite controlling (I wonder if the reason you don't see this mooted is because both partners were women and readers are less likely to [want to] see it that way.) - but to see it as in some way a bad thing could equally be judgemental and a misunderstanding of the dynamics between the two. (I have been lucky to know a few people I consider to be geniuses or near-geniuses - like Alice I think it's something I can tell as soon as I meet a person - but have far too much ego of my own not to feel that the idea would be, secretly or openly, disgruntling.)
This curious project of the Autobiography is part of what makes Stein such a character, a real eccentric with her own unique melange of opinions agreeable and disagreeable, and apparently bulldozer-like confidence/ arrogance. (She even managed to maintain a friendship with Picasso on equal terms which was probably no mean feat; he has always sounded like an absolute arsehole.) When she dropped out of medical school because she was bored, friends pleaded with her to stay because of "the cause of women"; her reply was "you don't know what it is to be bored". She is criticised because of her exceptionalist / queen bee feminism - obviously I'm likely to agree with her to an extent having grown up in a similar tradition (one which can really be boiled down to intellectual snobbery). What Stein does is demonstrate a sense of freedom that disregards gender; feeling like an exception among one's own gender can be a stepping stone to a wider individualism applied to others: to ways that do not consider gender relevant in plenty of situations and to using gender less as a social categorisation for others - an ideal of equality which at least some strands of feminism have forgotten. The friends' collectivist viewpoint (similar to people who think women have more obligation to vote than do men, because of suffragettes) tries to place extra social burdens and duties on an individual woman to which a man would not be subject. Stein's approach seems to have been very successful for her. By considering herself without question to be worthy of the same respect as any man doing the same work, (and by being a forceful and single-minded individual generally), not feeling that respect was something she had to fight for because of being a woman, ("just getting on with it and not wasting time on all those meetings" as I remember hearing a relative put it re. second wave feminism) she achieved it.
* Digression. I have not listened to any music at all since March (as in put on any myself - of course I've overheard radios and such) and hardly any since December. One odd consequence of this previously unconscionable musiclessness is that when I do get songs in my head they tend to stay far longer. I find they are either things I heard a lot in 2012 or else much longer ago from university or earlier - with quite a bit of overlap. One track that particularly plagues me for some reason is 'Runaround Sue', which - especially given its monotonous appearance at various times when I was in pain - I started to think of as my own equivalent to 'Brown Girl in the Ring' in Touching the Void. ** I found out last year via Goodreads that plenty of people apparently hate this record. I have to admit that I love it; it is possible to take the lyrics quite seriously like some beautiful daydream and equally to see it as satirically taking the piss out of same, both of which suit me perfectly at various times. Besides, it just has a lovely sound.(less)
I read the British version, published 2013 & shorter than the original. Even a couple of weeks after finishing this I still can’t rate it, my resp...moreI read the British version, published 2013 & shorter than the original. Even a couple of weeks after finishing this I still can’t rate it, my responses were so opposed. - At times this was the most annoying book I’ve read this year, yet by the end I’d warmed to the author so much I would have quite liked to talk to her. - If this sort of thing is a significant trend in the current avant garde, I despair of its insulated triviality. Yet I can also sort of see where she’s coming from and I found it quite interesting.
How Should a Person Be? was first published in 2010 by a small press in Canada – it’s Heti’s third book but her first to gain much attention. Which attention in America (it helped that she’s also the interviews editor of The Believer, McSweeney’s “let’s only write about books we can be nice about” mag) led to its being published there in 2012 and now this year in the UK. It blurs memoir & fiction in a way that Alt-Lit is very fond of (characters share the names of the author and her friends and are closely based on them) and it uses a similar style, though one which is more faux-naïve than flat and banal.
Its advertised themes include personal identity and feminism, though I side with those who think it’s more about narcissism and over-cocooned creative cultures.
It seemed important to realise that Heti wasn’t writing it all about herself now - that most of it happened in her twenties. Many of her central questions, like the one in the title, have been described by others as teenage … probably a lot of people did deal with them then. I recognised a lot of it from my twenties, being honest with myself, once I took a deep breath and stopped being exasperated assuming that she should also have got a reasonable amount of this out of the way by her mid-thirties, also realising what that thought said about me. (It’s just like with Alt-lit, that watching someone ponder their own narcissism makes this reader do the same, and whilst the writers generally intend that, I don’t much like that suffocating little mirrored narcissibubble and find it airier and a better view when thinking about other things. So forgive me if I don’t spell out every point of self-awareness and recursion which occurred whilst reading this book. There were plenty.)
“How should a person be?” has the potential to be a weighty moral question. But it’s not really treated as such here. It isn’t essentially about ethics, it’s about image and self-presentation and how to be someone who effortlessly produces satisfactory versions of those, how to fit in with or carve out your own niche among “people like you”, or people whom you aspire to be like - or rather your idea of them as generated by media, arts and how you view your friends. It’s a thought-bubble fragile-self world where this particular idea of “should” rules, rather than instincts of what you want to do and what you feel, and what you may think is morally right. And because Sheila (I will use Sheila to refer to the character, and Heti for the author) only associates with other young able-bodied middle-class creative white people - in a milieu deliberately made to resemble reality TV (the LRB review cites The Hills as one of Heti's influences) - there isn’t much push towards these other ideas, though they do appear at times.
Heti has described the book as part memoir, part fiction, but also part self-help book. It’s described as an anti-novel but Sheila’s various realisations about herself – which make up the implied self-help part – as well as events in her close friendship with Margaux do create a plot structure. Her therapist's (has to take unskilled job to get by / keeps Jungian analyst on speed dial... I can't quite figure out her budget, but anyway) advice about Peter Pan syndrome and and the way out of it being to achieve and get things done is very American and capitalistic. Letting go of the ideas about being "great" and "superior" don't seem to be anywhere, which I thought was a shame - both politically and socially. The later narrative, I was happy (and patronising) to see, did include ideas about becoming more aware of how she felt and acting on the basis of them rather than being so ruled by her ideas of how she might appear most interesting to others, or “how to be” in order to be a Great Writer etc. It was a very nice way of illustrating natural "self-help" through reflection and the process of living rather than parroting jargon and rules.
That is good, but what was almost missing was a moral sense, or even much thought about, things outside her own #firstworldproblems bubble, which was typified by the very detached use of the category “poor people”. Sheila does start seeing them as individuals, just as two male friends of hers who run a theatre go to Africa on holiday (which they basically describe as a holiday from narcissism) and experience revelations about the humanity and needs of others different from themselves. But the friends’ ideas about this recede because they can’t understand how to integrate them into their own lives without walking out on everything. Er, hello, ever heard of community theatre work?
As far as the feminism is concerned Sheila is a thoroughly liberated free modern woman with very few obligations who, in an ideological sense, still seems to think she has to fight certain old battles. Most of the action takes place during a time when she’s trying to complete a play for a feminist theatre group which she’s been working on for ages, around the time of her divorce. At the start she is somewhat preoccupied with ideas about how to be a Great Woman, that there aren’t too many examples to draw on for inspiration yet (really??? This lack-of-great-women-in-literature angst does seem to be an American thing: we've plenty in Britain now and in the past 200 yrs. Anyway, I’m of the view that it doesn’t matter who she takes inspiration from, she’s a woman herself, and it’s more egalitarian to reject these separatist ideas and gender-based designations.) Yet she doesn’t write about feminist ideology and history even when it would have been interesting and appropriate – e.g. when she takes a job in a hairdresser’s to support herself whilst writing the play. Evidently she’s not a dungarees and no make up type, but more ideas would have been nice: I was reading this to hear about what she thinks, not just to rattle around in my own head considering my own opinions. She spends a lot of time with her friend Margaux whom she tries to imitate to an extent, having not really had any close female friends before her. (It would have been more interesting if she’d gone into whybut it’s part of the simplicity of the writing style that she ignores that sort of background material.) Sheila basically seems to be a sex positive feminist – most of the best writing in this book is in the chapter “Interlude for Fucking” which even if you’re not into all the kinks she is (e.g. I really don’t like the mean talk / ‘verbal abuse’ stuff) gives a fantastic sense of what it is to crave someone completely, written in a really fresh way. And one of the most interesting parts of her increasing self-definition, especially in the light of books that have been published between 2010 and the present, is how she starts to make more conscious and critical decisions about sexual submission. (Though no-one can blame Heti for not foregrounding 50 Shades of Grey etc, this book has inadvertently become part of the current media over-representation of female kink as only being about rather un-subversive young attractive straight submissives as criticised eloquently by Laurie Penny in this blog post.)
The deliberately simplistic style of writing in the book is something I can see two ways. It’s an honest and immediate representation of thoughts and feelings which I appreciate in a person-centred, Carl Rogers-influenced sort of way. But it’s also frustrating on a personal level – I just want to know more of what she thinks about certain situations – and on an intellectual level. Works like this and Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life are an implied subversion of “male” intellectualising but I think that does a real disservice to interesting and useful forms of thought and expression that really need not be equated with any gender – and perhaps they even self-sabotagingly increase that sense of genderedness . Regardless of gender debates, they are also arguably a disservice to the writer whose ideas receive less recognition because they are never expressly spelt out in the work. (Even, say, in one or two chapters that make them clear.) On some level, I have to admit that similar to Lydia Kiesling in her brilliant review of Tao Lin's Taipei in Ihe Millions, I just aesthetically don’t like this approach that much.
And the same goes for the prolonged explorations of narcissism in these works and Alt-Lit generally. There’s only so much “yeah, I’ve thought that too” one can do before it gets old (and of course not everybody has thought that). “Feminist narcissism” (a minor buzz-phrase around mostly American writers like this) is all very well in terms of having enough ego to put your work out there, but even to other somewhat narcissistic middle-class women (like me) narcissism as the main substance of the art itself is just a bit boring after a while. There are so many other interesting things in the world, and even in one egotistical person’s head and life, to think and care about than that particular set of ideas. David Foster Wallace’s ‘Good Old Neon’ was a story about narcissism but it took a wider context, albeit a negative one. So perhaps what Heti is saying - in contrast to DFW's conclusion - is that narcissism in a non-aggressive form especially, isn't exactly the worst thing in the world and isn't necessarily worth quite so much shame. (The shame that's the flipside to the egotism, and the shamefulness with which the narcissist may be regarded by others - shame which Heti tries to exorcise for herself by writing a "deliberately ugly" book including potentially embarrassing material. For her it looks like this therapeutic risk-taking turned out brilliantly, as she's been acclaimed for it.)She's saying it's not hopeless, you can improve bits and pieces and it's still okay to be yourself. "Benignly narcissistic white middle class artists are people too," perhaps. Even if billions don't care either way.
I’ve spent 1400 words mostly criticising this book, yet, even if Sheila’s social circle was a bit stifling, I quite liked her in the end and when I think back on the later part of the book in a non-specific sense, I feel it was an interesting experience and one I liked. How strange. (less)
Freeman seems to have made a good account of an interesting character about whom few concrete fact...moreRead c.50 pages worth as available on Google Books.
Freeman seems to have made a good account of an interesting character about whom few concrete facts are known. It's a very readable book, and like many of the most enjoyable history writers, he is scrupulously aware of the reliability of sources whilst still being able to indulge in the fun of anecdote, speculation and what-if, in their place.
The known details of the poet's life are filled out with information about his environment. Some of this is a bit glib, but that may simply be because it was early in the book.
François Villon, whilst care is taken to situate him in his environment, implicitly comes across much like a late nineteenth century poet or late twentieth century singer-songwriter as Freeman describes his creation of a partly-factual roguish persona who narrates his ostensibly autobiographical works. (As with said poets and singers, it's best not to assume everything is about their real lives, even if the presentation sounds like it.) These works are so very much about him and his friends and his urban environment, taking himself as his central subject in a playful manner that - whilst my knowledge is very patchy - I can think of no writer like him since Catullus; and whilst some of the Elizabethans, Metaphysicals and Enlightment poets may have written a few bits and pieces like this, this foregrounded self didn't form the main body of anyone else's works until the nineteenth century.
David Georgi in his introduction to this translation of the poems is even keener to debunk apparently autobiographical elements, questioning whether Villon had been imprisoned and tortured at all in 1461 in the Bishop's gaol at Meung (information the poet communicates in his longest and greatest work 'The Testament'). Freeman accepts that he was - responding, as I instinctively did on reading the poem, to the brokenness and bitter world-weariness found there. It's such a great contrast with the playful tone of 'The Legacy', a much more playful and naive treatment of the same subject written five years earlier.
Villon really seems to challenge common cultural-history ideas about identity.(This is one of those occasions when I'm so very taken with a subject it's almost a shame I don't have access to the facilities and most of all the purpose for producing a proper essay...) I think there is perhaps insufficient crossover between the disciplines of literature and history here. I read quite a lot on this subject of the development of ideas of the self, the medieval mind &c when I was a student yet had never heard of Villon before the last few months. Freeman, primarily a language and literature scholar, is a little too uncritical in his use of established medieval world-view materal. And here is a comment from a review of a literature book named Urban Poetics: "Chapter one starts by analysing one of the most urban of poets, namely François Villon. The Testament serves as a more secure repository for the poet’s self than his body which, he tells us, is failing. Interestingly, then, Villon locates his self in writing and not, therefore, in any particular location." (Given that he bequeaths items that are in the city, talks of locations in the city which he knows well, I'm not sure how one could feel one's identity any more situated in the city without actually owning the damn place, so I think that's a positively silly conclusion. This literary theory needs a bit of history to bring it down to earth.)
Peter Burke (a name probably recognisable to anyone who's studied the history of this period in Western Europe) in his essay in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Middle Ages to the Present says that Burckhardt's idea of medieval society as collective, switching in the Renaissance to a greater individualism, is insufficiently nuanced. Yet Villon is not mentioned and the examples he does give (those whose work I've ever read) are all so much more formal, reverent and circumspect in putting themselves forward than is the French poet. God is an instrinsic part of his world view yet he is quite unafraid to cheek him in a manner it's surprising to see put down in writing from this period.
Anyway, whilst not all of this post has been about the Freeman book, it seems pretty good, though perhaps not very stringent in seeking out recent relevant historical scholarship (less)
[4.5] ... A few paragraphs added at the end since I first posted this.
In the blog posts which make up most of this book Ms Kennedy is very chatty and...more[4.5] ... A few paragraphs added at the end since I first posted this.
In the blog posts which make up most of this book Ms Kennedy is very chatty and funny and good company. In moderation. The most I can manage of this book is 25% in a day. For even though I am a bit of a miserable cow already, her frequent asides about constant nagging minor illness and appearance-based low self-esteem drag me down. (Or perhaps they drag me down because I am a bit of a miserable cow already... and a sensitive narcissistic chameleon-thing who finds the best way to recover from - which partly means 'feel more attractive again' after - reading this is to lounge about with French symbolist poetry and ... clothing to which I will not allude directly because I'm really not one of those people who's on here to flirt. That still doesn't work as definitely-not-flirting. Anyway, I must hop out of this pit I've started to dig for myself...)
Alison does have a few useful things to say about honing one's sentences, but this book isn't about writing as such, it's about the lifestyle of a moderately successful novelist and workaholic who lives out of a suitcase between literary festivals and bouts of flu. Doesn't sound like it pays any better than being a middle manager for the local council - and the hours are longer - though your boss is at least yourself, rather than Brian from Corporate Services.
De-glamourise. That's a good word for it.
You can of course read these columns online for free as mentioned here, which most sensible people will do. I just wanted to avoid the Guardian website.
However, if you only read those, you would miss out on the essays which take up the final 100 pages or so. These might just be the most inspiring pieces. Especially... 'To Save Our Lives'. It's the best explanation and justification for community arts work I've ever read and excellent on the importance of art in society too.I always used to be so glad I didn't work in community arts - as a few people I knew did - and instead did something almost everyone considered an essential service. (I've always been afflicted with an underlying feeling of having to justify myself, but if my job was unquestionably justifiable that helped a great deal.) But if I'd read this I think I would have been able to feel just as good about arts work. In 'Character Building' Kennedy showed me for the first time ever that it might actually be interesting and enjoyable to make up characters and their stories which aren't basically people you know. I've always been able to think of stuff flippantly in response to set writing exercises, but anything I truly wanted to write for myself, from the heart, from the soul, whatever you like to call it, has been about variations of real people I wanted to immortalise. (But never got round to.) The exercise in this was so involving I started to resent it for distracting me from old ideas and people I couldn't previously be distracted from. There is a good essay here on speech and drama and how speaking voice is related to how you feel about yourself (familiar ideas for me but very well expressed), and the text of a show which is part "how i became a writer", part standup comedy. (I see also that work with disadvantaged people also gave her a disdain for certain academic philosophies which really do start to look like nonsense outside the ivory tower.)
A companionable book if you like Kennedy as a non-fiction writer or blogger.(less)
It's three months (gulp!) since I read this. I thought I'd made a lot of notes but the Word document "penman" turned out only to contain four lines of...moreIt's three months (gulp!) since I read this. I thought I'd made a lot of notes but the Word document "penman" turned out only to contain four lines of writing. It was reading Edward St. Aubyn's Never Mind that brought me back: both are mostly-autobiographical novels written in the 1990's by gifted male authors with past addictions, taking on their own abusive childhoods - bringing excellent writing to a subject usually left for lowbrow "misery memoirs".
Never Mind is somewhat the better literary work in its finesse and layers, but given the nature of St. Aubyn's experiences at such a young age it's almost inevitably more serious. Not that he isn't stingingly waspish at times, but The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman (and his red-faced raging father Rob) is fundamentally comic and optimistic.
Fundamentally perhaps being the operative word. My notes from January say: "Synopses of Thomas Penman indicate an almost John Waters level of weird and yuck. It's a semi-autobiographical novel. By someone I have a crush on. And I don't like scatological humour. But either having pets made me less disgustable than I used to be, or the writing is so good" ... and run out there. It was just funny and ridiculous, when I hadn't expected to laugh a tenth so much as I did at scenes about a kid shitting himself.
By conflating [I'm seeing double entendres everywhere just now ..."run", "flatus"...] events that happened several years apart Robinson creates a great narrative arc, but one that also loses a crucial realism in an otherwise gritty, stinking-kitchen-sink-drama world. Aged 14 or 15 at secondary school, did the prettiest girl in the year ever go out with a boy who - whilst he's turning out to be very good looking - was correctly rumoured to have poo'd his pants only months earlier? Surely not: children are merciless about such things. (Though possibly not as extreme as at my school where one year, a girl farted audibly in class - yes, one year, it was that rare - and wasn't allowed to forget it for a couple more years. Though her name probably didn't help.) But if said boy's defacatory incidents had actually happened years earlier at primary school, before he and the lissome lass had even met (as was Robinson's reality) then it's hardly going to have made a difference.
The influence of Dickens - Robinson's, and Thomas Penman's, favourite author and fellow Kentishman - is everywhere in the book's almost vaudevillian characters and heartfelt, heartbreaking sentiment. Thomas may not distinguish himself academically (having been relegated to secondary modern) but his brains are apparent through his love of books and schemes, much like Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, a character who would have been almost exactly the same age. In one scene Robinson appears to have written a grotesque dark parody of the final beach scene from that film - but in Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson he said it really happened: his father beating him as he tried and failed to run away into the sea. (When I re-watched that film a year ago I remember thinking that a beach isn't a terribly practical place for running away: very visible, too few possible directions.)
Thomas may clean up his toilet habits much earlier on in the narrative than I assumed before reading the book, but the whole novel stinks nonetheless. A house full of dogs and dog mess, terrible boiled food (just the sort that got British cooking its bad old name), stale smoke, fusty mouldering churchyards, not wanting to bring anyone nice home ... Very very effective. These may be middle-class houses but often I remembered the days when I used to do home visits on bad estates and sometimes there would be houses where I'd have to suppress the need to retch, where on leaving I would feel that I and everything I carried was covered in a greasy smelly patina, and I counted the hours till I could go back to my flat and throw everything in the washing machine and myself in the shower.
And such the makes the all the beauty... of fresh air and wonderful views, of love, of friendship, of precious objects, of poetry, of loss, of a better future ... all the lovelier. If you are entertained by such extremes, this is rather a marvellous and all-encompassing book, despite its few faults. (less)
I got into Marie Calloway last year, because of Momus. (If I were 15 years younger it probably would have been the other way round.) The flat style of...moreI got into Marie Calloway last year, because of Momus. (If I were 15 years younger it probably would have been the other way round.) The flat style of the Muumuu House / alt-lit school of internet-focused writers isn't one I especially like. So when I say "got into", I mean I became somewhat fascinated by her, not in the most enjoyable of ways, because she reminded me of aspects of my younger self and because the debate surrounding her, and her responses to it raise some interesting questions.
1) A review as if this were fiction [3.5]
(This binary concept of fiction/ non-fiction is old-fashioned and artificial and is a load of rubbish when related to several books I've enjoyed this year, including Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose sequence, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson, and Alfred de Musset's Confession of a Child of the Century. Yet by re-naming the characters and being open about the fictionalising of some events, those works are definitely classified as fiction. Calloway appears to be very public about certain aspects of her life, but less so about her writing methods, with only a little commentary here. I feel that considering Calloway's book as fiction is a way to get past the idea of reviewing her as a person which the current top review on here acknowledges much of the public discourse around her has done and which has, on the evidence of this book - in particular one email from a friend combined with the "Criticism" chapter - hurt her a lot.)
It seems, to me, pretty innovative - though there are great swathes of new writing I'm unaware of or haven't read, including publications by the rest of the Muumuu House crowd. It's far from the first time a writer has included emails or screencap pictures but the extent here really does transmit a life lived online, and especially via sites favoured by younger people: a kind of organised chaos of innumerable contacts and moments of upset. The world created by a traumatised young digital-native woman who keeps most people at a distance and lets a few become, rapidly, very close. Who experiments with little comment or consideration with formats of sexual relations now frequently mentioned in the media: the graduate who becomes a call-girl to pay off her debts; the female submissive. It's about how the internet can accelerate and widen access to such avenues. Not that a few people didn't always get into them quite young, but it was perfectly possible once upon a time for troubled middle-class kids like her only to know factually that such things existed - they seemed dark and distant - and only age and experience would lead one to run into people who'd been part of them.
The internet has also, more than ever, made it possible for younger people to connect with older works and ideas and she juxtaposes the mostly unpleasant experiences she has with men alongside quotations from feminists who wrote long before she was born ... the two combine to confirm the sadly negative view of men which her earlier experiences began. Hers is a heteronormative, gender-binary world in which men have power and women are angry victims, which does seem at odds with the very 21st century youth universe otherwise on display here: where are all the friends who do queer studies and the Tumblr gender-benders and bi-switches? I find it odd that the narrator never delves into this side of life. But it's not really a story about women and men anywhere near so much as a story about trauma and attachment styles. I am reminded also of my younger self so caught up in post-traumatic ways of feeling and relating that I didn't really consider the alternative views which didn't strike a chord with me. (Unlike the narrator I didn't tend to feel particularly socially or intellecually identified as "female": it only really felt relevant when I was with straight men I was attracted to. And I've never been at all negative about men as a class; I like them and have a very positive view of most of the friendships I have/had with them. Though I did have very fixed ideas about what they wanted in sexual and romantic relationships (a couple of which the narrator has too) - formed from media as I simply didn't know any real ones to form any other ideas from until I was a student. The only useful generalisation about men I've learned in the intervening decade and more-than-a-half is that men, like women, and people who reject those gender labels, are all different. It rarely helps to approach people with templates and assumptions; get to know them individually.)
Quite a few of my recent reviews have contained personal material, but in this one, it's a more considered choice than in any of the others. In response to Calloway's own mode of writing and to a review here from the books designer suggesting I think the most interesting way to read what purpose did i serve in your life is to "implicate" yourself in the reading, not Marie Calloway. What does it make you think about yourself?
The dull flatness of the style unites with occasional mentions of past trauma to gave the feeling - or non-feeling - of numbness (including most indicatively when the narrator says that past events made her physically unable to feel some things, and she says she dissociates ... this must have been severe, way worse than anything I've ever experienced). The numbness - and the occasional moments of overwhelm - gives a very authentic sadness to the story: a life lived between random male conquests (conquests by whom she feels conquered and laid waste) who provide attention, rudderless, un-anchored by any secure attachment to anyone. Trying to find a secure base in abstract intellectual ideas, but those sorts of ideas don't really do that. She always seems to feel discarded; she mentions no experience of having to dump someone else, which would have made her feel more equal and perhaps give her insight into the experiences of those leaving her. (The uncomprehending resentment and self-commodification of the title seems related to this, as well as to the idea of book and Calloway as public product.) The saddest thing is that she hardly ever seems to be having any fun despite all this sex; there's so little real sensuality and practically no laughing, only fear.
Towards the end she makes a connection which really gives an arc to the story: "I was really scared of being assigned that label [a girl with daddy issues] so I shied away from discussing or even allowing myself to think about those things. But I realize this is ... kind of at the core of my whole project"
This book wasn't fun to read, even if it was compulsive. As mentioned above, I am interested in reading tales of such lives in literary mode. The narrator of what purpose is a brilliant portrait of someone still within her time of trauma aftershocks rather than looking back on it. But I prefer reading the story as looked back on, with synthesis, psychological integration, wise reflection, elaboration, humour and most of all a strong writing style. (The author's blog shows a quotation from Zadie Smith on the subject of narrative voice - but Smith's style is still so much more stylish and alive.)
I could also see a fiction-writing Calloway as a critique of this particular corner of the literary world: one which likes to think of itself as more modern and forward looking but in which the easiest way for a female writer to get noticed appears to be through sex, nudity and exploitability. The mainstream literary establishment, by contrast, looks much more egalitarian and to judge on its own ideas of intellectual merit; somehow I don't think Hilary Mantel won the Booker that way.
2) Notes relating to this as non-fiction / memoir / elaborated memoir
When I was at school, if I felt lazy about creative writing homework, I would sometimes write a story featuring myself and people I knew; the plot was more or less invented, the characters were not. The teachers thought this was rather brilliant, but it just meant that a) I knew from reading the papers a lot that this was something modern writers did and b) I knew didn't really know how to invent characters well. (Something I actually only understood recently after reading A.L. Kennedy's On Writing.) I don't honestly know if all writers are being lazy and glib when they create such work. But because of those experiences of mine, I tend to think so in the back of my mind unless they bring brilliant style, structure or humour to it. what purpose sort of has an unusual experimental style, but it's also one that any person could cobble together in a few hours using some long blog posts and a bunch of chopped up screencaps and quotes in different font sizes. Or does it feel like a cliche because its motifs are so familiar, rather than because they're commonplace in books? It's a response to modern web culture, a 21st century version of the epistolary, but the fragmented bits and pieces of an online life make real synthesis into narrative a greater aesthetic challenge than when stories always took much more coherent forms. I'm just old fashioned though.
Also, I think it's unethical to print bits of other people's emails and chat conversations and other private interactions in substantial detail, but this, a norm I feel is accepted among all my various friends, itself appears to be an old-fashioned boundary to the alt-lit crowd and to plenty of younger web users. I don't like it. [Have now read that she got permission from friends. Did she from all sources? Can't tell... possibly, actually when considering the lesson she learnt after the "Adrien Brody" scandal. But there's something uncomfortable about the sight of it still, as people weren't necessarily writing them in the knowledge they'd be published. But that might be too rigid and judgemental a view.]
I can't deny that, like thousands of other readers, there's stuff I wish I could say to Calloway. Her "Criticism" chapter of quotes and screencaps includes one of the subset I'd belong to: "detailed advice from older women who've sort of been there and got over it a bit". I'd want to give her a reading list of a bunch of the most compassionate and intelligent books on trauma and attachment and responses to it I've encountered, by authors such as Daniel Siegel, Babette Rothschild and Bessel van der Kolk, Francine Shapiro, Carl Rogers and many more. Stuff about ditching this black and white heteronormative gender binary that really doesn't have to be part of the life of a middle-class creative person in the West (lucky as we are), that shows how equally women are actually regarded in such a context, rather than these delvings into a radical feminism that seems to bear no relation to life here. That having a period of deliberately not relating to anyone on a sexual level can make all the other human connections seem valuable in the way they didn't used to. Stuff about being more in control of kink, learning to feel what she truly enjoys and doesn't, and that she can have agentic choice and care for her safety, regardless of whether past experiences are among the reasons she's drawn to it (though I wonder if she may go on to reject all kink, not just the extreme stuff in the penultimate chapter, for a while, or permanently). Then there's really good writing that shows how art and creativity can be employed as a response to such experiences and which shows how much more it can say than the reductive labelling she clearly fears from pop-psychology, how it can be an eloquent conquest of such ideas. (I could list a number of motivations behind this, some of which will already be apparent in what I've written; the other being my frustration that due to physical ill-health I had to discontinue formal study of psychology & counselling - and any work where I could have used what I'd learned and read before I started trying to actually get qualifications related to it - and wishing I could give the knowledge to others who participate more in the world, especially those who remind me in any way of myself...)
But for all that one can look at Calloway's book and blog and see her in various states of undress and hear intimate details of her sex life, there's so much we possibly don't see. IS her life so centred around these random men? What about all the friendships and connections and conversations we don't see? Who can tell, except her, what they are like?
By the looks of things, Calloway wants to be a public intellectual. She creates such personal work but it's prefaced by a Kate Millet quote (thereby implying "the personal is political") and she takes part in debates on how writing is seen. But I honestly think that debate misses the point a bit. There are many well-respected women writers out there producing serious books which win prizes. They are not at all rare in the same way as female film directors. Male "confessional" style writing makes a stir and gets described as narcissistic: look at Augusten Burroughs or Karl Ove Knausgaard. This isn't a male/female issue. There is stil a partial separation of the personal or sensational and the intellectual in the literary world. I think Calloway's really missing out and excluding herself by not being more overtly intellectual in her writing in this book. But hey, that's her call.
Much of Calloway's criticism of her critics appears to focus, ultimately, around the idea of agency and validity. The language of "cannot be controlled" is hip young rebel stuff but it's also a protest against the feeling of powerlessness that stems from trauma (like the more overt "you pathologize my emotions to invalidate my reality" on her Tumblr) and dismissing her and labelling her as she says, feeds into that powerlessness and traumatic memory. A liberal / libertarian / person-centred response of acknowledging her right to agency even if she is doing things she might be embarrassed about in future (or exploring ideas we disagree with such as radical separatist feminism) is what's right and required. Reflections near the end of the book and on her blog show someone in process in the Rogerian sense, connecting past and present and wondering how to change things. It makes me curious about what she'll say and who she'll be a decade or two.
(For a minute I was surprised to read this interview from 2011 in which she stated she'd already done a lot of therapy. But then these things go in layers and stages, much like a plane gradually circling in from an infinite height...there nearly always is more to do.)
Full marks for making me think, for being a hype phenomenon, but this is y'know, a book, and the writing style itself isn't phenomenal.
[Further comments in the "reading progress" section.](less)
Transcendent and universal, yet without a happy ending: there could be no other title. And it's not like Christopher Hitchens would have authored yet...moreTranscendent and universal, yet without a happy ending: there could be no other title. And it's not like Christopher Hitchens would have authored yet another celebrity cancer memoir, is it?
He writes from "Tumortown" but beyond, there is a vast less-explored interior, where the likes of me hang out, those with the thousands, millions of different more-or-less sickly Cinderella illnesses. Though they comprehend the city's size and very serious troubles, they are sometimes resentful and bewildered at all the attention and money the metropolis receives. Mortality, though, is affecting wherever you are.
"He didn't want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness." Me too. And perhaps because of this, because I don't spend much time looking at such things, I've never read an account of illness which captured anywhere near so many of my own feelings. Whether a condition is acute and much funded like his, or chronic / intermittent with-recent-worsening and obscure as is mine, his personal account resonates with the general struggle to have some life, against a significant medical problem.
Sometimes I highlighted whole pages. I have an (even-more) EP version of this review in which I recount long paragraphs of personal experience, much of it using his words.
This book is about the battle of the sense of self against something eating it up from inside; about the sharpening that occurs when you've no idea how long will be left to do what you want to do (whether that's because of likely physical death or the living death in debility)... and the frustration that you are already too unwell to do some of it; about being someone who has so much life in them that some friends say they can't comprehend how anything could really beat you down - yet you know that's not always how it works, for some illnesses are no respector of personality.
He still has the strength to hang, draw and quarter the bloody nonsense "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger", whilst comprehensively dissing its parental origins. It deserves it. The illogic of this statement if globally applied - and the cruel lack of empathy inherent in so many of its utterances - should be apparent to everyone, yet still it has persisted this long.
Hitchens was known as a loudmouth, and of course the vicious irony of his particular cancer does not escape him. But as I read more of his work this past month, his compassion - a fierce, knight-errant compassion - became evident. This time, on the subject of how we talk to people who are unwell, he is fighting for himself at least as much as for others: the fear, vulnerability and weariness show. "...nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that says ASK ME ABOUT [STAGE FOUR METASTASIZED OESOPHEGEAL CANCER], AND ONLY ABOUT THAT" Insert disease name as applicable. If everyone who reads this book remembers that in conversations with those they don't know well, the world will be a bit more tolerable for a lot of people who already have more than enough to tolerate.
How ironically well he articulates the loss of power and personality in being unable to speak (and at a time when this was actually, hideously permanent for him), the dark dread of "the loss of transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking" - and, unexpectedly, how careful medical staff should be in their communication so as not to induce psychological trauma. It is astounding that one so bullish is an ally in this.
Though he gives it a lesser name, Hitchens appears to have been afflicted by PTSD after his investigation into waterboarding. "I have the ... right, if not duty, to be ... ashamed of the official policy of torture adoped by a government whose citizenship papers I had only recently taken out", he wisely concedes.
"The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay me is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed." Not only addressed, but strengthened and given voice. Job done. Have ten stars, Mr H. (less)
I don't know if I'm ever going to finish this - I read most of it last August and still keep picking it up every now and again, reading 5 pages or so...moreI don't know if I'm ever going to finish this - I read most of it last August and still keep picking it up every now and again, reading 5 pages or so and deciding something else would be more interesting. So, half-way through the book, I'm going to write a response to it anyway (and general reflection and rant about related issues).
In many ways I agree with my friend Patrick's review. After the first few chapters, this isn't the side of Hitchens I find interesting: for the most part he isn't extemporising on issues I care about; he's just telling anecdotes about crowds I'm not very interested in. (I could never just dismiss it as name-dropping, because I love that stuff when it's about scenes I like.)
And as I said in one of these page-updates last year, the book frequently reminds me why I became so bored of studying Politics at university. (I really wish now that I had done French as my second subject instead.) Aside from a) issues I feel strongly about and b) the entertaining personalities of twentieth-century British politics (especially 1945-97) I have little love for the subject in general - though I'm still familiar enough with terms like "bicameral" to fool people that I know and care more than I do, should I want to. And - as I've found having several friends and a half-sib who are highly political animals - I really don't like all the behind-the-scenes chuntering about minutiae that goes on at party and activist-group social gatherings. Though I can see it's a necessary part of the process, part of me is always thinking "why don't you actually do something?"... such illogical irritation being a sure sign of a thing simply being 'not for me'.
Something that has become clearer to me since I read most of Hitch-22 (a period during which I watched c.450 films) is that for the most part, I really don't like American culture. This is stronger as regards books and films than with music (though, still, in the past few years I'd liked less American music made in my own lifetime). I still get disappointed how many people who are into serious films and books spend huge chunks of their time on American stuff ... it's something I see even more on here than I did on the film site Letterboxd, where making an effort to explore other cultures through the medium was one of the more "intellectualised" aspects of it.
I'm always glad not to have been American, for so many reasons, and to just indirectly benefit from some of the country's more positive contributions to world culture, and to be able to ignore at least some of the dross. Hitchens, of course, loved America so much he put a great deal of effort into becoming a citizen. I can see what his arguments were - and reading some of them I cannot but frown. They remind me of Tony Benn's - to my mind absurd - continued passionate adherence to the Labour Party as an idea even in the days of Blair: much of it based on founding ideals and a more radical past rather than what was really happening at the time. And given the increasing paranoia and right-wing restrictions in, and elsewhere inspired by, the US since 2001, reading Hitchens' 1980's reflections now seems even more ridiculous - it's not as if these developments weren't based on pre-existing tendencies. (But then that's something I tend to think about a lot, just as the Blair government's more Big Brotherish proposals seemed quite predictable from the "Millbank tendency" and the concept of "on message" that made me not vote for them in 1997.)
I've been finding this autobiography less interesting because so much of it is about the public political stage and because much of it is not personal enough. Yet whilst that may be making it a less enjoyable read for some - despite the author's reliably relentless wit - I can't help but respect this because he reveals very little personal information about others, potentially embarrassing ex-partners or friends - and he still created a decent memoir regardless (albeit one that's perhaps most entertaining to the politics geek).(less)