Small Town Golf Club Captain Writes Prose

Gerald Murnane – Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (& Other Stories, 2020)

“I’ve never flown on a plane. I’ve never worn sunglasses. I cannot recall ever going voluntarily into any art gallery, museum, or building said to be of historic interest.”

Well, what do you like Gerald?

“I like thinking about horse races. I like sitting inside with the windows covered. I like to think about my sentences, and read each one out loud after I’ve typed it.”

Gerald Murnane often sounds like a character out of Samuel Beckett. He doesn’t appear to know that this is how he comes across, but then if he did perhaps all of this would be far less charming. He’s an eccentric, yes. But only because he is so intensely normal.

Murnane lives in a town on the Australian plains with a population of around 600 people. He gives the impression that he is totally interchangeable with any of these other people, entirely normal in every way, other than the fact he’s a writer.

He writes quite well. He has been tipped to win the Nobel Prize.

And yet, if I were told to sit down and explain what exactly it is about Murnane’s writing that makes him exceptional, I would not be able to point to it. His plotting, for instance, is atrocious. His stories wander all over, connecting things in tangential ways, sometimes leading to a grand conclusion but more often simply ending.

He is also the type of writer who prides himself on his sentences. And yet many of his are over-long. They often contain numerous clauses that are only held together by the writer’s distinctive voice. He is not a Hemingway. Not a master of journalistic concision. He is more of a Gertrude Stein; simplistic yet otherworldly.

The subject matters that he chooses are often a reflection of his own compulsion to write. He writes endlessly about horse racing, about his childhood misunderstandings, or about the Australian plains; a landscape of flat grassland that could only be of interest to someone like Murnane.

Scattered in here are mentions of the modern classics – Proust and Cervantes – serving to demonstrate, perhaps, Raymond Williams’ old adage that culture is normal. Occasionally he tells us about his real favourite book, The People of the Puszta; a Hungarian travelogue that inspired him to learn Hungarian at the age of 57.

His eccentricities aren’t supernatural ones. You get no sense of a pleasure in absurdity here. Murnane shows us that the consciously different can so often be banal, while banality itself, provided it is total, massive and sweltering, is a gesamtkunstwerk surpassing the works of the great surrealists.

The new collection of stories from & Other Stories Press, badged as creative non-fiction, are as good an example of Murnane’s writing as any other that you’ll find, fictional or otherwise. They also provide an overview of the writer’s long and wandering career.

If you’re intrigued by interesting characters, then Murnane’s writing will appeal. Yet, traditionalists be warned; the only truly developed character in here is his own authorial voice. But if you like documentary realism, the charms of bare life and descriptions so precise you can feel the plasterboard on the walls, then Murnane will be a revelation.

– Joe Darlington

Actually, this is Shakespeare

Emma Smith – This is Shakespeare (Pelican, 2019)

I am not sure that I realised it until now but I think that I have basically stopped “looking” for new books on Shakespeare. It is not, of course, that I am no longer intrigued by Shakespeare as a topic, but more that deep down I guess I figured no one was going to write any further (interesting) books about Shakespeare. But, here we have it: the simply titled This is Shakespeare (TIS) by Emma Smith.

I came across Smith’s snappy little book after reading an article that she wrote for The New York Times called “What Shakespeare Teaches Us about Living with Pandemics” (topical) and I looked forward to reading it from the moment I clicked “proceed to checkout” or whatever the glarb it was.

It is not usually high on my list of features that a book be short — I shall not get whipped up by the issue of less or more here — but the brevity of this work is key to its success. TIS offers up a crash course of Shakespeare’s plays, the selection of which was chosen purely based upon the author’s (that is Smith’s) personal preference.

The short chapters (all roughly a very palatable 13-16 ish pages) stick to a few themes per play and discuss Shakespeare’s experimentation with great vigour as well as accessibility and a pleasing sense of humour. It is a wonderful introduction to the plays and can certainly promise to make Shakespeare sound exciting and relevant, rather than dull and inaccessible as so many people find his work.

In the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra, for example, she suggests that a perfect modern equivalent for the play would be a Hello! magazine cover story, capturing the tragedy’s preoccupations with public scandal, sex, and glamour, and packaging it in such a way that really engages the modern reader.

In her brief introduction, Smith tells us that the Shakespeare that we will find in this book “is more questioning and ambiguous, more specific to the historical circumstances of his own time, more unexpectedly relevant to ours” and she warns us against “dead-catting” Shakespeare instead of dealing with the complex issues with which his work is laden. Smith suggests that Shakespeare weaves “gaps” throughout his plays – unanswered questions.

Throughout the book, Shakespeare’s rhetorical schooling is mentioned regularly and I just couldn’t be happier. I am sick to death of hearing the “argument” that there is “no way” that Shakespeare could have “known” the things that he wrote about.

Alongside another brilliant book that I read recently dedicated to this subject entirely, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom by Lynn Enterline, Smith makes it clear that Shakespeare could have indeed written his plays, and in fact most of his sources link directly to his school reading.

Anyway, these unanswered questions that we are faced with as audience member or reader are largely constructed by Shakespeare’s experience with arguing in utramque partem. This rhetorical practice can otherwise be known as “arguing both sides”. Because of, not in spite of, his learning, Shakespeare can create these unanswered questions – the options equally weighted on both sides of the coin.

Smith says in her Epilogue that she has presented a “Shakspeare whose plays are constitutionally incomplete”, and that it is our job to complete them. It is a shrewd observation and TIS somewhat allows all potential readings of Shakespeare’s plays, that we will find in them what we need when we need it. The book closes with the following lines:

So, this is Shakespeare.

Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary.

Yours.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Many of these words could be used to describe Smith’s neat volume of work, but one in particular is my favourite for describing Shakespeare: provoking. I like to think of Shakespeare as Agent Provocateur, not scantilly clad in lace lingerie, but as provoking the subjective and emotional responses from his audiences and readers that are so necessary in order to fill the missing pieces in his works. Thanks ES – wonderful job!

– Blair James

 

Tins Falling

James Roome – Bull (The Red Ceilings Press, 2019)

Concision is the sister of talent. Blunt statements break walls.

With that in mind, I shall endeavour to keep my review of James Roome’s new poetry book nice and short.

Bull is itself a short book. Around thirty pages by my count. The sort of brief encounter that the Red Ceilings Press is an expert at providing.

It gives us, in outline, the meeting of two outsiders; our speaker, who regularly picks out strangers on the bus and follows them home, and our subject, Bull, who we are told is a painter. But Bull is also a recluse, a big man, and a model of the modern lost.

Bull provides our speaker with moments of great meaning, statements of breathtaking poignance. He also sounds like a bit of a nutter.

The poetry itself is sparse. A masterpiece in concision where each word hums and resonates, carrying a heavier burden than such humble words might normally be expected to shoulder.

A passage here:

Bull swirled a woollen shawl

Don’t you think

I look

Like a flamenco dancer?

It was eleven AM

And Bull was drunk

I reached

To wipe

A trail of spittle

From his grey lips A

Can

Fell

Tinny

In the large empty loft.

The weight of the words hits the frontal cortex hard They speed out from white blankness all around them. The can falls tinnily not once but three times, each word in the description bouncing down the imaginary stairs of the mind and tinkling on each neat and tiny percussion.

Such ecstatic re-imbuing of the written word with its magical signifying power cannot last long. The human mind cannot endure it.

We must be sensitive to receive it and sensitivity brings pain.

But within the space of thirty pages, Roome gives us enough for a novel. More moments of poignance than three or four novels, in fact. A character developed but not totally known, not like a novel then, at all.

A story. A very effectively told one. Concise and precise. Worthy of reread and repeat.

Highly recommended. Check it out.

– Joe Darlington

Improvisations on a Theme

Anthony Burgess – This Man and Music (Irwell Editions, 2020)

What if Beethoven’s deafness wasn’t a curse but a liberation? What if all of his life he had suffered through the sound of base, material instruments; his deafness finally freeing him to read his sheet music and hear it, in his imagination, as perfect as it ought to be?

These are not Anthony Burgess’ own thoughts but are typical of the kind of academic he likes to quote. His book This Man and Music, is being reissued as part of the Irwell Editions, and is as fine a piece of Burgessian counterpoint as one might expect from this most unexpected of authors.

In the book, we watch as Burgess rewrites his own biography, presenting himself to us in a totally convincing manner as a lifelong composer, once manqué, but who turned to literature for commercial gain, and is now free to practice his musical calling once more.

For those who have read his other autobiographical writings, this Burgess-as-hidden-composer is not totally convincing, but it is hard not to be convinced that Burgess himself was convinced of it. Burgess could make up a dozen different life stories for himself and be totally convinced of the truth of each one. But no writer better exhibits how we curate our own pasts.

He does the same thing in A Mouthful of Air, where we learn that Burgess has been a lifelong scholar of phonetics. No doubt if he finished his slang dictionary we’d learn about Burgess the encyclopaedist too.

I write this not to disparage readers of the book, but, ideally, to draw them in. The new edition, edited with a foreword by Christine Gengaro, supplies all of Burgess’ own unique and enthralling musical essays while balancing them against an objectively written introduction and a series of reviews in the appendix.

A lot of these reviews point out the problems with Burgess’ theories but, having them here in the same book, these quirks of Burgesses’ become charming. They are essential to his character, and to his unique musical perspective.

As a total package, the new edition combines the wit and insight of Burgess’ original book with a new scholarly focus. It elevates an interesting but very personal book into something valuable for scholars of music and literature who might not have heard of Burgess before.

The first third of the book is Burgess’ “biographia musicalis” and his personal analysis of the great composers. For a writer skilled in the art of description, his analysis is surprisingly technical. He understands Beethoven as a written thing, a series of nuts and bolts operations which collect together into a sublime machine. Writers, he worries, are too often drawn by music’s effects and not enough by its form and structure.

The central third of the book, the meat of the text, concerns the application of this formal analysis to great works of literature. The resemblance between the works of his favourite writers – Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins – and his favourite composers, are attributed to a congruence of sprung rhythm and the use of reprise.

In the final section of the book, Burgess moves on to his own literary efforts. In particular, he focuses upon two of his most experimental works; M/F and Napoleon Symphony. Both, he tells us, are not only inspired but rigidly structured by musical form. In his Napoleon book, we are shown how he brought together Beethoven’s Eroica symphony with the great general’s biography.

In M/F the relationship is more enigmatic, but perhaps more meaningful also.

Overall, there is a lot in this book to recommend it to Burgess readers. There is even more, I would say, to recommend it to scholars of music. For those interested in the meeting points of music and literature, it is essential reading. It is a deeply personal book, but one that any reader will come away from filled with interesting factoids, and a much better and braver sense of how the written and the heard can come together.

– Joe Darlington

Poetry goes viral

Sally Barrett (ed) Mid Life Crisis – ‘Virus’ edition (Hoodwinked Mammal)

Sally Barrett as usual edits the latest edition in the Mid Life Crisis series. Never was a series more appropriately titled for its times. Here is the ‘virus edition’.

A great collection of poetry. Tom Jenks is our kind of structuralist, as is Sarah-Clare Conlon, with her fine useage of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

There is also strong work from Tim Allen, Richard Barrett, John Calvert, Matt Dalby, Joe Darlington, Amy McCauley, Adrian Slatcher and Steven Waling.

It’s a post-Bob Cobbing world. It’s all real. And a bigger real than those people screaming on the grills of a million spam filters can tell us.

Get one from hoodwinked.mammal@gmail.com

– Steve Hanson

Presence and poesie

Yves Bonnefoy – Prose (Carcanet 2020)
Yves Bonnefoy – Poetry (Carcanet 2017)

After Roland Barthes was killed, run down by a drunk driver, Yves Bonnefoy was given the chair of comparative poetry at the Collège de France. The essays that followed were hard. Written in a time of seething culture wars, Bonnefoy went through structuralism and deconstruction – Bonnefoy was neither – a time of agonism like no other time.

Perhaps with this in mind, Stephen Romer’s introduction to the Prose volume explains that ‘one does not just read’ these essays, ‘one undergoes them.’

But these two volumes give us the tools to tackle Bonnefoy properly. At the start of the poetry volume there is a skilfully excerpted version of ‘Tombs of Ravenna’, a prose-poem from 1953.

Bonnefoy would return again and again to its themes. That language is a crude filter of the real. That Plato’s forms describe the interzone between the two. That there is no great ‘other’ place, only here and now. We can access this less filtered version of the real, or catch insights about it, but be assured that those moments are fugitive.

During the war years in Paris, Bonnefoy was associated with the surrealists and his La Revolution la Nuit. After surrealism, Bonnefoy refused his poetry its attempt at existentialism, this is for conceptual writing, the two are henceforth to be kept apart.

Bonnefoy is also very well-known as a successful French interpreter and translator of Shakespeare and so is of great interest to translation students.

But the poetry volume doesn’t just introduce the poetry of Bonnefoy, it sketches out some of the big themes in Bonnefoy’s work overall: particularly the tension between presence and concepts; concepts are ‘arrogant’, excessively binary, denying ‘presence, finitude and mortality.’

It’s difficult stuff and a grounding in philosophy is useful, but the introductory material by John Naughton and Anthony Rudolph helps a great deal. ‘Poetry knows its own mendacity’ and ‘is the memory of truth’.

Sections are included from ‘the Motion and Immobility of Douve’. Douve is a partly invented word, it could be a moat, a parasitic worm. It is also a riff on the English word ‘dove’. In other interpretations, Douve equals the end, only embodied in a feminine presence. Douve is the death of a beautiful woman in Poe, but death as the lifelessness of a language now become living dead.

As John Naughton explains, Bonnefoy’s ‘On the Motion and Immobility of Douve’ seeks to shatter ‘the inertia and lifelessness of established representation.’ Bonnefoy seeks to break open ‘the safe enclosures provided by representation’. He ‘means to restore us to a primitive sense of mystery and awe in the presence of the simplest things’, and ‘with death as its starting point’.

Work to revisit right now, then.

Bonnefoy wished to establish a kind of ‘divine life’ without God, ‘acutely aware of all the tendencies in western consciousness’ that lead us directly away from that path. ‘The concept is an illusion’, it is ‘the concept that is the first veil of the old metaphysics.’ Presence is ‘indestructible, eternal.’ Such an assertion, ‘twofold in its essence, is foreign to the concept.’

‘What concept could unite an ethical concern with freedom?’ Bonnefoy asked. ‘Here is life that is not afraid of death’ and that ‘recovers itself in death itself to understand them’. We ‘need another language than that of the concept’, says Bonnefoy, ‘another faith.’ The concept is ‘silent before them, just as reason is silent in hope.’

Of course, Dante’s Tomb is in Ravenna, and Bonnefoy also wrote as a trained art historian. The Prose volume opens with a collection of those essays. The renaissance crops up again and again. But there is much for modernism here too, the essay on photography, modern poetry and urban electrification is beautiful – one to add to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book on the subject.

We can find contradiction here. Mallarmé is ultimately to be rejected – after a long struggle – precisely because of his revolutionary severing of sign and referent, yet at the same time Shakespeare’s plays can take place in complete darkness where they will just become words. But even in the heart of the contradiction, the struggle with and in language, as a provider and severer of connections with the incommensurable cosmos, is always there.

The early sections of each of these volumes are all intensity and depth. But as they unravel, they reveal a more relaxed version of the Bonnefoy voice. I was particularly enamoured by the essay ‘A Dream in Mantua’, right at the end of the Prose volume. An account of a trip to Greece with Sylvia Beach. Bonnefoy connects a form of travel writing with his accounts of dreams here in a style that much more casually achieves the goals of his surrealist origins.

These volumes are almost infinitely rich, to be lived in, and they are fundamentally intertwined, so MRB recommend buying both, hence the double review.

– Steve Hanson 

A Body Made of Angles

Abi Palmer – Sanatorium (Penned in the Margins, 2020) 

The word “sanatorium” has a quaint feel to it. Like “orphanage” or “almshouse”, it sounds like something from another time. A time before euphemism.

We still have all of these things, of course. We just hide them in municipal buildings with cheap cladding and anonymous names, nestled behind a discrete row of trees and a haze of verbiage.

Abi Palmer’s new book is an antidote to this. We are not treated to a “health visit to a wellness centre”, we are taken to the sanatorium. She does not hide behind words. Her prose is punchy and brutal. There is going to be pain. There will be shit and bleeding.

The book is creative non-fiction; the new literary equivalent of the misery memoir. It follows Palmer’s journey from a London council flat to a deluxe sanatorium in Hungary, paid for by the Arts Council using some blagged research funds.

Our protagonist has a catalogue of chronic illnesses and pains. The thing that most seems to relieve her symptoms is a hot bath. When she is moved from one flat to another, she finds the new one has no bath tub. Told by her social worker that showers are better for her, she instead buys a plastic paddling pool and sits in there.

The transition from this grim existence to the sanatorium should be stark, but it isn’t. The abiding sensation in Palmer’s life is tiredness and physical exhaustion, with pain as a close second. The all-encompassing nature of this casts a shadow over much of the luxury.

We learn that our protagonist is young, while all the other guests are old. She seems to cultivate few friendships at the sanatorium. She has run-ins with other guests and bonds with her physical therapists, but our sense is of an alienated woman.

Her meals are accompanied by a string quartet. One of the musicians hits on her, although she suspects he only wants to flog his CDs. This is the most protracted relationship we get.

One is left wondering whether the protagonist’s most enduring relationship is, by necessity, with her own sickness and her own pain. Her therapist tells her “you’re not sick. You just have a little problem”. She is encouraged to throw away her wheelchair. Her pain is like a bad boyfriend that everybody is telling her to leave, but she finds herself always drawn back to him.

There is enough talk of water and the female in here to keep a feminist scholar busy. Palmer plays with this imagery, at one point tying the sensation of water lifting her to her rising awareness of a bisexual identity, at another denying that she has anything in common with liquid, and that floating only reminds her of her hard body, all bones and aches and angles.

The greatest appeal, for me, was in the punchiness of Palmer’s prose and with the way these words are spread across pages in short sections, sprawling with no regard to economy. The journey across these pages is fluid. Experienced is splashed straight onto the page.

This, as much as the content, recommends the book to fellow sufferers of chronic ailments. No high walls of tiny text. Here is a book that one can dip in and out of like a noodle float into a therapy pool.

It’s a great book that I recommend seeking out, especially if creative non-fiction is your thing. And with prose like this, Palmer is definitely one to watch out for in future.

– Joe Darlington

Too wrong for too long

Eds., Hilliard, Weise and Brown – The New Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories Press)

Born in the middle of WW2, Huey P. Newton was the seventh son of a Baptist minister from Louisiana. He had a religious upbringing, but was a tricky student and quickly became radicalised. He founded with others, in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, as it became clear that the civil rights movement was a limited vehicle for black emancipation.

This book is structured very well. It shows the early struggles, the police harassment, the permanent unfairness. It moves on to the rise of the Panthers and the inevitable war with the authorities. The shootings, the trial, the fallouts. The narrative arc launches you a good way into the history of the Panthers, so that you are ready for the complicated, more diasporic end. The editors have done a fine job. David Hilliard and Elaine Brown were Panther Party mainstays.

The introduction adds material on gender and sexuality, an inclusion which partly necessitates the use of the word ‘new’ in the title.

Newton’s description of black, underclass masculinity is very incisive. ‘The lower socio-economic Black male is a man of confusion’ he wrote, he ‘faces a hostile environment and is not sure that it is not his own sins that have attracted the hostilities of society.’ It could equally apply to the white working class lumpenremainder of Britain in the 2010s. It could be written about many men in Manchester today.

Newton spoke up for lesbian and gay rights. He admits in that section that he has phobias about male homosexuality, but not female. Newton often mined his weaknesses like this, in order to gain strength. He had a great internal temperature gauge. He probed himself as he probed the outside world. He gave a psychological readout, he tried to take the measure of self and other and where they met on cold concrete, but he was never afraid to make damning judgments about that place. He eventually concludes that the words ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ have to be expunged from societal use.

Newton was also a very good writer. He could lay a dynamite phrase. An index of first lines shows this: ‘I first studied law to become a better burglar.’ ‘Jail is an odd place to find freedom.’ ‘Knowing how to struggle is the essence of winning.’ ‘Men were not created in order to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men.’ There’s the occasional gloss, here on von Clausewitz – ‘Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed’. But it shows that Newton was well-read, Marx, Dostoyevsky, as well as his peers, recent and late, Malcolm X and WEB Du Bois.

I Picked up Seize the Time by Bobby Seale and Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver when studying for my MA at Goldsmiths, in the Sociology department. To me, the Warmington Tower book chuck-out points glowed like shrines.

When I eventually started to read those books, written by the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and 1970s, I was alarmed. Cleaver’s Soul on Ice in particular shocked me. Cleaver was an active and deliberate rapist. He later renounced, but at one point the rape of white women was a political act for him. The material in this book on Cleaver’s split from the party lays into this side of Cleaver’s life, among other things. Cleaver, Newton wrote, paid ‘white women a childish compliment’, he ‘ascends the heights to their vaginas’ by ‘stepping on the bodies of black women’.

Huey Newton eventually died at the hands of a drug dealer, as homophobic and misogynist black slogans began to ring in the ears, alongside cut-up jazz, all sucked into a massive culture industry, spat out the other side to a cash register kerching.

Of course there is a dialectical otherside to this music too, but in some ways Newton’s death date in 1989 could not be more appropriate. The winners of this industry were often white. None of that is solved.

Cleaver lived another decade, ricocheting between Christianity and crack addiction, he ended his life in California in a bad way. He designed, in between these apparent behavioural poles, a male codpiece that put the penis on display, excused by a passage in Deuteronomy.

Earlier, Cleaver had Timothy Leary placed under ‘revolutionary arrest’ for promoting drugs. Newton appears like a solid academic intellectual by comparison. Almost boring, but no, Newton is the real deal.

Yes, this is the place to begin, but the latter half of the book, actually, is the richest. There’s some material on Newton’s exile in Cuba. There’s even a Dialectics of Nature. I had thought Engels’ essay of the same title a failure. Engels’ claim was in part that the dialectic is to be found ‘out there’, beyond human language. I have always disagreed.

But Newton’s take on this theme is as far from Engels essay as one can get. It combines his critique of war with ecopolitics. From here we travel through intercommunalism and pan-Africanism to the chilling border of Reagan’s America in 1980. Here are the things we know least, loose threads that are never dead ends, but lead into the future.

But it is worth returning to some of the things we all know about The Panthers too, in order to see a world that has become lost to us. The unending oppression eventually yields to militant action. The Panthers policed The Police. Visibly armed, they stood a distance away from any cop-citizen interaction in their neighbourhood, asking the citizen if they felt threatened.

They were also Marxists and here’s a simple fact to be re-astonished by: The Black Panthers were Dialectical Materialists with shotguns. In America, in the heart of the greased industrial consumer machine, during its prime time.

If you watch the film on the Mark Duggan shooting, with its roots in the killing of PC Blakelock, you must understand that the situation Newton describes from the mid-1960s, when he starts to write and publish, right up to the end of his life, has not gone away.

Yet at the same time our world is so very different. At one point I began to understand that the American right to bear arms has other dimensions. In Britain, the idea that one might legitimately take up arms against oppression has always been a non-starter. England has been perhaps the main seat of Imperial White Power after all.

The declaration of independence and the right to bear arms is a clear legitimate constitutional place Newton can go back to. In England, one can only ever return to an endless tangle of decaying ideas. The closest we have to it is in the conflicts in Ireland up to the 1990s.

To watch black American schoolchildren singing ‘time to pick up the guns’ on old footage of the Panther free breakfast programs is to shuttle back to another universe. But it is no longer even a parallel one.

There are of course, places where questions arise. Elaine Brown’s introduction describes the killing of a cop as a ‘shooting-death’ and the killing of a Panther as ‘murder’. I remain agnostic on the ethics here, but I will say that the book never glosses the more difficult parts of the Panther Party history. It actively prods you and – crucially – asks you to make your own mind up.

At the end of an essay on Self-Defense, Newton warns of a timely execution – like the Old Testament prophet Amos – of the whole power structure, for being ‘too wrong for too long’. Now there’s a slogan for our time.

More recently Zizek wrote that the ‘future of the American radical Left will be Newtonian – or there will be none!’

After reading this book I could be persuaded to agree, it’s a brilliant single-volume introduction as to why.

– Steve Hanson

Exploding spaces

Rudiger Barth and Hauke Friedrichs – The Gravediggers: The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic (Profile)
Russell Jacoby – On Diversity (Seven Stories Press)

In The Gravediggers, Barth and Friedrichs provide a day-by-day account of what happened in Berlin which led to the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi dictatorship.

This detailed reconstruction is useful, as it moves against the cliché a little: two sides of sheer ideological fervour engaging in street combat; fascists (mainly NSDAP) and communists (largely KPD) battling in Berlin in the early 1930s.

We forget that ‘fascism’ was Italian, although the NSDAP – or National Socialists, ‘the Nazis’ – are in touch with Mussolini in this book. At this point Il Duce thought Hitler was barking mad, and being so close to the Med was largely baffled by the idea of Aryan supremacy. But that didn’t stop him complying with Nazi policy when required.

It is also easy to forget that the communists and national socialists joined forces at key points. The 1932 transport strike was undertaken by the German Communist Party and a Nazi labor union, among other factions. The ‘Rindersteak Nazi’ or beef-steak national socialist was the commie that crossed over, but by the time we get to the grim period this book covers they are murdering each other.

The fevered leftwing resurgence of communist iconography, seen across the 2017-19 period, has a cure in The Gravediggers. For instance the communists shoot at Jewish anti-Nazi journalist Ezriel Carlebach for reporting on the treatment of Jews in Soviet Russia.

Here we also see how journalists and other observers saw Hitler as a ‘little man’ or ‘fanatic’ with no chance of putting anything serious together. Remember thinking that about Farage? About any of the minor far right groups in Britain? I do. Now where are they? Slyly in the ‘big tent’ with a stomping majority. The left fight each other in and around The Labour Party. In Berlin, 1932, the Communists and the SPD did the same.

In The Gravediggers we also see how the Nazis are flat broke. SA men wander Berlin with collection tins. The SS are in soup kitchens and taking other paid work.

In 1932, what is in place already is just as interesting as what is coming. Paul von Hindenburg joined the Prussian army in 1866. He is nineteenth century to his stone core and will be dead within two years. Figures such as Gustav Stresemann, who does not really appear here, as already deceased – some might say luckily – are crucial.

Measures put in place during the Weimar era, and used by Stresemann, give wide-ranging powers to the Nazis. Stresemann is often decribed as a ‘liberal’, but he hated Marxism. I’m reminded of the tepid view people have of some of our recent ‘liberals’, loathsome figures. Equally, it might be tempting to conflate the Weimar Republic and the EU, but both were (and are) far more flawed than their romantic afterimages suggest.

The general atmosphere in 1932-3 seems similar to that of 2019-20. A bankrupt generation are in power. Faced with a clear line of oncoming catastrophes, they do only a little more than nothing.

The day-by-day format of Barth and Friedrichs’ book really works, it really puts you in the space, and the maps by the endpapers show you that it really was a small space in Berlin, which exploded across the whole globe.

A recent book by Russell Jacoby On Diversity mulls over the paradoxes of global freedom, ‘individuality’ and the strangely identical phenomena of mass homogenisation. Jacoby seems to have the same reason to write as Barth and Friedrichs breathing down his neck: He urgently communicates that Hitler was put in power by ‘universal suffrage’ and that massification has dangerous possibilites.

But The Gravediggers really turns down the volume on this argument. The game was never equal and the Nazis lost vast amounts of votes during the brief period that led to the fall of Weimar. Across 1932-3 the NSDAP (Nazis) have one squadron of political police on their case and the KPD (Communists) two and a half of them. The commies are being banged up left and right for all kinds of things, their newspapers are banned. At the same time, a group of NSDAP thugs with a tank are given a fine and a caution. The KPD were using terror too though, make no mistake. Here, the old world of power dithers and tries to choose the fanatics they might be able to work with. We all know the outcome.

In 2020 the world of power is in limbo and is choosing which fanatics it can work with. This is how I read these books. But The Gravediggers shows rather than tells. And it does so in a way that most people can understand. In the space the book reconstructs, we see a zone of potential coming apart and then coming back together again. Now we have a space of potentia in which neofascism meets alt-California tech. All the global powers are essentially in on that game over the masses and the masses don’t give enough of a shit. In short, a new global order versus the little people, all of them, which has already been won. In Berlin, 1932, it hadn’t.

That seemingly incongruous meeting of hippy microchip liberation and the post-viral litter of nationalist totalitarianism can be seen in the way Weimar liberalism and the new space of sheer brutality were entangled. A boundary was not simply crossed which left the old ‘good’ world behind. This history is double-helixed. So is ours. A return to Foucault and Biopower then is perhaps still the best analysis of now. Because the people are putting up with it and why? Mediated glamour.

An American figure in Berlin in 1932, Abraham Plotkin, arrives to find out how the hell Berlin is managing a welfare state at this point in history. Plotkin has been moved to come to Berlin by Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz: a mediated fetish of this place and time didn’t begin after WW2, it was going on right inside it. Döblin’s Alexanderplatz was published in 1929. We got Fassbinder’s adaptation, after the weird Bergman film that spawned its set, Serpent’s Egg. Gladly, The Gravediggers gives us something much more grounded, but people fetishised the place as it went down like The Titanic. Christopher Isherwood is there too, looking on.

There’s a heroic lack of conclusion to On Diversity. No forced testimonial, no hand-wringing speculation. In these times that can be a mark of confidence and ability in a writer for me, not the other way around.

Of course The Gravediggers has a conclusion made of lead which still poisons our stomachs. It could so easily become molten and pour into the empty space at the end of On Diversity.

Two worthwhile books for these dark times.

– Steve Hanson 

Let’s do the timewarp again

Bernard Who?: 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything (Constable)

The Bernard Cribbins autobiography. For those of a certain age…

The narrative is Jackanory. The old geezer in the rocking chair is going to tell you a story.

Cribbins the ordinary copper outside travel agents dreaming about holidays in Portugal – the loosening grip of Salazar as another state attempts to modernise, bringing tourism – Cribbins misapprehends burglar, walks into Police Box, Doctor Who and Assistant. Next minute of course a Roy Kinnear lookalike is falling over… into the future… Holidays in Spain poster says the same, Franco looms, framed picture of Spitfire on wall… actually this movie was made in 1966 and unlike Bladerunner it put its dystopia 100 years too far into the future…

London is ruined and the survivors of England have been sent down a mine by Robomen. Which is of course to read Cribbins through the lens of Doctor Who invasion Earth 2150, and everyday reality 2050, if we’re not very vigilant.

I could read Cribbins through Old Jack’s Boat. The comedy films in the 50’s and 60’s he made are classics including the Carry On films. As Lenny the Dip in Two Way Stretch. The Wombles. The Railway Children. You could sob for hours.

Which is also to say that there might have been something very comforting about this book at this moment in history, but…

Back on Earth 2150 Cribbins opens interior door to swing out into void only just pulled back by Dr Who… to be continued…

– Steve Hanson