Feb 28, 2021
The Nobel prize-winning writer turns the Ring cycle drama into a grim dialogue about capitalism’s perils
Imagine a Wagner opera without the music – seven hours of dense verbal repetition, lacking the benefit of an oceanic orchestra and exultant singing voices. That’s what Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel prize in 2004, serves up in this so-called “dramatic essay”. Rein Gold, also defined by Jelinek as a “play which is not one”, was staged in Berlin in 2014, with actors barking amped-up monologues about the iniquities of capitalism while a modular synthesizer intermittently wheezed out Wagnerian motifs.
Jelinek’s title is a heavy-handed Teutonic pun. Das Rheingold, the prelude to Wagner’s tetralogy, is about a clump of gold stolen from the Rhine that comes to be tainted by a curse, the punishment for our pillage of nature. Rein Gold means “pure gold”, although Jelinek believes that it can never be cleansed of the grubby marks left by our greed. In Das Rheingold, the ore pays for the fortress Wotan calls Valhalla, which at the end of the cycle in Götterdämmerung is torched by his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde to free humanity from material vices. Wotan and Brünnhilde debate political morality in Die Walküre, and after she rejects his grim regime he abandons her. Rein Gold brings them back together, now meagrely identified as B and W, to argue over such unmelodious topics as the labour theory of value, teaser rates, homeownership and VAT. Continue reading...
Feb 21, 2021
These remarkable essays from the writer’s early years highlight her search for truth and attention to detail
Except for Joan Didion, the New Journalists of the 1960s were a self-dramatising gang, determined to upstage the stories they reported. Norman Mailer brawled, Hunter S Thompson raged; less loudly macho, Tom Wolfe preened and Truman Capote whispered sedition. When Didion calls writing “an aggressive, even a hostile act” or “the tactic of a secret bully”, she might be defining this bumptious fraternity.
Didion’s own tactics, sampled here in a smattering of uncollected articles, are more covert, perhaps even passive-aggressive. In an essay celebrating the scruffy underground press of the hippie era, she proclaims the ideology that underlay the new procedures: on guard against the respectable broadsheets and their “factitious ‘objectivity’”, journalists needed to risk “the act of saying I”. For Didion, however, that was easier said than done. Tentative, tremulous, she initially resisted employing the first-person pronoun, which belonged to her male colleagues by egotistical right. Continue reading...
Jan 17, 2021
An account of covert coups and diplomatic bluster through the decades reveals a country in paranoid fear of decline
After the riot at the Capitol on 6 January, embarrassed American politicians lined up to declare: “This is not who we are.” Having read Michael Pembroke’s account of the country’s international thuggery in the last 70 years I’m inclined to reply: “Sorry, no, this is what you always were – loutish, lawless and violent by default.” Pembroke, an Australian jurist and an avowed conservative, quotes a Trump adviser who unforgettably sums up the arrogance of Washington policymakers. “We’re America, bitch,” snarls this unidentified apparatchik; lesser nations can just suck it up.
The British, wanting to look aristocratically nonchalant, claimed they acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. Americans hid their scheming behind sanctimonious cant about freedom and human rights: they dreamed up the United Nations but have consistently flouted its principles, no longer even pay it their annual dues and carry on regardless with their godly mission to Americanise the rest of the world, by force if necessary. During the Cold war, the Pentagon invoked a spurious communist menace to justify its exorbitant budget, amassing deluxe weaponry that existed mainly for show. There was no military need to atomise Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since the Japanese were edging towards surrender; the bombs were dropped, as one of President Truman’s cronies suggested, because the apocalyptic display would “make Russia more manageable in Europe”. Continue reading...
Nov 21, 2020
America’s former commander-in-chief shares his character flaws and fears for the presidency in this poetic, introspective account of his childhood and first term in the White House
Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality. Born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, educated in California and New York, he has a plural personality. His mother anglicised his given name by calling him Barry, though he liked to pretend that it was a tribal epithet that identified him as a chieftain. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that he was “improbable”; campaigning for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “audacious”. Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the “ill-fitting parts” that make him up and ponders his similarity to “a platypus or some imaginary beast”, unsure of its dwindling habitat.
The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose “half-baked thoughts”, to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it “taps into some collective spirit” and leaves him with a “sugar high”. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation. “Is it worth it?”his wife, Michelle, demands as his political ambition upends their placid family life. “When is it going to be enough?” she asks later. Obama, glimpsing himself through her eyes as “this strange guy with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams”, is not sure how to answer. After his election to the Senate, a reporter deferentially inquires: “What do you consider your place in history?”, to which Obama replies with incredulous laughter. Told that he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize, he addresses the question more probingly to himself: “For what?” he says. Continue reading...
Nov 15, 2020
This portrait of the president-elect reveals Biden’s flaws but also the compassion and courage needed to start America’s healing process
Americans have spent this year watching aghast as reality demolished what Evan Osnos calls “the most basic stories we tell ourselves”. Those stories habitually declare the US to be exceptional, uniquely virtuous and therefore entitled to pre-eminence: how then has “the world’s richest, most powerful country” been laid low by the pandemic and shamed by Trump’s irresponsible antics? To help repair the damage, Osnos presents Joe Biden as someone whose career has been a basic story of a different kind – grounded in shared suffering and commiseration with others, not inflated by preordained conceit.
Osnos begins impersonally, with a nameless, middle-aged white male collapsing in a hotel room in 1988; after a while the victim is identified as Biden, toppled by a brain aneurysm. Anonymity makes a pitiable everyman of him, and even though emergency surgery saved his life on that occasion, Osnos goes on to show Biden coping with an extra battery of cruel blows. His young wife and their infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972; his adored son Beau was to die from a brain tumour in 2015, aged 46. Biden, we learn, is acquainted with grief, and he also understands how a bereaved person or an afflicted nation can be coaxed towards recovery. Continue reading...
Nov 08, 2020
The Virago Press founder unearths the remarkable tale of her ancestors down under, drawing chilling parellels to the inequalities of our time
In the 18th century, the body snatchers who grubbed up coffins and sold exhumed corpses for medical research were ghoulishly nicknamed “resurrection men”. Carmen Callil, whose motives are a good deal nobler, is a resurrection woman: after a decade spent delving in archives and visiting nameless graves, she has unearthed her family’s past in a book that is both a heartfelt outpouring of pity and sorrow and an irate demand for restitution.
Callil’s antecedents were sweated labourers in the Midlands, the “busy insects of the early Industrial Revolution”. Hunger drove these paupers to commit petty crimes and some of them, when caught, had the good fortune to be shipped out to Australia. That punishment was what Callil calls their “happy day”: the new world allowed them to fill their bellies, bronze their skins and shed their fetters. Callil’s many-stranded narrative concentrates on three clans from Leicester and Lincolnshire whose misery was alleviated by migration to Melbourne. There, they intermarried and after a few generations, cross-pollinated by a Christian immigrant from Lebanon with the patronymic Kahlil (for a while experimentally anglicised as Kelly), they produced little Carmen. Continue reading...
Nov 01, 2020
This fair, funny and sobering analysis of books written about the Trump era calls for a day of reckoning
An intellectual history devoted to a dimwit who once struggled to read aloud an extract from the American constitution, stumbling over big words that sounded, he groused, “like a foreign language”, as if the founding fathers spoke the lingo of undocumented aliens? A chronicle of a so-called era that has lasted less than four noisy, nerve-racking years and with luck is about to end? A book that solemnly analyses 150 often trashy books about someone who is not known to have read a single book and hired stooges to write the 20 self-puffing volumes published in his name? Yes, Carlos Lozada’s survey of what he archly calls “Trump Studies” is all of those paradoxical things and it is an utter marvel: sober though frequently very funny, fairer minded than the subject deserves, in the end profoundly troubling even as it looks ahead to America’s recovery from the Trump malaise.
Lozada, a book reviewer for the Washington Post, approaches his binge-reading chore as an exercise in cultural criticism. Trump may be thoughtless but he is also unthinkable: no one could have anticipated such an affront to institutional precedent, legal restraint, civic decorum and human decency. Some of the writers discussed by Lozada therefore seek the ogre’s origins in the abyss that gave birth to Prospero’s Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster and Batman’s Joker. For one sociologist, Trump emerges from a “deep story” – AKA a myth – about the festering grudges of the white working class in the disaffected American heartland; another traumatised commentator describes him as “the confirmation of all past fears, like a recurring childhood nightmare”. Seen this way, Trump is archetypally coughed up from our psychic sludge. Imagine King Kong with a strawberry-blond comb-over or, according to the eyewitness testimony of Stormy Daniels, an abominable snowman whose penis, like a dwarfish toadstool, nestles among “yeti pubes”. Continue reading...
Sep 20, 2020
In Bob Woodward’s interviews, this self-obsessed blabbermouth of a president blows the whistle on himself
Now I understand why Trump refuses to have a dog in the White House. There’s no need: he is his own fawning poodle and envenomed cur.
“I love this guy,” says Trump when granting access to Bob Woodward. “Even though he writes shit about me. That’s OK.” It’s the creed of a grovelling lap dog, and Trump follows up with flattering licks and whiny appeals to have his belly scratched. “Honey, I’m talking to Bob Woodward!” he proudly announces when Melania interrupts one of their phone calls, and he even imparts whispered nuclear secrets in the hope that this upright, fanatically factual journalist – who began his career by exposing the Watergate burglary and thus scuttled Nixon’s presidency – will relax into an obsequious court reporter. Yet when closeted with his harried aides or beleaguered cabinet members, Trump mutates into the carnivorous hound of the Baskervilles. Unleashed by his executive power, he snarls, incoherently froths and, in scenes witnessed by Woodward’s sources, runs around yelping “Holy shit!” or “I’m fucked!” A better title for Rage, perhaps, would be Rabid. Continue reading...
Sep 05, 2020
This account of Wagner’s influence on the great and ghastly is passionate and encyclopedic, if unfocused
Wagner gave his name to a movement that is also a contagious malaise and in surveying a Wagnerised world Alex Ross looks far beyond the composer’s musical legacy. True, the pining dissonance at the start of Tristan und Isolde disrupted tonality for ever, but Wagner’s sonic sorcery has cast an equally decisive spell on those Ross calls “the artists of silence – novelists, poets, and painters”, as well as on some noisy and unmelodious politicians. The harmonies of Orpheus supposedly soothed emotional distress and kept the cosmos in tune. Wagner achieved the opposite: his operas unsettled the sanity of his disciple Friedrich Nietzsche and later provided the besotted Hitler with a preview of fiery apocalypse.
For more than a century, this music has been a drug or even a poison, a cult with members who are sometimes fanatics, not fans, goaded to overcome humane qualms as they surrender to a Dionysian excitement. Ross likens the overwrought emotional state of the typical Wagner devotees to the Greek “agon”, a state of conflict or self-contradiction. Casualties abound. Nietzsche, the first of the book’s antagonists, vaguely blamed Wagner for his headaches, eye strain and vomiting attacks; the poet Stéphane Mallarmé said that Wagner disgusted but irresistibly enslaved him. The tenor who sang Tristan at the opera’s premiere dropped dead soon afterwards, then with the intercession of a medium informed his widow, the first Isolde, that the mental strain of the music had done him in. Continue reading...
Aug 29, 2020
The first instalment of Fredrik Logevall’s definitive biography reveals a man in sharp contrast to the modern Lancelot of legend
During John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, Norman Mailer imagined him on the exalted heights, in the company of Nietzsche’s superman: he had, Mailer said, the deep tan of a ski instructor and the piercing eyes of a mountaineer. In 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, John Steinbeck described him as a latterday King Arthur, “a man… who put on the shining armour” and for a while enabled “everyone living to reflect a little of that light”.
A caped crusader or a chivalric hero? Perhaps America’s high priest, which is how the historian Theodore H White described Kennedy? Actually, none of the above. In this first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s definitive biography, JFK is all too engagingly and amiably human. Continue reading...
Jul 20, 2020
This blistering memoir by the president’s niece reveals the twisted dynamic of America’s ‘malignantly dysfunctional’ first family
Like America, Trump claims to be unique, exceptional, a shining self-creation. This book by his estranged niece demolishes that myth. Mary Trump’s ruthless memoir blames their family for creating him: she sees it as her patriotic mission to “take Donald down”, and she does so by showing how derivative and dependent the ultimate self-made man has always been. Trump was bankrolled at first by an indulgent father, who paid him to be an idle show-off and proudly collected grubby tabloid reports on his antics; nowadays he is propped up by tougher, cannier men such as Vladimir Putin and Senator Mitch McConnell, for whom he is an easily manipulated stooge.
Sleaze and graft, we here discover, are Trump’s genetic heritage. His grandfather slunk out of Germany to avoid military service and made a fortune from brothels in Canada. His father was a landlord who passed himself off as a property developer to rake in government subsidies for schemes that were never built. His mother, born to penury in Scotland, remained so meanly thrifty that every week she dressed up in her fur stole and drove her pink Cadillac around the New York suburbs to collect small change from the coin-operated laundry rooms in buildings the family owned; her piggy banks were empty tin cans that once contained lard. She remained emotionally absent, preoccupied by her ailments, while her husband viewed their male offspring as mere off-prints of himself, begotten to ensure that the family kept a grip on its spoils. Continue reading...
Jun 13, 2020
A persuasive new biography argues that it was Blair and Clinton who finally ended JM Keynes’s dream of a fairer life for all
John Maynard Keynes lived through two world wars as well as the great depression between them, and as an economic adviser to British and American governments did his best to fend off political disaster. But Zachary Carter’s solid, sombre intellectual biography begins at a moment when Keynes himself, in his private capacity, seemed to be causing a seismic upset. “The Universe totters,” Lytton Strachey informed his cronies in the Bloomsbury set in 1922: the cataclysm had happened because Keynes – whose previous lovers, conscientiously indexed in his archives, were a troupe of nameless men, among them “the shoemaker of the Hague” and “the clergyman” – had taken up with a woman, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
By starting with this salacious titbit, Carter enticingly sexes up a book that soon settles down, as Keynes did, to be grimly serious. When he married Lopokova, Keynes gave up the sportive pursuit known in Bloomsbury as “buggery” and, as he saltily put it, relished being “foxed and gobbled” by his wife. Cultivating what he called “a disgusting and financial state of mind”, he became a public man so loftily impersonal that in an obituary in 1946 his former adversary Lionel Robbins called him “God-like”. Continue reading...
May 02, 2020
A philosopher and a Christian evangelist find hope in modernised Marxism and the Lord in contrasting attempts to make sense of the current crisis
Detained at home with time to write instant books, two septuagenarian sages here make very different attempts to wrest a meaning or moral from the coronavirus pandemic. The Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek treats the disease as an intellectual malaise from which we will only be rescued by a “philosophical revolution”; John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician who moonlights as a Christian evangelist, approaches Covid-19 as a theological conundrum and tries to explain why God seems so unbothered by our distress. While clinicians work on decoding the coronavirus, Žižek unhelpfully inflates it to an imaginary bogey, a “spectral fantasy”. In the absence of a vaccine, Lennox prescribes prayer, which at least is better advice than injecting bleach.
Žižek deplores our superstitions about the virus as a regression to “pre-modern thinking” and in Pandemic! he rethinks the crisis with the aid of the usual postmodern gurus. Michel Foucault’s account of the disciplinary state prompts him to mock hygiene rules: warned against touching our faces, are we being told not to play with ourselves? (Well, no, because the health authorities in New York have officially recommended masturbation to the shut-in users of dating apps, advising ”you are your safest sex partner”.) Drawing on the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Žižek says that a blindly self-replicating pathogen has loosened our hold on reality and exposed “the ultimate abyss of our being”. The remedy is a dose of updated Marx: because the pandemic is a byproduct of global capitalism, the solution must be “some kind of reinvented communism”. Continue reading...
Apr 06, 2020
A software developer’s epiphany inspires this admirable critique of capitalism, starting with the west coast tech tyrants
A month ago, when I began reading Wendy Liu’s polemic, I felt inclined to dismiss her as a millennial flibbertigibbet, motivated by a grudge against an industry that seemingly had no use for her. Liu grew up as a computing whiz-kid in Montreal and moved to San Francisco to develop software that aspired, a little tackily, to be “Tinder for advertisers”. When her entrepreneurial scheme fizzled out she transferred to the London School of Economics to study inequality, which turned her into an evangelising radical. In her book, she attacks the depressing doctrine of “capitalist realism” and its assumption that our current social and economic arrangements are unchangeable; with born-again zeal, she chastises her own “petty and narcissistic” nature and even laments “the tragedy of the human condition”. A bit excessive, surely, as a response to the failure of a startup?
But as I read on, everything changed. We now have good reason to question the pursuits of the vaunted innovators with whom Liu consorted in California – the blissed-out cultists at Google, whose only worry is over “the wrong kind of sparkling water in the microkitchens”, or the manic experts who specialise in “envisioning hyperplanes in n-dimensional space”. As Liu came to see, techies like these were already living extraterrestrially, having opted out of the earthly, bodily necessities that currently weigh us down. A colleague of hers said he would happily volunteer to join Elon Musk’s projected colony on Mars, the “backup” planet for menaced humanity. “You know you can never come back,” warned another of Liu’s friends. “I’d work remotely,” grinned the would-be Martian. Continue reading...