Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Toxic Sliding

 The other day in London I got caught in the rain on Piccadilly and dashed into Waterstone's until it stopped. On the ground floor of the shop they have a display of new fiction and, reading the labels explaining the new novels available, I began to understand why I don't much like current fiction.

First we were offered "a devastating, darkly comic story of a woman's slide into depression":

Next came "a compelling tale of a woman's slide into madness":

While we stopped sliding after that, the fate of women in fiction continued to be pretty bleak:

More misery for women dominated the next tale:

While we were given a break from horrid things happening to women with the one after that, we were not allowed the company of anyone but terrible people for our reading pleasure:

Of course, if this is all terrific and, like the publishing industry, your idea of a good read is "difficulty" and "toxicity", the next one should fit the bill as well:

 Clearly, publishers would ask me: What's wrong with you, what else do you want to curl up with other than ghastliness really?  I would then feel feeble for wanting something enjoyable - which doesn't mean dumb, I loved Middlemarch, for instance, but I do admit that possibly the greatest example of a novel ever written (which leaves one wondering why most of her others are so BORING) might be too much to ask.

I left the shop puzzled once again by the world of contemporary publishing. Already I'd been baffled that a  novel that is several hundred pages long but made up of a single sentence in which the three words "the fact that" are repeated over and over and over again has been awarded prize after prize, even though it is unreadable for anyone who gets impatient with "the fact that". I'd been similarly confused that the work that won the Booker this year is introduced on Amazon as being "an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn't have a plot".

I went home and read my friend Mark Griffith's blog (or weblog, as he insists on calling it) Other Languages, and there I found the following item, which at least gave me some insight into publishing, if not into whether or not there is a market for the stuff being printed and awarded prizes, or whether many people are buying books they hope they will like but in the end find disappointing and can't finish:

A few helpful remarks from publishers currently looking for fiction. Metaphorosis Books is issuing "a reprint anthology for Vegan science fiction and fantasy stories published in the previous year -- They want stories that happen to be vegan - no meat, no hunting, no horse-riding, no leather." The Were-Traveler wants "weird fiction where the setting is a carnival, theme park, circus or fair/festival. 'Clowns can be part of the story, but they don't have to be.'Hybrid's 'Genderful' is a "furry fiction anthology in two parts which aims to explore how furry and gender interact. They want submissions that explore the implications of non-cisgender life within the context of furry."

One thing I do remember being told by someone who was involved in book production, in the year when Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was a bestseller: "There is a huge difference between a book that is a bestseller and a book that is widely read."

Monday, 10 February 2020

Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard's new play, Leopoldstadt is named after the area in Vienna where Jewish people new to the city usually first found residence and also where, I think, the Nazis first of all forced all Jewish children to go to school, regardless of how far away their house was from it, and eventually forced all Jewish people to live.

When the curtain goes up on the play, the audience is met with a scene that, intentionally or not, exactly mirrors the scene at the opening of the ballet The Nutcracker. It is a richly furnished, turn of the century, European sitting room, with an ornate chaise-longue centre stage, a mahogany dining table behind - which alternates with a piano in different scenes, I think, or possibly both are always onstage together (human visual memory, at least mine, is patchy) - and comfortable antique armchairs and side tables at each side.

To the left of the stage is a huge Christmas tree being decorated by the children of the house and their cousins, aided by various adults. It is a cosy scene of family jollity. There is much cheerful conversation in which we learn who everyone is - although you have to be quicker than me to catch all the names and work out how they relate to each other. There is a mathematician and a doctor called Ernst who, despite the name, I somehow got the wrong impression was Egyptian until very late in the play. There is a grandmother and her daughter, who may be married to the mathematician. The owner of the house is I think Hermann who has become a Christian as he has married a beautiful young Austrian Catholic. In case we are in any doubt about what the rest of the characters are, a small boy tries to put a star of David on the top of the tree and it is explained to him that that kind of star isn't used on this kind of tree.

A teenage girl who is visiting Vienna from the Ukraine confesses to her Christian aunt that a young Austrian officer has asked her to meet him tomorrow and she needs a chaperone. The aunt, slightly reluctantly, agrees to go along. The next thing we know the aunt and the Austrian officer are having it off, even though he is ghastly - and even though he was the one who started flirting with the aunt's niece; no explanation is given for his fickleness, beyond the overriding impression that he is an utter cad. In any case, the teenager goes back to the Ukraine, saddened.

What are we to make of the aunt's sudden fall into the arms of the Austrian cad? Nothing about her behaviour before or after suggests she is a philanderer - if that word can be applied to a woman - so what is going on? Is she a secret anti-semite who in her heart of hearts only really fancies Gentiles? Where does this plot twist fit psychologically?

Or are we supposed to ignore individual psychology in this play and accept that a plot development may be simply a useful cog in the machine of revealing anti-semitism? For the horrid Austrian cad then meets the adulterous Christian aunt's husband at a party and treats him with terrific snobbery, on account of his race, and insults the man's wife.  The husband challenges the young man to a duel and the young man has to spell out to him that the army does not allow its soldiers to accept duelling challenges from Jews. Thus, Stoppard establishes that there is institutional anti-semitism in turn of the century Vienna.

Time moves forward and insult is heaped on insult for our poor Jewish family. Tension mounts. There is quite a lot of talk about Dr Karl, which probably most audiences would not understand but I assume refers to Dr Karl Lueger, Mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, who without any doubt used anti-semitism to his own political ends and who some regard as the inspiration for Hitler's anti-semitism. Eventually, the family is reduced to nothing and unimaginable cruelties are wreaked on them. A character supposed to be Tom Stoppard - but only if he were transformed into one of the wetter members of the Drones Club - comes back to Vienna, which he and his mother fled when he was a child. He is put back in touch with the past he has forgotten, which leads to some rather feeble tears of guilt. He asks about what happened to the people he now begins to vaguely remember and a shadowy tableau of that first scene appears. Each individual is named, and when their fate is inquired about the answers that come back are - "Dachau", "Theresienstadt", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz" ...

The horror I feel for what happened to families such as Stoppard's imaginary creation is enormous, but unfortunately that does not make this play any less disappointing. A play, particularly a Stoppard play, is not usually simply a history lesson*. What I was hoping for was some kind of dramatic evocation of the strange madness that erupted, an opportunity, via the alchemy of Stoppard's brilliant mix of ideas and penetrating understanding and the magic that is good theatre, to get a new perspective on the dread and terror and wild inhuman viciousness of the time and the strange forces that created evil. But what Stoppard has made is a very old-fashioned family drama in which the characters are one-dimensional - on the one hand, the Jewish family, who are without fault and entirely endearing, because, in order for us to feel bad about what happens to them they need to be absolutely blameless, rather than the usual complicated beings that real humans are, and, on the other the equally shallow baddies - the dastardly adulterous anti-semitic officer who comes across as a pantomime villain, and the Catholic wife ,who is simply mystifying; for one brief scene a raving sex fiend, for the rest characterised only by an eagerness to get all the traditions and practices of her new family right.

Because of this lack of any richness of characterisation, the play becomes a form of agitprop, or at least a form of panto. You feel as you watch that you should be shouting hurrah for the goodies and booing the baddies. What you miss is any attempt to penetrate the complexities of this terrible, strange period in which humans who'd grown up in one of the most civilised cities and civilised regimes that have ever existed - (mention is very briefly made of the Emperor Franz Joseph learning Hebrew and being entirely supportive of the Jewish people, but this glimpse of one of the many contradictory aspects of the situation vanishes in an instant) - transformed into baying monsters who victimised their Jewish neighbours with a brutality that is hard to contemplate.

Sad to say, Leopoldstadt is not brilliant as a piece of transfiguring drama, although perhaps, if you knew nothing at all about what had gone on in Vienna, it might be a place to start to learn the rudimentary facts.* I may have been expecting too much; perhaps it is impossible ever to arrive at any kind of comprehension of the unimaginable events of the period after the Anschluss in Austria; certainly, Leopoldstadt only describes what happened. Maybe, if you don't already know anything about the subject, it may be a place to start.


*Another thing one usually expects from Stoppard is comedy but, there is only one laugh in the play -  a misunderstanding in which a man who introduces himself as a doctor is taken to be the doctor come to perform the ritual circumcision on a baby, when in fact he is a lawyer come with some papers for the head of the house - practically anyone with a university degree tends to call themselves "Herr Doktor" in Vienna. Anyway, the baby's mother, who is pretty reluctant to let her child be tampered with, comes in and asks him if he needs any equipment. She doesn't know that he isn't who she thinks he is, nor that he has just been given a cigar by her father. Therefore, when he tells her that he could find a cigar cutter useful but, if she doesn't have one, it's fine, because he can always bite the end off with her teeth, she runs away screaming.

* If you then want to learn more about what happened to Jewish people living in Vienna, I would recommend a superb memoir called Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare, which deals much more subtly and interestingly with the whole subject.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Soap Bubble

I sometimes wonder what I might have achieved if I hadn't wasted so much of my time thinking about the soap-opera existences of people I do not know - or perhaps that should be "the existences of people I do not know, whose lives I transform into soap opera in my head".

My most recent lapse has been the hours I have spent reading with embarrassing avidity everything that has appeared related to the announcement by Meghan Markle and the person formerly - and strictly speaking still, until April, I think (??) - known as Prince Harry - (and why did his parents choose to give him a shortened name anyway? Is that where his problems started? But I digress) - that they were going to "step back" from the duties that being a member of Britain's royal family entails.

I won't go into my particular take on that ongoing saga. Were I halfway sensible, I know I wouldn't even have a take, let alone allow my mind to be filled with speculative thoughts and theories about the episode and what its effect will be on the couple involved. 

But I am not halfway sensible and I have allowed myself to become intensely preoccupied with this story - and with countless other similar ones that have equally little bearing on my own life, beyond the curiosity they arouse in me. 

Perhaps it is my love of fiction that makes me so interested - the people involved are real, but I can view them as if they were characters in a - not very good - novel. I can speculate about their motives and about human behaviour in general, extrapolating from the tales of foolishness and emotional intemperance I read about them. And perhaps it is this process that Muriel Spark is trying to evoke when she has fiction and reality blurring in Loitering with Intent and other novels (it was a recurring theme or motif for her); perhaps her aim was to demonstrate that each individual's reality is really a fiction composed within their own minds, that no one is to another anything but a fiction.

Be that as it may, my fascination with the soap opera side of other people's lives started a long long time ago. I realised just how long ago recently, when I read in the newspaper, in the context of some kind of television dramatisation of the episode, that the Profumo Affair happened in 1963. Which means that my prurient interest in sensationalism goes all the way back to that year, even though I was only six years old at the time.

My family still lived in a street that ran between the King's Road and the Fulham Road in London then. If you turned left at the Fulham Road end, you very quickly arrived at what was still called St Stephen's Hospital, although it has since been robbed of its saintliness and renamed Chelsea & Westminster. 

My brother and I would pass that hospital regularly on our companionable wanderings around the city, and, despite being so young, in August 1963 I knew that there was something very exciting called the Profumo affair going on and that in St Stephen’s there lay a man called Stephen Ward* who was somehow involved in this Profumo thing and who had tried to kill himself - and I somehow got hold of the idea and have hung onto it ever since that he took deadly nightshade, which particularly fascinated me as there was a patch of deadly nightshade that I saw on walks at the place in the country where we spent our weekends. 

I passed the hospital most of the days that Ward lay there hovering between life and death, (have I got this right - I remember believing he was there for three or four days), and I think it must have been then that this awful taste for the melodramatic took hold of me. For, although it was the sixties already, it was not yet by any means "the Sixties". London, including Chelsea, was not yet swinging or particularly exciting. This strange scandal that was all the grown ups could talk about was a spark of fascinating mystery in a rather dull existence.

Since then there hasn't been a story of romance and drug taking, of high life and misery, of ambition smashed by peccadilloes that hasn’t instantly grabbed my attention and sent me off into days of fervent interest. I was/am capable of the kind of solid concentration when reading about such topics that I only dream of when knuckling down to sensible, constructive endeavours, tasks that need doing and so forth and so on. The truth is feverish fascination with the tawdry and trivial has, since 1963, been one of my  besetting sins.

Although I don't know anyone else who admits to a preoccupation with all this nonsense, I try to comfort myself that there must be others out there who do share my shameful passion, because all the newsprint expended on such subjects cannot be intended only for me.

If I am the lone audience though, I thank all gossip columnists, royal correspondents and other purveyors of pages of nonessential social speculation for their efforts. I consume every word with guilty joy.

*Stephen Ward is or was usually described as a "society osteopath", which always amused me, even as a small child.