Monday, January 31, 2011

As the fascist octopus of academia gently sings its swansong in the West...

"No. Somebody put a drop [of Casaubon's blood] under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Jarrow, New Year's Eve 1911

There is a knocking at the door

- Come in!

- Trouble at mill!

- Oh no! What sort of trouble?

- [In silly 'Northern' accent] One o't cross-beams come out of skew on the treddle.

- Pardon?

- One o't cross-beams come out of skew on the treddle.

- I don't understand what you're saying.

- [In RP, slowly] One of the cross-beams has gone out of skew on the treddle.

- But what on earth does that mean?

- I don't know, Mr Wentworth's just told me to come in here, and say that there was trouble at the mill, that's all. I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition [etc]

I've a feeling[1] that there may be a certain demand for this post. But I'm not going to argue with Nick Cohen's assertion that bad prose is a first-world problem since 1968. I'll leave that to you. Orwell suggested in 1946 that the sort of prose Nick excoriates could just as well have come from a Communist pamphlet or a letter to Tribune.

There's a bit of sensible Tory-bashing at the end, although I'm unsure how Nick gets there from saying that academics can't write for toffee. (I thought they were separate essays, but he comes back to his first theme, so they can't be.)

Bonus points to Nick for squeezing in 'clerisy' which is the sort of word a man may well feel entitled to light up a cigar after using. Points snatched away again for the following.

Civil society is fighting with heartening gusto to protect British culture from the assault from the right.

It is? Perhaps the sentence could be improved by adding "I wish that" at the beginning, and changing 'is' to 'were'.

[1] My feelings are often wrong, BTW.[2]

[2] This is a needless footnote.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

We must learn the lessons of history

Nice comment on Balloon Juice:

There is vastly, vastly more democratic reform and revolution breaking out in the Middle East after two years of No Drama Obama than in eight years of neocon Strategery. So, they’re trying to spin it away, to get ahead of the media cycle.
This is “the best defense is a good offense” version of attack politics.

I'd like to think that there was a causal link, rather than coincidence, but Joe Biden's Mubarak is not a dictator and Hillary Clinton's "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States." and this Al Jazeera interview with US state department spokesman PJ Crowley make me think not.

Naturally, our friends at the Henry Jackson Society were quick to get their version in: Egypt needs reform, not revolution. The entire argument is invalidated, as Michael Ezra could tell you, by the passage which begins "As Edmund Burke cautioned more than three centuries ago". Oh dear, and they lecture us about history.

No seriously, it's not the cringe-making stuff you expect. It's just bland. By the time it was published (6:08PM GMT 28 Jan 2011 - hooray for the mindless accuracy of servers), the curfew the Egyptian government had imposed had been ignored for two hours, and its warnings not to protest had apparently encouraged more people to turn out. In any case, by trying to turn off the internet and SMS messaging, it had clearly lost faith in the people, and one or the other was going to go.

I'm surprised to find myself a revolutionary, but gradualism seems impossible to me. The HJS guys aren't completely wrong. De-Baathification in Iraq was a disaster, and the wholesale revolution in Iran was just about as bad. Both saw professional administrators replaced by ideological headbangers, and that rarely works out. I'm for keeping the professional classes, but I don't think Egypt will go for massive ideological sifting: it seems that the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians, and possibly trade unionists are prepared to work together. I may be over-optimistic, but this may end happily for Egyptians.

Besides, Saudi Arabia has strongly condemned the protests and an anonymous Israeli cabinet minister speaking for that beacon of democracy in the ME has said, "They will have to exercise force, power in the streets, and do it.", so there's a great deal to love about this. This is my favourite video riot police retreating. When the camera shows the whole bridge, the sheer numbers are almost unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it.

I could go on rooting out quotations from pro-democracy folk who aren't very keen on elections since the Hamas won one in Gaza, but I'll leave that to you. I don't think Decency is dead. I expect lots of verbiage from the heirs of Scoop Jackson and their allies. After all, no one knows what the hell is going on, so there can't be any harm in having a punt, can there?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

No one reported

It's never worthwhile explaining a joke. If you need to say what the point of your own article was, you either underestimate your own readers, or you're doing it wrong.

Hi ho. Tunisia? Tunisia! Who would have thunked it! (I hate that title in so many ways. Who would have thunk it is an internet tradition, usually with a question mark. 'Thunked' on the other hand...)

That's good old Nick Cohen in the Spectator, as one of the comments points out, not only is he an irregular blogger, but when he shows up, he copies and pastes an the opening of an article he wrote elsewhere, and explains what his "wider point" was. His heart does not seem to be in this.

Shorter Nick. I knew nothing about Tunisia until earlier this month. This is the fault of the broadsheets, radio 4, and more generally all of you lot. Especially you.

Here is the opening reprinted on the Spectator blog.

Every morning I read The Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Independent. I stay with the Today programme until Radio 4 drives me away by insulting my intelligence with Thought for the Day and look at the Economist and the New York Times if I have a moment. But I knew nothing about Tunisia.
No journalist thought it worthwhile to tell readers about the grotesque figure of Leila Trabelsi, an Imelda Marcos and Marie Antoinette rolled into one, who was looting a country millions of western tourists knew well. No one looked at how she hoarded gold on the one hand, while keeping her dirty old man of a husband sweet on the other. No one bothered to look at her equally ghastly and rapacious children, who, along with the wider clan, formed a Mafia state that forced businesses to pay off the ruling crime family.

I would have liked have to read about the brutality of the secret police, as well, and to have had a little advance notice that the subject people was preparing to revolt. Leaving all political considerations aside, Tunisia was in journalistic terms a great story from the Middle East that virtually sat up and begged journalists to take notice, but because it did not involve Israel, foreign desks looked the other way.

I'm lazy, so I only searched the Guardian.

Tunisia is backtracking on women's rights Wednesday 25 August 2010 (CiF, possibly not in the print edition)

Four days earlier, the author of that piece, Kamel Labidi, had written about Jordan: Is Jordan the latest enemy of press freedom online? First paragraph:

Jordan's provisional law on cyber crimes, deviously adopted earlier this month, has brought the Hashemite kingdom a step closer to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt, which are considered by international freedom of expression groups among the most notorious online oppressors worldwide.

Ian Black, the Guardian's Middle East editor was so obsessed with Israel that in October 2009 he wrote Tunisia prepares for 23rd year of democracy, Ben Ali style.

Intimidation of the press is normal. The Le Monde correspondent sent to cover the election was turned back at the airport this week. Official Tunisian media have been campaigning against al-Jazeera TV since it aired interviews with leading dissidents. Last month the democratically elected journalists' union faced a court-backed takeover. Human-rights activists are the target of constant government repression, detained without charge, subjected to travel restrictions and surveillance.

I would not have read Wolfram Lacher's Dynasty in north Africa this time last year as prophetic, but the sub-headline "The possibility of four near simultaneous dynastic successions in north Africa is striking – and not as simple as it seems" looks that way now.

Amnesty covers police and prison brutality.
Finally, Wikileaks had everything Nick says he wanted, and it had it in December.

The truth was out there. Not quite in the salacious human interest way Nick wanted, but that was because reporting from Tunisia was hard. As the Wikileaks cable should make clear, Western governments were very ambivalent about Tunisia, but unwilling to criticise. Might this have been a factor, rather than everybody-hates-Israel?

Since the column layout of Blogger (owned by Google) doesn't fit the new YouTube (also owned by Google) format, here's a link to Elvis Costello singing Black and White World for any of you naughty Manicheans.

Friday, January 21, 2011

For those who don't like Harry's Place, here's Denis MacShane!

MacShane on boycotts, in the Jerusalem Post. A few points:

1. As far as I'm aware, all of the Aaronovitch Watch editorial staff are opposed to an academic boycott of Israel; I am not sure about nonacademic boycotts, but speaking for myself I buy Israeli-made goods without a second thought while trying to avoid agricultural products grown in the Occupied Territories themselves (as a result I sometimes have to go to Somerfield rather than Sainsburys to buy parsley; pretty radical political action eh guys).

2. There is something horribly unpatriotic about writing about your own country in a foreign newspaper and making broad, sweeping and unspecific claims about how horrible it is. MacShane's "people" and "it is said" must be giving a terrible and wholly inaccurate impression of the level of anti-Semitism in Britain to the readers of the JP and that's actually quite an irresponsible thing to do.

3. Need it be said that the article itself is atrocious?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A bit of Rentoul Watching

Sorry to the Couscous Kid, I know we promised not to, but we were asked.

I am much puzzled by a tweet of Rentoul's.

In a sane media environment, this Chilcot evidence would be recognised as supportive of the Blair govt's case

I don't follow him; it was retweeted by DA. I admire Paul Waugh (to whom Rentoul links), but I trust the FT rather more. Rentoul believes that this sort of stuff is supportive of Blair. I am not convinced.

SIS4 says he had no problem with the intel being shown to the Prime Minister. But he then adds a curious turn of phrase that could either be dry sarcasm or something straighter:
"What I divine to be the direction of questioning is the issue of whether the Chief detonated a psychotropic line of thinking and excitement in the Prime Minister by giving him what in quieter days might be thought rather precipitate briefing on casework which turned out not to be real. I don't think it's for me to offer a judgment on that."

Waugh asks, "Don't you just love that "psychotropic" phrase[?]" I think I like 'detonated' rather more.

From this whole article, we can gather that the security services thought WMD existed.

He makes clear that he felt that Saddam DID weaponise VX nerve agent and that it was there to be found somewhere. 'C' says he is "sick of this being glossed over".

'Felt' might be a better word, because they produced no evidence at the time, and there has never been evidence of 'weaponise[d] VX nerve agent'. My prejudices are largely anti-spook, and their 'feelings' here seem fanciful to me. I think -- perhaps naively -- that governments should work on hard evidence. If Blair was swung by this, more fool him.

Can anyone fill out Rentoul's case? Let's leave aside the 'sane media environment' thing as the product of the exigencies of Twitter and not a serious claim about anything.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Book Review

Commenter Organic Cheeseboard mentioned writing another review in the last thread, and he's welcome to send it to me when he finishes it, and I'll put it up, just as I did his Jacobson one (which eventually garnered a respectful, if modest, collection of comments).

Before we go gentle into that good night, as readers, following the example of Justin, one by one, without any fuss, shuffle from this [get ON with it - Ed] I'd like to post one book recommendation.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer.

I didn't expect to read this book, let alone love it. I wanted to read the author's earlier Into Thin Air (because Anne Billson had recommended it). The library didn't have it, but it did have this, and I'd heard of Tillman, and am, as you may imagine, interested in Afghanistan, so I couldn't resist. I read most of it on train journeys between Cardiff and London. They flew by.

As I said, I'd heard of Tillman; I knew he was an American Football player who joined the Army (actually the Rangers, who seem to be more of an analogue of the Paras, but more knowledgeable readers may correct me on that point) following 9/11, and was killed (by "friendly fire" though this took time to emerge) in Afghanistan in 2004. Until now, I knew three things about American Football. It's a poem by Harold Pinter. It ruined the end of M*A*S*H the movie. And it's responsible for a lot of lower leg injuries in US jocks.

(Ed: hold on, hold on. This has all gone a bit Liz Jones. Who cares what you know about American Football? Even if it's the most boring game on the planet, ignorance is nothing to be proud of. Me: excuse me! I'm making a point here. AW readers probably hate all those helmets and forward passes almost as much as they do Nick Clegg. I'm trying to tell them not to switch off because it's about some meat head . Ed: you're much too late for that.)

This isn't a straightforward or non-partisan book. IMO, Jon Krakauer, is a very gifted writer, but (or, perhaps, and) he doesn't bother to hide his distain (too mild a term really) for George W Bush. This is a polemic. A very well crafted polemic: it twines Tillman's innocent suburban childhood as a very gifted, headstrong athlete in a tolerant, liberal, and discursive family, with the parallel story of the US (eg Carter and Brzezinski) plan or plot to goad the USSR into the Afghan war, how that developed, and what happened next. Krakauer meanwhile builds a case on the US Army's "economy with the truth" regarding 'fratricide' (in this case, US soldiers killed by other US military personnel).

If I have any readers at this point, I'd like to ask if they remember the Jessica Lynch case, and what they remember of it. Tillman had a 'sort of' role in it. He was in a unit deployed to her rescue, but he didn't engage in combat. Krakauer shoves Lynch in because she's an example of how hard the White House was spinning the Iraq invasion. The story of her capture is the only place that book comes to extended humour, and by humour I really mean pathos. Tillman kept a diary, to which he confided that he thought the rescue was a PR exercise. He was right.

I thought about quoting from the book, but that would bulk up this post considerably. I was affected much more than I thought I ought to have been. Tillman was the sort of pro athlete amateurs aspire to be, not necessarily the best, but the guy who tried hardest. He had an element of the thug about him. He was always known for "violent" tackles, and he beat up a surfer kid between leaving school and going to college. (It was mistaken identity; but he was a physical guy, and a bit scary.) However, he was smart, an atheist, and a book lover, and a keeper of (rescued) cats. In other words, my sort of man, even before we get to the marathon and triathlon and competitive wine drinking.

I was big on the web in 2001. I knew about blogs, but wasn't sure if I wanted one. In those days, Dave Winer pretty much kept watch over all of the live ones. I remember the outrage. "America is being attacked" badges on every US blog. Tillman and his brother Kevin (younger by fourteen months and a professional baseball player when he left college) joined the forces. Almost no one else who could hold down better than a minimum wage job joined them. That's in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and however much Nick Cohen and others abuse Moore, that remains the truth. Army recruitment is hard. The moral of this story is, unfortunately, almost intuitive. Those bright, and white, and middle class kids who stayed away: they had the right idea.

This is a very short precis of the fulcrum of this narrative. Tillman and his brother had served in Iraq and their second tour took them to Afghanistan. Their platoon was recce-ing Afghanistan when one vehicle broke down. Because of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan having been demoted to the second war on Terror, or whatever), a helicopter was not made available to airlift this vehicle. Therefore, it needed to be towed. This slowed down the patrol, and would have meant that they would not have been able to reach a village by dusk (as scheduled), so their headquarters (or Forward Operating Base or FOB) insisted against the one Lieutenant's protests, as well as his NCOs, that the convoy split. They manage to find an Afghan tow-truck (called a Jinga truck) to tow the broken down vehicle, and go separate ways. However, the Jinga driver does not like the shortest route back to the FOB - neither do the Rangers - so they turn round and follow the other half of the platoon.

The first half do not meet with any resistance. The second half are not so lucky. They are fired on by a few, not well organised feyadeen, who probably flee not long after fire is returned. (This is important: the actual fighting as in mutual hostilities did not last long at all. The Taliban purpose was to harry, not to destroy, because the latter was beyond their capabilities without a lot of luck.) The first half (now known as Serial One) become aware of shooting, and realise that American forces are involved because they see tracer fire, which the US uses and the Taliban doesn't. Serial Two (or more precisely, one of its vehicles) do not realise that the danger is past, and target anything human they can, these being Sayeed Farhad, an Afghan in US uniform, but holding a Kalashnikov (a Taliban and not a Coalition weapon) and Pat Tillman, who, having recognised his comrades was unarmed with his hands up. The latter was killed with very close placed rounds just under his helmet. (The Taliban don't wear uniforms, camouflage, armour, or helmets. They don't tend to be tall and muscular either.) Krakauer is quite certain he knows who shot Tillman. Shall I say, he doesn't seem to like him much? The military ground through tribunals (after an autopsy the doctors refused to sign because Tillman's corse arrived naked, when regulations state the post-mortem needs it in the clothing at time of death) and eventually "RFD'd" him (and several others) - which means they were moved to the regular army, with no other penalties. To reiterate, admittedly at dusk, in hostile country, and having come under fire, he had shot one of his own platoon, with his hands up, in uniform, and done so with impressive precision for the bad light which didn't allow him to recognise who or what he was shooting at.

Krakauer's ire doesn't stop at a pathetic specialist soldier; most of it follows the lead of JB Priestly's "An Inspector Calls" with about half a gallon of Alan Clark's "The Donkeys". Everyone above the rank of lieutenant gets it.

If you have any male relatives approaching school leaving age with that gleam in the eye that says they're thinking about being the best, remind them that there are other honourable ways to earn a crust: playing the accordion in underpasses, organ donation, prostitution, and writing for the Daily Mail. They may seem degrading, but at least they're not the army. Gore Vidal, in "Julian" (which I'm also reading, and elsewhere no doubt, because he'd never waste a good apercu) complains that the young men of the Roman Empire won't fight. If civilisation has an obvious benefit, it is very good for imparting wisdom painlessly.

[Having read through the above, I realise it needs five or six more passes to become readable, but as this is a blog, and I'm not getting paid, fuck it. If you didn't get this far, good for you.

If you did, don't let me put you off. This may be the best book I'll read in 2011.]

Monday, January 17, 2011

Congratulations to Ben Aaronovitch

We haven't done much over the past year to live up to the official name of this blog, so time to change that. Aaro's younger brother Ben (the one who wrote a few 'Dr Who' episodes) has published his first novel Rivers of London to good reviews. (Just as well, as he's already written the sequel.)

We congratulate him.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oops, an apology to Michael Ezra

I don't understand Blogger's spam detection algorithm, but that's no excuse for not noticing when it wrongly dumps a pertinent comment into the 'spam' directory and doesn't let the public read it. As long ago as the 10th, Michael Ezra replied to the last post, and blogger hid his reply. I didn't notice until now, so to make amends, I will print it below. (I've also published it in the thread.) I don't agree with what he says, but I'm mortified that he might have thought that I'd censor him.

I may be an enormous hypocrite, but not that enormous. Once again, sorry.

Cian's point sums up what is wrong with the indecent left. He dismisses the decent left because they prioritise fighting fascism and cheers on those who take a stance against the state. It is exactly this sort of indecent thinking that led to the German Communist party in the early 1930s providing a unified support with the German Nazi party - united they were against imperialism. Who cares against fighting fascism when there are wider things at stake such as overthrowing the state? A little antisemitism? A little homophobia? Who cares? It might be of interest to the indecent left - but they wouldn't want any of that to be a shibboleth would they? Cian also is incorrect that my opinions are solely from reading neoconservatives such as Adam Garfinkle. I have actually read a number of books on the Vietnam anti-war left, including some by those who have remained on the left such as Mark Rudd's relatively recent book, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen. This excludes countless contemporaneous newspaper articles from newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. One anecdote from a journal article comes to mind: the radicals in the antiwar left were so detested that when 400 radical students were interviewed in the aftermath of the bloodshed at Kent State University, it was reported that "at least 25 per cent declared that they were told by their own parents that it might have been a good thing if they had been shot." (Lewis S. Feuer, "Student Unrest in the United States," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 404, November 1972, p.175.) One thing is quite clear: however much the Vietnam war was hated, the far left radical protesters were hated more. An honest assessment would also show that the radicals were not particularly effective. Mark Rudd acknowledges this in the preface of his memoirs: "In general we played into the hands of the FBI - our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll."

I've been very pleased at how civilised the discussion in the last thread has been. Please keep it that way.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Finkler Question

Guest review by Organic Cheeseboard

The first thing that's worth saying about Jacobson's novel is how odd it is. There is more or less no 'story', to the extent that after reading each short 'part' I put it down, with no real desire to read on; the characterisation is all over the place and crashingly, stupidly unrealistic; much of the political discussion in the book will pass over the head of the average reader, who doesn't know the ins and outs of Zionism and the Middle East, but if you do know about all that it's weirdly simplistic; and for a comic novel it's really not funny at all. In and of itself it covers a lot of vaguely interesting ground, in terms of ideas, but it feels overwhemlingly like the product of a novelist with a few ideas trying desperately to shoehorn them all into a narrative. with that, it feels unedited - in my post-Booker-win copy there is at least one obvious spelling mistake - and it's very clear that, if it were edited, Jacobson was not challenged on a lot of it.

That's a shame, because there is the kernel of a good idea at its heart - a comparison of a philosemite gentile and an anti-Zionist Jew - but Jacobson doesn't seem all that interested in probing the issues around this, choosing to blame anti-Zionism on 'father issues' (to the extent of Finkler, the anti-Zionist, only ever dreaming about punching his father in the stomach - subtlety be damned) and philosemitism on a (it must be said incredibly weakly drawn) dissatisfaction with oneself and one's own family. And that genuinely is the sum total of Jacobson's analysis. There's also the problem that both characters are total dickheads who are, it is I think fair to say, of absolutely no interest to the reader. There are a lot of novels with anti-heroes, a lot of novels whose protagonists are flawed, but I'm struggling to remember a novel whose protagonists are more boring, and stereotyped, than this pair.

So, a couple of things about the world of the novel. It's clearly set in what is meant to be a fairly realist London - the areas around Regent and Oxford Street and St John's Wood are fairly well-presented, down to the shop that sprays perfume opposite Selfridges - but almost everything that happens in the world of the novel is completely unbelievable. Treslove, the philosemite, lives near Hampstead and is meant to be able to afford to take his two sons to Italy on a holiday, despite the fact that his only income is as a celebrity lookalike - and we're seriously meant to believe that he is a multi-purpose lookalike who is mistaken for Brad Pitt as well as Colin Firth (he's 49). I'm pretty sure Jacobson intends that as a joke about celebrity culture or soemthing, but we're also meant to believe in Treslove, and from the beginning, we don't (allied to this unbelievability is his previous occupation, as a producer of late-night arts programmes on Radio 3, a job he apparently 'fell into' on leaving University, where he did badly and didn't appear to do any student radio etc, without even trying). Then we have Finkler, a TV philosopher who writes books like Alain de Botton's. He's a bit better-drawn, possibly because the novel is a lot less close to him generally, but he's still totally unbelievable, largely because of the novel's politics (though not only that - he's meant to dislike all literature except 'Hamlet' yet he comes up with a fairly obscure anecdote about TS Eliot's playing Patience).

The poltics are, as I said in an earlier comment, really quite strange, and this again is linked to the 'realism' - or lack of. Britain in the book is, if not exactly a hotbed of antisemitism, then certainly a place where an awful lot of people have very extreme views. Jews in the novel are blinded in stabbings, and almost every young person in the novel (they are very weakly drawn) is at best a hardline anti-IsraelI loony, or at worst a holocaust denier who genuinely uses words like 'hepcat'. Jacobson's comment that he felt that Britain during Cast Lead seemed close to a Kristallnacht is undermined by a character dismissing this very analogy, but it's still not really realist in any sense, and anything problematic (eg what Israel actually did in Cast Lead) is just overlooked. Probably the single worst excess of this is Jacobson's reworking of 'Seven Jewish Children' (itself only antisemitic if you ignore its being a play, along with everything else about it) to become 'Sons of Abraham', a straightforward piece of tehjews = tehnazis antisemitism which, for some reason, one of the fairly conservative Jewish characters decides to make everyone else go to see on the basis of 'media controversy' - Jacobson's straining is so great at this point that he has to arbitrarily deny the reader the topic of the controversy so he can describe the fictional play in obsessive detail., to presumably shock and outrage us - but, again, it's just not realistic that any of the characters, including Finkler, would want to go to see it.

That's one of several instances where Jacobson completely abandons the novel as a work of art and just starts ranting. It's really embarrassing in places.

The novel is perhaps more politically balanced than many might expect.

But it's still really unbalanced.

The philosemite is a bit of a fool and doesn't think very hard about anything, but the anti-Zionists, including Finkler, are just plain idiots. This is why I have serious reservations about anyone taking this side of the novel's satire 'seriously' - as Nick Cohen certainly has - because it's just unbelievable that Finkler, who is vain but also fairly intelligent, would hang around with the 'ASHamed Jews' (sample core member? a bloke who spends every day of his life documenting, in a blog with photos, his attempts to grow his foreskin back). Finkler is their 'leader' and does lots of speaking gigs but we never - despite him having an awful lot of 'discussions' about Israel - find out what he actually thinks. I *think* the reason for this is that Jacobson wants to present him as fundamentallly confused between his own 'father issues' and his own desire for the spotlight, but still, it's really far away from reality.

Even more telling is the fact that the pro-Zionism characters barely speak at all - Jacobson seems to have deliberately not given this a voice. I can't help wondering if this is in order - as this is, ostensibly, a comic novel - to guide the reader into believing anti-Zionism so boneheaded and silly that only an idiot would believe in it. To his credit Jacobson makes one of them a teeny bit racist - believing arabic graffitI to be sinister, or something - but then again, she has reason to be, as along with the eye-stabbings etc, the Anglo-Jewish museum she's about to open is targetted by violent Gaza demonstrators who attack Treslove, and people who leave pork products around it during construction.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this novel, though, is just how uninteresting it is. The debates aren't ever played out in enough forensic detail to make them enjoyable - a marked contrast with with, say, the way J. M. Coetzee unites the personal and political in Elizabeth Costello. I get the strange feeling that, in trying to be 'serious' in what is still a comic novel (on which more in a second), Jacobson basically ends up being neither. He doesn't seem to have the courage of his convictions.

This is clearest in the ageing character, Libor, who has worked as a showbiz reporter in America (again, for some reason, this is totally underdone in the novel) and who manages to go out on dates with attractive young women despite being in his 90s. The book is, I tihnk, at root a tribute to the adaptability and perseverance of his generation of Jews, but here's a problem with that, too - the ageing character is incredibly dull, despite his fulfilling (and fulfilled) life. A contrast with Adam Thirlwell's 'Haffner', from The Escape, which came out last year, couldn't be more damning of Jacobson.

And it's here that I'll end it, where all comic novels either stand or fall.

With Jokes.

That's typical of Jacobson's style - a one-sentence paragraph, containing an unfunny punchline which he's clearly worked very hard on. Maybe the best example of the problems with comedy in the novel comes at the very beginning. Libor is describing a suicide pact at 'Bitchy 'Ead' - and Treslove doesn't understand that he means Beachy Head. This joke goes on for about a page and a half. But Treslove was taught by Libor when he was at school, and Libor has lived in the country ever since. There's literally no way that Treslove wouldn't be used to his accent by this point. and also, 'Beach = bitch' is just not funny. Then we get quips throughout like 'anyone who likes pre-raphaelite art is obsessed with dead women', and to be honest I couldn't even work out why Jacobson thought that was even funny.

Oh yes - one more thing. The novel is said, by its fans, to be about grief. The reason I've not focused on this is because not only is the treatment of grief deeply unconvincing, it's also desperately uninteresting. The narrative jumps around to flesh out the reasons for the various characters' grief, but it doesn't make sense. Treslove's 'great shame' is that he conducted a brief affair with Finkler's wife, and it's this truth that more or less causes his disintegration as a character near the end of the novel. Yet at the beginning he's at dinner with the other 2 men - both recently bereaved - and is jokingly referred to as a grief tourist. and it is this woman, Tyler Finkler, who is the hero of the novel - Jacobson hides another of his own diatribes in a letter from her - but she effectively 'teaches' Finkler everything he knows about Jewishness - and this comes, in the 'real-life' chronology, before her death. Oh and Tyler seems to not really like Finkler at all, at any point of her life. She's a believable character in everything other than the reason she's in the book.

To put it more simply, Jacobson intentionally withholds the information aboput Treslove and Mrs Finkler in order to generate a narrative of Treslove's increasing understanding of the problematics of British Jewishness - but at the cost of the novel as a whole.

Unbelievable, uninteresting and unfunny from beginning to end, I'm still utterly perplexed at why anyone thought it even worth of longlisting for the Booker. It looks a really stupid choice following 'Wolf Hall', and will look even more stupid when it's (hopefully) followed by Hollinghurst.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The selective moralists of liberal England

Nick sees in the New Year with the traditional cake having and eating:

Here, it is customary in the liberal press to attack the EU and, by extension, David Cameron for their toleration of the European far right. I won't follow precedent because I have no wish to join the selective moralists of liberal England, who beat their breasts and denounce Cameron for allying with unsavoury east European parties, but stay silent when leftwing British charlatans indulge an Islamist far right, whose hatreds of gays and Jews are as putrid as anything you can find behind the old Iron Curtain.

Ooh, look, Cameron tolerates the European far right, the bastard, but I'm not going to condemn him, because people I don't like have. I'm never really sure what passive-aggressive means, but this seems to fit.

Anyway, here's an old piece in the liberal press, the Observer of 26 July 2009 to be precise and its intention is clear from the URL alone, the file or directory name is "david-cameron-eu-far-right". Someone, one suspects is going to have a go at David Cameron and the EU for tolerance of the far right.

On this test, David Cameron emerges as a boy running for a man's job, a student politician so lost in his ideological obsessions he cannot produce a morally or intellectually coherent foreign policy.

If you think I am being unnecessarily harsh about an attractive man, consider his willingness as a party manager to allow Michal Kaminski to lead British Conservatives in Europe. It tells us that, once in power, our next prime minister will wander through the swamp of reactionary politics, embracing any reptile he meets on the way.

Cameron has pulled out of the European Parliament's moderate centre-right grouping, a fact that should be more notorious. It includes the followers of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.

And so on.

The editorialising bit:

I think Nick [2009] was right, and Nick [2011] is wrong. I think that criticising David Cameron for this sort of alliance made perfect sense, and was actually a persuasive reason not to trust him.

Via Ophelia Benson, I found this:

The King of Saudi Arabia has also shown great leadership in this sphere. [As the speaker implies he himself has. Praise follows, implying we should be more like him.]

Some people just will go on praising these far right, gay and Jew hating types.

I think Sunday's Observer piece was a pretty good specimen of its kind, but that one passage, where Nick yet again slags off the "liberal press" for having opinions which he's ventilated in the pages of the Observer, stuck out. If you want to praise the rest of it, feel free.

Like having a third nipple

No, we are not going there.

Well, OK, if Nigel isn't dead, he'll never trust the Archers' scriptwriters again.

Happy New Year.