Thursday, August 13, 2015

The art of serious reading

In his regular pieces for The New Yorker, the literary critic James Wood gives you hope for the ailing arts of reading and writing. Wood is a master of both things. He uses words as scrupulously as he listens to them; his prose hears nuance and has it. His stuff is like a reviver tent by the side of the information highway. When the traffic starts to dull your brain, Wood can always be relied on to remind you what real thinking sounds like.

In his new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood unshackles himself from the obligations of the critical review, and unfurls a sustained, free-ranging meditation about life, art, and the relationship between them ... [read more]

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Winning ugly

J. M. Coetzee writes the way Ivan Lendl played tennis: authoritatively but grimly. There isn’t much warmth in the performance. One doubts, for that matter, that either man would consider “performance” to be part of his job description. The Good Story is an exchange of letters between the Nobel Prize winning novelist and the psychologist Arabella Kurtz, who practices and teaches in England. The book is austere and mannered, especially on Coetzee’s side. But it’s rewarding too, in a purely intellectual way. Stick with the dialectic and you’ll be repaid with moments of limpid insight, like outbreaks of sunshine on a frosty day.

The project’s premise is that Coetzee, as a novelist “sympathetically disposed” to psychoanalysis, wants to open a dialogue with Kurtz about the connections between Freudian therapy and fiction writing ... [read more]

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The wonder and the weirdness

In February of this year, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who practices medical writing as an art, published an essay announcing he is terminally ill. The cancer that cost him the sight of his right eye nine years ago has spread to his liver; he can now count his remaining time in months. The announcement was made with characteristic understatement (“my luck has run out”). It was characteristic, too, in its verve. Skipping self-pity, Sacks spoke bracingly of the time he has left. Resolving to live the rest of his life ecstatically, he made you resolve to live yours that way too.

On the Move, the loose and slightly stand-offish autobiography that looks destined to be his last non-posthumous work, is the book of a man who has already written his masterpieces ... [read more]

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unfunny clown

Shortly before going to trial, the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik assured a psychiatrist that he was an essentially respectable character. Leaving aside a “window of three hours” on July 22nd, 2011, Breivik explained, he had never behaved threateningly to anyone. Inside that window, Breivik detonated a van-bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to the small island of Utøya, where the youth wing of the Labour Party was holding its annual summer camp. There, using semi-automatic firearms equipped with laser sights, he slaughtered sixty-nine further victims, most of them teenagers. Then he surrendered, so he could inform the world why all this had been necessary, from a political point of view. When the police made him strip, to confirm he wasn’t wired with a bomb, he grinned and struck a bodybuilder’s pose in his underpants. 

The prospect of spending 500 pages in the company of such a man is not tantalizing. But the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, whose previous works include The Bookseller of Kabul, has written an account of the Breivik case that magisterially transcends its limited and squalid central figure. Like Evil Angels, like In Cold Blood, this is far more than just a crime book. It’s a book about the whole of modern Norway. 

No evocation of Breivik’s context, though, could be thorough enough to explain, finally, why he did what he did. Even Breivik – especially Breivik – doesn’t seem to understand that. The 1,500-page manifesto he cobbled together in the months preceding the atrocity established only that the world of ideas was one of the many worlds in which he was not at home. He claimed to be worried about the “Islamisation of Europe,” but had a sneaking admiration for the purity and methods of al-Qaeda. Plagiarising from a hodge-podge of incompatible sources, he deplored Islam from the left and far-right simultaneously. It bothered him that some Muslim immigrants found modern Norway decadent, even though he found it decadent too. He complained that Muslims didn’t respect Norway’s commitment to women’s rights, even though he bitterly resented it himself. Part of his original plan, indeed, was to get to Utøya in time to behead the veteran feminist and Labourite Gro Harlem Brundtland, who had served as Norway’s first female Prime Minister, and was scheduled to speak on the island that morning. Fortunately she was gone by the time Breivik arrived. 

The authentic Breivik, inasmuch as he existed at all, was a fascist. His methods made that obvious enough, and the zanier parts of his manifesto confirmed it. He didn’t really want Muslims to fit into modern Norway. He wanted to convert them to Christianity, forcibly. He wanted to deport those who didn’t comply. He wanted off-shore breeding facilities where surrogate mothers would pump out blue-eyed babies to replenish the Nordic gene pool.

Seierstad intercuts Breivik’s decline into monomania with the stories of some of the bright young Norwegians who had the foul luck to collide with his nihilism on Utøya. The most heartbreaking of these stories is that of Bano Rashid, an 18-year-old Muslim girl whose refugee parents had fled to Norway from Iraqi Kurdistan in order to get away from gun-toting men with extreme views. Bano grew up idolising Gro, the Norwegian trailblazer whom Breivik wanted to decapitate. She was ardent about women’s rights. She dreamed of becoming Norway’s Minister for Equality. Her story might have been invented to demonstrate that a European Muslim, if left alone by the bullies and fanatics on both sides, can be at least as passionate about so-called Western values as most Westerners are.

On the day of the massacre Bano was sick, but insisted on travelling to the island to hear Gro speak. A few hours later, Breivik arrived. Seierstad’s fifty-page reconstruction of his rampage is meticulously researched, and almost unbearable to read. When the shooting started, Bano and her fellow campers were able to guess roughly what was happening, and could think of several types of reactionary who might plausibly want to mow them down. Was it al-Qaeda? Neo-Nazis? Agents of Colonel Gaddafi?

But nobody’s imagination could have been vivid enough to conjure the figure of Breivik – the unfunny clown in the fake police outfit, with a homemade patch on the arm that said “Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.”

There is a theme, in Breivik’s life, of appearance unaccompanied by content. “He’s so ambitious,” one of his friends said, “but sort of empty at the same time.” He dropped out of school with plans to become a millionaire, but had no special feelings about how. He set up an online business selling fake diplomas. Like the hero of American Psycho, he was particular about his look, his body, his clothes – his Lacoste jersey, his Ralph Lauren shirts. He had a nosejob in his early twenties. He contemplated a hair transplant at the same time. He wore foundation. At one point in his manifesto he specifies his favoured cologne – Chanel Egoiste.

At the age of twenty-seven, the self-styled Ubermensch moved back in with his mother. He spent hours locked in his room, playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. An attempt to marry a blue-eyed internet bride from Minsk had gone sour, after the lady spent enough time in Norway to find out what Breivik was like. Here and elsewhere Breivik bears a passing resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, who married a woman from Minsk, took her back to the USA, and was ditched by her once she’d had her fill of the violent narcissism that he would later vent on the national stage. 
Serially rejected by the real world, Breivik got to work on his slapdash manifesto. When he was done with that, he wound up in the one place where he finally felt in charge: in the bomb lab on the rented farm, in his boiler suit, sweating over the vat of bubbling sulfur.

The question of timing is important. Breivik would claim that he began planning his atrocity in 2002. Seierstad finds no evidence that the plot pre-dated the early months of 2011, when Breivik started shopping for guns and bomb ingredients. There is good reason, in other words, to doubt Breivik’s claim that his “operation” resulted from long meditation on Europe’s ills. By the time he adopted his futile theories, he was already a resentful and alienated man. Adopting them made him more resentful and alienated still. Like many another terrorist, he gets you thinking about the symbiotic connection between extreme ideology and the rage of the thwarted male. 

“Was he a mad, or was he a political terrorist?” The question runs through Seierstad’s book like a leitmotif. But the distinction seems false, when a man’s political ideals are crazy in themselves. Breivik’s patently were. In his wilder fantasies he saw himself as a member of the crusading Knights Templar: he wanted to wind back the clock to the Middle Ages, like his notional foes at al-Qaeda. At his trial, a medical expert confessed that “we have too little psychiatric theory,” at the moment, concerning the grey area between psychosis and political fanaticism. How desperately one hopes that this won’t become an expanding field.

Breivik himself wanted to be tried and sentenced as a sane “political activist.” The prosecution, reversing the normal order of things, argued for a finding of insanity. “His political world exists just to have a world to be psychotic in,” one psychiatrist testified. But Breivik’s lawyers cited an interesting technicality. For a subject to qualify as psychotic, his delusions must be “culturally inappropriate.” And Breivik’s, they argued, were not, since a sizable online subculture of other people believed them too. The court, persuaded by such arguments, and by other psychiatric testimony, deemed Breivik legally sane. In the internet age, it may be getting increasingly hard to qualify as delusional. 

But Seierstad is too scrupulously objective to go into the implications of the Breivik case. She confines herself to the facts. These she lays out rivetingly, with an eye for the small but unforgettable detail. When the injured children were being ferried off Utøya, they were urged not to look back at the strewn shore. “Some looked anyway, and screamed.” As night fell on the island, mobile phones continued to ring and light up near the dead bodies, each screen displaying the word Mum.

But one moment is perhaps more eloquent than all the rest. The brother of one of the victims, sick of hearing politicians glibly affirm that Norway has triumphed over evil, says: “I shall never win over anyone as long as I’m a little brother short.” On the macro scale, Norwegian culture has survived Breivik’s attack on it – Seierstad’s fine book is one proof of that. Like New York before it, like Paris after it, Norway absorbed the act of barbarism and moved on. It was always going to. In that respect terrorism is futile. But futility has an urge to take other people down with it. Every time it does, irreplaceable lives are lost. Seierstad doesn’t let us forget that fact either.   

Originally published in The Australian