Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Art of Serious Reading

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 25-26, 2015 

 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. The project originated as a series of lectures, and Wood has risen elegantly to the challenges of that form, packing each hour to the brim with distilled intelligence. The result is a kind of verbal Tardis: the book looks small, but a lot goes on inside it. At one point Wood recalls his childhood love of Penguin classics, whose covers seemed to glow in his hands as if “irradiated by the energy of their compressed contents.” This is that kind of book. 

Wood’s first essay begins with a death. The author is at the memorial service of a young friend, whose life has been suddenly and randomly lopped short. Naturally these circumstances give rise to the question that constitutes the essay’s title: “Why?” Why are we here? What’s the point? 

Over the centuries, Wood says, the Why? question “has been answered – or shall we say, replied to – by theodicy.” This sly distinction is typical of Wood’s sensitivity to the weight of language – he handles words the way a serious shopper chooses fruit. In everyday speech, we tend to use the terms answer and reply interchangeably. Wood reminds us that they are, or can be, two very different things. Wood’s parents were devout Christians; when he asked them Why? as a youngster, they had ready replies. But the replies, he suspected even then, were inadequate. These days, when his own children ask him the same eternal question, he finds he has no simple comeback. 

On the plus side, he does think he has a complex one. It will take him the whole of the book to elaborate it, but a sneak preview is available in the title, which comes from George Eliot’s suggestion that “Art is the nearest thing to life.” Wood, it will emerge, believes that the meaning of life, in so far as there is one, can be found in art – or more precisely in literature, or more precisely still in fiction, which after all is his area of expertise. He thinks that serious reading, far from being a luxury pursuit, or a turning away from life, will in fact take you right to the heart of the matter. It will tell you why. 

Growing up in a pious environment, Wood found that literature provided a space for mental “escape.” Novels encouraged the kind of free thinking that the Bible explicitly sought to shut down. Although Wood admired the empathetic and “thoroughly novelistic” Christ who cautioned against casting the first stone, the Gospels contained a less humane Christ too – the Christ who declared that looking at a woman with lust was an act of adultery. That Christ seemed to be making the “thoroughly anti-novelistic” claim that “thought is action.” (Wood is too charitable to add that there are a few novels, including pre-eminently Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which we get to see what this principle looks like when enforced.) At any rate, the young critic came to prefer the “utterly free space” offered by the literary text. “To read fiction,” he says, “is to have non-actionable thoughts; we assert the humane, non-religious right to separate thinking from doing.” 

If fiction is secular in that sense, though, in another sense it grants us “the power of religious monitoring.” When we “peer into the thinking” of a fictional character, we acquire “the power to turn inside out the pocket of someone else’s private thoughts and watch the loose change of error fall incriminatingly to the ground. (Isaac Babel said that he could write a story about a woman if shown the contents of her handbag.)” 

A fine analyst of other writers’ metaphors, Wood is no slouch at imagery himself. The inside-out pocket is good, and “the loose change of error” is even better. Note, too, how useful Wood’s mention of Isaac Babel is. Wood can always casually throw in just the right illustration from anywhere on literature’s globe. Is there any writer he doesn’t know? When he fleetingly confesses that “I have still never really read” Wyndham Lewis or George Sand, the word “really” suggests he’s read them at least a bit, and the word “still” implies it’s only a matter of time till he tackles them properly. 

Dispensing with the old idea that the pious possess powers of moral insight unavailable to free-thinkers, Wood is ready to suggest something like the opposite: secular texts, as well as being more fun to read than holy ones, can also provide us with a deeper and more nuanced moral education. Reading fiction, we’re permitted to observe the failings of others, but we’re not encouraged to condemn them. This is because the others are products of the imagination – our imagination, as well as the author’s. So instead of deploring their shortcomings we tend to experience “proximity, fellow-feeling, compassion, communion. We have the uncanny powers of the monitoring Jesus, but the humane insight of the forgiving Jesus.” 

If Wood had less classy publishers, they might have marketed his book as a sort of highbrow self-help manual. On one level that’s what it is: a powerful argument for the real-world utility of serious reading. Fiction isn’t just good in itself, it’s good for you; it’s wholesome, it’s nutritious; it deepens your sensibilities in ways that will help you live. “Often, in life,” Wood writes, “I have felt that an essentially novelistic understanding of motive has helped me to begin to fathom what someone else really wants from me, or from another person. Sometimes, it is almost frightening to realise how poorly most people know themselves …” 

Why are we here? Why do we read fiction? They may not be the same question, but they may turn out to have the same answer. To know ourselves, and to know others. Literature helps us do both: it can give us “an almost priestly advantage over other people’s souls.” The words “almost priestly” have an ironic ring, if you’ve followed Wood’s argument this far. By now we may suspect that the priest, armed with his lone dogmatic text, will know less about his fellow human beings than the seasoned fiction reader does. 

Wood’s second essay, “Serious Noticing,” burrows deeper into the Why? question. Great writers, Wood argues, are in the business of seriously noticing things. With the force of their metaphors and the novelty of their phrasing, they refresh our picture of the world. When Aleksandar Hemon describes dollops of horse-shit as “dark, deflated, tennis balls,” he helps us see. When Saul Bellow has a middle-aged character grasp the “big but light elbow” of an elderly man, he evokes the boniness of old age in remarkably few words. Wood, having quoted Bellow’s phrase, throws out a killer line of his own: he says that Bellow’s character is “gradually disappearing into his own longevity.” 

It is as if the excellence of Bellow’s prose has rubbed off on Wood’s, inspiring him to do some serious noticing of his own. We’re all in danger of vanishing into our longevity. Literature, Wood dramatically proposes, can arrest or even reverse that process; it can remedy “the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention.” Great writing, by asking us “to look more closely,” helps us tighten our grip on “the fading reality that besets details as they recede from us.” It helps us grasp the present and remember the past. You might even say – and Wood says it – that literature can “rescue us from our death.” 

This is stirring stuff. Either consciously or unconsciously, Wood seems to be channeling the spirit of that seminal aesthete Walter Pater, who advanced similar arguments way back in the 1870s, thereby scandalizing his fellow Victorians. “We are all under sentence of death,” Pater wrote in the ornate but mighty “Conclusion” to his book on the Renaissance. “We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.” Pater electrified the likes of the young Oscar Wilde by preaching that this interval was best spent “in art and song … For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” 

Like Pater, Wood mounts a rousing argument for the centrality of art to life. Like Pater, he does so in prose that delivers the throb of art in its own right. At one point Wood makes mention of those artist-critics, like V. S. Pritchett and Virginia Woolf, who erase the distinction between creative writing and mere commentary – who speak “to literature in its own language.” If we didn’t know by now that Wood belongs in their ranks, this books confirms it.

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

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 9-10, 2015

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. Writing about himself, Sacks never quite attains the focus and gusto of his clinical case histories, which have been collected in such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. A famously shy man, he is at his most incisive and forthcoming when examining minds other than his own. The current book offers some clues about why that is, but it’s up to the reader to put them together. Sacks isn’t interested in treating himself as a mystery.         

He was born in London in 1933. His Orthodox Jewish parents were both doctors – his mother a surgeon, his father a GP. When Oliver was 18, and just about to leave for Oxford, his father gently confronted him about his apparent preference for boys over girls. His mother was less subtle about it: quoting from the Book of Leviticus, she called her son an “abomination,” and said she wished he’d never been born.  

This outburst was never spoken of again, but it left its mark. In Britain in the 1950s, as in Australia, homosexual acts were against the law. Sacks mentions the haunting case of Alan Turing, the computer genius who helped crack the Enigma code during the war, and was rewarded by being prosecuted for sodomy. Offered the choice between prison and chemical castration by hormone treatment, Turing opted for the latter. 

The terrified young Sacks, then, was obliged to leave the country in order to have legal sex. He lost his virginity in Amsterdam the age of 22, in a less than ideal way. He drank himself into unconsciousness, woke up in the bed of a strange but friendly man, and was informed that he had been “buggered” in the interim. To put it another way, he was raped. Sacks himself doesn’t put it that way – it isn’t his style to make a big deal of things. Nor does he spend much time wondering, at least aloud, about the extent to which the fear and shame imposed on his sexual salad days overshadowed his later life, which has been dogged by a shyness that he has elsewhere called a “disease.” “It has sometimes seemed to me,” he writes, “that I have lived at a certain distance from life.” He reveals, strikingly, that after a “fling” on his fortieth birthday, he went without sex for a period of 35 years. If Sacks were one of his own case studies, he’d have energetically speculated about the reasons for these things. But this isn’t that sort of autobiography. We’re told, at one point, that he has been seeing the same psychoanalyst for the last 49 years. What they’ve been talking about we’re mainly left to guess.   

At the age of 27, Sacks left Britain for Canada and then America. The move wasn’t meant to be permanent, but he has lived and worked in the US ever since. His portrait of the neurologist as a young man, in San Francisco and then in New York, gives us a figure radically at odds with his latter-day image. The younger Sacks was a rugged long-distance motorcyclist, a record-breaking weightlifter, and a heavy user of LSD and amphetamines. 

He also harboured an ambition to write. His first book was Migraine, which arose from his work at a headache clinic in the Bronx. “There is only one cardinal rule,” he wrote in the book’s conclusion. “One must always listen to the patient.” That commitment has been vital to Sacks’s success, as both a physician and a writer. When I first read his headache book I was suffering from hellish migraines myself, and dreamed of encountering a neurologist as intrepid and engaged as its author. I can’t say I ever found one. 

Sacks’s boss at the headache clinic deemed the book “trash”, and fired him when he insisted on publishing it. This set a pattern: his peers either ignored or badmouthed his books, while general readers increasingly loved them. The trend continued with Awakenings, in which Sacks chronicled his work with patients entombed in their own bodies by encephalitis lethargica, or sleepy sickness. Sacks, who was shaggily portrayed in the movie version by Robin Williams, correctly intuited that these patients could be unfrozen by the drug L-dopa, which had proved useful as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. 

Sack’s extraordinary powers of empathy as a doctor seem to have come from his father, the old-school GP who was still making house calls at the age of 93. You get the sense that he comes most alive in the presence of his patients, the way his patients, in Awakenings, finally came alive in his. “In a sense,” Sacks confesses, he was “in love with” his patients – “the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed.” 

Outside the clinic, Sacks has been less lucky in love. Although he doesn’t say so outright, his uncanny ability to connect with his patients seems to be linked to his diffidence in the world at large. He is a curious man, in both senses of the word. Compounding his shyness, and perhaps explaining it, is the fact that he is face-blind: he has a rare condition that limits his ability to recognize faces, even his own. Having already written about this in The Mind’s Eye, Sacks makes only cursory reference to it in the current book. On this question as on others, he passes up the chance to provide us with a final reckoning.   

But one could put that another way, and indeed one should. Sacks has given us a full and rich account of himself already, in his books about the exceptional brains of others. The charm of his case histories lies in their readiness to flit playfully between genres, including autobiography. Sacks the man, with his ardent and cultured mind, is always present in them. You never know, reading him, when you’ll encounter the flash of art, the nimble leap from the specific to the general – from the subject of the study to everyone else, including you. Writing about a man plunged into a world of grey by radical colourblindness, say, Sacks makes you aware, as never before, of the vividness of a life lived in colour. 

Something similar happens in the title essay of An Anthropologist on Mars. The subject is Temple Grandin, the autistic savant who lacks a sense of the world’s beauty, and must comprehend the universe with her intellect only. “But do you get a feeling of its grandeur?” Sacks asks her. Grandin replies that she doesn’t. “You get such joy out of the sunset,” she tells him. “I wish I did, too.” At such moments Sacks startles you into appreciating the routine miracles of everyday mental functioning. He’ll be missed for the reason any great writer is missed: for his capacity to evoke the wonder and weirdness of being here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Unfunny Clown

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 7-8, 2015

Shortly before he went to trial, the Norwegian terrorist and 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, on the other hand, he murdered seventy-seven people. He began by detonating a van-bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight. 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, Breivik slaughtered sixty-nine further victims, most of them teenagers. Then he surrendered, so he could proceed to inform the world about his political motives. 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 methods and ideological purity of al-Qaeda. Plagiarising from a hodge-podge of incompatible sources, he sought to denounce Islam from the left and the 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 that commitment 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. In the event, Brundtland had already left the island 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 to establish off-shore breeding facilities where surrogate mothers would pump out blue-eyed babies to replenish the Nordic gene pool.

Seierstad's account of Breivik’s decline into monomania is intercut with the stories of some of the bright young Norwegians who had the foul luck to collide with his madness 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 trailblazing Norwegian feminist whom Breivik planned to decapitate. Like her heroine, Bano was passionate about women’s rights. She dreamed of becoming Norway’s Minister for Equality. Her story might have been invented to prove the point that a Muslim can be at least as committed to so-called Western values as most Westerners are.

On the morning of the massacre Bano woke up sick, but insisted on travelling to the island to hear Gro speak. A few hours later, Breivik turned up. 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. Somebody was hunting them down, and picking them off one by one. But who? Survivors would say that several possibilities occurred to them. Maybe it was Neo-Nazis, or al-Qaeda, or agents of Colonel Gaddafi ... 

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

A theme ran through Breivik’s life: the theme of the hollow shell, 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 thoughts about how he would make his money. He set up an online business that sold fake diplomas. Like the hero of American Psycho, he was fastidious about his looks, 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 makes reference to his favourite cologne – Chanel Egoiste.

At the age of twenty-seven, the self-styled Übermensch moved back in with his mother. He spent endless hours locked in his room, playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. An attempt to marry a blue-eyed Internet bride from Minsk went awry, after the lady had spent enough time in Norway to find out what Breivik was really like. Here and elsewhere Breivik bears a passing resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, who actually did marry a woman from Minsk, but was ditched by her once she'd got a full load of his repellent personality.    

Serially rejected by the real world, Breivik began work on his slapdash manifesto. When that masterwork was complete, it wasn't long before he found himself starring in the first scene of his life where he felt fully potent and in charge: in the bomb lab on the rented farm, in his boiler suit, sweating over the vat of bubbling sulfur.

If we want to understand Breivik's motives, such as they were, the question of timing is important. Breivik himself has said that he began planning his atrocity as early as 2002. But Seierstad finds no evidence that his plot pre-dated the early months of 2011, when he started shopping for guns and bomb ingredients. There is good reason, in other words, to doubt Breivik’s claim that his “operation” grew out of a long period of meditation on Europe’s ills. It seems far likelier that he was already a deeply alienated and resentful man, by the time he embraced his half-baked racist ideology. Adopting that ideology made him more resentful and alienated still. Like many another terrorist, he gets you thinking about the symbiotic connection between extreme political beliefs 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 that distinction seems false, when a person’s political beliefs are mad in themselves. Breivik’s patently were. In his wilder fantasies he saw himself as a member of the medieval Knights Templar. He wanted to wind back the clock to the Crusades, just as his notional enemies at al-Qaeda do. At Breivik's trial, a medical expert testified that “we have too little psychiatric theory,” at the moment, to be able to say with confidence where political fanaticism ends, and where mental illness begins. Apparently this is a growth area in psychiatry.

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 was persuaded by such arguments, and it deemed Breivik legally sane. In the internet age, it may be getting increasingly hard to qualify as delusional. 

But Seierstad doesn't go into the broader implications of the Breivik case. She confines herself to the facts, which she lays out in a scrupulous and harrowing way, and with a fine eye for the unforgettable detail. When the injured children were being ferried off Utøya, they were urged not to look back at the body-littered 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 in the book is perhaps more eloquent than all the rest. The brother of one of Breivik's 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.” In the larger sense, Norwegian culture clearly 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 has absorbed the act of barbarism and moved on. It was always going to. In that respect terrorism is futile. But even as it fails to win, terrorism inflicts losses. And each life it takes is irreplaceable. Seierstad doesn’t let us forget that fact either.