“Les Années” or “The Years” by Annie Ernaux: an individual take on “collective memory”

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Galileo Watcher of the Skies – obscured somewhat by the fog of academia

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by [Wootton, David]My fascination with Galileo, the brilliant thinker who was eventually gagged by a bigoted Inquisition, was fed by Michael White’s absorbing biography, “Galileo Antichrist”. Although very strong on childhood influences, personality, dealings with friends and family, his inventions and the tortuous path by which he fell foul of the priests pulling the strings behind an insecure and neurotic Pope, the biography seemed a little thin on the all-important scientific theories to do with motion and astronomy, and to have gone too far into trying to make ideas accessible by “dumbing down” the details.

In seeking out David Wootton’s much denser and more academic work, I got both more and less than I bargained for. Following an essentially chronological but more thematic approach, the author devotes lengthy passages to, for instance, experiments dealing with specific gravity, the physics of the motion of falling objects, or mathematical calculations to evaluate the respective merits of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy versus the more “heretical” Copernicus, and “fudged” Tycho Brahe. My lack of basic scientific knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the author’s explanations and arguments, but I also suspected that, himself a historian, he may have strayed out of his own comfort zone. He certainly seems to make things overly complicated and long-winded.

Despite many examples of Galileo conducting practical experiments, Wootton is at pains to stress that these were mainly to demonstrate the truth of his real love, abstract theories, which is what led him to mathematics. Although he sometimes seemed too arrogantly confident, or perhaps simply busy, to put a theory to the test, he seems to me to have combined the two approaches, so that to suggest otherwise is hair-splitting. How could Galileo have done otherwise at a time when the words “experiment” and “scientist” were not used, and it was common for inquisitive thinkers to be polymaths.

Wootton concedes the limitations placed on historical research by the loss and corruption of data. So, we learn that much of the writing from Galileo’s most fertile period of invention was used by a butcher to wrap meat, or sold off as scrap paper. Similarly, his former student Viviani, who did so much to foster a positive legacy for Galileo, was not above fabricating appealing myths, such as the claim that he devised “the law of the pendulum” from observing the swinging of a lamp in Pisa Cathedral. However, in the absence of hard evidence, Wootton seems to me to indulge in too much academic conjecture as to, for example, the extent to which Galileo was a Catholic or even a Christian. For a man born in 1564, I see no contradiction in the fact that he, with unconscious male chauvinism, sent his two daughters to be nuns, that he paid lip service to Catholic belief when there was an Inquisition actively engaged in torturing and executing alleged heretics, but was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific enquiry which some Jesuits themselves pursued, yet could not deny what his reason told him to be true, unless his own life was at risk.

Not until two-thirds of the way through does Wootton state that his “primary purpose is to provide an intellectual biography of one of the world’s greatest scientists-to reconstruct the development of his ideas over time”. At the same time, he observes that, ”Amongst professional historians, biography is not an intellectually respectable genre”. He then makes what seems like a self-evident case for what he calls “a characterological approach to biography” to enable us to understand the study of scientific progress and cultural change, fitting themes for a historian, it would seem. This line of argument appears unnecessarily tortuous. However it explains why Wootton glosses over Galileo’s childhood and career, and why references to his family often seem awkwardly squeezed in, sometimes so condensed as to be hard to follow. I was troubled by the subjectivity of a chapter suggesting out of the blue that a bullying and devious mother may have been to blame for his reluctance to get married, his lack of communication as regards his emotional attachments and private beliefs, and also explain his aggressive, driven personality. In his summing up, Wootton writes, “the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and influence shaped Galileo’s internal life and constitute the cosmography of his self” but I could not find clear and convincing passages in the book to support this.

Similarly, I was surprised by the author’s sudden break from the build-up to Galileo’s trial in order to speculate on his frustration over a missed opportunity to consummate a relationship with some married woman, Alessandra Buonamici who had not clearly figured in the story before. I would have preferred more along the lines of the moving account of Galileo’s close relationship with his daughter Marie-Celeste, a nun, to provide a more fleshed out picture of the man.

Although the work is informative and gripping in places, it continually frustrated me by failing to provide the further insights and deeper analysis I was seeking. The above factors make it an unnecessarily hard and opaque slog at times.

“Forever nude” by Guy Goffette

I read this in French, but presumably my comments still apply, although it is hard to imagine how the distinctive French “stream of consciousness” style could have been translated without something being lost.
With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.

Galileo Antichrist A Biography by Michael White – pure reason versus fear of thinking

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo was a man of remarkable intelligence with the misfortune to be born at a time of intense religious bigotry. Nowadays he would no doubt be a media celebrity explaining and debating his many theories, a multi-millionaire through the sale of his inventions and a Nobel prize-winner to boot.

Instead, in the understandable desire to avoid life imprisonment in his old age and possible burning as a heretic, he was browbeaten into a humiliating refutation of his support for the theory of Copernicus that the earth rotates in orbit round a static sun. His scientific approach, based on observable evidence and mathematical calculations foundered on the Catholic Church’s arbitrary insistence on the immutable truth of Aristotle’s flawed deductive reasoning that an all-powerful God kept the sun and planets orbiting round the earth. The supreme irony is that Aristotle was a “heathen” Greek. Another is that Galileo might have avoided punishment if he had been prepared to escape to a Protestant country like the Netherlands or England, even stayed in the more tolerant city of Venice rather than throw in his lot with the Medicis of Florence, who were less prepared to stand up to the Pope.

In this fascinating account, which makes science comprehensible even to a reader with very limited prior knowledge, the author has a tendency to try to capture our imagination with a good deal of speculation. The most significant example of this is his support for a recent theory that the heresy for which Galileo was convicted was in fact a cynical distraction from the issue which really concerned the somewhat unstable Pope Urban VIII and the fanatical Jesuits at the heart of the Vatican. This was that Galileo’s nascent views on the existence and nature of atoms threatened the belief at the heart of Catholic doctrine, which sets it apart from Protestantism: namely, that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, whilst maintaining their original physical appearance.
Although widely admired in his lifetime, Galileo was no saint. As a young man, he was known as “the Wrangler” for his argumentative approach. Never backward in asserting his intelligence and his contempt for those of lesser intellect who contradicted him, he accumulated a number of enemies who were eager to play a part in his ultimate downfall. To gain a teaching post at the University of Padua, he was prepared to give a lecture estimating the dimensions of Lucifer, a topic he must surely have regarded as somewhat ludicrous.

His curiosity ranged widely to include radical thinking on the behaviour of pendulums, the speed of falling objects, even the cause of the tides, where his thinking was in error. He showed entrepreneurial skills in commercialising his invention of the mathematical compass, a widely used tool for making calculations, driven by the need to support an extended family including his feckless brother with a growing brood of children. Despite being an excellent communicator, Galileo detested teaching: he out-manoeuvred a rival to corner the market in another invention with practical application, one of the first telescopes, and used it as a means of gaining a plum post in the Florence of the Medicis, one of the conditions being that he could give up teaching.

The telescope enabled him to view the moons orbiting Jupiter and the “crackled and wavy” surface of a moon which the Church insisted was a perfect, smooth sphere: Galileo’s critics argued that, if it was covered in mountains and craters, it must be contained in a translucent layer which would make it the “right” shape. It is not surprising that Galileo presented his arguments in debates in which foolish arguments were demolished, but when the “fall guy” voicing views held by the Pope was named Simplicio, based on the Italian word for simpleton, he was clearly sailing to close to the wind.

Galileo’s fateful trial is covered in some detail in translations of a tortuous procedure involving legalistic language and specious theological argument which despite being somewhat dry has the power to enrage the modern reader over the injustice of the situation. Yet with successors like Newton to build on his work, the genie could never be returned to the bottle.

“East west street” by Philippe Sands: piecing together family history and human rights

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

“Educated” by Tara Westover – the price of “a change of self”

Educated: The international bestselling memoir

The youngest of seven children, Tara Westover was brought up after a bizarre fashion in rural Idaho by a father whose dominant and possibly bi-polar personality fed an extreme form of Mormonism. Using his children as cheap labour, Gene Westover (most family names used are pseudonyms) ran a scrapyard with scant regard for health and safety. He regarded the succession of gruesome injuries which ensued as God-given opportunities to prove the efficacy of the herbal remedies his submissive wife spent much of her time concocting. Hospitals were dangerous places run by “gentiles” to be avoided at all costs, antibiotics and analgesics likely to cause permanent harm. He was obsessed with storing up food and fuel for the long awaited Days of Abomination, the period of chaos which would precede the Second Coming of Christ, which he was convinced would be triggered by Y2K, the expected January 1st 2000 millennium computer failure. His other great obsession was to avoid corrupting state education, insisting that his children be home-schooled, but in such an unorganised way that they were left with no qualifications and woefully ignorant.

As soon as they were old enough, his offspring left home, either to drive trucks and do manual work, which generally meant they drifted back eventually, or as the only means of obtaining an education. Perhaps because she was a girl for whom “book-learning” was considered a particular waste of time since her “destiny” was to become a good wife and mother, Tara found it particularly hard to break free and get into college. Yet through ability and determination combined with the luck of catching the eye of a tutor at the Mormon college who could see her potential, she won a place on a study programme at Cambridge and gained a PhD by her late twenties.

This memoir often seems disjointed, even incoherent and inconsistent when dealing with the more dramatic events. The author admits to the problem of remembering exactly what happened when, say, a brother’s clothing caught fire in the scrapyard, or of dealing with differing recollections of the same incident. This may be what led to her interest in “historiography”, of the varied ways in which historians interpret the past. However, there’s no denying that I was left with the impression that much of the drama had gained in the telling. Apart from the frequent ability to avoid death or paralysis after falling from a great height or gaining third degree burns, there are a litany of inconsistencies.

Admittedly, his psychosis may serve as an excuse, but if Tara’s father forcibly pulled Tara’s sleeves down for the sake of modesty when she was working in the yard on a hot day, why did he let her put on make up to go out repeatedly with a local boy after work? I could understand “Dad’s” somewhat ungodly pride in her singing abilities, but would he have let her mother dye her hair red for her lead part in “Annie”? Would Tara’s parents have paid for her to have orthodontic treatment when they had not done so for her brother Shawn, and had such a horror of medical treatment? When she eventually reached King’s College Cambridge, lacking in confidence and nervous of drawing attention to herself, would she really have either sought or been permitted to stride up the sloping tiles to walk along the ridge during a tour of the roof?

Despite these reservations, this is an intriguing insight into how abuse of power and emotional blackmail may distort family relationships, leading to self-delusion and doublethink which the the changes in perception brought about by education cannot eradicate without a lengthy struggle. Breaking free comes at the price of a painful and guilt-ridden rift with close family members and poignant exile from familiar haunts, in this case the backdrop of the wild solitude of  “Buck’s Peak”.

“A Certain Idea of France” – a biography of Charles de Gaulle by Julian Jackson- Using his wits to survive “like Tintin”.

This engrossing biography should delay the inevitable forgetting of what made De Gaulle so famous, with a clear socio-political summary of the past century to set the France of today in context. I enjoyed the frequent use of vivid quotations to show the reactions of De Gaulle’s contemporaries to this eccentric, complex man whose flaws both undermined and contributed to his often controversial achievements.

Deeply influenced by his conservative, nationalistic, intellectual Catholic upbringing, it is unsurprising that De Gaulle found the rapid French surrender at the outset of World War Two and subsequent collaboration intolerably dishonourable. His broadcasts to France from exile in London via the BBC, notably the famous call to arms in June 1940, had the same kind of morale-boosting impact as Churchill’s speeches. By the time De Gaulle was able to walk down the Champs-Elysées of a liberated Paris, an estimated “two million souls” gathered to greet him, yet few had any idea what he looked like in that pre-television age.

To gain recognition as the leader of the Free French and ensure that France should have some role both in the liberation and the subsequent negotiations required vast self-belief amounting to arrogance, combined with unrelenting persistence. Speaking of himself as “De Gaulle”, even “France”, a kind of latter-day male Joan of Arc, he threw chairs during tantrums with world leaders, machinated to get rid of rivals, tried Churchill’s patience to the limit, and aroused the implacable hostility of the American President Roosevelt. Forever “biting the hand that fed him”, he showed scant gratitude to the Allies or the Resistance groups on whom he was at times utterly dependent.
Perhaps he was simply applying the reading which had convinced him of a leader’s need to “cultivate mystery and keep his distance” with “a large dose of egoism, of pride, or hardness and ruse …Leadership is solitary exercise of the will”. Although he was a showman in his oratory, delivering carefully honed speeches from memory in several languages and, with his undeniable courage, loved to disappear into large adulatory crowds, private meetings with De Gaulle were often disappointing. There is a pattern in descriptions of him pontificating at length, looking through people rather than at them, sometimes unexpectedly proving later to have noted and even been influenced by remarks they had managed to make.

“Granting” Algerian independence has been cited as one of De Gaulle’s main achievements, but Julian Jackson points out that it was in fact “wrested from him” after France had come close to mainland civil war, and he showed a callous disregard for the suffering of pieds noirs and Harkis who “lost out” in the process.

It was a shock to realise that De Gaulle’s return to power as President in 1958 was undemocratic, a coup “legalised” because “France’s elites had lost confidence in the existing regime to resolve the Algerian crisis”. This gave him “full powers to govern by decree for six months with the suspension of parliament during that period”. His subsequent manipulation of the constitution under the new Fifth Republic to get himself elected directly by the public, thus cementing his personal power, was also questionable – he was recreating the role of a monarch within the republican system which had aimed to destroy it. His delight in “upsetting the applecart” was evident to the end, as in his rash speech, climaxing in the infamous slogan “Vive le Québec libre!”on a visit to Canada.

De Gaulle often seems like a throwback to a previous age, with his frugal personal lifestyle, rejection of the telephone even when holding high office. and his musing on the damaging effect on society of mass production. Yet he encouraged others to pursue the technology, including nuclear warheads, which would “make France great” and was fortunate, probably owing some of his popularity to, the fact that his “reign” coincided with the “Trente Glorieuses” – the three decades of post-war relative economic prosperity and cultural achievement in France.

Although forced to resign ultimately as an old man who had become out of touch, as indicated by the riots of 1968, De Gaulle often proved quite insightful: he foresaw the collapse of Soviet communism, the folly of the American involvement in the Vietnam War which could not be won, ironically even prophesied for the Common Market that “if England enters into the Community, it will collapse because England will divide us”.

Clearly intended to be a major academic work, this requires a significant investment of time. At more than 800 pages, including notes and bibliography, it is too thick and cumbersome to read comfortably in paper format. I found the Kindle version more convenient, with the downside of it being much harder to flick back quickly to check on a point. The sheer number of names of politicians or acronyms of organisations and parties often becomes too much to absorb. Yet it definitely extended my knowledge and understanding considerably – probably one of the best books I have made the effort to read.

Emmanuel Macron – un jeune homme si parfait

This is my review of Emmanuel Macron: un jeune homme si parfait by Anna Fulda.

A biography of Emmanuel Macron seems a little premature, unless it is set in the context of how he managed to overturn the political apple-cart by founding a new party, En Marche! and leading it to victory with an absolute majority in the National Assembly, in little more than a year.

Anne Fulda’s at times gushing journalese froths anecdote and subjective comment with a sprinkle of gossip into a short biography, the solid content of which could be contained in a colour supplement feature. This is a work with no index, and sources limited to foot notes which generally amount to “Entretien avec l’auteur” plus date of interview. The chapters themed according to family relationships, education, Macron’s much-discussed charm, his courting of useful contacts, etcetera, provide a somewhat fragmented, disjointed account of events, with frequent repetition, suggesting a hasty production of the book without much editing, perhaps with the aim of hitting the bookshops before competitors.

Anne Fulda devotes most space to providing explanations for Macron’s remarkable confidence and self-belief. As a child, he clearly had an unusual level of maturity which made him responsive to adults keen to foster his evident intelligence. It was not just a case of father teaching him Greek and philosophy at home, in a house filled with books, for Macron was very close to his formidable grandmother, who set great store by learning, perhaps because of her own uneducated parents. Not only was she an exacting teacher, setting him high standards from an early age, but she clearly adored him to the extent of sidelining his own mother, believing he had “special talents”.

The pattern of seeking the company of admiring older people who could advance his progress continued, first in Macron’s liaison with Brigitte Trogneux, the drama teacher twenty-four years his senior who became his constant companion and eventually his wife, and later with his intense but often brief dealings with a succession of “movers and shakers” – philosophers, bankers and financiers, media people, even image makers like Mimi Marchand, “la Mata Hari des paparazzi” with her photo agency “Bestimage” to promote news of “des beautiful people” – thus is the French language betrayed. This incongruous mixture would of course enable Macron to achieve the goal of becoming president, which he appears to have considered as a realistic aim from an early age.

The author is less effective at dealing with “the tough stuff”: she mentions Macron’s employment by the philosopher Ricœur, but makes no serious attempts to analyse either the main aspects of his mentor’s political thought, or the extent to which Macron has been influenced by this or sought to put it into practice. Similarly, there is an irritating tendency to lapse into name-dropping indigestible lists of the influential people with whom Macron has “networked”. These are leavened with distracting asides and snippets of gossip. Not being French, in order to make sense of all this, I felt the need to look some of them up on line, to gain basic information which should have been included in the book.
I was struck by the discordant shift from what seemed like fulsome, largely unquestioning adulation in earlier chapters, to quite a cynical portrayal of an arch-manipulator who “seduces” people for what he can get out of them. He tells audiences that he loves them, but in fact he is loving himself through them. Like a rock star or a tele-evangelist, he explicitly “speaks of love” in political rallies, because he is tapping “the emotional, irrational aspect which people need”.
The author describes at the end how his expression has changed from what she calls a kind of false, puerile candour into a harder, steely gaze revealing an unexpected determination, sometimes lit from within by “une lueur d’exaltation”. She dubs him a political “ovni” (UFO), “un étrange héros des temps modernes” who has consistently shown an obsession with not being “boxed in”. He has made himself into a “communication tool” which seems to be in perpetual evolution: apart from a consistent determination to get what he wants, in continually changing his identity from would-be actor/writer, to philosopher to banker to minister to President, he appears “toujours en quête, par insatisfaction ou crainte d’être enchaîné, de ne plus pouvoir vivre la vie qu’il a rêvée”. Is this an accurate assessment of what lies beneath the carefully constructed façade? Does it mean that, assuming he is re-elected, Macron may be not be “in for the long haul” as president because he will switch his mighty ambition to something else?

Politically incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea

This is my review of  Politically Incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea  by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

I came to read this book through being so intrigued by a third generation Jewish Israeli journalist who felt impelled to write such a provocatively titled memoir. Her assessment of the errors which she believes will cause the ongoing “inner crumbling” of Israel in its present form are refracted through article-like chapters on her life and that of her family members back to  the economic need or desire for freedom from religious control which led them to emigrate to the land of Israel before it became an independent state.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth does not  condemn the existence of Israel as such. Two weeks after the end of the Six Day War, she set off without a qualm on a family tour of the newly occupied West Bank. When Egyptian President Sadat  recognised Israel in his historic meeting with the right-wing leader Menachem Begin, she wrote optimistically of her country finding “its true vocation, which is to become an integral part of the Middle East” without the intercession of “meddling” foreign diplomats, distorting issues and restricting “the power of the imagination” through translating Hebrew and Arabic via the medium of the English language. These views are not surprising, since as a child she was taught how her grandparents  had come to the country and built it up from nothing, and that she had a responsibility to continue their work in a unique but vulnerable Israel. “The only Jewish state in the world was small but brave, poor but just”.

Perhaps the experience of being half-Yemeni, in a racially prejudiced Israel initially dominated by white east European Ashkenazi Jews, made the author more sympathetic to the growing plight of the Palestinian Arabs dispossessed  of the their lands. Certainly, by the end of the book she is advocating dismantling unauthorised settlements in more than a cosmetic exercise and getting out of lands illegally settled under international law. In what she insists is “not mission impossible”, the author argues that the land which Ariel Sharon claimed could take 15 million residents should be one where Jews and Palestinians agree to “live in a normal state as equal citizens living in one territory”, rather than one reserved for those with “the right religion as an entry card”.

This is why her initial and most polemical focus is on the negative implications of the alliance which has grown between the government and deeply religious Orthodox Jews who maintain the raison d’être for an exclusive and expansionist state.  She describes the heavy state support for the lifestyles of the Haredi, whose menfolk devote their lives to studying religious texts, exempt from national service, and massive subsidies for the settlers of the occupied territories, “easily identifiable by their uniform of yarmulkes and bearded faces and by their battered vehicles overloaded with children”. In addition, she lambasts the increased Orthodox influence on state education,   and its controls on marriage to non-Jews, weddings, funerals, and the practice of circumcision even for secular Jews, not to mention kosher food, all of which serve to maintain a sense of  inward-looking separation and superiority.

This book is often wordy and long-winded, assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, sometimes seems too subjective, slapdash or stilted in style. I imagine it will enrage many of the author’s compatriots, but in its  frankness and heart-felt sincerity, it is also a very informative, thought-provoking, insightful with wry humour, evocative, fascinating read.

The Dawn Watch: When fiction trumps history?

This is my review of The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff.

Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to have read much Conrad to be fascinated by him: the author admits to having struggled to read what some regard as his work of genius, “Nostromo”, and what most struck me when first reading Conrad is his remarkably fluent grasp of the English language, which he only began to learn when he went to sea as a young man.

What is really interesting about Conrad is his acute observation of human nature in a changing world where the romantic hardship of sail was giving way to the more profitable transport by steam, while European powers and the United States vied for control of resources in “less developed” areas, bringing the hell of exploitation, destruction and corruption with their good intentions to establish Christian culture, education, law and order. Maya Jasanoff finds in his life and fiction, “a history of globalisation seen from the inside out”, a grappling with “the ramifications of living in a global world”.

Conrad’s cynical, questioning approach must have been shaped by the hardship of early childhood in the exile to which his Polish parents, members of the landed gentry, were sentenced for his idealistic and unworldly father’s political activism against Russian domination. Yet it was typical of Conrad’s contradictions that years later he refused to sign the petition against the execution of his onetime colleague the Irishman Roger Casement for his part in the Easter Rising: “by emotional force he has made his way and sheer emotionalism has undone him”.

Being orphaned very young, a solitary only child with no stable home, may have triggered Conrad’s wanderlust, the desire to get as far possible from landlocked eastern Europe onto the open sea. Perhaps because his father had been a writer who taught him reams of patriotic Polish poetry, he developed the motivation to jot down stories about places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines”…”among human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world”.

Since Maya Jasanoff is a historian rather than a literary biographer, her main interest is in how he dealt with “the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technical change”, with only passing reference to his writing style or any real literary evaluation of his work. Two interesting maps, which could have been superimposed, show the clear overlap between the far-flung countries he visited as a seaman and the settings for his novels: five months spent as captain of a steamship on the Congo inspired “Heart of Darkness”; service as first mate of the steamer Vidar plying between the ports of Borneo and Sulawesi led to “Lord Jim”. Yet, “Nostromo”, set in the imaginary South American republic of Costaguano, was based totally on the knowledge of an obliging friend.

Conrad was a man of strong opinions: although his son only once saw him pray over his own father’s grave, Conrad believed that “even the freest” is to some degree hemmed in by “fate”. Sickened by the fact that his later work, which he regarded as “second rate efforts”, which are no longer read, earned him so much more than such works as “Heart of Darkness”, he refused honorary degrees or a knighthood, but would have valued the reward of the international Nobel Prize, which was never offered. Even his humour was caustic: in his final years of belated fame after years of struggling as a writer, he remarked that Esperanto was “a monstrous jargon” but people could translate his work into it if they so wished.

Despite the earnest bleakness of much of his work, his periods of depression as a struggling middle-aged writer and his frequent illnesses, he clearly possessed a charm which drew a wide circle of friends, including well-known authors. After years of desultory flirting on shore-leave with attractive, highly respectable young women, and an intriguing correspondence with a widowed aunt only a few years his senior, he married a “to tell the truth rather plain” teenage typist called Jessie, perhaps as ever shrewdly realising how she could support him on a practical and emotional level – yet he clearly developed a strong affection for her to the end.

Minor criticisms: most of the historical maps included are too small-scale to be legible, the evocative photos embedded in the text would have been better if larger. Maya Jasanoff’s long, somewhat clunky resumés of Conrad’s better known works seem like padding, questionable since they include too many “spoilers” for those wishing to go on to read them. Although the chapters are mainly in chronological order, the thematic approach fragments Conrad’s life story so that a time-line would be useful. Despite all these reservations, this is an absorbing and very readable treatment of a complex and interesting man, flawed yet impressive.