Metropole, the first of Hungarian novelist Ferenc Karinthy’s books to be translated into English, comes garlanded with the most extravagant praise. The dust jacket carries the prediction of the French writer G.O. Chateaureynaud that the novel will in due course find a place in the twentieth-century canon, alongside the The Trial and 1984.
The comparison with Kafka is irresistible – Metropole is the story of a man accidentally and inexplicably cut adrift in a city he doesn’t recognise and in a country whose language he doesn’t speak. The endlessly, agonisingly frustrated attempts of the protagonist, Budai, to establish where he has ended up are authentically Kafkaesque (the essence of the Kafkaesque being a kind of unending bureaucratic present, rather than some melodrama of transcendence). However, the book of Kafka’s that Metropole most closely resembles is not The Trial, but its predecessor Amerika.
Kafka’s working title for Amerika was ‘The Man Who Disappeared’, and that is as good a description as any of Budai. Like Karl Rossmann in Kafka’s novel, Budai falls out of his own life and into an alien megalopolis. But whereas Karl is banished by his parents from Europe after getting a maid pregnant, Budai’s exile is wholly accidental. From the moment that he goes through the wrong door in an airport terminal, a sense of dread settles over the book – Budai’s rising dread that he will never discover the name of the place he is in, nor find his way back to his family in Budapest.
We never discover whether or not Budai does make it back, though the tense in which the novel begins suggests that he may have: ‘Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge …’ ‘It’, of course, is Budai’s translation to a city he had expected to be Helsinki, where he was due to speak at a conference of linguists. Landing in an airport he doesn’t recognise, Budai is herded, with the other passengers, on to a bus and dumped at a hotel, where his passport is taken without explanation.
Budai is a linguist himself, and his despair at this turn of events is deepened when he realises that the people he finds himself among speak a tongue that even he, an expert in a dozen languages, cannot parse. In fact, the local patois is so impenetrable, so resistant to the tools of phonetic analysis, that Budai wonders whether each of the teeming millions in this vast urban agglomeration actually speaks an idiom of his very own, a private language. The skyscraper that Budai sees when he leaves the hotel each morning is a kind of Tower of Babel, therefore, the symbol of his abandonment in a place that he can’t begin to understand. It’s because the city is radically unintelligible to Budai that it becomes his prison.
Translated with beautiful economy by George Szirtes, Karinthy’s allegory of language-lessness certainly merits a place in the pantheon of Mittel-european dystopian modernism.
Popular economics hit the bestseller list in 2005 with Steven D Levitt's Freakonomics, which sold by the bucketload and established a template that, for the time being at least, no aspiring economic populariser would dare to tamper with. Certainly, Tim Harford's The Logic of Life and Robert H Frank's The Economic Naturalist stick closely to Levitt's formula - right down to their subtitles, which promise, as Freakonomics did, that economics will explain "everything" or, in Frank's case, "almost everything".
Surveying the "railway stalls" where the modern reader bought his literature in 1855, Walter Bagehot observed that a large space was filled by the "review-like essay and the essay-like review." The best examples of this genre were couched in an unbuttoned, digressive style, more like the "talk of the man of the world" than the "lecture of a professor."
As Stefan Collini points out in Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics, itself a collection of review-like essays and essay-like reviews, Bagehot's attitude to "review writing" was actually more ambivalent than this makes it sound. He regarded reviewing as something "able men" fell into rather than chose as a vocation and looked back longingly at the "old days of systematic arguments and regular discussion."
An edited version of this piece about the 1983 Bermondsey by-election appears this week in Time Out.
[UPDATE: The edited, published version is here.]
Nearly twenty-five years ago, in late February 1983, Tariq Ali devoted his ‘Frontlines’ column in Time Out to the by-election campaign then taking place in Bermondsey. Beneath the headline ‘Bigotry and the Bermondsey by-election’, Ali declared his support for the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell.
For most of that campaign, Tatchell had been the target of personal attacks unmatched in their viciousness either before or since in British politics – attacks mounted in both the local and national press and on the doorsteps of Bermondsey. It would be a welcome ‘slap in the face for his detractors’, Ali wrote, if Tatchell were to win – though the fact that he merely ‘hoped’ that Tatchell would prevail in this previously secure working-class seat was a sign of just how much damage to the Labour vote had already been done.
Tatchell had first come to national attention in November 1981, when he was originally selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate after the sitting MP in Bermondsey, Bob Mellish, announced that he wouldn’t be contesting the next General Election. 1981 had been a traumatic year for the Labour Party, and leader Michael Foot had spent most of it fighting a far-left insurgency led by Trotskyite ‘entryists’ who now saw Labour, rather than revolutionary groupuscules such as the Socialists Workers Party, as the best hope for the renewal of a ‘mass socialist consciousness’.
Tatchell had no formal links with any of the entryist groups, but he had, the previous May, written a piece for London Labour Briefing in which he argued the merits of ‘militant extra-parliamentary opposition’ to the Thatcher government.
Foot was tipped off about the article, and on December 3 1981, the Labour leader stood up in the House of Commons and announced that Tatchell would never be accepted as a parliamentary candidate. The decision not to endorse Tatchell’s candidature was formally ratified by Labour’s National Executive Committee the following week.
Tatchell has described that decision as ‘perhaps the opening shot in the train of events that eventually led to the defeat of the left and the rise of New Labour and Blairism.’ That may be an exaggeration; but it was certainly a significant episode in a much more parochial political struggle.
A few days before repudiating Tatchell, Foot had been visited by Bob Mellish and John O’Grady. O’Grady was leader of Southwark council and Mellish’s lieutenant in what was sometimes called the ‘Bermondsey Mafia’, an Old Labour cabal that had run the local party for decades. Tatchell recalls what the Bermondsey party was like when he joined it in 1978. ‘It was run by a handful of ruling families who monopolized all the key party and council positions. It was Tammany Hall politics at its worst.’
Mellish was first elected in 1946 as MP for Rotherhithe, which was later absorbed into the new seat of Bermondsey. Though he liked to present himself as the authentic voice of working-class dockland London, he’d never actually been a docker himself (he was a career trade union bureaucrat) and had never lived in the constituency.
When Labour returned to government in 1964, Mellish was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and later Government Chief Whip. And he was always ready to use his influence locally. Simon Hughes, who would fight and win the ’83 by-election for the Liberal-SDP Alliance, remembers how Mellish protected his baronial rights in Bermondsey. ‘If things got done, they got done because somebody asked and it was done as a favour to them. You went to see Bob Mellish at surgery and he’d say, “Leave it to me.” And Mellish always backed O’Grady. The day before the 1982 council elections, which the old Labour Party feared they might lose to us, literally the day before, they did a major land deal with the Kuwaiti royal family’s property company. It was signed the day before the election. It was very much about trying to fix everything.’
One thing Mellish couldn’t fix, however, was the selection of candidates for the local elections. Early in 1982, a crony of his named Coral Newell failed to be selected as a Labour candidate in the Riverside ward. She ran as an independent instead, with the backing of the MP, who used the local paper, the South London Press, to drum up support. Newell won Riverside in the borough elections that May and was subsequently expelled from the Labour Party for standing against one of its candidates.
Mellish too was threatened with expulsion for having endorsed Newell. But before he could be pushed, he jumped. Mellish resigned as MP in August 1982, and a by-election was duly called for the following February. To the dismay of the O’Grady faction in the local party, Tatchell was re-selected as the Labour candidate. And this time Foot endorsed him, albeit reluctantly. O’Grady told the South London Press: ‘I am horrified. Peter Tatchell and his innumerable trendies have very little support among the real Bermondsey people. His campaign will rely on the influx of outsiders.’
If people from outside the constituency did help the Tatchell campaign, that was partly because he was abandoned by the national leadership. ‘I think there were people in the Labour leadership who were happy for me to lose. They saw it as a way of putting the left in its place.’ Sometimes, though, Tatchell and his staff didn’t help themselves. For instance, they chose, with quite sublime political naivety, to have their campaign literature printed by the Cambridge Heath Press, which was owned by the Militant Tendency, an organisation that had recently been proscribed by the Labour Party.
All this was gleefully reported by the tabloid press, who routinely referred to Tatchell as ‘Red Pete, the gay rights campaigner’. The local paper preferred to describe him as an ‘Australian-born, unemployed social worker’. Either way, the insinuations about Tatchell’s patriotism and sexuality began to have an effect on the doorstep. Left-wing journalist David Osler canvassed for Tatchell on a couple of occasions. ‘My abiding memory is just how hostile the reception was on some of the council estates that should have been impregnable Labour territory. One old bloke flew into a hostile rage when we canvassed him. No way was he going to vote for “that fucking communist poofter”.’
Much of this vitriol was fomented by John O’Grady, who by this time had decided to stand against Tatchell as the ‘Real Bermondsey Labour’ candidate. He toured the constituency with Mellish, often in a horse-drawn cart, from which, on one occasion, he sang the following ditty: ‘Tatchell is a poppet, as pretty as can be./But he must be slow if he don’t know that he won’t be your MP./Tatchell is an Aussie, he lives in a council flat./He wears his trousers back to front because he doesn’t know this from that.’
It’s often assumed that O’Grady’s people were also responsible for an anonymous leaflet which appeared in the constituency during the last week of the campaign. Depicting Tatchell wearing pink lipstick next to a sketch of the queen, the leaflet carried the headline ‘Which Queen will you vote for?’ and described the Labour candidate as a ‘traitor to Queen and country’. At the bottom were printed Tatchell’s telephone number and address, and an invitation to ‘question Mr Tatchell more closely about his views.’ Tatchell’s phone was soon ringing off the hook with obscene and threatening calls.
The main beneficiary of this descent from the gutter into the sewer wasn’t O’Grady, however, but the Liberal Simon Hughes, who’d come from nowhere to become the main challenger to Tatchell.
Hughes, who came out as bisexual more than twenty years later, made no comment about the vilification of Tatchell during the campaign, and in the last week put out a leaflet in which the by-election was described as a ‘straight choice’. Hughes denies that the sexual innuendo was intentional. ‘In every election we’ve ever fought, we’ve tried to have a simple message at the end: “it’s a two-horse race” or “it’s a straight choice”. I never thought about the implications of it. But I was uncomfortable about the campaign against Peter and I regret I didn’t say that. I wasn’t brave enough to take on an issue which might have opened up my own position.’
In any event, Hughes’ position was secure and he eventually won an extraordinary victory, with a 44% swing from Labour. At the count, Tatchell blamed his defeat on an ‘unprecedented smear campaign’, while Hughes recognised that he had ‘benefited’ from the ‘allegations’ made against his opponent.
Today, Tatchell regards the Bermondsey by-election as a kind of watershed in British public life. ‘Although I lost, the homophobic campaign against me did, after the event, awaken a debate about gay people in public life.’ And has he forgiven Simon Hughes? ‘I don’t have any hard feelings. It all happened a long time ago. Simon should be judged on his record over the last twenty five years as a MP. Bitterness is a very destructive emotion – it’s far better to forgive and forget.’
Surveying the state of American letters in 1928, Edmund Wilson complained that he had searched in vain for a "genuine literary criticism" that did more than simply "let out a whoop" for the books it approved of. Where was the criticism that dealt seriously with "ideas and art"? Where was the writer who was "at once first-rate and nothing but a literary critic"? Wilson feared that such a creature did not exist - at least not in America (things were different in France, where writers imbibed the "language of criticism" with their mothers' milk).
This interview with Martin Amis appears this week in Time Out.
Martin Amis’s study, which occupies part of a converted garage behind his house in Primrose Hill, shows the signs of work in progress: his laptop sails on a tide of paper and there are books everywhere, in teetering piles or splayed in medias res on the tables and chairs. He tells me he’s in the middle of writing a novel. ‘It’s about what we’re living through.’
And ‘what we’re living through’ is also the central preoccupation of the book Amis has just published, a collection of essays, reportage and short fiction. The Second Plane is subtitled ‘September 11: 2001-2007’, which suggests that it’s the consequences of that dreadful day in New York, as much as the attacks themselves, that exert on Amis what he admits is a ‘desperate fascination’.
The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with a piece, also entitled ‘The Second Plane’, that Amis wrote for The Guardian a week after the suicide pilots of al-Qaeda has staked their claims to a place in paradise. There’s a dazed, anxious eloquence about these few pages that sets the tone for the rest of the book. ‘All I was doing,’ he says, ‘was trying as hard as I could to express what I felt. That piece is sort of vulnerable. It’s gibberish. It’s written in shock.’
Despite feeling ‘species shame’ and ‘species fear’, Amis was nevertheless able to collect himself sufficiently to attempt, in the same article, a paragraph or two of sober geopolitical analysis. ‘It will also be horribly difficult and painful’, he writes, ‘for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly.’ These are lines Amis now disowns – or at least he disowns the word ‘intelligibly’, which he says is freighted with ‘rationalist naïveté’, a term he borrows from the American political writer Paul Berman.
The rationalist naïf refuses to believe that a warped and atavistic theology can be all there is to jihadism, whereas Amis came, slowly, to the view that a properly ‘rational’ response would sound more like ‘an unvarying factory siren of disgust’. He says he got over rationalist naïveté some time around Christmas 2001. ‘I stopped thinking that September 11th was a proportional response to anything I recognised. People like Eric Hobsbawm or Noam Chomsky place a value on imperturbability in one’s reaction to things, but I don’t. I think moral shock is necessary.’
However, some of Amis’s critics have argued that the ‘siren’ of shock and disgust has long since turned into a kind of manichean whine. For example, there is a passage in the longest piece in the book, ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind’, in which Amis describes waiting while an airport security official ‘methodically and solemnly’ searches his daughter’s rucksack. ‘There ought to be a better word than boredom for the trance of inanition that weaved its way through me. I wanted to say something like, “Even Islamists have not yet started to blow up their own families on aeroplanes. So please desist until they do. Oh yeah: and stick, for now, to young men who look like they’re from the Middle East.”’
Amis rolls his eyes when I mention Terry Eagleton, who in the autumn ignited a brief and not especially edifying public spat when he suggested that the novelist was flirting with views one would expect to come from the mouth of a ‘British National Party thug’. He reminds me that Eagleton was actually referring to an interview in which he’d confessed to feeling a ‘retaliatory urge’ after the foiled bomb attack on the Tiger Tiger nightclub in the West End. ‘There is a distinction between those two mental activities: confessing to a retaliatory urge just after the revelation of the third murderous plot in 13 months and advocating it in an essay. But it was the distorted position I was being asked to defend and that suited Eagleton down to the ground. It’s so sloppy. He’s a disgrace to the academic profession. He’s like an old boxer who keeps picking fights. But it’s time for him to take off his trunks.’
Eagleton may be a washed-up ideological hack, a ‘commissar’, but he represents a strain of liberal or leftish opinion that is as much part of ‘what we’re living through’ as the ravings of the mullahs or the ‘awful rictus’ that took up residence on George W. Bush’s face once things went awry in Iraq. ‘It’s onerous beyond belief to be faced by something so irrational, by a death cult’ Amis says. ‘It’s an incredible drag to make the effort to say this is what it is. I think it’s a kind of prim decency that stops people from recognising these things. An enormous imaginative effort is needed to put yourself in the place of someone who really does think that if they besplatter themselves over a bus in Israel they won’t die but will be snatched into paradise before the moment of death.’
Amis attempts such an imaginative effort in one of the two short stories included here, ‘The Last Days of Muhammad Atta’. The presumptive pilot of American Airlines flight 11 is presented as ravaged by constipation and intoxicated with the sweet feeling of killing (‘Here was the primordial secret … killing was a divine delight’). Yet the attempt to inhabit Atta seems botched, somehow, and Amis is unable to turn the sterile blocks of debased Wahabbist theology into something palpable and intimate.
The Second Plane is not a ‘book about Islam’, as one reviewer put it: it’s really about what a world-historical event like September 11th does to the literary imagination. And it’s an altogether more uncertain, agonised work than its critics have allowed. Amis devotes several pages to an account of how he abandoned a novella entitled ‘The Unknown Known’, which was narrated by an Islamist planning a terrorist operation of extravagant ingenuity.
‘I was having a lovely time with it’, he recalls. ‘But then I just got more and more uneasy about it. It wasn’t fear of consequences, at least not hostile consequences for me and my family. It was more the idea that there would be consequences for my conscience, in that it wouldn’t look tenable as a satirical idea. It was odd to feel any kind of inhibition. But politics impinges, world history impinges. Earlier in my writing life I used to think, blithely, that the imagination could exist without a relationship to power. But there’s no way around it.’