Howard Jacobson’s pathological need to be persecuted

There’s a disease that strikes English novelists of a certain age and fame, that makes them think whatever small talent they have at creating Times reviewed stories means they have an unique insight into human nature and the political realities of 21st century Britain. This usually manifest in rightwing babble about the problems of the day, as exclusively revealed to whichever newspaper with spare column inches to fill, as well as through novels that suddenly tackle big political issues in the way literary writers normally reserve for dabbling in science fiction: naively and ploddingly reinventing cliches better writers had long since abandoned and being proud of it. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are the best examples of this disease, but Howard Jacobson seems determined to join them.

Jacobson is “best known for writing comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters” as Wikipedia puts it. Not one to hide his Jewishness under a bushell and keen to let you know how his background makes him uniquely able to provide insights into the Israel/Palestinian conflict, he has been making a nuisance of himself for years in opinion pieces. As with Amis and McEwan, his politics also infected his fiction, metastasising in The Finkler Question, made unreadable by his politics.

So it comes as no surprise that when he saw the images of Asian shopkeepers defending their communities against the riots in London two weeks ago he saw something quite different from the rest of us:

The good thing that came out of the riots was a renewed sense of community. “How does one put this without sounding gross … it was terrific to see the Asian communities on telly and not to have to think about terrorism, and not to have to think about the thing I’m always thinking about… do they want to kill Jews?”

A remark on par with Amis’ similar ones on wanting to make Muslims suffer for 9/11. But there seems to be more going on with Jacobson, he seems convinced that pogroms could break out in London any minute and that like any good Jew he needs to be prepared. It’s not a mindset that’s not unique to him; I’ve stopped being surprised at the number of middleclass Jewish people living in England or America, never having suffered any discrimination in their lifetimes, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the killings start again. If the most important event in your history is the Holocaust, it’s not surprising some people get a bit paranoid.

With Jacobson however it almost seems as if he would welcome persecution, that he feels agrieved that there are no pogroms in England and the number of real anti-semitic incidents (as opposed to people being accused of anti-semitism because they disagree with Israeli policies) is low and has remained low for decades. Hence remarks like the above, as to him it’s inconcievable that Asian people would not want to oppress him. Call it victim envy.

Quoted without comment

How Ian McEwan validates his novels before publication:

Fans of McEwan’s novels will be interested to learn that before he finishes any book he has it read by three friends – Amis firmly not being one of them. “I don’t want a novelist reading my work, thank you very much!” McEwan says.

The three are the Oxford historian and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash, the poet Craig Raine, and the philosopher Galen Strawson. Garton Ash persuaded him to drop the “An” from the title of his novel An Atonement. Raine berates him whenever he slips into cliche, as he once did with the phrase “flickering log fire” – they now have a running joke of marking f.l.f. in the margins of each other’s work.

The spirit of constructive criticism is not always happy. When they met to discuss The Comfort of Strangers, Raine told McEwan: “Listen, love. It’s complete crap, and you should put it in a drawer and forget it.” McEwan refused to speak to him for almost two years.

McEwan is of course the author of Saturday, recently reviewed here.

Saturday — Ian McEwan

Cover of Saturday


Saturday
Ian McEwan
278 pages
published in 2005

I’ve been suspicious of Ian McEwan ever since I read his Book prize winning novel Amsterdam and almost threw the book against the wall at the denouncement where McEwan descended into stupid cliches about the Netherlands’ attitude towards euthenasia. That suspicion deepened when it turned out McEwan, like Martin Amis had turned into a permanent bedwetter after the September 11 attacks. He’s been less outspoken than Amis, but he has said enough for me to know I dislike his politics, which seems to be of the Decent Leftist persuasion, being obsessed with the struggle against “Islamism”, the threat of terror attacks and the vulnerability of the western democracies. As with Amis, “9/11″ seems to have functioned as McEwan’s midlife crisis, his fear and doubts about his own encrouching mortality being confused for insight into the general condition of the world. It’s this mixture of Decent politics and midlife crisis that’s been poured out into Saturday. I didn’t want to read it at the time when it first came out, being warned off it by various reviews, but four years on I thought it would be interesting to see if it really was as dire as it was made out to be.

It is.

Had I read this in 2005 it would’ve been thrown against the wall, library book or not. Set on the day of the worldwide anti-war protests on 15 February 2003 a month before the invasion of Iraq, with the London march making regular appearances througout the novel. Not that any of the characters in the book actually go on the march, they all have something better to do. Even the protagonist’s son, described as anti-war doesn’t, as “he doesn’t feel much need to go tramping through the streets to make his point”, confusing making a political statement with narcissism. It’s typical for the entire novel, which hammers this point home again and again from the first encounter with the march, with a street cleaner sweeping up garbage left behind by people going to the march to the last, with the same street cleaner still busy cleaning up behind the march. This way the anti-war protest is reduced to something hypocritical, narcisstic and even frivolous. Saturday only pays lip service to the arguments of the antiwar movement, spelled out explicitely just once, in a row between the protagonist and his daughter, who gets to represent the antiwar side. She gets emotional and slightly hysterical while her father gets to stay calm and collected; later it’s revealed she’s pregnant. In such a way the antiwar movement is constantly dismissed, at best shown as shallow people who mean well but who just don’t realise how bad Saddam is.

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“I think Martin has suffered terribly at the hands of the Guardian”

Martin being Martin Amis, the quote being from his writer pal Ian McEwan, refering to Mart’s growing reputation as a racist and/or Islamophobe, because of remarks like these:

caricature of Martin Amis

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”

McEwan, who is slightly but not much less nuts than Amis on this subject seems to blame the Guardian for publishing articles like the age of horrorism rather than Amis for opening his gob in the first place, which seems a bit unfair. The man himself meanwhile has hit back at his critics with a spectacularly incoherent piece in, you guessed it, the despised Guardian itself:

I want to talk about the discourse, and about the kind of public conversation we should be hoping to have. But before I do that, I will pay my Islamic readers – and I know I have a few – the elementary courtesy of saying that I DO NOT “ADVOCATE” ANY DISCRIMINATORY TREATMENT OF MUSLIMS. AND I NEVER HAVE. And no one with the slightest respect for truth can claim otherwise.

Has he read his earlier remarks quoted above, or does he think that if he denies them hard enough they will go away? Because, you know, that blaming of an entire population for the acts of a few seems awfully close to racism to me, especially considering the context. Ever since the September 11 attacks Amis has left no opportunity unused to discuss his disgust at the ideology behind it and over time he has done so in increasingly general terms, culminating in that awful “Age of horrorism” article which came very close indeed in blaming all of Islam for the misdeeds of September 11.

So is Amis a racist? Not in the sense that he’ll be sticking burning crescents on the council estates of Birmingham perhaps, but at the very least he’s an arrogant, self-absorbed ignorant blowhard who mistakes his regurgitation of whichever book he last read for insight. Very telling indeed in this context is the second paragraph of his “I’m no racist, honest” piece, which begins with “When I was five or six years old, my father took me to meet a black man.” That’s the level of self-absorption we’re dealing with here.

Amis and 9/11

I remember back in early 2002 or so reading a Guardian(?) interview with Martin Amis, in which he posed dramatically as The Novelist Who Had Lost His Faith in Novels Due to the Horrors of 9/11 and even then I thought he was a wanker. Since then he has only confirmed my opinion of him, as he has gone on his own peculiar little crusade against the Muslim menace, revealing himself as yet another bedwetter.

Now Ellis Sharp was so kind as to draw our attention to a Guardian Books article by Pankaj Mishra, which looks at how Martin Amis and other writers of his generation like Ian McEwan or Don DeLillo, have made of the September 11 attacks and its repercussions. These are writers who have said that they have been shocked awake by 9/11 into an uncertain world where what they used to believe in no longer seems relevant and who have written novels exploring this new post-9/11 world. Mishra doesn’t think they have succeeded in doing so, in honestly appreciating the effects of the September 11 attacks; comparing them unfavourably to what happened in European fiction after World War One. An interesting article. Not so much interesting, as appalling, are the quotes used at the start of the article, for their sheer pomposity and cluelessness:

Reflecting on the attacks on the twin towers in 2001, Don DeLillo seemed to speak for many Americans when he admitted that “We like to think that America invented the future. We are comfortable with the future, intimate with it. But there are disturbances now, in large and small ways, a chain of reconsiderations.” On September 11, terrorists from the Middle East who destroyed American immunity to large-scale violence and chaos also forced many American and British novelists to reconsider the value of their work and its relation to the history of the present. “Most novelists I know,” Jay McInerney wrote in these pages, “went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.” Ian McEwan claimed in a later interview to have found it “wearisome to confront invented characters”. “I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.” “The so-called work in progress,” Martin Amis confessed, “had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble. But then, too, a feeling of gangrenous futility had infected the whole corpus.”

Amis went on to claim that “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.” This is, of course, an exaggeration. Many writers had intuited that religious and political extremism, which had ravaged large parts of the world, would eventually be unleashed upon the west’s rich, more protected societies.

It’s the rampant narcissism on display here that appalls me. Amis and McEwans generation of writers rose to prominence in the eighties and nineties, when there were quite a few outrages far worse than the September 11 attacks. Yet it was because the latter happened on their doorsteps so to speak that they were finally forced to pay attention, so it galls to see Amis and McEwan hold themselves up as arbiters of moral worthiness now.

Three by Ellis

Ellis Sharp, over at the Sharp Side has in recent weeks written some excellent posts. Here are three of them:

First up, short post on the politics of remembering:

And contrast the Bali memorial (which will apparently be a large stone globe) with the memorial to the
victims of the 1987 Kings Cross fire. It’s a perfunctory, obscure, barely-noticeable plaque which says
nothing at all about the tragedy and does not list the names of those who died, even though many of them were residents of the capital. But then the Kings Cross fire resulted from the under-funding and undervaluing of public transport, with rubbish allowed to accumulate under ancient wooden escalators, and an easygoing attitude to smoking in confined public spaces which was a tribute to the lobbying power of the tobacco industry and its political pimps (QV Margaret Thatcher and Ken Clarke).

Then there was this post on Aldeburgh, a small seatown resort in Suffolk, which reminds me quite a lot of similar towns on the Dutch coast in Zeeland, towns like Veere or Middelburg. Towns that look nice, elegant and cultured at first, but are largely ruled by provincialism, where the idea of having a work of art in your house is reduced to a reproduction of a 17th century map of the province hanging in your hallway, next to the clothes rack.

You’d expect an independent bookshop to be a bit, well, arty and liberal. Not in Aldeburgh. The shop seemed to be run by ghastly braying Tory women. My deep distaste for the shop hit new depths as I discovered it didn’t have any Crabbe in stock. No edition of his poetry; no biography; nothing. I was looking forward to buying a Crabbe edition, which would then inspire me to read my second hand biography. But they didn’t even have Crabbe in the slimline £2 Everyman Poetry series, let alone a more substantial edition. Yet Crabbe’s closest associations as a poet are with Aldeburgh. I hate bookshops which don’t carry the work of local writers and the absence of Crabbe plus the cretinous petition made me stomp furiously out again, determined not to buy anything.

Most recently, he reprinted an excellent review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday by John Banville:

Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces — brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc. –are hinged together with the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks’ home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair — who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity –were to appoint a committee to produce a “novel for our time,” the result would surely be something like this.

Every time I read extracts from Saturday, my gorge rises. I haven’t got a high opinion of McEwan to start with and these excerpts confirm my opinion. Yet I still know I will need to read this book sooner or later if only to be able to pan it with a clear consciousness.