I’ve been feeling in need of poetry this month. Certain books of poetry are fixed points of reference for me—writing of a nourishing density with the uncanny ability to expand in significance with every re-reading. Wordsworth’s The Prelude is one book I was astonished by on a first reading (I was an undergraduate, and had always assumed Wordsworth was a rather boring, desiccated Victorian; suddenly, here were these beating, living visions of hills and lakes; a young man striding across the Alps wrestling with his own mortality), and that has since become an emblem for me of absolute poetic seriousness.
Wordsworth never published The Prelude in his lifetime, yet revised it incessantly, producing some of the most sustained, unsentimental self-examinations that verse has ever seen. Poetry, when it’s great, crystallises fragments of the human condition; it is the highest pitch to which we can bring our impulses of beauty and comprehension. Wordsworth, striding across the hills he loved, gathering perfect blank verses in his head to be later committed to paper, had a humane, restless genius that has left me—again—in awe.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Yates has come back into vogue in recent years, and, for once, I’m very pleased I jumped on the bandwagon. It’s one of the most flawlessly crafted works of fiction I’ve read in years.To outsiders, Frank and April Wheeler seem like the ideal 1950s suburban couple, but privately they both feel increasingly unfulfilled and trapped. They concoct a plan to escape their stultified lives, but it unravels with tragic inevitability. This is a quintessentially American tale of thwarted dreams and materialist pressures; prescient, in many ways, but also absolutely, vividly in its moment, and Yates has captured his characters’ inner torment with unique and terrifying precision.
The most depressing thing I read last week was Ziauddin Sardar’s attack in the Guardian on the Quilliam Foundation—the new think tank set up by Ed Husain (author of The Islamist) to counter British Muslim extremism. Zia should be the poster boy for a modern, liberal British Islam—he is clever, articulate (in a blustery sort of way) and immersed in Islam, the history of science and leftist western politics. He could be our own Tariq Ramadan—although without the latter’s baggage and much more liberal. The Guardian piece illustrated why he is not.
Sardar dismissed the new foundation, without any evidence, as a “neocon” front uninterested in standing up for Islam within British society. He even described the foundation “as another attempt at the marginalisation” of British Muslims. This is conspiracy theory tosh. The Quilliam Foundation (to which I am connected in a very lowly adviser role) is a pretty broad-based organisation founded by former Islamists such as Husain and Maajid Nawaz (not, as Sardar wrongly says, jihadists). At worst, it will do no harm; at best, it might help a little to stem the tide of extremism and separatism in parts of the British Muslim world.
So what’s bugging Zia? I’m afraid this is the politics of vanity. Zia appears not to have been consulted about Quilliam, nor invited into its inner circles (although some of his friends and ideological soulmates were). This is a man with a hair-trigger sensitivity to slights from British ex-colonialists, and now it seems from fellow Muslims too. Between the lines, you can read a single thought, “But what about me, Zia Sardar; aren’t I more important than these Johnny-come-latelies?” (If Seumas Milne, the Guardian’s comment pages supremo, had been a better friend of Zia’s he probably would have spiked the piece—but Milne’s ineffable public-school Leninism has convinced him that radical Muslims are the new driving force of global revolution and so he is happy to devote acres of space to denouncing the Uncle Toms of Quilliam.)
Does this matter? Zia is a significant voice, with regular columns in the New Statesman and the Guardian and an important role at the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission. He could, and should, have a big influence over the creation of a liberal, modernised Islam—and yet thanks to his prickly sectarianism he has a far bigger following in Malaysia than in Britain. The Guardian article is a perfect example of why this is.
I’ve been reading Sheldon S Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. I’ve been interested in the paradox of “managed democracies” as a result of the time I spent in Turkey in the mid-1990s, a country where state-sanctioned mega-corporations explicitly and implictly control the economy, themselves sanctioned by the military, which in turn guarantees democracy, so long as the elite vote in the right way.
Wolin examines how democracy in the US has morphed into oligarchy and elitism, with the media as both pawn and manipulator. This is an important book about the dangers of imposing a warped model of an indistinct concept from 35,000 feet and the obscenity of promoting democracy through fear. “According to the liberal theory fashionable among academics, the ideal role of the generality of citizens in a democracy is to ‘deliberate.’ However appealing that ideal may seem, in the reality of the war between imperialism and terrorism the contemporary citizen, far from being invited to a discussion, is, as never before, being manipulated by ‘managed care’ and by the managers of fear.”
Wolin is a measured and thoughtful commentator, unlike swell-headed neocons who promote “inverted totalitarianism” as progressive liberalism. Perhaps they should be dropped from 35,000 feet to persuade reluctant populations that might is right and black is white. Undemocratic, admittedly, but it would make good CNN.
Napoleon’s Master—A Life of Prince Talleyrand by David Lawday. On hearing of Talleyrand’s death, Count Metternich is said to have asked, “I wonder what he meant by that?” Thus setting the tone for posterity’s view of Talleyrand as calculating, cynical and amoral—and with a devil’s hoof of a club foot to complete the picture.
Lawday doesn’t pull any punches in this enjoyably written portrait. The ancien régime hauteur with which Talleyrand elevated himself above common standards and morality is shocking to a modern reader. But his belief in personal and press freedom, women’s emancipation, universal suffrage, free education and the need for a peaceful and united Europe brings him tantalisingly close to our own age.
He survived the most dangerous period in European history and somehow contrived to come out on top, capping his career by negotiating the peace with Britain that has endured to this day. The French tend to hero-worship an idealised memory of Napoleon, forgetting the destruction and misery he brought them. Talleyrand’s part in his downfall has ensured that his reputation is forever compromised by accusations of treachery.
We would do better to remember his advice to the emperor, that “any system which aims at taking freedom by open force to other peoples will only make that freedom hated and prevent its triumph.”
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is the debut novel of Laila Lalami, a prominent literary blogger. Lalami, a Moroccan, went to the US to study and published this book there, but the focus of her short—perhaps too short—novel is on contemporary Morocco. Four people risk their lives by illegally crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to enter Spain. The book starts with their boat trip and then divides into chapters describing their lives before and after; a shift in viewpoint keeps the structure from being too pat. Lalami is careful to give a cross-section of Moroccan society and only one of her characters (a battered wife) seems overfamiliar. She illustrates what people have to gain and lose by emigrating, and mocks romanticised western attitudes to her country without letting it off the hook for corruption and political repression. And she shows us what life is like in an Islamic country—that is, much the same as it is in any other.
I’ve just polished off Alex Ross’s majestic account of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise. The book has been hailed as one of the finest recent mainstream accounts of classical music in almost every review it’s received (only Stephen Everson in Prospect demurred), and it doesn’t need any further garlands from me. So I’ll just share this delightful anecdote about the master of avant-garde musical far-outery, John Cage:
“Back in 1950, [Cage’s] “Lecture on Nothing”… began with the announcement ‘I am here and there is nothing to say,’ and the question period was derailed by Cage’s decision to respond to all queries with a set of six fixed answers, one of which was, ‘Please repeat the question… and again… and again…’ Cage’s Darmstadt lectures had episodes of coherence, but chance operations progressively took over, and by the third lecture he was lighting cigarettes at intervals specified by the I Ching.”
I’ve just finished Robert Harris’s The Ghost, which Erik Tarloff reviewed for us in November. It’s a thriller, set on Martha’s Vineyard, narrated by a ghostwriter working on the memoirs of an ex-prime minister who is, to all intents and purposes, Tony Blair. I feel somewhat torn about it. On the one hand, it is a classy piece of work: much better written than most thrillers, and properly gripping. On the other hand, it is just a thriller, and it succumbs to one of the genre’s more wearisome tropes—the unveiling of a dastardly plot of international dimensions which reveals the people we thought were our leaders to be mere puppets in the control of much greater forces… Why does the world posited by thriller writers so often resemble the world posited by conspiracy theorists? I always feel short-changed when a thriller makes this kind of leap, because I think, for the suspense to work, one has to believe that it just might all be true. And I’m afraid I don’t believe that the key to the Blair enigma is… Whoops, I almost said it. You’ll have to read the book to find out.