Monday, December 5, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE SPY” by Paulo Coelho [translated from the Portuguese by Zoe Perry] (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $37)


According to both the blurb of this book and every website I have looked up, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho is an international sensation. Apparently he is the biggest-selling Portuguese-language author of all time; his books have been translated into 81 languages and have sold tens of millions of copies; and he runs a website with a huge international readership.

This can mean only one of two things. Either (a.) he is some sort of genius and as good as the hype says; or (b.) he is a popular writer, who has found a way of tapping into a huge, but undiscerning, readership.

I had read nothing of Coelho’s before I picked up The Spy and I am therefore judging him by this one book alone. Perhaps his other work is much better, but what The Spy tells me is that option (b.) is the more likely option. This is a simplistic novel whose attempts at profundity or commentary on the human condition are at best clichés and whose depiction of history is of the school textbook sort that explains obvious things to readers who are expected not to know much. It has, however, the advantage of being short – 190 small pages with widely spaced lines, allowing it to be read easily in two or three hours. Maybe this is part of the secret of Coelho’s success. Keep it brief, stupid.

I am irresistibly reminded of the classic scene in Black Books where Dylan Moran hustles a customer out of his second-hand bookshop by urging him to buy a book, with the immortal line “Take it! Take it! It’s dreadful but it’s short!” There are readers who like the satisfaction of having read a book without having to read too much. Actually, there must be millions of such readers.

Anyway, enough of my crude Billingsgate, or I’ll have another blogger calling me “ultra-toxic” again. Let’s get down to what The Spy is about.

The Spy is the latest of what must by now be dozens of attempts to fictionalise the life of Margaretha Gertruda Zelle, the Dutchwoman better know by her stage name “Mata Hari”, who was tried and executed by the French for spying in 1917, when the First World War had reached a crisis point for the Allies. Mata Hari was an “exotic dancer” (i.e. high-class striptease artist) and a “courtesan” (i.e. high-class prostitute). Despite the publicity she concocted, she had no oriental or Javanese ancestry. Her “Eastern” dances were largely self-devised, given that her knowledge of Balinese dance came from a few performances, put on for Dutch tourists, which she attended while married to a Dutch officer in what were then called the Dutch East Indies. Her appeal was largely her willingness to shed clothes en dansant, and to pose for what were basically the soft porn or cheesecake photographs of their age.

Paul Coelho begins by reproducing a journalist’s contemporary account of Mata Hari bravely facing the firing squad, refusing a blindfold and greeting her executioners courteously. This is probably the iconic scene upon which much of the woman’s legend rests, especially as the idea of a firing squad killing a woman is one that still makes most people cringe. In ancient fiction films about Mata Hari I have seen both Greta Garbo – in soft focus - and Jeanne Moreau play this scene for maximum sentimental effect. Whatever else she may have been, Mata Hari was apparently brave in the face of death, reminding me of Malcolm’s line about the thane of Cawdor: “Nothing in [her] life became [her] like the leaving it.”

After this prologue, the first two-thirds of the novel are the [fictitious] first-person memoirs of Mata Hari, presented in the form of letters written to Edouard Clunet, the lawyer who defended her in her trial for espionage. As she writes, Mata Hari sits in St-Lazare prison, hoping that she will receive a presidential pardon and reprieve. The last third of the novel is a reply from her lawyer, after she has been condemned to death.

Almost at once, the novel howls its main theme at us, as Mata Hari declares: “The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.” (p.12) And: “I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.” (p.15) Thus Coelho rams the point home, with Mata Hari later declaring: “I realized that I had always been a warrior, facing my battles without any bitterness; they were part of my life.”

So this is the tragedy of a strong, independent woman who is being condemned by the evil patriarchy for living a varied and independent sex life. Ah! If only she had lived in 2016 when we are so much more enlightened!

In her [fictitious] memoirs, Margaretha Zelle is raped by her school principal when she is 16, and marries the Dutch army officer Rudolf McLeod at 17 simply to escape the stifling boredom of provincial Holland. In Indonesia she gives birth to a daughter, but her husband is a sadistic brute who frequently beats her and treats her like a whore. She leaves husband and small daughter, returns to Holland, then flees to Paris where she remakes herself as Mata Hari the exotic dancer. She exchanges sex for the money of a series of wealthy sugar daddies (briefly sketched in) until she realizes, in her mid-30s, this won’t last as younger dancers are now exposing their wares and stealing her éclat. She suggests to her manager that she find something else.

Enter a German entrepreneur, waiting to make her the sensation of Berlin.

She arrives in Berlin just as the First World War is beginning and is offered job as a spy, which, at first, she nobly turns down. But later she accepts the commission from a German consul in the neutral Netherlands, she being paid a handsome sum of money. Returning, by a roundabout route, to Paris, she at once advises the French of her role and hopes they will accept her as a double agent. But they are suspicious of her and gradually come to see her as a German spy plain and simple.

            There is nothing new in the “defence” case that Paulo Coelho makes for Mata Hari with regard to her espionage. It is now well known – and has been discussed in many books – that in the war Mata Hari passed no information of any real value over to the Germans; that everything she disclosed was in the nature of worthless society gossip; that no really incriminating evidence was ever found or produced by the French tribunal that put her on trial; and that she was probably “stitched up” by German intelligence once they understood that she was trying to work as a double agent from the French. It appears that the Germans deliberately sent a “secret” message in a code which they knew the French had already broken, and which they knew the French would intercept, in order to incriminate her and get rid of her. As a “spy”, Mata Hari was a hopeless amateur and it was probably an injustice that she was executed.

            Even so, she did take money from the Germans to spy (not even the most sympathetic accounts of her have ever denied this); and her trial took place at a time when the Allies were hard-pressed, seemed on the verge of defeat, and all sorts of rumours about subversive “enemies within” were creating a mood of hysteria. This was not unique to France, of course. In New Zealand in the later years of the First World War, the demagogue Howard Elliot and his Protestant Political Association were building up sectarian fever by telling audiences that Catholics were responsible for the war and were conspiring for the defeat of the British Empire. In England, the MP Noel Pemberton-Billing gained a large following by claiming to have uncovered a vast, German-financed, conspiracy to sap the war effort by corrupting the sexual morals of the British. His efforts centred on shows put on by the American lesbian “exotic dancer” Maud Allen, who was in some ways the British equivalent of Mata Hari, although she had nothing to do with spying. (See my post on James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War. The case of Maud Allen was also fictionalised in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.) Add this mood to the fact that Mata Hari really had taken pay from the Germans to spy, and the French prosecution of her was not all that unreasonable, even if the case they made against her was a feeble one. Perhaps they should have stopped at simply imprisoning her.

            But Coelho underplays (or is not sufficiently aware of) this historical context, so intent is he in presenting Mata Hari as a proto-feminist martyr being punished for her sexual independence. En passant, her long (pre-war) Paris sojourn allows Coelho to drop in comments on historical artistic figures, which will probably seem very revealing to less sophisticated readers. Of Picasso, the novel’s Mata Hari remarks: “I was extremely embarrassed by that ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself the greatest of the greats. His friends were much more interesting, including an Italian man, Amedeo Modigliani, who seemed more noble, more elegant, and who at no point tried to force any conversation.” (pp.69-70) Of the premiere of The Rite of Spring she says “that idiot Nijinsky… imitated the masturbation scene from my first performance in Paris.” (p.77) And so on.

            Making matters even more irritating is the very high proportion of self-expository dialogue. The first man Mata Hari meets in Paris gives her a handy précis of the Paris Exposition and the Dreyfus Affair in case you’ve never heard of them. Later Mata Hari herself makes naïve comments about the outbreak of the world war in case you don’t know about that either. As for the German who recruits her in the Hague, his incredibly stilted lines would shame the clumsiest of old-school Hollywood scriptwriters. “Even with England on their side, and even though our stupid allies – the Austrians – have their hands full trying to halt the Russian advance, we will win in the end…” (p.128) “As you might imagine, it is impossible to cross a border during a war. So the only alternative is to travel first to London and, from there, to the city where, soon, we shall march under the imposing – but foolishly named – Arc de Triomphe.” (p.130) Note those improbable bits in parentheses, folks.

I do not know whether to blame Paulo Coelho or his translator for the clunky organization of so many sentences. Stop for a moment and consider the word order of this shocker, wherein Mata Hari again bangs away at the novel’s major theme: “I suffered before the judges of the Third War Council, as if the Germans and the French, who are killing each other, couldn’t leave alone a woman whose greatest sin was having a free mind in a world where people are becoming increasingly closed-off well enough alone…” (p.137) How many times did you read it before the last three words made any sense?

At which point, I am sure, some fan of Coelho will tell me that I am missing a major point. After all, this novel is supposed to be Mata Hari’s testimony written under the stress of being in jail. And in her many self-contradictions, Mata Hari is supposed to be (ta-da!!!) an unreliable narrator. Thus when she declares of her disrobing stage performances: “Contrary to what the critics who never understood me said, when I was onstage I simply forgot about the woman I was and offered everything to God. That was why I was able to undress so easily. At that moment I was nothing, not even my body. I was just movements communing with the universe.” (p.57). Then, a page or two later, she completely contradicts herself by saying how she calculatedly performed a striptease to gain fame and applause. Thus when she tells us that the wife of the first man she slept with in Paris told her to beware of falling in love and she – as an independent woman making her own destiny – took this advice. And then, late in the day, there is the sudden introduction of “my one true love” and their reciting Song of Songs as they make love (p.136).

Clearly, then, silly old foolish me, I have not understood the incredibly sophisticated concept of the unreliable narrator. This is especially true in that – in the novel’s last third – the lawyer Edouard Clunet takes over the narration and repeatedly tells Mata Hari (and us) that she has not helped her case in court by so often lying and presenting her fabricated past history as if it is fact. Yet Monsieur Clunet is himself in love with the exotic dancer, and he too gives us the theory that she is being punished for being so independent. So on come précis of Oscar Wilde’s story of the nightingale and the rose and of the legend of Psyche and Eros to tell us that Mata Hari was not only a strong and independent woman punished by the patriarchy, but that she was a martyr of true love.

At which point I say “Merdre!” and “Fiddle-dee-dee!

As far as this novel’s historicity is concerned, I will say one positive thing. Paulo Coelho makes it clear that (as her final prison mug-shots show) by the time Mata Hari, aged 40, was executed, she was already puffing up into middle-age. Her years as the glamorous performer were far behind her, and she was not the young woman presented so romantically in movies.

Otherwise, I find The Spy synthetic tosh. Paulo Coelho wins his huge audience by telling them what they want to hear – in this case that a minor spy with a dodgy past was somehow a martyr for independent womanhood. This novel leaves me feeling as I did when I reviewed Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair on this blog. Examining the Profumo Affair, Davenport-Hines argued truthfully enough that the affair was blown out of all proportion by a sensation-mongering press and a conservative judiciary. But in the process, he presenting as innocent victims people who, for all the sensationalism, were a genuinely sleazy bunch. Likewise Coelho tells us truthfully enough – and as many other have already done – that Mata Hari’s trial was rigged and the case against her feeble. But for all his special pleading, this minor and incompetent spy was no martyr for the freedom of women.

Querulous footnote: By coincidence, the American pop novelist Michelle Moran has also produced a novel about Mata Hari this year, Mata Hari’s Last Dance and it is also presented as a first-person confession. I’m not suggesting that it’s plagiarism or that one author has copied the other. I’m just noting that, with 2017 about to be centenary of the woman’s death, it’s such a freaking obvious idea.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE SPIRAL ASCENT” by Edward Upward (a trilogy of novels published as one volume in 1977 - In the Thirties first published in 1962; The Rotten Elements first published in 1969; No Home But the Struggle first published in the omnibus volume in 1977)

            There are writers who are mentioned in nearly all the literary histories of their age, without themselves ever becoming widely read. There are usually good reasons for this. Case in point – Edward Upward (1903-2009), who died at the age of 105, long after the era with which he was obsessed. I know he had an odd name and I recall one of my tutors at university, 40 years ago, saying that he at first assumed it was a pseudonym until he discovered it really was the author’s name.
Edward Upward is one of those minor writers who seem doomed to be remembered only as footnotes in the biographies of more illustrious literary associates. In the 1930s, he was a close friend and advisor to his schoolmate Christopher Isherwood, and later to W.H.Auden, even though he himself was not homosexual as they both were. Isherwood and (at least at first) Auden saw him as their literary master, took ideas from him, and submitted work to him for his approval. Upward appears as “Allen Chalmers” in Isherwood’s memoir Lions and Shadows and Upward allowed some of his short stories to be published under that fictitious name. He had a certain success with some poems and with a surrealistic novel.
Then he published nothing for about 25 years. He married, had a son and a daughter, and taught at a minor public school for thirty years, where he kept his political views to himself although he remained very much of the Hard Left in his activism.
His trilogy of autobiographical novels The Spiral Ascent is his attempt to say the “last word” about his twin obsessions – poetry and politics – and helps explain his long silence. It took him over fifteen years to write. The first two novels, In the Thirties and The Rotten Elements, were originally published – years apart – in the 1960s, but they are so much of a piece that it is hard to see how they could ever have been read separately. Heinemann publishers accepted these first two novels, but they both received almost universal raspberries from critics for their bland and dull style. Heinemann therefore rejected the third novel. They were induced to publish a one-volume omnibus edition, under the title The Spiral Ascent and including the third novel No Home But the Struggle, only when they received an Arts Council grant to do so.
In the Thirties introduces Alan Sebrill – transparently Upward himself – disillusioned with his futile, lazy, middle-class life, frustrated that his attempts to write poetry have led nowhere, and on the brink of suicide. He finds a purpose and a sense of solidarity only when he joins the British Communist Party. By novel’s end he is married to Elsie (a fellow Communist), rearing for the fight against Fascism, Imperialism and Capitalism and convinced that his new sense of meaning will enable him to write good and meaningful poetry. Some critics have noted that this is one of the few novels originating in the 1930s (albeit written thirty years later), which depicts homegrown British Fascism as a real threat.
But The Rotten Elements is a rather more depressing work. After the Second World War, Alan and Elsie have to leave the Communist Party (as Edward Upward and his wife Hilda did in 1948) – not because they have lost faith in Communism, but because they believe the British Party has deviated too far from basic Marxist principles. Yet the alert reader will note that in fact Alan is more of a Stalinist hard-liner than his fellow-Communist antagonists are. The novel is shot through with an element of distrust almost amounting to paranoia. There are suggestions of police spies, party factionalism, infighting and complete intellectual dishonesty in the leadership. As he is fictionalising straight autobiography, Upward seems to be settling some old scores in the characterization of some of his fellow Communists – literary portraits of obscure CP members, which will mean nothing to most readers.
Throughout The Rotten Elements, Alan’s mind swings, like a too-mechanical metronome, between devotion to poetry and devotion to the continuing class struggle.
By cataloguing facts about the physical world and social tensions, the first two novels have some documentary value. But Upward’s secondary characters are unconvincing stereotypes – they have that awful Shavian tendency to be mouthpieces for ideological viewpoints, or social “types”. There is a stilted, self-expository quality to much of the dialogue, although it can be an advantage, where clarity is concerned, in scenes of polemical debate.
Alan Sebrill is supposedly intensely concerned with world affairs and literature. Yet he is insensitive to many of the important events of his age. Not once do we hear of him reading a contemporary novel, poem or play. He constantly worries about the effects on him of “the habits of a middle-class upbringing”, and yet we are told nothing about his background. It is as if the author has put himself in a straightjacket by concentrating so exclusively on political matters that he takes his main character’s bourgeois background as read.
Only in the third novel, No Home But the Struggle, which was first published as part of the single-volume trilogy in 1977, does Upward really let it all hang out. Now living through the 1960s, Alan Sebrill confines his political activities to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and believes he has at last achieved a balance between poetry and politics. The bulk of the novel is taken up with all those things he suppressed in the first two volumes of the trilogy – memories of childhood and family friends; schooling; adolescent love-affairs; student days at Cambridge; friendship with Richard Marple (i.e. Christopher Isherwood) and the first stirrings of poetic inspiration. Upward drops his earlier subterfuge and writes directly in the first person.
In its richer variety of events, and the greater honesty of its style, No Home But the Struggle is certainly the most readable of the three novels. But again alert readers will note what Upward misses out many of the things that would have been essential to the life like Upward and his fictitious alter ego. The 1950s, the matter of Hungary, and a new wave of disillusionment sweeping Western Communists, simply aren’t here.
After the nearly 800 pages of the whole of The Spiral Ascent, what is the world-shattering conclusion Alan Sebrill reaches? Only that a poet cannot be free if he subjects himself to the rigid dogma of any political party. This conclusion was no doubt a major turning point in Edward Upward’s life. But I suspect most readers will have reached it about 700 pages before his hero does. And he when he does reach it, one still detects a wide streak of sentimental Stalinist nostalgia in Upward’s other self.

Confessional Footnote One: I first read The Spiral Ascent when I was in my twenties, and reviewed it for the now-defunct Auckland Star (4 February 1978 to be precise, if you have a way of checking). I have cannibalised that review here, after reacquainting myself with Upward’s trilogy.
Confessional Footnote Two: I have not read a newly-published biography of Edward Upward, Peter Stansky’s Edward Upward: Art and Life. I have only read reviews of it in some English publications. Apparently Stansky argues that, as a literary figure, Upward was really killed by his adoption of Stalinist “social realism”. Stansky also remarks wittily that Upward “became very well known for being forgotten.” Quite.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I try hard not to turn these “Something Thoughtful” spots into advertisements, but there are times when something seems important enough to bring to your attention.

If you have not already done so, could I suggest you find the time to search Youtube, access the documentaries of Adam Curtis, and watch them?

I have so far watched three of Curtis’s series viz. The Century of the Self, The Trap and his most recent HyperNormalisation. I am aware that no one commentator is right about everything, and there are some things in Curtis’s programmes that I find contestable. I am aware that there are moments in Curtis’s series where things are oversimplified or generalisations are made. Even so, I find Curtis’s series to be the most persuasive things the mass media have given us on the current state of what is loosely called “Western” civilisation and its culture and economics.

To summarise briefly what I have seen: 

Made and first broadcast by the BBC in 2002, The Century of the Self is regrettably presented on Youtube in a very “low resolution” download. If you are watching it on Youtube (I understand it is also available on DVD), it is therefore advisable to choose a small-screen format. Basically Curtis argues that personal freedom is held up as the highest value of Western democracy, but in the process, personal freedom is manipulated by both corporations and governments, producing a society of individualist consumers who feel no solidarity with their fellow human beings.

As Curtis tells it, Freudian psychoanalysis was originally touted as a means of freeing the individual. But in no time Freudian techniques were used, first by advertising agencies, and then by politicians, to create a consumer society based on desires rather than needs. The herd was being controlled. In the 1960s radical (and often quite flaky) “alternatives” to Freudianism emerged – EST, the “Human Potential” movement etc., again claiming that they would produce greater individual freedom. But making the individual the centre of our concerns leads to an atomised society  - hence in the 1970s and 1980s the rise of neo-liberalism, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher’s fatuous dogma “There is no such thing as society – there are only individuals making choices.” Freedom means the freedom to shop, to make consumer choices, and to create our own exclusive bubbles. Lack of solidarity with society at large also means that individuals are more easily manipulated.

I suppose we are most persuaded by what we half believe in anyway, so I admit that my favourable response to Curtis’ The Century of the Self  has much to do with Curtis’s confirming that I already thought. I have long believed that the hippie slogan “Do your own thing in your own time” had as its corollary “…and other people can get stuffed”. It became respectable to be selfish (“Greed is Good!”) on the assumption that other people are just as self-absorbed as we are, and besides, they have no right to call on the rest of society if they are in need, because there is no such thing as society… 

These ideas are explored from another perspective in Adam Curtis’s The Trap, three 60-minute-long episodes first broadcast by the BBC in 2007. Curtis begins by considering “game theory”, the system devised by strategists during the Cold War when they hypothesised on how the enemy might behave in a future nuclear war. The essence of “game theory” was the assumption that everybody acts first of all in his/her own self-interest. Those who act on humanitarian principles, or out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow human beings, are “suckers” who are likely to lose a nuclear exchange.

There is the remote possibility that this theory might have had some validity in the area of military strategy. But essentially game theory was applied to the economic organisation of society by the “Chicago school” and others. People are self-interested. Therefore people’s self-interest, rather than their altruism, should be appealed to. It amused me enormously to see how the once-fashionable RD Laing was shown by Curtis to be part of this slide, with his (now disproven) theories that families cause schizophrenia and that only the individual matters. Ditto the inane reductionism of Richard Dawkins, seeing human beings merely as machine-like packages to carry genes – his “selfish gene” ideology. Both were/are part of the matrix that fed into – or fed upon - neo-liberal economics, where everybody is seen to be selfish and making “rational” decisions based on that selfishness. Again, goodbye welfare state. Curtis showed President Bill Clinton’s Democrat government and Tony Blair’s “New” Labour succumbing to this ideology at about the same time, cutting welfare programmes on the pretext of efficiency and to catch the votes of a middle-class who had been taught to resent having their taxes supporting people less prosperous than themselves. After all, the poor are only poor because they have made “bad choices”, right?

The third Curtis series of my ken is HyperNormalisation, broadcast by the BBC in October 2016, and therefore able to discuss the Donald Trump phenomenon, among other things. The slide from solidarity to (illusory and manipulated) individual freedom was again charted. But this time Curtis’s focus was the techniques of encouraging conformity in the era of the computer and internet. In what is often called the “information age”, where all knowledge is supposedly at our fingertips at the press of a PC key, our distance from our fellow human beings is actually heightened. The corporations running the internet constantly re-write algorithms to ensure that we are fed material, which our previous surfing of the ‘net has suggested we most want to see. In effect, we get to live in “bubbles”, seeing only that which will reinforce what we already think. The massive circulation of misinformation, and the collapse of older styles of journalism, are also parts of the problem. In this case, Curtis shows what impact this has had in the conduct of an aggressive (American and British) foreign policy in the Middle East, which in turn aroused a furious Islamicist backlash.

It is possible that in reading this, you may have formed the impression that Adam Curtis is some sort of conspiracy theorist. I do not think so. I believe his series are well-researched and well-reasoned. And while I am duly wary of any commentator making a political or sociological point, I would observe that real conspiracy theories flourish most on Facebook, Youtube [yes – I see the irony of encouraging you to watch things on Youtube], Twitter, and other social media. For what it’s worth, all Curtis’s series were the product of the BBC which, for all its recently tarnished reputation, is not conspiracy-theory feed.