31 July 2007

Cyrano de Bergerac - Journey to the Moon

In common with most people, I only know of Cyrano de Bergerac through Rostand's play, dimly aware that he was a real 17th century writer and playwright. Rostand in fact took some elements of Cyrano - his appearance, legendary swordsmanship and fondness of duels, and great wit - and elaborated a romance around it to create a new hero.

It's a little disappointing to find that Cyrano didn't live to old age, but died at the age of 36, leaving a couple of plays, and some heretical works published after his death. Journey to the Moon is the most famous of them, a satire in which the narrator travels to the moon by ingenious means, and discovers a population there that lives in ways contrary to those on earth.

De Bergerac prefigures Swift in imagining travel to a distant land, and discovery of a race of people similar to man, but superior in reasoning, to comment on and satirise his own society. Much of the narrative is taken up with discussion of scientific speculations, which may seem a bit bewildering now, but it must be remembered that the mid 17th century was a time when strict Aristotelian natural philosophy was being countered by empiricism and observation, and attempts to synthesise theories of 'humours' and 'elements' and alchemical beliefs with new discoveries.

De Bergerac shows some familiarity with scientific learning of the time, and his speculations, about the existence of vacuums, or the nature of atoms, are entertaining if wide of the mark.

He's more daring when discussing religion, being openly transgressive by disrespecting prophets in his imagined Garden of Eden, having his narrator profess atheism, and discussing the existence of the soul. As the introduction suggests, he was a true libertine, in terms of free thought as well as free living, and one wonders what else he might have produced had he lived.


Honore de Balzac - Sarrasine

This notable short story is famous as the subject of an essay by Barthes, S/Z, who broke it down into separate units for close analysis. It's a very early Balzac story, and as such is remarkable for its complexity.

A man, attempting to seduce a woman at a ball, tells her the story of Sarrasine, a man who becomes obsessed by a singer, Zambinella, whose beauty and voice enchant him. His obsession grows until he is compelled to declare his love, and is gently rejected. He plots to abduct Zambinella, who is a favourite at the court, and when he does he discovers, as he had been warned, that 'she' is a man, a castrato. The shock of this revelation leads to a catastrophic ending.

Balzac plays with the ambiguity of his story, and with the language, in a way that isn't translatable - 'son' et 'sa' are used where English can only have either 'his' or 'her', for example, while the gender of the possessor isn't revealed in French, but assumed. He refers to legends of androgyny - the beauty of Adonis, the strength of Sappho - and the transgression of the story is evident throughout. It has a feeling of a fantasy, connected through these legends to past stories,but it's rooted through the fact of castrati in present reality. It also plays on the fear of men - that the object of their desire isn't what they want, and of course submerged homosexuality.

The second story in this Hesperus edition is a slightly strange one about a love affair between a man and a panther, which ends tragically.


Honore de Balzac - Eugenie Grandet

This is one of Balzac's earliest novels, and one of his best. It is, as with most of his works, concerned primarily with money and inheritance, and the darker impulses of men which interested him.

Monsieur Grandet is a cooper and winegrower who, by assiduous harbouring of his wealth, and good business dealing, has come to accumulate a fortune. Very few people are aware of this, not even his wife or daughter, the eponymous Eugenie, due to his compulsive secrecy and obsessive scrimping. Only his lawyer and his banker, who compete to provide a match for Eugenie from their families, know about his riches.

Grandet is a fabulously drawn character, a miser, but not a caricature. Balzac observes him close-up, and creates a consistent, although terrifying man, all emotions sacrificed to the obsessive, and pointless, accumulation of wealth, to the exclusion of even his own family. A criticism of Balzac is his cynicism - he finds avaricious, malicious people more interesting, so his novels are dominated by them, and Grandet is an extreme example.

Eugenie is less interesting to begin with, not just because she is good, but because she is a child, simple and without many character traits, so she genuinely has less interest. As she grows more bold, and then hard, her character develops, but still the heart of the book is with her father. Balzac's rhapsodising over Eugenie never convinces, it feels forced and not true to life as he observed it.

Grandet is a sort of counterpoint to Pere Goriot. Both are obsessed and ambitious, but whereas Goriot sacrifices himself for the sake of his daughters, Grandet sacrifices his family for his own sake, to the extent of forcing his daughter to forgo her inheritance from her mother so that he doesn't have to disclose his wealth. He is a monster, but such is Balzac's skill that he isn't implausible.


29 July 2007

Philip Roth - Everyman

Continuing a run of books written by Phils, I tried this latest Roth. I've only read a couple of his before - Portnoy's Complaint, of course, and American Pastoral, and I don't yet have a handle on what makes him so great.

This is a serious work, concerned with mortality - it opens with the funeral of the main character, and most of it details the ailments he's suffered in his life. He's had a major cardiovascular operation every year for 6 years, and on the eve of the last one, from which he won't wake, he recalls his life, and the mistakes he has made.

By the end of his life he has had three marriages, and two estranged sons. His brother, a spectacular overachiever, Goldman partner, with a successful marriage and four children, has always supported him, but in the end his envy, and shame at his own frailty and relative failure leads him to, unjustly reject him.

The main character is not named - he is 'Everyman', not just symbolic of any man, but also of the medieval allegorical play, whose subject is the summoning of the living to death. It's a calling to account of a man for his life, and as such it has a universal resonance. It's also about the frailty of the human body - for a long part of the book, every character is defined by the ailments they've suffered.

There's an unresolved element to the book, of whether Roth intends for the character's ailments to stand for his moral failings, how he has treated his wives and family, or whether it's his own lack of direction and self-respect which have led to both. He considers the contrast between his brother's life and his own to be down to luck, but plainly he made moral and career choices, and these are also general in their symbolism - we all make these choices, we all envy those who make different ones.

In the end I found this unsatisfying. Maybe if I reread it in 20 or 30 years time it will resonate more, but it's very tightly written and with some irony.


25 July 2007

Philip Hensher - The Mulberry Empire

I don't usually read historical fiction, it doesn't appeal so much. I think it might be to do with the perceptible strain of an author trying to lever in as much of his research as possible, which distracts from the narrative, and perhaps the inconsistencies and anachronisms arising when applying 20th/21st century dialogue to historical settings. I'd much rather read a writer from that period, than one from now reimagining the period.

But this book had been recommended by several people, as had Hensher in general, so I gave it a go. It's really pretty good. Early on I felt that Hensher loved his own prose a little too much, and that the narrative dragged, but as it developed his presentation of the central characters was convincing.

It is a story of great relevance to today, set during the British war in Afghanistan of the 1830s, but its immediate pertinence is inadvertent and fortuitous - the book was finished in early 2001, before 9/11 which precipitated the invasion.

The research, largely from memoirs by the real protagonists, is worn lightly, and Hensher is most interested in the motivations of each of the characters. He tells a story of great folly - the English hubris in attempting to usurp the Afghan throne in order to control the region - close-up, and without commentary.

The scenes back in England are lesser, although well-observed, and tend to an unsatisfying lack of resolution, but overall the book has a good sense of atmosphere and purpose. I'll definitely read the other Henshers I have on the back of this.


19 July 2007

Philippe Sands - Lawless World

Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, a QC, and a barrister at Matrix Chambers, where Cherie Booth practises. He is highly respected and renowned for his experience and expertise, having helped to negotiate many international treaties, including Kyoto, and being currently a Professor at UCL. He is thus a very competent and trustworthy guide to the basics of international law, from the Atlantic Charter to Kyoto.

This book, subtitled 'The whistle-blowing account of how Bush and Blair are taking the law into their own hands', analyses the ways in which the Bush administration have subverted international law, in multiple areas, which has led them into a war without legitimacy, and to lose the respect, trust and cooperation of much of the international community, notably excluding Britain.

Sands's style is very clear, he's pitched this to a lay audience, and is very aware that it needs to be led through the issues under discussion, and he does that as you'd expect a law professor might. Despite his obvious underlying frustration with the US administration, this book isn't a polemic, and his own views rarely surface. This is a dissection of where the US have acted in breach of international laws and treaties, and the problems consequent upon those actions, refreshingly free of speculation or hyperbole.

He opens the book with the story of the attempted extradition from England of General Pinochet by a Spanish prosecutor, for offences against Spaniards committed while he was leader of Chile. This is relevant because it was found that Pinochet's state immunity didn't apply for offences with international import, such as torture or genocide. The decision, by the British law lords, had great resonance, particularly in America where ideas of sovereignty of the state outweigh those of international cooperation. There certain political leaders, past and present, were offended by the idea that they could be held to account by a foreign court for crimes committed in the service of the USA. Attention focused on Henry Kissinger, particularly for his known complicity in the Chilean coup of 1973, but events since the Pinochet case have exposed other civilian leaders to this risk.

This leads into America's opposition to the International Criminal Court. While I was aware of that stance, there's a lot in this book I didn't know, such as the USA's withholding of military aid to any country who assists with the ICC. This blackmail has been effective for smaller states, although it hasn't been applied to countries such as Britain, who have backed the ICC vigorously. Sands shows how the USA's opposition is paranoid and inaccurate - there are safeguards to prevent rogue prosecutors from launching speculative actions - and how the ICC has been demonised by deliberate misinformation as it runs counter to a neocon philosophy of American supremacy.

Subsequent chapters, on Kyoto and trade deals, are informed by Sands's involvement in negotiating treaties and acting on behalf of countries in court cases, but he never puts himself at the centre of the discussion, and uses his examples to illuminate the issues. He shows how the US will use international law where it suits them - in trade, most notably, where they recognise the future advantages of being seen to abide by multilateral rules.

But the meat of this book is in the chapters dealing with Iraq. There is a forensic analysis of how the Security Council was bypassed, which was known at the time - I remember railing against it with much the same information that Sands presents here - but which has been much forgotten since. The argument is as follows:

1. The US had decided to invade Iraq to get rid of Saddam. The motivations for this are various, and not immediately relevant.
2. An unprovoked war is an international crime, of aggression, so the pretext they used was that Saddam was an immediate or imminent threat to the US or its allies, due to its ongoing WMD weapons programme.
3. In order to get international sanction for this, the US proceeded through the Security Council, expecting, it seemed, that Hans Blix would discover WMDs and justify their action.
4. SC resolution 1441 bound Iraq to comply with the investigation, and that serious (but, crucially undetermined) consequences would follow non-compliance.
5. Specifically, and I remember this clearly from news reports at the time, SC member countries were assured that 1441 had 'no trigger points' and 'no automaticity' - the words of John Negroponte, the US Ambassador to the UN. Countries voted for the resolution explicitly on this basis, that they would have another discussion as to sanctions or action required if Iraq didn't comply. This is critical.
6. There was an attempt to get a second resolution, for war, which failed, despite frantic efforts.
7. The US and British governments decided that the second resolution wasn't needed after all - so why did they go to such efforts to secure it? - and that 1441 was sufficient - even though the countries who voted for it had been explicit that they weren't agreeing to war. This is so transparent, it's incredible that none of the MPs that voted for war raised the point.
8. Hans Blix's final report before the war was that Iraq was complying with their investigations, and that no WMDs had been found. All the same, Tony Blair decided that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations, despite the fact it wasn't his call - it was up to the Security Council to make that judgement.

In order to back up his decision, Blair relied upon the Attorney General's opinion, which Sands savages, with lawyerly rapier cuts, as being inconsistent with previous opinions, and plainly influenced at the last minute by US pressure. He spends a whole chapter on this, such is its importance - many MPs wouldn't have voted for war had there not been such an opinion, and the Chief of the Defence Staff insisted on it.

There are other chapters on Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the torture policy of the US, which, coincidentally, Bush announced yesterday. He shows how the argument that the President can authorise any means necessary to pursue America's wars, as Commander in Chief, is not only contrary to international treaties that the US is party to, but could also be used to justify genocide. It is contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which Alberto Gonzalez, then the White House Counsel, now, frighteningly, Attorney General, despite his manifest incompetence and lack of independence, dismissed as irrelevant, and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture.

The US, belatedly, is seeing how its lack of concern for these fundamental treaties has affected its reputation, and more importantly legitimacy around the world. Moral credibility is critical when trying to establish relationships and influence in hostile areas, and the US has lost a lot due to bull-headed and near-sighted officials and advisers. It seems that they are recognising the damage this has done, although Bush's announcement yesterday is still the US interpreting the Geneva Conventions for their own convenience, when they are non-negotiable. The test is - would they accept other countries, such as Syria, freely interpreting or ignoring the Geneva Conventions?

This is an excellent book, of great clarity and rigour, which shows just how important it is that the leaders of the world abide by the rules their forbears established.


6 July 2007

Richard Layard - Happiness

Richard Layard is, supposedly, a new economics guru, holding a position that Charles Leadbetter did a decade ago. As Leadbetter was adopted by Tony Blair for his writing on social entrepreneurship, Layard has been taken up by David Cameron (see this speech) for his theory of social happiness. Sound a bit woolly? It sure is.

Layard's ideas, such as they are, develop from Utilitarianism, as defined by Bentham and then John Stuart Mill. This is a philosophy that the greatest good arises from what brings the greatest happiness to most people. An old, well-established theory that Layard claims to update, calling it a 'science of happiness'.

So what makes this a science? Well, essential characteristics of a science are that it is definable, measurable and testable. And Layard tries to satisfy these conditions. He says that we know when people are happy because we can ask them. And we know that their responses are consistent across nations because we ask similar questions and use large samples and get similar responses.

A lot of the beginning of the book is taken up with showing that we can measure happiness, through MRI scans, and there's a lot of references to research, although in a frustratingly vague way. He will refer to four surveys within one paragraph, then assume that the argument has been concluded and move on.

Much of the book is like this, and more of it is just conjecture. There's no economic theory here, just airy optimistic waffle about how societies function better through cooperation rather than rampant self-interest, how taxation is good, and we should give to the third world because it makes us feel better. It's flimsy stuff.

If you're seeking happiness, don't read this book, it won't fulfil.


1 July 2007

Stefan Zweig - Twilight

This small volume has a couple of short stories by Zweig - Twilight and Moonbeam Alley. The second is very short, by Zweig's standards, and a story of obsessive love, sex and money. The first is an imagined recreation of the last days of Madame de Prie, the mistress of the Duke of Bourbon in the 1720s who fell out of favour and was exiled from Versailles. This was the King's response to the collapse of John Law's financial enterprise, which led to widespread unrest as people caught by the burst bubble ended up bankrupt.

Zweig imagines de Prie's despair at her exile, deprived not just of her influence - she had been the most powerful woman in France, and had chosen the King's wife for him - but of any social life. As she still has money, she hosts some balls at her country estate, to bring society to her, as she is not allowed to go to it, but the prospect of another couple of years exile is too much for her, so almost out of pique she kills herself, hoping, in vain, that she would at least attain some immortality through that.

The fact that de Prie is now forgotten is part of Zweig's point - the futility of vanity, striving for fame and influence for its own sake.


Stefan Zweig - Confusion

This is a very deceptive novella. It's a memoir by a retiring privy councillor of his student days, and the influence upon him of one particular tutor. The student, having briefly indulged himself in Berlin instead of studying, is admonished by his father, and drops out to enrol in a provincial university, studying English. There he encounters a tutor of mesmerising charisma, who stimulates him intellectually, and for the first time exposes him to the excitement of study.

The student becomes obsessed with the tutor, and when he finds out that he has never published a planned work on Shakespeare, encourages him to do so by offering to take dictation. Their close collaboration increases the student's admiration, but also complicates it, as he's also attracted to the tutor's young wife.

The student's attraction is clearly platonic - it's made clear that he's attracted to women - but it turns out that that of the tutor for the student is not. The revelation and explanation are handled with a delicacy typical of Zweig, and expressed through the inexperienced eyes of the student.

This story of frustrated homosexual love and repression was published in 1927. Even considering the adventurous environment of 1920s Berlin, homosexuality was a crime in Germany, and remained so until 1968. Zweig's description of the tutor's ordeals - seeking out sex in back streets, marrying a boyish young girl, with whom he can't sustain a physical relationship, suffering taunts and risking blackmail and disbarment - is candid and sympathetic, and perhaps linked to the natural sympathy of a Jewish-German intellectual for other persecuted outsiders.