Hi all. It has probably become obvious to anyone that may have been following this Blog for some time that posts have become few and far between of late. I think I have more-or-less struggled over the years with times of poor health, but no more so than the current time. It is a many faceted problem and I won’t go into all of the details. Essentially, something needs to change (or a number of things really). Being still at work and clearly needing to continue to work in order to feed myself, etc, sadly it has beome time to change the way I do things around my many Blogs, etc. I have always enjoyed being online and keeping blogs and websites ticking over, but it has now become an almost impossible chore.
What will change is that this Blog will remain up as an archive, while also providing a gateway (via a link) to my Facebook Page (At the BookShelf), where I hope to continue posting curated articles/links/reviews, etc. It is so much quicker and easier to do that there than having to write code, etc, here. Essentially, the only real change will be the location of the information. Of course, this will also affect the tumblr version of the Blog also. The page has been going for some time now, years in fact, and has long been a useful place for information concerning books, etc.
If you would like to continue the journey with me, please visit the Facebook Page linked to below – and thank you for visiting me here over the years.
Cathy Mason, University of CambridgeMaking friends might come easier to some people than others, but in general, we all use the same criteria for forming relationships. We are drawn to people who share our interests, or who we simply like and admire.
Once we make friends, we tend to hold them in high esteem. We speak positively about our friends, sometimes ignoring or downplaying their negative qualities. For many people, this positive outlook is the core of friendship – being a “good” friend is a matter of thinking and feeling positively about them, as well as acting in caring ways towards them.
This type of friendship is what I’ll call “knowledge-free” – it involves no requirement to really know or understand the other person. On the flip side, this view of friendship suggests that having negative beliefs about your friends (even if those beliefs are warranted) makes you a worse friend.
As an ethicist who has researched friendship and virtue, this view of friendship just doesn’t seem right to me. It doesn’t capture all of what we want from friendship. I have studied the work of British-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch – and I suggest that her writings provide us with a fuller view of friendship.
Murdoch occupied a rare niche in 20th century philosophy, as a woman working in a fairly male-dominated field. She was also a Platonist interested in the reality of “the Good” in an era when such metaphysical theorising was deeply unpopular. A highly successful novelist, Murdoch’s many books explore the trials and tribulations of intimate relationships.
Love is knowledge
Much of Murdoch’s philosophical work examines the moral significance of love (which I take to be part of friendship). She regarded love as a central part of our moral life that had been unjustly ignored in the moral philosophy of her era, in favour of an endless focus on the function of moral language.
Unlike the view of friendship I described earlier, Murdoch’s conception of love is not “knowledge-free”. Instead, she suggests that understanding the other person is an integral part of love (and therefore of friendship, which plausibly involves love).
You can see in these quotes Murdoch’s view of love is knowledge of the other person, or seeing them as they really are –- it involves understanding them as a person, both their positive and negative qualities.
Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos.
So while we may have a natural, selfish tendency to believe reassuring fantasies about the goodness of other people (especially our friends), true friendship requires us to be patient, kind and accepting of their negative qualities too.
Being a good friend to others thus involves what Murdoch calls “loving attention”: regarding them in a patient, caring way, and always trying to do justice to who they really are.
In a Murdochian view of friendship, being a good friend involves knowing or understanding our friends more fully. Think about the way a friendship develops: One might initially know a few facts about a friend’s interests, such as that they enjoy classical music. Over time, a good friend would not simply know that their friend enjoys classical music, but exactly what kind of music they like, what it is that they like about it, and the importance that it has in their life. This deepening understanding of the other person naturally leads to a more fulfilling friendship.
Murdochian friendship therefore rules out the idea that being a good friend requires having positive – but false – beliefs about one’s friends. If friendship involves true knowledge of another person, it can’t require us to have untrue beliefs about them.
How might this relate to the other things we usually expect of friends, such as that they treat us well, and help us when we need it? Once we truly, lovingly see and understand another person, the right way to behave towards them will follow naturally. We won’t have to ask ourselves things like “should I bother helping my friend who is in need?”, because seeing their need will itself compel us to act rightly.
Think about Iris Murdoch the next time a friend of yours does or says something you disagree with. Instead of ignoring their flaw or mistake, try to accept it as part of their whole – it may even strengthen your friendship.
Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan UniversityI discovered Ellen Bass’ poem, Birdsong from My Patio, during the first UK lockdown. My garden hedge was stuffed with sparrows who seemed to always be singing. I expected to see and hear them in this poem too and, at first, I did: “I’ve never heard this much song, trills pure as crystal bells”. However, images of “acid rain”, “pesticides”, “contaminated insects” and “thin-shelled eggs” moved swiftly in. Instead of feeling joyous, I left the poem reeling. What have we done to our birds? What have we done to our world?
Climate change is widely recognised as the biggest threat of the 21st century. As it worsens, we can expect increased storms, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events, which threaten the survival of much on this planet. Politicians have congregated in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss how they can work together to slow down and reverse some of this damage.
People following the conference will likely know a fair bit about climate change but, as poet Jorie Graham suggests, they may not “feel” it. Environmental activists have begun asking for help communicating the impact of the climate crisis to both politicians and the public. In other words: help people empathise with the impact of climate change so they will feel compelled to combat it.
In an interview for the Guardian, poet Roger Robinson said that “poems are empathy machines”. And research backs this up. One recent paper, for example, found that poetry can increase empathy in readers and, therefore, can be an effective tool in conveying these urgent messages and changing behaviours.
Feeling the damage
By using things like imagery, metaphor, narrative and even white space, poetry has the power to make abstract or diffuse issues, like climate change, more real to readers. A poem can act as a witness to phenomena like global warming or highlight how climate change impacts particular animals or plants. For instance, Gillian Clarke’s sonnet Glacier witnesses the melting of Greenland’s glacier and calls for science to fix what has happened since:
The century of waste
has burned a hole in the sky over the Pole.
Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,
the golden toad, the thylacine and all variations
of whale harpooned or hacked into extinction.
It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing
but benzene, mercury, the stomachs
of seagulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic.
Olzmann highlights how our actions sit in stark contrast to how we actually feel about these animals and the natural world. These are things we take joy in, that we say we love, but that we treat with such disregard. Jane Hirshfield’s Let Them Not Say similarly speaks of how history will look upon us and calls for change before it is too late:
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Both Olzmann and Hirshfield’s poems reveal a bleak vision of the future which, in turn, can inspire empathy and action in readers now.
Resistance and hope
There are also poems of resistance that push against the capitalist systems which some argue continue to fuel the climate crisis. This can be seen in David Sergeant’s Language of Change, which is written from the perspective of late capitalism as it decides whether to continue to destroy the planet or change its ways.
There are those poems too which attempt to reconcile despair and hope and the way we, as humans, have both loved and let down our world. Evening by Dorianne Laux is a powerful example of this as it notes the beauty and possibility that breaks through the darkness of this dying planet:
We know we are doomed,
done for, damned, and still
the light reaches us, falls
on our shoulders even now
Like most other people, I have been aware of the climate crisis for years and have followed advice on how I can help. However, it wasn’t until I read Birdsong from My Patio that I felt the full emotional impact of climate change, followed by an urgent desire to take action on a larger scale. Since reading this poem (and many more after it), I have researched ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on my beloved birds, donated to environmental campaigns and have started writing my own ecopoetry.
And I am not alone. Research suggests that empathy which leads to this kind of action could be one of the key solutions to climate change. So pick up a poem, buy a (second-hand) book. The world will thank you.
Caroline D. Laurent, American University of Paris (AUP)The Prix Goncourt – the oldest and most prestigious literary prize in France – has been awarded to 31-year-old Mohamed Mbougar Sarr from Senegal. He’s the youngest winner since 1976 and the first from sub-Saharan Africa. Critics have been raving about The Most Secret Memory of Men, his novel about a young Senegalese writer living in Paris. The jury made a unanimous decision to award Mbougar Sarr the prize after just one round of voting, calling his work “a hymn to literature”. The prize will bring him literary fame and huge book sales, says Caroline D. Laurent, a specialist in Francophone African literature in France. We asked her more.
Who is Mohamed Mbougar Sarr?
Author of the 2021 Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Most Secret Memory of Men (La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes) Mbougar Sarr is a young Senegalese author who grew up outside Dakar and moved to Paris to continue his studies. At just 31, he has already published three other novels, his first in 2015: Encircled Earth (Terre Ceinte), Silence of the Choir (Silence du Chœur) and Pure Men (De Purs Hommes).
Starting his studies in Senegal, he began his doctorate at the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, working on poet and Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. Writing got in the way and prevented him from ever finishing and graduating. He now lives in Beauvais, a city north of Paris.
What is the novel about?
The Most Secret Memory of Men plays with reality and fiction. It tells the story of a young Senegalese author, Diégane Latyr Faye, who lives in Paris. In high school in Senegal he had come across mentions of a mysterious novel published in 1938 by a Senegalese author called T.C. Elimane, The Labyrinth of the Inhuman. Unable to find a copy, he had put his quest aside, considering it to be one of the many lost books of literature. But, by chance a few years later, he meets a Senegalese writer, Siga D, who gives him a copy of the book. The reading (and numerous re-readings) of what he considers to be a masterpiece revives his desire to find out what happened to the mysterious T.C. Elimane.
Why does the book matter?
The Most Secret Memory of Men is a novel about writing and literature. It is full of literary references – like to celebrated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño and prolific Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. But it’s the obscure references that are probably the most interesting: the fictional T.C. Elimane’s book and his fate echoes that of real-life Malian author Yambo Ouologuem – who Mbougar Sarr’s own novel is dedicated to.
Winner of the 1968 Prix Renaudot for Bound to Violence (Le Devoir de Violence), Ouologuem sparked controversy after a 1972 article in the Times Literary Supplement claimed he had plagiarised several authors, including Graham Greene and André Schwarz-Bart. He returned to Mali and never published again. Just as the narrator of Mbougar Sarr’s novel, Diégane Latyr Faye, is his alter ego, T.C. Elimane is Ouologuem’s.
As much as it is about writing, The Most Secret Memory of Men is also about reading. The work is polyphonic (with many narrators besides Faye), it is transcultural (set in Europe, Africa and South America) and it mixes different literary genres (letters, articles, conversations), encouraging many different types of readings. Some may focus on the historical events depicted – the novel alludes to colonialism, the World Wars, Nazism and the Holocaust, the dictatorship in Argentina and recent Senegalese demonstrations against state corruption. Others may focus on the mysterious elements that recall some features of magical realism. Or on the literary references, both African and global, that punctuate the text. Or all of the above.
It needs to be read for what it is – a great novel – and not because of the origin or the skin colour of its author. This is exactly why T.C. Elimane disappeared: hurt by some reviews, he felt misunderstood because his work was read through the lens of the work of others, notably that of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (he was called a “Rimbaud nègre” or black Rimbaud).
Why does this Prix Goncourt win matter?
For these reasons, winning the Prix Goncourt should be viewed as African literature finally being recognised for its literary qualities. One should focus on this (late) recognition and perhaps question why, faced with the many great novels by African writers, Mbougar Sarr’s win is so rare. The Most Secret Memory of Men is quite subversively brilliant in denouncing, through literature, the literary capture of African writers by former colonial powers.
Jointly published by two small publishing houses, Philippe Rey in France and Jimsaan in Senegal, the novel is truly transnational. The recognition of these publishing houses on two continents will, hopefully, enhance and help rebalance African countries’ role in publishing and distributing the works of their authors. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is not only denouncing colonial and neocolonial practices, but also encouraging new ways of publishing and reaching readers.
The Most Secret Memory of Men is a powerful text not only because of its writing, its themes, and what it says about the place of African literature in the world, but also because of how it opens up future possibilities for Francophone authors.
Damon Galgut, a white South African playwright and novelist, has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise, a satirical portrait of a white family living in Pretoria in post-apartheid South Africa. The story is a very personal one for Galgut, who grew up in Pretoria and witnessed late apartheid and its demise.
The novel follows the decline of four generations of the Swart family over 40 years and starts at the end of apartheid. It focuses on the pledge made by a dying family member to bequeath the family’s property to their black domestic worker. This promise goes ignored by future generations of the family. And it becomes an allegory for the broken promises made to black South Africans at the dawn of the country’s non-racial democracy in 1994.
Like all white men at the time, Galgut was legally obliged to serve for two years in the South African army enforcing apartheid rule. Galgut was featured as “National Serviceman of the Month” in a 1983 edition of the apartheid military’s propaganda magazine, Paratus. This is a broader subject he has explored in his 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.
A troubled history
The majority of white South Africans are descended from Dutch settlers and speak Afrikaans. During apartheid, racial separation was legally enforced and many white people saw themselves as a superior race. Whites were given the best jobs and education – creating a wealthy white elite. After a lengthy Liberation Struggle with widespread protests and leading to a violent State of Emergency in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and negotiations began.
At the same time, many in the country’s white community have ignored their role in ongoing racial inequality and are resistant to meaningful social, economic and political change. Large numbers of white families have emigrated or retreated to fortified luxury compounds within the country – and continue to profit from systems of structural racism. It is maybe no surprise, then, that white supremacist movements in South Africa are thriving.
As I discovered in my research, many white liberals who once opposed apartheid have become reactionary critics in the new South Africa.
Despite Zille, who is also the former mayor of Cape Town and premier of the Western Cape, being publicly called out, suspended and investigated by her own party for numerous tweets that defended colonialism, claiming it was “not all bad”, she remains the party’s Federal Chairperson and played a leading role in the recent provincial and municipal elections.
Research has also found that many white people who lived through apartheid minimise the suffering and racism of the time. It has even been claimed by some that white “suffering” post-apartheid could be worse than the experiences of black people during apartheid.
But while racism is still deeply embedded, with South Africa’s simmering social and class divisions continuing to play out, there are some signs of racial reconciliation. Just as during the traumatic years of apartheid, intelligent and humane cultural critics, artists, academics and activists, continue to be deeply committed to achieving meaningful change.
Indeed, with the success of The Promise, Damon Galgut joins a distinguished line of South African authors. Those such as Herman Charles Bosman, Andre Brink, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, all of whom grappled with the complex dynamics of the country’s white community in their writing. And in this way, Galgut’s Booker win serves a crucial purpose in illuminating, questioning and exploring the country’s continued difficult journey to a better future.
Bestselling Author Wilbur Smith Has died in South Africa, aged 88. He wrote some 49 books, including the Courtney series and one that I have only just finished, ‘River God,’ the first in his Ancient Egypt series.
Will McMorran, Queen Mary University of LondonIn 1813, a year before he died, the Marquis de Sade wrote his last published book, The Marquise de Ganges. The novel is based on a 17th-century true crime that Sade – notorious aristocrat, libertine and pornographer – probably first heard of as a young boy, and later read about while locked up in the Bastille. According to the accounts of the time, this is what happened.
On the afternoon of May 17 1667, Diane de Joannis, Marquise de Ganges, better known in her time in Louis XIV’s court as la Belle Provençale, is faced with a terrible choice. Standing before her are her two brothers-in-law – the Abbé (the abbott) and Chevalier de Ganges. The Abbé is holding a pistol in one hand and a glass filled with poison in the other. The Chevalier’s sword is drawn. “Madame,” the Abbé tells her, “you must die: you may choose fire, steel, or poison”.
The next few hours pass in a blur. Poison swallowed, then furtively disgorged; escape through a first-floor window; brief sanctuary amongst the women of the village; frenzied blows from the Chevalier’s sword, its blade snapping in her shoulder; and finally, the Abbé’s pistol, pressed against her chest … misfiring.
This is not the end of the Marquise’s ordeal, but there is some respite at least. The women of the village come to her aid once more, driving back the Abbé and the Chevalier, who take flight, never to return – and never to face justice.
Her wounds are dressed, and she is taken back to the Château de Ganges. Despite her extraordinary courage and resilience, however, the damage has already been done. She dies 19 days later – the autopsy confirming poisoning as the cause of death.
It was one of the crimes of the century, and immediately became a récit sanglant or bloody tale, one to be told and retold by one generation to the next.
Now Sade’s version of this tragic episode is now available in English for the first time, in my new translation for Oxford World’s Classics. Sade scholars have always labelled it a “historical novel” but when I was translating it, I realised that’s not the right genre. It is, instead, Sade’s first and only truly gothic novel – inspired by English novelists like Ann Radcliffe, who wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Mathew Lewis, who wrote The Monk.
Sade and the gothic
Sade today is probably best known as the man who inspired the term “sadism”, and for his works of violent pornography – novels like Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom, which he described as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began”. Until now, he’s not really been considered a gothic novelist – although he is often quoted as an early commentator of this new genre, which he called “the necessary offspring of the revolutionary upheaval which affected the whole of Europe” in an essay in 1800.
Gothic novels thrived in Britain from the 1790s to the 1820s and were highly popular across Europe. The writer Madame de Staël described these as stories whose “aim was to inspire terror with night-time, old castles, long corridors and gusts of wind.” They were stories of horror and suspense, of lust and love, with darkly violent and erotic undertones.
In the early 1790s, Radcliffe was the most influential and successful writer of this popular genre. Lewis’s The Monk, a supernatural tale of murder, incest and religion, saw the gothic take a turn from polite terror to the more shocking – think bleeding nuns and lecherous monks making pacts with demons.
Sade’s pornographic novels do share some features with the English gothic in terms of characters (virtuous heroines, debauched aristocrats and monks) and locations (isolated castles, dark forests, and even darker dungeons). Until now this has seemed a matter of coincidence rather than influence. When he wrote them, Sade hadn’t read Radcliffe or Lewis, and there’s no evidence that they ever read Sade either. And although The Monk was considered scandalous at the time, English gothic novels never come close to the graphic and often crude depictions of sex we find in Sade.
But The Marquise de Gange is a very different work to Sade’s famous – or infamous – pornographic fiction. Written years later, Sade’s retelling is clearly inspired by novelists like Radcliffe and Lewis. It is his first attempt at a gothic novel – complete with its forbidding castle in keeping with “that Gothic style of architecture”.
Like so many other gothic novels, The Marquise de Gange is at its heart a story about predatory men and innocent women. In Sade’s part-fictionalised account of this historical murder, that violence is sexually driven, as the Marquise’s brothers-in-law take revenge for her rejection of their advances. Throughout the novel, male desire is a constant danger, a constant threat.
So far so gothic. But reading this novel is not quite like reading any other gothic novel, because it is impossible to forget who wrote it. Sade’s life, like his fiction, is a tale of repeated acts of sexual violence against women, from Jeanne Testard and Rose Keller, to the teenage girls he hired as servants in his castle in Lacoste one winter. As American radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin put it, Sade’s “life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real”.
Beneath the novel’s respectable surface, and behind its moralising narrator, the reader can’t help but look for glimpses of an amoral author. One wants to look for the mask to slip, as it seems to when the narrator lingers over the heroine’s “bosom of alabaster, covered only with her beautiful, dishevelled locks” in the climactic scene, or when the narrator forgets whether he should be impressed or outraged by the evil Abbé’s plotting: “Everything had been judiciously, or rather, maliciously calculated in the Abbé’s plans,” he corrects himself. Sade teases the reader, playing cat and mouse throughout this highly self-conscious and subversive version of a gothic novel.
Martin Farr, Newcastle UniversityThe fortnightly magazine Private Eye turns 60 this year. When it launched, it helped initiate the “satire boom”, and, more profoundly, the increasing lack of deference those in positions of authority could expect from the press, television, and, consequently, the public.
One of the magazine’s most popular and longest features has been the prime ministerial parody. Commenting on the state of politics, it provides a potted political history of Britain.
The life and times of a Downing Street housewife
Though Harold Macmillan was prime minister when Private Eye appeared in 1961, and Alec Douglas-Home soon succeeded him, the first to become the subject of a regular satirical column was Harold Wilson.
Labour had won the 1964 general election invoking a “new Britain” to replace the old establishment constraining a country on the cusp of a technological revolution. Rather making the point for him, a new prime minister conspicuously northern of provenance and accent found himself immediately patronised by the Oxbridge public-school boys in London behind the magazine.
Mrs Wilson’s Diary was the idea of Peter Cook, the most prominent of them, partly inspired by the radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary. The Wilsons’ 10 Downing Street was a household of mundane domesticity, of spam garnished with brown sauce, accompanied by Wincarnis sweet wine. In skewering Wilson’s provincialism, the column also connoted Britain’s rapidly diminishing international status.
In this way, Private Eye is, among other things, a unique example of conservatism and iconoclasm. It was born of the very establishment it was created to debunk. Its defining characteristic was to parody whoever is in power.
Wilson, who cultivated a pipe and a pint persona in public despite being a cigar and cognac man in private, could hardly complain – though complain he did, even intervening to censor the script when Mrs Wilson’s Diary was adapted into a West End play.
Tetchy Ted’s memo to Heathco staff
The Conservatives unexpectedly won the 1970 general election, and the new prime minister Edward Heath’s intention was to replace Wilson’s tired government of gimmicks and cronies with a gleaming, modern, almost corporate, administration.
A case can be made for the 1970s parodies being the best because it was the dottiest decade, replete with singular scandals and improbable conspiracies, many of which were brought to light in the Eye.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Jim Callaghan’s beleaguered premiership was that it, alone, went without a parody. The comic strip The Brothers had to suffice, depicting the breakdown between the Labour government and the trades unions, the end of the post-war settlement and of corporatism.
The gripings of a golf-obsessed husband
The landmark incarnation of the parody began in 1979 with the landmark prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher.
Dear Bill, in which Thatcher’s spouse Denis wrote to his friend Bill (Deedes, a prominent conservative journalist), allowed for the comic exaggeration of a certain commuter-belt conservatism, centred on gin, tonic, golf, and reacting against all manner of modern norms. Private Eye could characterise the husband as comic because his wife was far from funny.
Suitably enough, it was the 1980s incarnation that was the most commercially-minded. The Dear Bill books were bestsellers, while audiences for the stage version Anyone for Denis? included the Thatchers, smiling unconvincingly.
Major growing pains
The shift in scale from Thatcher to her unprepossessing successor in 1990 had Private Eye cast him as an overgrown, and equally dynamic, Adrian Mole in The Secret Diary of John Major (aged 47¾).
With the widely-ridiculed Cones Hotline, which provided the public with means of redress about local traffic calming methods, a flagship policy, and the government descending into a pit of endemic corruption, the long Conservative era that was clearly ending was not unlike that of the early 60s which had occasioned the satire boom in the first place.
New Labour arrives in the parish
After 18 years of Tory rule, the column shifted from the stale to the sanctimonious in 1997, when Tony Blair’s proclivity to play guitar in overly-tight jeans inspired his depiction as a trendy vicar addressing his congregation in the St Albion Parish News.
Reverend Blair issued updates from officials such as church warden Peter Mandelson, in charge of the Millennium Tent on the village green, and from his American friend George Bush’s “Church of the Latter-Day Morons”.
Ten years later, the Prime Ministerial Decree presented Gordon Brown as a Stalin-like dictator. It was effective for no other reason than that his hapless regime showed him to be anything but Stalin-like. An appropriately narrow, joyless, iteration.
2000s: Dave and Theresa’s school days
The 2010s was a decade of scholasticism. The first multi-party government since 1940 had David Cameron as headmaster of the New Coalition Academy, the fortnightly newsletter of which foregrounded his voguish headline educational reform.
When Cameron happily shed his Liberal Democrat partners after the 2015 election, the magazine appointed him head of the even more voguish Cameron Free School, penning another newsletter.
Mr Cameron was unfortunately soon made to resign by a disaster of his own making (Brexit), and his successor, Mrs May, took over as headmistress of St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) for two painful years before she was unfortunately made to resign by a disaster of hers (Brexit).
The Johnson years: beyond a joke?
In its sixty years, the parody has taken the form of private musing or public communication. But to work it had to be plausible.
The best that can be said of the latest version, in which the Prime Minister responds to questions from the public on social media, is that Boris Johnson’s Live on Fakebook is so like its subject that, depending on one’s disposition, it’s either unmissable or unreadable.
The purpose of the Private Eye prime ministerial parody was to render its subject unserious. When the subject manages that all by themselves, satire might be seen to have died.
The joke gives succinct expression to a cynicism that has shaped Australian politics since the introduction of self-government in the 1850s. The implication, of both the joke and the culture informing it, is that the politician’s lies reflect solely on their kind and reveal nothing about the rest of us.
In his newly published profile of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Sean Kelly flips this way of thinking on its head. The Game offers many powerful and revealing insights into Morrison’s career and the tricky political tactics that have characterised it. But the most important revelations in this book are about the society that created our prime minister, and the structures and cultures that facilitated his path to the Lodge.
Kelly explains, for example, that Morrison worked hard to be a “blank canvas” in the public eye until perhaps 2015, at which point he became the more recognisable suburban “good bloke down the road”.
This persona, replete with the “ScoMo” nickname, has characterised his public performances ever since. But the performance only matters because it finds in the Australian community “a willing audience” who, recently at least, like to have what novelist E.M. Forster called “flat characters” (or instantly recognisable “types”) in their newspapers and their parliaments.
Formerly a self-described “spin doctor” for both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Kelly studies Morrison’s public persona not just with the eye of a Canberra insider, but also with the lens of a cultural critic. In this “land of extremes”, he says, Australians are
always splitting ourselves in two, then ignoring the half that discomfits us.
For Kelly, this mentality explains why the so-called “quiet Australians” have indulged “the game” that Morrison plays, while the others have rejected him entirely (“I am completely different”).
Given Kelly’s Labor connections, cynics might expect a partisan hit-job on the prime minister. This portrait is no hit-job, but it is, unsurprisingly, unflattering.
Kelly gives Morrison the benefit of the doubt with respect to the early stages of the pandemic, “a situation unlike anything those involved had dealt with before”. There is recognition, too, of the burdens that Jenny Morrison and her daughters have borne in service of public life. But the portrait of Morrison himself is a study of duplicity and hollowness.
There are criticisms of Morrison’s more tone-deaf and morally dubious performances, none more so than the forced handshakes with reluctant bushfire survivors and firefighters during that black summer of 2019-20.
But the most important conclusion about Morrison in this book relates to the way he thinks. Kelly suggests Morrison’s mind does not think in narratives, but only in images or snapshots (think of the punchline of the tourism ad he commissioned, “Where the bloody hell are ya?”). This, Kelly reasons, is why he can say one thing with such apparent conviction today, and the opposite with equal fervour tomorrow.
For a public figure, this inconsistency would be impossible “if it were not a central aspect of their experience of the world”. The psychological analysis here is sweeping, its inferences devastating.
There are many praiseworthy qualities in Kelly’s study. Serious issues, from asylum-seeker policy to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine roll-out, are given ample coverage. But this is no traditional biography, and these debates are not its central concern.
The main subject of this book is the performance of politics itself, and the narratives that mediate the public’s relationship with its representatives. The idea of “performance” seems resurgent in political theory and history, and its capacity for revelation is rich.
In some ways, Kelly’s book builds on an older tradition of political profiles that took performance as their main subject. Graham Little’s Strong Leadership (1988) and Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1992) stand tall in that tradition, using psychosocial theory to unpack the hearts and minds of Australian liberals from Menzies to Malcolm Fraser. Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002) is equally important, part-memoir, part-meditation and part-psychological study of Paul Keating as prime minister, written from the intimate perspective of a prime ministerial speechwriter.
In each case, the biographer’s goal was to explain not just who the prime minister was, but how their way of thinking engaged with the world around them.
Kelly does not try to discover the “real” Scott Morrison, a task rendered almost impossible by the vacuousness of the prime minister’s performances and the role of the media in presenting him to us.
Instead, he evokes the divided community to whom Morrison performs, and the social and cultural processes that allow those performances to take place and, at least sometimes, hit their mark. Kelly’s method is to home in on public speech, its sounds and cadences, as well as the often elusive messages and impressions that Morrison seeks to convey with his words.
The chief limitation of The Game is that, relying largely on public material, it cannot take us into the institutions that empower Morrison, other than the media.
We don’t learn much about the Prime Minister’s Office, other than that it failed to respond to Brittany Higgins’s alleged rape in Parliament House in an appropriate fashion.
Parliament itself is a stage here, but scarcely recognisable as an institution that makes laws. The public service is invisible. National Cabinet is, according to Kelly, little more than an “aesthetic change” from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) that preceded it.
It says something about the condition of contemporary politics that it is hard to say whether these absences are a flaw in the author’s approach, or inevitable given the style of leadership it so astutely anatomises.
In the end, The Game invites us to look toward the next election. That poll will, Kelly implies, reveal something more of ourselves, or at least those “quiet” Australians who are supposed to have voted for Morrison in 2019. Like most of us, Kelly is unsure who will have the last laugh.
Sofia Kostelac, University of the WitwatersrandSouth African writer Damon Galgut has won the UK’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, for his work The Promise. It was Galgut’s third shortlisting for the career-defining award, which has evaded him until now. In 2003 he was shortlisted for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. So what is it that makes his latest novel The Promise so special? We asked Galgut expert Sofia Kostelac to fill us in about the writer and his tale of a white South African family’s reckoning with a racist past – and why the book is important, especially in South Africa where it is set.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Who is Damon Galgut?
Damon Galgut is a South African writer born in Pretoria in 1963. He now lives and works in Cape Town. He made his literary debut at the age of 18, with the publication of his first novel, A Sinless Season, in 1982. The Promise is his ninth novel, and the third to be shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Although best known for his novels, Galgut has also authored several plays, screenplays and short stories.
Like many readers, I was first made aware of Galgut’s writing when The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. That novel encompasses many of the themes that Galgut has become best known for, including his searching meditations on the devastating legacies of apartheid and white-minority rule in South Africa. Yet his literary range also extends well beyond forms of politically engaged realism. It includes experiments with fictionalised memoir or ‘autrebiography’ (In a Strange Room), biographical fiction (Arctic Summer) and metaphysical crime writing (The Quarry and The Impostor).
What is The Promise all about?
The Promise is a carefully layered novel that spans just over three decades in the lives of the Swarts, a white South African family living on a farm just outside of Pretoria. The promise of the novel’s title refers to the commitment that Manie makes to fulfil his wife Rachel’s dying wish: to give their domestic worker Salome, who has worked for the family for decades, the house on the Swart farm in which she lives. The promise remains unfulfilled for the next 31 years as successive inheritors of the land refuse to cede the property to Salome.
The novel is divided into four parts, each focused on the death and funeral of a member of the Swart family. The deaths occur roughly a decade apart from each other. This is a structuring device that allows Galgut to hold three decades of South African history – from the violent state of emergency in the mid-1980s to the tumult of contemporary times – in view. While the dramatic socio-political changes of these years are apparent in every aspect of the Swart family’s lives, little changes for Salome, whose wait for the dignity and safety represented by land and property endures.
Why does the book matter?
At the heart of the novel – and the unfulfilled promise to Salome – lies the question of what sort of restitution is possible in the context of South Africa’s brutally iniquitous history? The bitter irony on which the story rests is that Salome’s house is entirely undesirable, consisting of “three rooms and a broken roof. On a tough piece of land.” It holds almost no material value for the Swarts, yet the family is torn asunder by their disagreements over its fate.
What would it take, the novel implicitly asks, for a family like the Swarts to give up a modicum of their privilege to nudge us towards a more equitable society? The Promise attends, with meticulous detail and insight, to the pathologies of racism, pride and fear that make such acts unlikely.
Galgut has rightly been praised by reviewers and the Booker judges for the formal skill with which he handles these vexing themes. The narrative voice is a remarkably inventive one that ranges between diverse characters with apparent ease, and delivers a rare combination of irony and empathy that wryly critiques the novel’s deeply flawed and afflicted characters without dehumanising them.
Does the Booker Prize matter and what will it do for Galgut’s career?
The Booker Prize is almost unparalleled in the attention and esteem it affords its winners. The prize has played a significant role in shaping the South African literary canon, and Galgut is now likely to take up a well-earned place alongside pantheons like J.M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer as among the most recognised, studied and anthologised of the country’s writers.