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Roger McGough: Pop Poetry in the '60s

Written by eastern writer on Thursday, September 27, 2007

Roger McGough (left) talking to Damian Grant at the Cambridge Seminar 2007

How did a strap-wielding physics teacher affect Roger McGough’s earliest experience of poetry? What was it like to be at the helm of Liverpool’s influential poetry scene in the 1960s? And how did it feel to perform on Top of the Pops with a Number One hit single? At the 2007 Cambridge Seminar Roger engaged in a lively conversation with the British Council’s Senior Literature Consultant, Jonathan Barker, about his rise to becoming one of the UK’s most celebrated living poets.

Having published his autobiography Said and Done and over 40 years’ worth of his poetry in the book Collected Works, Roger fittingly opened the session with a quick reflection of the decade where it all began:

“I wish I had kept a journal in the ‘60s. What was Reg Dwight - before he became Elton John - wearing at The Scaffold recording sessions when he was a backing singer? What did Bob Dylan actually say that night in the Adelphi Hotel? Did I really have a threesome with Marianne Faithfull and Julie Christie, or was I just dreaming? (Just dreaming.) Did Keith Moon and I jump fully clothed into the pool on his 21st birthday? Did John Lennon ever give me back the half-crown he took off the table in Thelma's flat in Princes Avenue? Questions, questions - and I don't have the answers. As Adrian Henri once remarked, plucking a scintilla of nostalgia from his paint-stained beard, ‘If I'd have known that I was living in one of the most exciting periods of recent history, I'd have taken more notice.’”

Jonathan Barker:
In the ‘60s the United States had San Francisco, but Britain had Liverpool. At the time, Allen Ginsberg called Liverpool ‘the centre of the universe’. You were very much part of that scene. Can you talk us through what your background to becoming a poet was like and how you experienced the ‘60s? There certainly aren’t many poets who’ve been at Number One in the singles hit parade.

Roger McGough:
It was strange. I’d grown up in Liverpool with a working-class, Irish-Catholic background. Men of my father’s generation worked on the docks, but I was amongst the first of that post-war generation for whom education was available – I got a scholarship to go to grammar school, and then a university degree. At university I did French and Geography (so I quickly learnt where the capital of France was).

Although I benefited from having an education, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. With my sort of working-class background there wasn’t much encouragement for you if you wanted to do anything within the arts. For instance, I was always told: “What’s the point of drawing? What’s the point of poetry? What’s the point of art? They’re nice things but they won’t put bread on the table. Get a proper job.”

And so I went into teaching while continuing to write poetry. I certainly didn’t enjoy poetry myself when I was at school. In retrospect, it was taught by teachers who probably weren’t interested in poetry themselves. It was in the curriculum so we just had to do it. In fact, the only teacher who did interest me was a man called Brother Ryan (I was taught by an Irish-Catholic teaching order). He terrified us. He used to hit us with a strap when we were naughty. And if you were good you’d still get the strap… He taught physics, and when he came into the classroom he’d talk about physics for a while and then suddenly say: “Ah, to hell with it! Physics: who needs it? What you need is poetry.” And he’d start reciting poetry to the class. He could recite poems by Yeats from the top of his head. When he finished he’d just carry on with the lesson. In a funny way, the poetry from that lesson was more important to us than the poetry from the English lesson – even though the words of Yeats went right over our heads.

Years later when I became a teacher in Liverpool the children were given the same old books that I’d been taught with at school. At the time, I was also writing my own poems – about Liverpool, my grandmother, funny things - so I started to feed the children my own poems instead, not knowing whether they were any good. But the kids loved them. I thought to myself, “Maybe I am a poet. Maybe this is the audience.” My work as a teacher went on for four years, and ever since I’ve been on the run.

During this period I had met a few other people in Liverpool who were also writing poetry, like Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. The city’s poetry scene grew from there. The Beatles had already caused a burgeoning of popular music in Liverpool, and so the city had become not quite the centre of the universe, but certainly a focus of great media interest. The media caught onto our public poetry readings too, and our first poetry book was published 40 years ago this month [July 2007], called The Mersey Sound. It caught the public’s imagination. Prior to that, I think the public believed that poetry belonged to the elite in Oxford, Cambridge or London.

Also, Mike McCartney, John Gorman and I formed the band The Scaffold. Together we did poetry readings and wrote sketches based on comedy and political satire. Brian Epstein became our manager, and we also worked with Mike’s brother, Paul [The Beatle]. The next thing we knew we were making records and had hit singles with Thank U Very Much and Lily the Pink. That was very strange – all of a sudden we were musicians and performing on Top of the Pops. A lot of critics at the time thought that you couldn’t be a serious poet if you were writing pop songs as well. It was a question of the divide between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. I didn’t see it as a problem. Sometimes I was doing Top of the Pops in a white suit, singing and playing guitar, and then rushing off to do Late Night Line Up and talking with people like Yehudi Menuhin about intellectual topics.

You once said that The Scaffold was taken over by a sense of ‘creeping professionalism’.

Yes, because at first we happily combined poetry, comedy, satire and music in our act and we were very popular with students and Edinburgh Festival-goers. Once we had the hits with Thank U Very Much and Lily the Pink [the latter reached the Number One spot in 1968], the white suit suddenly became a sort of trademark and we were doing the cabaret circuit, always accompanied by a band. Our act became less about poetry and comedy and more about music. We were caught up in a treadmill. It all became very silly.

There was an influential LP at the time, The Incredible New Liverpool Scene [Roger appeared on the record alongside Adrian Henri and the guitarist Andy Roberts]. Having poets reading their own works on an LP was a new way of bringing poetry to the people, and it must’ve done a lot to increase the popularity of contemporary poetry.


Yes, I think it did. Also, the book The Mersey Sound sold over a million copies, which is a lot for a poetry book. It was popular with students and I think it helped to make poetry ‘cool’.

The Mersey Sound actually became one of the bestselling poetry anthologies of all time. It was part of a wonderful series of books called The Penguin Modern Poets, and each book featured the works of three selected poets. Two of these books were really popular: number four, which featured Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and number 10, which featured Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and you. I remember visiting friends’ flats at that time and seeing that they all owned the LP and those two books.

We really should pay homage to you and your generation of poets from Liverpool who in fact started the scene as we know it today. Nowadays you can easily find poetry readings taking place in towns and cities all over the UK - we take it for granted that there’s a live poetry scene in this country. There was once a time when a poetry reading was something that took place around a grand piano with a vase of flowers on it.

Yes, I remember going to poetry readings like that myself where sometimes the poets were actually quite condescending to those who had come to listen to the poetry, and they wouldn’t come properly prepared.

We treated our poetry readings like a piece of theatre, and I suppose we made use of our experience of performing with The Scaffold, too – getting used to standing on stage, speaking into a microphone, working out exactly what we were going to say beforehand and timing our pieces to make sure they didn’t go on for too long. We’d also vary the performance content so that we included light-hearted things with more serious stuff, as well as using music. Our public performances were greatly influenced by those that had taken place in San Francisco by Beat poets such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso. Poetry had never been associated with music or theatre before, but our generation was concerned with taking it out of the library and bringing it to the people.

Further reading

* Roger McGough's profile page on the Contemporary Writers website
* McGough, Roger: Collected Poems (Penguin, 2003)
* McGough, Roger: Said and Done (Century, 2005)

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Lucian Freud: marathon man

Written by eastern writer on Monday, September 24, 2007

After a chance meeting with Lucian Freud, art handler Ria Kirby agreed to sit for him – a huge commitment which was to last for 16 months, seven nights a week, on top of her day job. Martin Gayford tracked the work as it progressed. Photographs by David Dawson

Freud and Ria Kirby with the finished painting, Ria, Naked Portrait 2007

By chance, I was present right at the beginning of this picture, when artist first met model. It was at the hanging of the small exhibition of new work by Lucian Freud and his friend Frank Auerbach at the Victoria & Albert Museum last year. On that day Freud happened – unusually – to be wondering what to do next. He had just finished several pictures, the ones that were in the show. So that morning at the museum, while casting an eye over the hanging, he was also looking for the subject of his next picture. Just then Ria Kirby, who is an art-handler for the museum, and who had helped to hang the show, came up to Freud and said that she thought his work was great. As we walked out of the museum, I remember him musing, 'That girl I met, I think I could work from her.'

As Ria remembers it, 'After lunch we went upstairs to get our tools, and the head of painting said, "Mr Freud wants you to sit for him." I was excited. Then I thought, perhaps it won't really happen. But, in fact, less than 24 hours later I was lying there, being painted.' These photographs, by the painter and photographer David Dawson, who is also Freud's assistant, chronicle the long gestation of the picture. The painting continued from April 2006 for one year and four months, seven nights a week, during which Ria and Freud took only four evenings off. Each of the sittings lasted for about five hours, more than 2,400 hours in total. Freud will be 85 in December.

For Freud it is crucial that his sitter should be what the Italians call simpatico. He is fastidious and discerning about people. Two characteristic Freudian verdicts are 'lively' – which is good – and 'absolutely ghastly'. As the example of this picture shows, Freud is likely to spend a prolonged period in the company of the model, the most important ingredient in his working environment. Furthermore, he is an artist attuned to nuances of atmosphere – that is why he likes the model to be present, even if he is not painting him or her but a floorboard, a doorknob or a section of empty space. The actual presence of the model, he insists, alters everything in the picture. So for him to work from someone uncongenial is difficult, even impossible. Once, years ago, when his paintings did not fetch millions and he badly needed the money, he gave up a commission to paint a portrait of the Master of an Oxbridge college – after giving the subject a trial sitting – with the words, 'I simply can't work with that man in the room!'
Evidently, Ria, who is 26, passed the congeniality test. And, equally vital, she measured up – indeed, heroically exceeded – Freud's other crucial criteria of punctuality and reliability. Freud has always been a stickler for time-keeping. In the past he has stopped a picture simply because the model – suitable in other ways – was apt to turn up an hour or two late. Kirby was always punctual.

Freud works from living people – not, as some painters are happy to do, from photographs. Given the time that a picture may take, and his liking for having the sitter present at every moment he is working, a high degree of commitment is obviously required on the part of the people he paints. If the subject loses interest halfway through the painting, that's the end of it.

Freud's life works according to a series of appointments – the first model will arrive at 2pm; another at 6.30. That is the only way in which he can function. The subject's own life is a factor in these arrangements – and as Kirby was busy during the day 'moving big lumps of sculpture' about at the V&A, the evening was her only free period. Consequently this was a 'night painting', done by artificial light.

'To start with it was quite exhausting, because I had only about 10 minutes' break between finishing work and beginning to pose. I went through every possible emotion in my life,' she remembers. 'At the beginning I was very conscious of trying to be a good sitter. It took a bit of practice to feel very relaxed, but be totally still at the same time. I was conscious of getting back into the same position after a break. After a month or so, it became second nature, and felt completely natural. I realised there's no point in trying to be anything. You just have to lie there and be yourself. But in the end I found it quite a release. It was one place where I could be where I didn't have anyone phoning me or hassling me. All I had to do was lie still, which I'm quite good at.'

The routine was demanding but it had its compensations. Life in the studio is tranquil – personally, I found something therapeutic about sitting to Freud for a portrait three years ago – and also entertaining. He is an outstanding raconteur and mimic. That is one reason why, as his old friend John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, once put it to me, his company is a bit 'addictive'.

'In the first few months the hardest part of sitting was trying to stop laughing,' Kirby says. 'There were so many tales and songs and anecdotes. We went to a dinner once and he made me laugh so much I couldn't sit up. Because of working in the evenings we would often go out to a restaurant afterwards, where there are always some extreme shapes and characters to speculate about among the other diners.'

No one could keep up that level of conversation for ever. Kirby notes that, 'There have been times when there is nothing to say, and no news, but it's never an uncomfortable silence.'

Kirby having displayed admirable dedication, the picture carried on – and on – and on. Even by Freud's standards, 16 months, seven nights a week is a marathon. What, you might wonder, could possibly take so long? It wasn't planned like that. As early as last autumn Freud began to hint this might be ready 'In just another few weeks'. But that moment of conclusion was repeatedly postponed.

One of the points that not everyone grasps is that it is genuinely hard for painters to know when a picture is finished. Once upon a time, perhaps, there was general agreement on what a finished picture looked like. But those days are long gone. In modern times there have been almost as many answers to the question 'How do you know that a picture is finished?' as there are painters. Jackson Pollock once answered it, 'How do you know that you're finished making love?'

Freud's criterion is that he feels he's finished when he gets the impression he's working on somebody else's painting. You can see what he means: his own input is complete. In practice, Freud tends to get preliminary inklings that a certain work may be coming to an end. But they are not entirely accurate. Occasionally, he has been surprised by a picture suddenly reaching that point – as he was by the head of a grey horse some years ago. 'But there it is,' I remember him saying in a slightly puzzled way. 'It definitely is finished.' More often, the painting process takes longer than he anticipated. In the case of the oil he painted from me (Man with a Blue Scarf 2004), one shoulder and my shirt collar held us up, needing to be painted and repainted. Some paintings – like this one of Kirby – just take an amazing amount of time. And the length of time it has taken has nothing whatever to do with the quality of the result – as Freud himself reflected to me as he decided to abandon a work that represented countless hours of toil. He has quite frequently put his foot through pictures that had consumed months of his life and would be worth millions of pounds on today's art market.

The completion of a picture may be a moment of relief for the model, or at least some models. But for Freud, completion is the most nerveracking point. 'I worry,' he once confessed, 'in case it isn't really finished.'

With this picture, that culminating point seemed never to arrive. For one thing, the work kept growing. As you can see by comparing the earliest of David Dawson's photographs with the later ones, the canvas was extended on both sides, although any join would be hard to detect from looking at the final work. Freud has found an expert at sewing on canvas extensions almost invisibly. This kind of alteration sometimes happens as he finds the proportions he wants between the figure, or portrait head, and the rest of the picture. The size of this finished painting is 86x163cm.

As you can also see from the earliest of Dawson's images of the work in progress, Freud has an un-usual method of working. Most painters begin with a rapid overall image and bit by bit – so to speak – bring it into focus. Freud, after drawing a charcoal sketch on the canvas – which, he points out, he doesn't necessarily 'go by' – starts in one specific place. In my case, the painting began with a patch in the middle of my forehead and then gradually moved outwards from there so that eyes, nose, mouth, chin, hair and jacket appeared. He likes to keep a little window of bare canvas open right to the end, more as a way of reminding himself that the picture is still in progress and provisional than for any technical reason. For Kirby's painting, he also started by painting her head and hair. 'It's hard to tell now, because the painting seems so organic,' Kirby says.

Often – especially with new sitters – he begins with the head even if the painting is to be one of the entire body. It's a way, as far as he's concerned, of getting to know the sitter (that's how he began to paint Leigh Bowery, the performance artist, whom he painted and etched at least half a dozen times). After the rest of the body has been depicted, he may return to the head and repaint it, now that he knows the person better. That is what happened with Kirby. The final version of her face is covered with a thick, buttery impasto of chunky brushstrokes that seem to echo her thick blonde curls. But that effect only materialised quite late in the painting process. 'I didn't worry about whether it looked like me, or how it looked,' Kirby says. 'I just thought of it as a whole picture.' As the painting neared completion, every aspect – the section of floor to the right, the surface of the cover on the bed, which over those innumerable hours of posing had taken on the shape of Kirby's body, the radiator, the screen behind – became clearer, stronger and more closely meshed into the total image.

In a way, Freud paints just what is in front of his eyes; in another sense, he does no such thing. Every detail of what he paints is pondered, analysed, reconsidered – if necessary omitted. The painting is not simply someone lying on a bed with no clothes on. It is also the accumulation of all those months of thoughts, feelings and observation that are layered on to the canvas.

David Dawson's photographs chart that process. For the past decade he has had a unique entrée into that place, and his methods are almost indiscernible. A camera appears in his hand for a second or two then vanishes. As the subject, you barely notice it has happened. Last year a book of Dawson's photographs, Freud at Work, together with earlier ones taken by Bruce Bernard, was published (Jonathan Cape, £30). But the images on these pages were taken after that volume was completed.

Freud's studio is an unusual place in which the normal bustle of deadlines and shortcuts doesn't exist. Time passes slowly; it sometimes seems suspended. The sole objective is getting the painting right. In the end, with luck, it takes on a life of its own. Now the finished picture, entitled Ria, Naked Portrait 2007, will first go on show at Tate Modern, then on to the New York art market – to be bought, in all probability by a wealthy American collector. Thereafter it will have its own future and fate. Recently Kirby went into the studio, saw it lying on the floor and, she told me, 'it looked as if it was breathing'. An artist could wish for no more.

# Lucian Freud's 'Ria, Naked Portrait 2007' will be show at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG (020-7887 8888; from October 5


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Book Review: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

by Edward J. Carvalho
Fine Tooth Press ($12.95)

Edward J. Carvalho is not afraid of the warts on the smooth surface of civilization. Carvalho, with the perceptive gimlet eye of a skilled poet, focuses in on the archetypes of our modern society to get beyond the sizzle to the steak of existence in his new poetry collection: “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The title indicates a Hobbesian view of the world, and Carvalho’s book is not for the faint of heart, but I couldn’t call the book bleak. It is full of humor, original language and insights:

In the poem “Sometimeboy” the poet, an observant fly-on-the- wall, views a man of a certain age reading a magazine about boats. Carvalho wonders if the man’s dreams hit the shoals and wonders if he will be able to avoid the same pitfalls:

There you are in front of my book,
poor man, there you are reading a magazine
about boats, your hair is white.

I don’t know your name
But your hat says “brew Moon”
And your t-shirt says “Mr. Drain.”

Maybe, one night after schooners
of beer, we can empty the ocean together
and you can tell me

what happens to the life of man
when it sags like that toothpick
from the corner of your lips,

is chewn by dentures to the very end?

And what better image to bring home the point than the sagging point of a forlorn toothpick?

In many of the poems in this collection Carvalho examines how we are cut off from ourselves and from society. Carvalho dives into the “no strings attached” world of the “wireless” crowd to give the reader a view of contemporary alienation. In the poem: “Song of the Wireless Man,” he unearths and subverts the wireless world with the same techno babble that is currency in this milieu:

"The trees are not telephone poles unrealized, to be cut wireless, man, smooth/
from roots,/ the forests were not all grown to carry contracts and proposals in digital cans to restaurants./Let me eat in pieces the hills of upstate New York the deciduous mountains/of New England."

just one cup of cafÈ coffee should be placid, not ripple hippie to delicious in phat ebbs of “Rappers Delight” Baby (baby) Bubbah look away from the satellite and leave the cirrus as they are, do not attempt to find hybrid ways to store your data behind a trail of Wi-Fi moisture miles above, your wireless cousins in their flying casinos.

“Uncle Horsie” is a poem that will make you think twice and perhaps thrice before you let your genial brother play with your kid. Here Carvalho places the innocence of childhood in a dance with jaded adulthood:

My niece
takes great pride in being
a 3 year-old cowgirl.
She likes to play with me,
the goateed equine

She doesn’t know
how adults pretend—
how I want to leave
the laughter of the family room,
go the bathroom

and eat an orchard of Percocet
from her grandfather’s
medicine cabinet—
all this to be a better
when I’m home

She knows the part of me
who is Uncle Horsie
when I return smiling
to the captured stable
never letting her see
any of the real animal lurking
beneath the saddle.

This is a fine first collection by Ed Carvalho.

:: source:

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PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Throughout the half century of The Literary Review’s existence as a journal devoted to writing from throughout the world, we have published the work of suppressed, imprisoned, and even assassinated authors. That is why we support the PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program and encourage our readers to support its efforts by participating in its campaigns.
The Program works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. In the U.S. it protests book-bannings in schools and counters legal challenges to the First Amendment.

In each of our quarterly issues we will feature the case of a writer selected by PEN and ask our readers to write letters in that writer’s behalf. Our website will also provide that information and announce alerts issued by the Freedom to Write Rapid Action Network.

With this issue, we request that you support the case of Ven Ngawang Phulchung, senior monk from Drepung monastery near Lhasa. He has also been singled out as the leader of the Drepung printing group, which secretly produced literature critical of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in early 1988. The publications of the group included a Tibetan translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the first Tibetan political manifesto, "The Meaning of the Precious Democratic Constitution of Tibet," which called for a democratic system based on Buddhist tradition. The group also produced pro-independence leaflets that were designed to be stuck on walls in Lhasa. One describes how Tibetans were shot dead by police in pro-independence demonstrations and is considered unusual in that it presents a sober account of the event rather than exaggerating the details for propaganda purposes.

For more information, go to

Please continue to support the case of Cuban writer and independent journalist Normando Hernández González by writing to the Cuban authorities expressing alarm at reports of his deteriorating health; urging the Cuban authorities to provide as a matter of urgency all necessary medical attention to Normando Hernández González; and requesting the immediate release of all writers and journalists held in Cuban prisons in violation of their right to freedom of expression as recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To access Normando Hernández González’s page, go to

Download sample appeal

To access the Program’s web site, go to
To access the Rapid Action Network, go to

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The Devil in Norman Mailer

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An Interview by Mike Lee

Sitting across from Norman Mailer, whom I've known for close to 30 years now, I'm struck by how regal he looks. This is despite the two distinctly different canes resting at his side and that he appears smaller, sitting in his favorite interview chair. The chair has a fanned headrest that gives him this sense of a white rattan halo. Over his shoulder, Provincetown harbor is choppy, the moored boats dancing and bobbing in the afternoon light. He looks older each time I see him, but then we begin talking and that extraordinary mind of his, that can be simultaneously combative, genial, humorous, and never without hypothesis or opinion, clicks in.

LEE: Are there some books that young writers shouldn't write and some books older writers shouldn't tackle either?

NM: The answer to that automatically is yes, but don't ask me to name the books because it depends on the individual. Look, when a young writer tackles a book that is too big for their capacity at that point, it's not necessarily a total loss. They can lose a lot of time, they can lose a lot of ego, they can really take a bath. But on the other hand, they learn a lot about themselves. So I would rarely discourage somebody from tackling some-thing that's too big for him-unless I thought he was truly incompetent. But if I thought they had a fighting chance, I'd tend to encourage him. You learn more from defeats than victories, I've decided. Victories are wonderful for the ego, but they generally create the next fuckup. Unless you're a real winner, but if you're an in and out guy, like most of the people I know-including myself-then victories are dangerous. The ego gets swollen and it's so hungry for victory and you tend to make mistakes. But in relation to that, books that old guys-I think for an old writer who's been around and knows what he's doing, there's no book I would tell him not to try. Because you don't know; you never know when you're going to pop off. So you try.

LEE: Is it harder today to write the so-called "big book," with all the com-petition for attention?

NM: Again, that question answers itself-absolutely. Much harder. I find that I'm drawn more to writing about the past for just that reason. In the past there weren't the iPods and TV, and so there is a tendency for the figures to appear a little more clearly.

LEE: All right, let's get to The Castle in the Forest. At the risk of being called a sycophant, I thought it was one hell of a read.

NM: Well, I'm glad. I'm really glad, because it's going to get the worst reviews.

LEE: You think so?

NM: Well, not completely. But I'm going to get some.

LEE: I'd like to ask first about the genesis of this novel. Have you been thinking about this for some time?

NM: Yeah, you know what, Mike? I said the other day that I'd been thinking about it since I was nine years old. I don't mean I was thinking of writing it, but I've been immensely aware of Hitler since I was nine for one simple reason: I was born in 1923, so in 1932, before he came into power, my mother, who was not an intellectual, but an intelligent, sensitive woman, full of feeling, and Jewish, of course. And she saw Hitler as a disaster for the Jews from the word go. And she used to suffer over him and when he came into power it made her very upset. So I grew up with the idea of Hitler as someone who was going to kill the Jews-and he succeeded by half. So I think in the background in my mind, all along, I should write about him sooner or later. I was going to do the second volume of Harlot's Ghost, that I've been promising for years, and as I sat down to write it, it was almost as if this whisper came into my brain and said, "No, no, that's not the book you're going to do next, it's this one." And it was the idea of having the devil tell the story that brought it into focus for me.

LEE: You were lucky to get that whisper early on.

NM: I was getting ready to write a long book called Harlot's Grave. I had it all figured out, must have spent a half year thinking about it in depth, and it was so funny that about a month before I was ready to begin this other voice came in and said, "No, not here-there." And of course the idea was to tell it in the voice of the devil that made it possible. It enabled me to write a biography that was a fiction. The book is very accurate so far as you can make it out.

LEE: I want to ask you about some of that too. One of the levels of reading that I found so fascinating, given the subject is the childhood and adolescence of Hitler, is that this book is also very much a family saga.

NM: Yeah, oh yeah. Even if it hadn't been Hitler, you'd have a novel there.

LEE: Did you feel compelled to couch the metaphysical aspects of the novel with that familial approach?

NM: You know, I sort of work-to put it in its lowest version-I push a pea with my nose. I'm a great believer in organic novels, in that you don't decide in advance where you're going. You let the characters point the way. I remember once-this is a coincidence-but it may indicate what I'm trying to say. At one point I was directing a play at Actor's Studio and Elia Kazan was there, we were sort of friendly, and I said to him, "I don't know how to tell the actors how to move, that's where I have the most trouble." And he said, "You know, Norman, let them decide for you. Actors generally have a better sense of movement than we do." Of course, he was a great director, and he was being very honest about it. He said, "They'll often point out the way and if they don't, then you can step in." So I did that and it absolutely worked. The play was reasonably well staged as a result. The same way I think is true in a novel, only more so. Let the characters point the way for you. Now here there was something different, which is, of course, I did know the events. They were recorded summarily; there were very few books about the early childhood and they're sketchy. So it wasn't as though I was overloaded with facts, which would be true further down the road where there'd be a hundred books for every decade. So, given the fact the devil is telling the story, I could follow the events because the unforeseen would be the devil's interpretation of what was going on and what he must do. He's the devil's assistant, of course, not the devil. And that made it absolutely organic for me because even though I knew where I was going in terms of the narrative, the interpretation now became the part I would not determine in advance. I would let the events and the devil's interpretation of these events dictate where I'd head next. And it worked.

LEE: That's interesting because I remember Nabokov used to say "All my characters are galley slaves."

NM: Well, that was Nabokov and he had a different way of doing things. Don't forget, he was a Russian autocrat, and Russian autocrats tend to like the idea of galley slaves.

LEE: Look, I know you've answered this question dozens of times, but for the benefit of those who don't know, what are your beliefs in terms of God?

NM: Well, my beliefs are that God is not all good and all powerful. I believe in God. I believe in a creator. I find it philosophically impossible to conceive of having a world here without there having been a creative force present. But I'm totally opposed to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the major corporation of the devil, because in that corporation, God is all good and all powerful and that is resolute in its refusal to face any of the human facts. So that the result is, the people who are fundamentalists deprive themselves of the ability to think along unforeseen lines to a conclusion. They have to end up at a given station. No matter where they set out in the morning, they know where they have to be that night, and that tends to be stultifying. No, I believe in a God who's not all good and not all powerful, a God who can make errors, a God who's a creator, not a law-giver. And is doing His or Her best. Or, if it happens to be a marriage, Their best. But my notion of God is not precise, it's general, but the general notion is as a creator, not a law-giver and, as a result, the end is not foreseen. We and God are all existential. We don't know how it's going to turn out. That's the fundamental meaning of existentialism- you're engaged in a situation where the end is unknown.

LEE: And so you would also believe in a Satan?

NM: Oh yes, absolutely. There's an evil principle and for me the two are at war. One place in the book there's a statement to the effect that in the middle ages, humans saw themselves as peons and there's this God and the Devil dictating what they did with their lives. But with the growth, first with the Enlightenment and now with technology, humans see themselves as a third force. Instinctively. Even if they believe in God and the Devil, they also seems themselves, in fact, paramount to the other two, in dominance over the other two. So it's a three way war you might say.

LEE: When you write a novel that employs so much historical fact, how do you decide where to draw the line between reality and dramatic purpose?

NM: Well, you never violate a fact for too little. In other words, you're a relatively law abiding citizen. Who make the best criminals? They're those who obey the law until they don't. Enough people break the law every day. So in the same sense, if you want to think of a novelist as being criminal in that they offer you a version of reality that may or may not exist, they do play a slight of hand with reality, then by all means, I don't like a novel that cuts too many corners. It's enough you're writing that novel. If you can create something that gives people a sense of a universe, a world which they can inhabit for a little while, it helps a lot, for them and for you, if you stay close to the facts. Now, there are places in the book that become a little bit more fictional than others. For instance, there's no doubt that Alois, the father, was interested in bees and kept bees while he was in Hafeld, which is the town the family lives in for a good part of the book. Now, there's no record of who he did business with as far as the bees go. So I invented a bee keeper, Herr Alter, and he is a fictional character. I felt there had to be somebody there who was a bee keeper with whom he did business and there I felt I could indulge a fiction.

LEE: You're also careful to have the devil point out not to make too much of the metaphor of bee keeping with what would happen later with Adolf.

NM: You mean where the bees are all burned?

LEE: Yes, but was that just a red herring?

NM: No, I wanted to get across how much these devils worry. In other words, the normal idea of the devil is that I don't want to think of the devil, one. Two, oh, the devil can come in and change you overnight. And quite the contrary was my notion. Humans are most stubborn material. And so when the devil has a client, as I call them, someone they're working with and looking to use more and more as time goes on, they have a lot of worries. Because there are angels around also who are fighting them and called Cudgels by the devil because the angels have often beaten up the devils. So what I'm getting at is they're concerned all the time with the development of their clients. They're very much like an overworked bureaucrat and that appealed to me as a notion of the hereafter-that the hereafter is just as tough as our world, with just as many worries, probably on a higher level. But the idea that it was all cut and dried, and the devil came in and cast a spell on you and you were a goner, no, get rid of that. I wasn't trying to make this a railroad track as to how Hitler became a monster. The feeling I have is that there is a certain point in our lives as an adolescent or when we're entering adolescence, where we can go any number of directions. And even if we become a client of the devil, wittingly, or in his case, unwittingly, that doesn't matter. Nothing's automatic; it's existential.

LEE: What surprised you the most in your research about the Hitler family?

NM: I don't know that I ever had a huge surprise because I came upon it slowly, bit by bit. It was nice to find out the mother [Klara] was probably a pretty good woman. I think that we can't begin to understand human history until we recognize the depth and very often the ugliness of certain ironies in our lives. Because, after all, what is this book about finally? It's an attempt to seek what we are as humans and the thought that a fine woman ended up producing a monster seemed to me in the nature of things. And rather than say, oh, he must have had a hideous mother and so forth-he had a father that used to whip him, but not everybody who was whipped by their father became Adolf Hitler.

LEE: Is it your belief that incest played more of a role in 19th-century family life than we commonly think?

NM: No, that's just a supposition. I gave it to Heinrich Himmler, whom I thought was pretty eloquent.

LEE: The "Blood Drama."

NM: Yes.

LEE: You had to learn about beekeeping as well, but I don't see any hives . . .

NM: (laughing) No.

LEE: Assuming Hitler can only be the product of evil, George Bush's notion of "the Axis of Evil," and his continual use of that word, somehow trickles down to dilute even Hitler's heinous acts. It's like so many words that we overuse and they lose their meaning.

NM: Oh, I mean it's one of the things I can't stand about George Bush. He uses the word "evil" twelve times in a paragraph. You know what it is, Mike, he never got past eighth grade civics. Look at him that way when he starts to give a speech. The phrases he uses are the kind of phrases that an elementary school teacher uses. Somehow there's never been a political leader, in my living memory, or historical notion as far as I know about it, who is as empty of nuance as George Bush. And so, yes, compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler as an example of the limp mediocrity of George Bush's mind. You know there are certain kinds of weak men who come to recognize they are essentially weak. In other words, they're not stand up-they wouldn't be stand up in an alley, put it that way. They wouldn't have a feeling that, all right, if this is my last moment, I'm going down fighting. I think, in that sense, whether he's weak or not, he may see himself as weak. Those kind of guys almost always have an option of great stubborn-ness. Huge stubbornness. Because a stubborn man never looks weak until they give up their stubbornness. So it's almost impossible for them to give up their stubbornness at a certain point. In that sense, he's immensely stubborn. When you're empty, get stubborn-it's your best defense.

LEE: I've always wondered if you've felt fear as a writer?

NM: Fear? Oh, when I was younger a lot. A lot. I think it comes with the profession. Most professions have fear in them.

LEE: The fear I'm talking about is getting up in the morning and nothing comes.

NM: Well, I'm used to getting up in the morning with nothing in my head. After a few years, I came to learn that the best thing, in a way, was to have nothing in my head until I hit my studio or the room in which I work. And then, very often, it would be an empty hour before the writing would start. It's almost as if the unconscious-see, I have this theory that the unconscious is not entirely our own. We have an unconscious, but it's almost like it's lent to us, almost like a Jungian notion, if you will, and I didn't read Carl Jung to decide this, I decided it on my own. But it's as if the unconscious taps into a deeper realm of knowledge that we possess. And it's immensely reluctant to give up that unconscious strength for too little. So the unconscious has to trust you and if you have bad habits, as I did when I was younger-when I was younger, after The Naked and the Dead, and I had a good day of writing, I'd often go out and get drunk to celebrate it. I'd get so drunk I couldn't work the next day. And what had happened, if I was writing a novel, the unconscious prepared some of it, but I wasn't there to use it. So it festered in the unconscious source. That's like if you're a general and you leave your troops out in the rain because you want to get laid on a given night, so the troops are still standing out in the rain and you're a dreadful general. Well, I was a dreadful novelist in that sense, I didn't take care of my own unconscious. So I really have this belief that you almost have to make a compact with your own unconscious, where you state you're going to be there the next day and working, you'll be there-whether you feel like writing or not. I've often said, sourly, that poets just have to be good once every two weeks. They can wake up in the morning and write a beautiful poem, then that gives them honor for the next two weeks at least. But a novelist has to go every day like a working man with his lunch pail.

LEE: Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what Hemingway used to do, where he would stop in the middle of where he wanted to go next.

NM: Yes. Yes. Well, he had a certain kind of life and then he would go out and do things and be very active. Physically, I think he had tons of energy, more than I possess. When I finish writing for the day, I don't want to do a damn thing. I'm very happy to play a little solitaire. But I want to finish, I don't want to have it nagging at me because if I quit in the middle, I'll be thinking and thinking afterwards. And so what he did was the exact thing for me not to do. I think every writer has his own route.

LEE: Yet you still have such muscle in your prose, a certain energy in there.

NM: Well a part of it is that I think we're given gifts and we damn well better use them as best we can because if we don't use them we'll pay for it on the other side. I really think there's an accounting on the other side. But the other thing in it is that I think my style developed as such after I stopped smoking. I spent ten years cutting out smoking. I used to smoke two, two and a half packs a day for many years. I haven't had a cigarette now in about forty years. But what happens is the extra energy I got from cutting out cigarettes got into the style and my ear became much more sensitive to the sound of words. With cigarettes, I used to work with the meaning of words and so my early writings tend to be more intellectual and the later writing tend to have more of a sense of the rhythm of the sentence and letting the sentence lead me to where I'm going to end up. In other words, with cigarettes, I always knew what I wanted to say, without them I found it was more interesting to discover what I had to say. So that's an element in it. But the key thing, to get back to it all, is you can't betray the unconscious. Since my unconscious doesn't trust me altogether, I literally had to go through this routine of getting up in the morning with an empty mind, waste an hour in the office once I got there, and then it would begin to come. It was almost like the unconscious said, "All right, you're here. I can trust you; you're not going to leave now, I can tell." And then the stuff would start to come. It's almost as if we're assigned to our own unconscious, that it has a separate existence to a degree. And I found that's true with the books I do. Sometimes I wonder, why am I writing this book? It doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with me and yet I'm doing it. It's almost as if I've been assigned to do this book. I once even had a fantasy that the gods look down on us and say, "Well, here's a tasty one for Saul Bellow, and that one might be just right for Updike, and, oh, here's a good one for Mailer-he's such a dogged little worker, let's give him this one." (laughs).

LEE: Whether it was fair or accurate, you were, at one time in your life, considered by many women to be a misogynist.

NM: Yeah.

LEE: Do you think you've changed much in your thinking about our gender differences?

NM: I thought it was an outrageous attack. There's no attack I've resent-ed more in my life, I think. I mean, take the stupidest reviewer whose said the stupidest thing ever about me, I don't think they irked me as much as these reasonably intelligent women deciding I was a sexist. They didn't use the word misogynist, they said sexist. It just wasn't true. If I had an error, I've said some stupid things about women because I adore them, I love them. I grew up with a lot of very good women around me. Not only my mother was terrific, but she had four sisters who were very nice indeed. And I had an aunt on my father's side who was lovely. So it wasn't as if I saw women as hateful or unworthy of anything, on the contrary, I saw them as a source of love and energy for me. I adored women and I was spoiled by them to the degree where I would make ridiculous remarks about women once in a while for the fun of it. But the idea that I hated women-a man who hates women does not get married six times.

LEE: Let's just talk a little about ageing. Do you feel more captive by it now and what its day to day realities are as opposed to, say, when we sat down for our first interview five years ago?

NM: Oh yeah. Well, your physical limitations move in. It's like a tide that comes in. And your incapacities move in. In other words, I take it for granted that I'm never going to be traveling through a wonderful foreign city in Italy, let's say, exploring it. That's gone forever. Walking is difficult. I don't enjoy walking. I force myself to walk a couple hundred yards a day. So in that sense-of course the cartilage is gone in my knees.

LEE: Is it just because you didn't want to undergo the recuperative process to have your knees replaced?

NM: I'm too old for it. The knees went bad about five years ago and at that point, the doctor said, well we can certainly do it, but I'm not going to do them both at once. I'll do them one at a time.

LEE: That's a year.

NM: That's a year. And I thought I'm too old for that. If I knew I had ten years, okay, I'd do it. But what if I pop off in two years and I've lost one of them to this? And I can live with it, it's not that bad. It isn't like I live in pain and can't sleep at night. It's just tough to walk. So that's one thing. My hearing is going and my teeth. By the way, make sure you don't have any infected teeth if you go through a heart operation or they'll take out your teeth.

LEE: Really?

NM: Well, what's the definition of a doctor? He's a human biped who covers his buttocks.

LEE: Has ageing impacted your writing process?

NM: No, I don't think so.

LEE: Do you have more big novels in you?

NM: I don't know, I hope so. The point is, one of the things that happens when you get older is your command of your vocabulary begins to diminish. Very slowly, but it does. And you never know when your brain is going to give out on you. My knees have given out on me, my ears have given out, my teeth now. So, I don't feel any certainty at all that I've got another big novel in me. I'm going to write it. I have it in my mind and in my sentiments, but whether I'll be physically able to do it, to go through the grind of two or three very tough years is something I just can't predict.

LEE: Do you think much about death?

NM: No. Surprisingly, not that much. I've thought about it all my life, so-I really feel death is the beginning of another existence. I believe in karma, I believe we're reborn.

LEE: So you do believe in reincarnation?

NM: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

LEE: In a human form?

NM: Well, that's not knowable. Listen, I've seen so many dogs that are more human than humans, that I'm not so sure-it may be the nearest we come to heaven is to be reborn as dogs. I mean the love a dog feels. How often do we feel that much love for anything?

LEE: I also understand you're no one to mess with in a game of Texas Hold 'Em.

NM: I'm not that good. I'm fair, I'm fair. I mean I can hold my own-put it this way, if I'm with a bunch of dolts who are a dolt like me, I'm okay. You know what it is? The serious people who play in Texas Hold 'Em tournaments have something I simply don't have. I don't think they play all that much better than I do, but I can play Texas Hold 'Em for an hour and a half. Two hours is really getting a little tough on my system. These guys play it for twelve hours a day, for three or four days to get to the final. So what I'm seeing at the end of it all is guys who've been playing it for forty-eight to sixty hours. So probably, they're fifty per cent of what they were when they started. So at that point, I'm saying, well they're all right, but they're not that great. I've played with people who are much better than I am who've played in those tournaments and they wipe you out. If you play five nights with them, they'll win big three nights. They'll draw even one night maybe.

LEE: I want to wind up, Norman, with something I remember from at least 25 years ago, sitting on your deck in the afternoon with Eddie Bonetti, and we were having a few cocktails. You and Eddie started to spar for a few minutes-Eddie had very fast hands.

NM: Oh yeah. Well, he used to box with Willie Pep.

LEE: Right. But you also seemed to remember Jose Torres telling you to keep your left up because you did a pretty good job of blocking Eddie. And then afterward the subject of Hemingway came up. And though I was probably too intimidated at the time to bring it up, but I always felt I understood Hemingway's suicide. Forget that he had it in his family, but the one thing that mattered to him-his writing-had been taken away by what might have been Alzheimer's or whatever.

NM: He would have been awfully young for that.

LEE: And I'm not talking about suicide concerning you either. But I do notice a contentment about you now that I don't think Hemingway ever had.

NM: No. Well, you know he overextended himself. He had a lot of balls, there's just no getting around it. And the balls were to take real chances with his life. I'm not just talking about the things he did in terms of physical feats. Physically speaking, I think he was a braver man than I am, but I don't think he was, like, five times braver than me-I think he was twenty-five or thirty per cent braver. Because to me, bravery has also been very important over the years when I've tried things. But I think he was truly overextended because he came from a mid-western family that was only partially cultured. And now here he was, one of the intellectual leaders of the world, willy nilly. He didn't ask to be an intellectual leader, but he was seen that way. Every one of his pronouncements had a papal ring to them, especially for young writers where he had enormous influence. And I think for him, he was immensely obsessed with death all the time. And I do think his father's suicide was a prodigious part of that. I remember there was a young talented writer here, whose name I don't recall, who died in a motorcycle accident. But he had said in an interview that he was thinking of committing suicide, but he knew he couldn't do it because if you commit suicide, you condemn your sons to suicide.

LEE: Was that John Gardner maybe?

NM: Exactly. Yeah. And I thought that was an amazing remark and quite true and I thought he was thinking of Hemingway. But anyway, what I'm getting at, I'm not so sure Hemingway committed suicide. I have this theory that every night, whenever he was feeling truly sick and bad, he would take a shotgun, load it, and put the muzzle in his mouth, reach down with his thumb and play with the trigger. He certainly knew where to cross the barrier.

Editor's note: Another version of this interview appeared in The Cape Cod Voice.


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New Hemingway not to be published

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A newly discovered manuscript by the young Ernest Hemingway is unlikely ever to be published after his family refused permission.

The five-page story - titled My life in the Bull Ring with Donald Ogden Stewart - is expected to fetch at least $18,000 (£10,000) at auction.

The piece, written in 1924, is said to be a parody about a bullfight in the Spanish city of Pamplona.

Hemingway expert J. Gerald Kennedy said the work was "not great literature".

Classic Literature

"It's pretty typical of the kind of after-hours parody Hemingway was writing in Paris in the mid-20s.

"He's still a year away from writing The Sun Also Rises," added the Louisiana State University professor, talking about the writer's classic tale.

To publish a new Hemingway find, permission must be granted by both the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the Hemingway estate.

The Foundation wanted to publish it - but the family did not.

Suzanne Balaban, vice president and director of publicity at Scribner's, Hemingway's original publisher, said the estate did not feel they had "explored the best way to present this story to the public".


Christie's auction house in New York plans to auction the carbon-copy manuscript and a handwritten letter from Hemingway on 16 December.

Donald Stewart, who owns the manuscript, had the documents for more than 20 years without realising it.

He made the discovery recently in an envelope left by his father, Donald Ogden Stewart, who died in 1980.

Hemingway had asked his father, who was a successful satirist and screenwriter, to try to get the story published in Vanity Fair, but he kept it instead.


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Russia's art history repainted

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A wealthy Russian art market is driving the rewriting of the country's creative heritage to be one of conservative bad taste.

Russian modern art was destroyed twice. In the 1920s the creative energy that Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and other titans of the avant-garde lent the 1917 revolution was wiped out by the creed of "socialist realism". Lenin had never been very impressed by the avant-garde's idealistic attempts to contribute to making a new world and Stalin actively suppressed anything that went against his demand for accessible, down-to-earth propaganda. The radical abstract styles invented in Russia - constructivism and suprematism - were removed from Soviet culture and remembered only by western artists and museums. Then came the fall of the USSR - and Russian modern art's second death.

Now this art is tainted by its revolutionary associations even though it was persecuted by Stalin. Is the avowedly Communist art of Malevich worthy of national pride? You can understand the ambivalence that is all too apparent in Russian museums. On the plus side, the Hermitage in St Petersburg purchased a version of Malevich's Black Square. Yet on visits to St Petersburg and Moscow I have found only poor or closed displays of 20th-century avant-garde art in museums that in theory specialise in it. Instead they flaunt the pre-1917 work of painters like Repin and Roerich. The impression is unavoidable that no one is too eager to look at Bolshevik black on black.

This great confusion over what art Russia should take pride in bears strange fruit. A Sothebys sale next week of the Rostropovich collection of Russian art includes Boris Grigoriev's realistic 1917-18 painting Faces of Russia. This so-so work is being promoted as "the most important Russian painting since the 1917 revolution" - a ridiculous assertion. It's like saying Stanley Spencer is the most significant British 20th-century artist, or that Norman Rockwell is a greater American painter than Jackson Pollock. In other words, it's an example of conservative bad taste. I don't think Sotheby's believes anything of the kind - what it is doing, I suspect, is to address a wealthy Russian market that is more likely to buy this kind of figurative art than get excited about suprematism with its communist rhetoric. But it hardly needs saying Soviet avant-garde artists created far more important paintings, films and photographs. In inflating this minor work the art market is pandering to, and helping to create, a sad confusion about Russia's cultural heritage. [source: The Guardian Art]

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Novel Review: "Middlesex"

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The narrator of Middlesex, Calliope ("Cal") Helen Stephanides, is upfront with readers about what to expect, the novel beginning straight-off with the disclosure: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl (...) and then again, as a teenage boy". Cal is a hermaphrodite -- quite literally a middle-sex. (The title unfortunately also refers to another part of the novel -- one of many un-subtle strokes that feel far too forced.) Cal begins the novel when he is age forty-one (feeling "another birth coming on"), and tells his (and her) story -- occasionally speaking from the present (where he lives in Germany, in the employ of the American foreign service), but most of the time inhabiting the long-lost past.

Cal tells how he became who he is. The contemporary scenes reveal him still trying to find himself, a bit -- and in particular trying to find love. These scenes are usually just small bursts -- chapter-beginnings, before the reminiscences take over --, but they work quite well: reader's are genuinely interested in this odd life and how he came to where he is, as well as what he is still going through.
So readers are curious about this narrator and his unusual ... being. Unfortunately, Cal largely does tell his tale chronologically. That wouldn't be such a problem except that he begins a tad earlier than necessary: the book is 529 pages long, and Cal makes his official entrance (with his first birth, in the form of an infant-girl (or something resembling one)) on page 215. He pops up a few times before, but the first two hundred pages are largely devoted to his family: his Greek grandparents fleeing their homeland to Detroit, and then his parents.
It's not that this family-history is uninteresting. The Greek scenes, including the burning of Smyrna, and then his grandparents odd (and -- genetically speaking -- ill-advised) courtship and marriage, and their adapting to America is all quite entertaining. Eugenides is a good storyteller, and he offers some fine episodes. Detroit (Eugenides' hometown), in particular, and the changes it undergoes between the grandparents' arrival and the early 1970s is very well done, for example.
But little of all this seems to bear much on the main story -- on Cal, who keeps popping up only to disappear again in the background (and in the future). Middlesex is a family saga, but Eugenides does a poor job of presenting family: these are individuals whose paths sometimes cross, and while there are times when the relationships (the love, the hate, the needs) are clear and the mutual interactions made manifest most of the time they remain individuals, islands all. Most of the best bits of the novel take place in isolation from family, whether its grandma working for the Nation of Islam or Cal's adventures. Indeed, many members of the family dip completely out of sight for long periods of time, even when Cal comes on the scene -- often functioning as little more than bit background players.
Cal is the ultimate example of 'we are what our parents (and grand-parents, etc.) make us', and presumably this is in part what Eugenides is trying to show with his sprawling saga, but it does not fully convince -- in part also because, though we hear from Cal at age forty-one, and follow him through childhood and early adolescence, there is precious little about the twenty-five years in between, formative years (for most people) that are almost totally glossed over.
There is also the problem of the narrative voice. The forty-one year old Cal tells the story in the first person, yet easily falls back into the voice of an omniscient narrator, presenting details from long before his birth -- and other people's thoughts, and and and ..... He makes some excuses for this, but his unconvincing certainty undermines his tale.
Things improve some when Eugenides lets the young Cal take centre stage, but the novel remains terribly episodic. Some of these episodes, with Cal feeling sexual confusion from a young age, are very good, but they are still not enough and leave many questions unanswered.
Very striking throughout the novel is how characters are left behind, brutally abruptly, hardly deserving of a second thought (except as Cal dredges them up again in writing his tale). Loves, acquaintances: as soon as they are no longer physically present they are literally written off. Those that continue to live nearby -- relatives and the like -- are also often lost from view, and when they pop up again it often comes almost as a surprise that they are still around.
Some of Cal's childhood experiences are well-done -- including a teen-relationship with the Object (as in: That Obscure Object of Desire) -- , and the book becomes quite gripping as the inevitable discovery (she is more he) comes. The family turns to a specialist, in New York, in an effort to determine what exactly Cal is (and what should be done to her or him). From there Eugenides takes one of several unfortunate turns, as Cal runs away from what the doctor wishes to do to her (and from her family) and decides to become what s/he is meant to become all herself. Again, there are some decent scenes but too much is unlikely and too much is rushed.
There are several plot-twists and catastrophes in the novel that are overdone: an unnecessary stage-death, a supposed kidnapping (with catastrophic results), some Detroit riot scenes (which a very young Cal intrudes upon). It's unclear why Eugenides didn't trust his story for all the rather sensational and juicy bits it naturally offers.
Middlesex feels like two books squeezed, uncomfortably, into one. Or even more. There are several hints that Eugenides was aiming for a Middlemarch-type canvas of a locale (Detroit) -- there's the title, for one, and George Eliot is among the few authors mentioned more than once. But Middlemarch didn't aim for generational sweep as well, covering a much shorter time frame. And Eugenides wants his novel also to be both family saga and the story of an individual, and he doesn't manage to tie the two together particularly well.
It's frustrating, because the book reads easily and, often, very well -- the episodes are often gripping, the characters -- when he dwells on them -- involving. The best parts are the most intimate: the contemporary scenes, and the ones focussed entirely on young Cal (before s/he runs away -- once he's on his own the scenes aren't nearly as successful).
Eugenides took a long time to write this novel (it appears nine years after last work), and it seems he might have taken too much time to dwell and elaborate on it. Occasionally there is something to be said for rushing a book. Eugenides writes well enough, and he is a story-teller too -- apparently brimming with stories. But Middlesex has the feel of a too pieced-together group of episodes and anecdotes, with little flow. (Eugenides' annoying habit of warning what is to come (Father Mike's wife's nagging "hadn't led him to his desperate act ..." yet, mentioned 150 pages before the act itself, is only one of many examples) doesn't help matters in the least.)
This could have been a fine sweeping Detroit-centred saga of 20th century Greek-immigrant life in which Cal's place is incidental, or it could have been a solid novel about Cal pure and simple (in which everything else can find a place, but much subordinated). Instead, the novel -- a pleasure to read, for the most part -- closes leaving the reader dissatisfied. It's neither fish nor fowl, neither he nor she, just an uncomfortably imbalanced Middlesex.

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“Post-feminism” or plain old sexism

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, September 11, 2007

By Sharon Smith

“POST-FEMINISM” is the phrase du jour among mainstream political pundits, often accompanied by derogatory comments toward anyone who continues to complain that women lack equality.

U.S. society has entered a “post-feminist” phase, a level playing field, according to this group of commentators. Women’s oppression belongs to a bygone era, and ideas of women’s liberation are merely outdated relics of that era. If anything, these pundits inform us, the women’s movement of the 1960s went too far and now must be reigned in. This is the typical rationale for curbing abortion rights.

But more insidious is the repeated accusation that feminists have created a “victim” consciousness among women by inflating statistics to exaggerate problems such as rape and sexual objectification. Without evidence, these claims have gained the status of conventional wisdom through sheer repetition.

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, for example, regularly ridicules the problem of date rape, with comments such as: “The biggest myth that won’t die is that one of four college women is raped on campuses each year...If 25 percent of Daddy’s little girls were being sexually assaulted at college, there wouldn’t be any girls on campus.”

The figure Parker holds in such contempt is based on a study conducted in the 1980s by Ms. Magazine, surveying 6,000 students at 32 colleges which found that one in four college women had been a victim of rape or attempted rape--a figure now accepted even by the U.S. Department of Justice. Furthermore, less than one in every three rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement officials in 1996.

Date rape is not a figment of the imaginations of “hysterical” feminists, but an indisputable reality for women in the U.S. Nevertheless, in the age of “post-feminism,” demands for women’s rights are deemed a colossal act of self-indulgence.

Those who are offended by images of women in popular culture must be either pro-censorship prudes or outmoded feminists born without a sense of humor. After all, who but the most bitter feminist could fail to be amused by the plot line of Pamela Anderson’s new Fox television show, which finds the former Baywatch babe starring as a busty bimbo working in a bookstore? (And the show’s called Stacked!)

Those who are irritated by the show’s promotional ad (Anderson posing suggestively atop a pile of books, as her silicone-enhanced breasts defy the force of gravity) might be jarred by beauty standards and sexual ideals manufactured on Wall Street and in Hollywood yet absorbed by women throughout society.

“Manufactured” is no exaggeration, given that 9.2 million cosmetic surgery procedures, from breast augmentation to Botox injections, were performed in 2004--mainly on women--according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, up 24 percent from 2000. Ironically, this rise in cosmetic surgery coincides with a 10 percent decline in medically necessary reconstructive surgery procedures in 2004 alone, due to declining insurance coverage.

The beauty ideal, moreover, has changed drastically from the buxom Marilyn Monroe (size 12-14) to today’s undernourished supermodel (size 2-4). A woman between the ages of 18 and 34 today has just a 1 percent chance of being as thin as a supermodel.

As modeling executive Jennifer Venditti explained in a 2001 Cosmopolitan article, “The smaller the sample, the better [the clothing] drapes...It’s almost like the body is not present.” This can be a problem for human beings. Yet this image permeates popular culture with unrealistic images that negatively affect self-esteem among females from a very young age.

Thanks to these airbrushed beauty standards, 80 percent of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, contributing to the incidence of anorexia and bulimia currently suffered by up to 10 million women in the U.S. By the age of 10, 80 percent of girls in the U.S. have already tried to diet to lose weight.

“Post-feminism” is a term brimming with hypocrisy--promoted primarily by those who oppose women’s rights--turning women’s bodies over to the control and judgment of others. The need for women’s liberation is far from antiquated--it is, in fact, thoroughly modern.

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