White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a generational story centred on the lives of two men, one British, one Bangladeshi. They fought together in World War Two in a Spike Milligan Hitler, My Part In His Downfall kind of way. We then flit about through subsequent decades, exploring their lives, those of their wives and children, and the multi-cultural British society in which they all live.
There is a lot of interesting material on the complexities of identity. For example, a music teacher tries to persuade her school orchestra to play Indian music. When this idea is not greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher asks a Queen fan what he would think if this lack of respect were directed at Queen – ironically not acknowledging the Parsi-Indian background of Freddie Mercury himself. This is a typical observation. It can all get a bit bewildering when genetics come into it – but basically the book celebrates variety and complexity rather than straight lines in life.
The book is interesting in its themes and ideas, but I did find it hard to read. I was not convinced by efforts to reflect a messy social situation in the writing style. Frequently the book would break grammatical “rules” in an attempt to give further perspective on the collision of communal rules and mores described in the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea. Ernest Hemingway does something similar in A Farewell To Arms, when American solider, Frederick Henry, breaks the most serious of regulations in deserting from the army. Henry’s non-literary voice describing his ordeal, serves as a further layer in a classic study of society’s expectations. However, for me, things don’t work quite as well in White Teeth, where the style does not reflect a particular narrator. Instead, White Teeth has a disembodied narrative voice, which periodically pops up and self-consciously bends literary rules, uses brackets in weird ways, or gives us two pages with no full stops. It comes over as a literary exercise, which is not the feeling you get with Hemingway, where the style is part of a character.
So, I found White Teeth interesting for its ideas, less so for its writing style.
The Kominsky Method is a Netflix comedy drama, telling the story of revered Hollywood acting coach Sandy Kominsky, and his agent Norman Newlander. Both are now in the last years of their careers, facing the difficulties of ageing – ill-health, adapting to the loss of loved ones, and feeling adrift in a changed world.
The main way Sandy tries to cope with these challenges is through his work. The Kominsky Method involves an actor facing up to personal life experience, even at its most painful, and using this self-awareness to bring authenticity to a role. This is a nod to “method acting” as taught by famous teachers like Konstantin Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg. Ironically, however, our method acting coach isn’t actually very good at facing up to life experience. We see this in the first episodes, when Norman’s wife Eileen dies. Returning from the hospital, Sandy duly tells his students about his anguish at Eileen’s death, and explains that this is the kind of pain which actors can draw upon in their work. Norman, who happens to be watching the class, objects to this use of personal tragedy as mere material for acting. We get the feeling that making the loss of Eileen into an acting resource, Sandy is not so much facing the pain of loss as trying to lessen its impact on him. This fits with his behaviour leading up to Eileen’s death. Unable to deal with illness, he kept finding excuses not to visit her.
Sandy Kominsky has reached a point of reckoning in his life, when it is becoming ever harder to hide from harsh reality. The days of taking his health for granted are over, just as his tendency to keep other people at arms length now risks the prospect of a lonely old age. It is time to face up to things. He thinks he has been doing this in his acting, when actually it has been a means of avoidance.
Perhaps, in the end, however, we come to realise that acting is valuable because it actually allows both avoidance and engagement to happen at the same time. Norman regularly “talks” to Eileen after her death, acting out conversations with her. In a sense these conversations are denial. They also allow Norman to come to terms with feelings that are difficult for him, but in a manner that he can cope with.
So, for me, the true Kominsky Method is a process of make-believe which allows people to both face difficulties and handle them in a form that is bearable. It’s like a scary movie where people can endure danger, in a safe way. I loved the show. It is a passion project of writer and producer Chuck Lorre. Lorre, now in his late sixties, has had a hugely successful career in television, with his credits including Roseanne, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Young Sheldon. I feel he has put a lifetime of experience into The Kominsky Method. All that is entertaining, funny and moving about the show, also serves a larger purpose – to demonstrate how the contradictory business of acting can help people face difficult things more easily.
There is a thing called survivorship bias where the best, strongest and most beautiful things from the past are usually favoured for preservation. This means there is a natural tendency for the past to appear better, stronger and more beautiful than it really was – since all the ordinary stuff which touched a lot of people’s lives has long gone. This informs how we think and write about the past.
I thought about this recently on my regular walk, which takes me past a dilapidated Morris Ital. This car, built by British Leyland between 1980 and 1984, was a cosmetic update of the Morris Marina, a car, which whilst selling well in its day (including to my dad), is best known in 2021 as one of the worst cars the UK has ever produced. The Marina is now very rare. The Ital, already obsolete when it was released, and suffering all kinds of build quality issues, was if anything even worse than the Marina. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Ital is now officially the rarest of all UK production cars.
I consulted howmanyleft.co.uk which records a total of 27 registered Itals for 2020. The particular model I see on my walk is an HLS, Auto and apparently there are only two of those left registered for road use, with nine others registered as off the road. https://www.howmanyleft.co.uk/vehicle/morris_ital_hls_auto
So there it sits, a humble car from the early 1980s. Of the 172,276 built, only a handful survive. But the Ital illustrates the past more accurately than any number of Aston Martins. I thought it was worth a celebration.
The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad – published in 1907, and set in the London of 1886 – is surprisingly contemporary in its themes. The book deals with terrorism, looking at the sort of people involved, and the possible motivations behind their inexplicably destructive acts. We meet characters whose vanity and self absorption drive them to seek notoriety, when they lack the ability or desire to shine in normal terms. Their supposed revolutionary ideology is simply a disguise for twisted personal deficiencies. The book also illustrates the way in which people of limited intellectual abilities can be manipulated into becoming terrorists.
On the other hand, the book’s many contradictions, make it impossible to write terrorism off as an aberration confined to psychotic, or vulnerable individuals. We see this at the beginning when the ambassador of an east European country has a meeting with Mr Verloc, one of his secret agents. The ambassador complains that Britain’s liberal society allows anarchists to hide and operate. The ambassador sees this as a threat to his own country. In response, he demands of Verloc an atrocity of such absurd barbarity that the British will be forced to accept much more rigid social controls. He directs that there should be a bomb attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
So an act of terrorism begins as an attempt to make society “safer”. From there the contradictions continue. We meet, for example, a rich, well connected woman who enjoys showing off a former anarchist at her fancy parties, thereby demonstrating her worldly broad-mindedness. And when it seems this man might be involved in the Greenwich Park plot, a senior government official intervenes in a police investigation to ensure his usefully well-connected lady friend is not caused embarrassment by association with her tame terrorist. This craziness makes you wonder if there is something in the ambassador’s criticism of British society.
Finally, there are all the contradictions personified by Stevie, the simple, innocent young man manipulated into carrying the Greenwich Park bomb. Stevie has a painfully developed sense of empathy, feeling pain in others as if it were his own. Verloc exploits this gentle, humane quality, as a means to manipulate Stevie into taking extreme measures to attack an unfair society which allows some people to enjoy great wealth while others suffer in poverty.
The Secret Agent is a dark and twisty book, both in terms of subject matter and style. With its dense writing, point of view changes, and switches of plot direction, you do have to concentrate. But it’s worth the effort.
I read Beach Read by Emily Henry as a challenge. I had this plan to look at unfamiliar genres, with the unexplored territory of romance seeming like a good place to start. Trying to choose a book, I discovered that Beach Read was about a romance author and a literary fiction writer deciding to attempt each other’s type of book. Seeing as I was engaged in a similar swap myself, Beach Read made sense.
January (romance) and Everett (literary fiction), two former rivals from high school writing club, find themselves living in neighbouring beach houses on Lake Michigan during turbulent times in both their lives. Trying to overcome an engrained distrust of each other’s writing, they devise a scheme to swap genres, and agree that once a week they will take turns in organising some practical teaching activity. January’s training course consists of an evening at a drive-in cinema watching three Meg Ryan films in a row, line dancing, going to a funfair, and walking on a beach at sunset. Everett’s training course in literary fiction is more vague – as is literary fiction, if you ask me. It’s all about heavy meetings with survivors of a cult. You get the feeling that literary fiction is meant to be dark and twisty, with tragedy waiting at the end.
Beach Read is much more romance than literary fiction in its tone. Told from January’s point of view, the book in many ways turned out to be definitive romance, an education for a reader, and Everett, in how it’s done. Most of the tropes of romance – which I now know about – were there. We had enemies to lovers, forced proximity, second chance romance, work romance, and fake relationship/dating – which is where people pretend to be in love for some reason, and then fall in love for real.
My favourite parts of Beach Read were when January and Everett sat working in their separate beach houses, or went on each other’s research trips, trying to find a way to communicate. I felt this was a very interesting, amusing reflection on the way writing has divided itself into genres serving particular groups of people. And yet writing is also about communication between people. Romance itself is a genre that seeks to bring two people together, people who are usually enemies, if one of its most popular tropes is to be believed. So that aspect of the book – the idea of writing splitting people up and trying to bring them back together – was fascinating. It is also timely with trends in writing heading towards ever more focused genres serving different groups of readers.
The ending seemed more straightforward romance fiction than the first three quarters, with January and her best friend discussing their respective relationship problems. There was a lot of crying in this section. I felt out of the loop at the end, as any man would when two women get together to discuss men and how disappointing they are. I’m not saying they’re not disappointing, obviously, but this part of the book felt like it was for a different audience. But maybe that’s the point. Sometimes writing is an activity that defines who you are and where you belong: and sometimes it’s about trying to escape these boundaries and reach out further.
Beach Read offers a perceptive insight into life, love and the fragmented modern literary scene. I enjoyed it.
Today writers can work in a bewildering variety of genres tailored to certain groups of readers. It’s as though each group can aspire to have their own books. This is an interesting and characteristically modern development, the history of which it might be instructive to explore.
All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original single category of book which existed when the printing press first appeared around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. Writers are sometimes known as authors, and that word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when “divinity” was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.
One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when the printing press, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of the shift away from the idea that one book, and one author was relevant to everyone. Now individual viewpoints started to become more important.
The centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and improved printing technology continued to make headway in reducing book prices. By 1700, academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is now almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, now it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, which means that all kinds of different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, are all looking for books which reflect themselves.
It is of course great that perspectives and viewpoints reflected in books have increased out of all recognition. And yet perhaps there is also a link with the characteristically modern phenomenon of a widely inclusive culture also, ironically, becoming a fragmented one, as people tend to live more in their own cultural bubbles.
Writers write based on their own experience, so it’s inevitable that people similar to themselves are more likely to resonate with their work. Nevertheless, I think in some small way, any writer instinctively harks back to 1440, when there was one book for everyone. Writing has to manage that trick of reflecting its readership, while not confining them in a bubble. A book should be a means of offering a wider perspective rather than closing the door. After all, a best seller is by definition a book that crosses divides, appeals to lots of different people, and echoes in a small way that situation right at the beginning of publishing when a book was something that everyone shared in together.
On 14th August 1947, the British colonial authorities, bowing to the will of religious pressure groups, partitioned British India to create the state of Pakistan. Then at midnight the same day, India gained independence from Britain. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of that midnight. The stories of India and Saleem then continue in parallel up until the 1970s.
It’s tricky to sum up such a massive multi-layered story, but I think the Beatles might help:
“It’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”
Salman Rushdie’s advice in Midnight’s Children would be:
“It’s a fool who thinks that the world can be brought together by dividing it up.”
The novel opens with an account of the meeting of Saleem’s grandparents. His grandfather is a doctor, who attends a young woman called Naseem, whose protective father only reveals portions of his daughter for examination through a hole in a sheet. The doctor falls in love with each piece of his partitioned patient and ends up marrying what seems to be a complete woman. But she is not complete. Her rigid, intolerant outlook means that as a person she is herself something of a hole in a sheet, uninterested in the entire picture. Eventually, Nassem’s borders shrink in upon her until she really only has her kitchen and pantry left.
But Midnight’s Children is not a simple morality tale about seeing the big picture. Along with illustrating the destructiveness of partition, the book also accepts that the hole in the sheet has value. There’s the example of a painter who in a futile attempt to include the whole of life in his art made his pictures ever bigger. This is never going to work. An artist has to find the whole in a small part. He has to take a vast sheet and cut a tiny hole in it. So no simple moral there then. You have to allow in things that confuse the picture.
I started Midnight’s Children aware of its daunting reputation, but I was soon laughing at Saleem’s often hilarious scrapes. Midnight’s Children is profound and complex, but also light and humorous. This contrariness is what you’d expect from a book that doesn’t believe in bringing people together by driving some of them out. The book invites you in, welcoming human foibles and variety in all its forms. Food recurs often in the book, particularly pickle, which of course is a blend of ingredients left to marinade together. Midnight’s Children is a massive jar of pickle. Tasting it, the diner might well decide that people should live together in the same way.
Call My Agent is a French, subtitled drama series, set in a Paris actors’ agency, called ASK. The series had 24 episodes broadcast between 2015 – 2020 and is now available on Netflix. It is hard to write about the series without revealing a few plot details – don’t read on if that is a problem.
So I have reached the end of series 1 and I love it.
What intrigues me, apart from the great acting and locations, is the way Call My Agent reflects on the role that acting and fantasy play in life. The agents act as go-betweens, linking reality with the pretend world of film. They are gatekeepers, facilitators, therapists, working to smooth that difficult relationship between the two realms. Fittingly in their unique position, the agents combine fiction and reality in their own lives. The staff at ASK are usually acting a role in some way. The first episode opens with the arrival in Paris, of Camille, a young hairdresser from southern France, who dreams of a job in films. She talks to Mathias, an agent at ASK, who seems to be connected with her in some way. Within a few episodes we learn that Camille is actually Mathias’ daughter, the result of a brief affair, which Mathias wants to keep secret. Immediately there is acting, in the way father and daughter try to hide their relationship. Sent on her way with some money and advice that the film business is not to be recommended, a demoralised Camille runs into another agent, Andréa, at the ASK reception desk. Andréa, finding herself in sudden need of an assistant, conducts a brief interview and makes the impulsive decision to recruit the youngster, who is in the right place at the right time. This sets off a series of situations where both Mathias and Camille have to do a lot of acting to keep their secret.
And that’s only the start. Let’s take the agent Andréa, for example, who in many ways I find the show’s most interesting character. She has contrasting elements to her personality. In some ways she is a sleek, tough, business woman. But this side of her coexists with a wild, hard-partying, seductress. Andréa struggles to balance the differing aspects of her personality. Is one side more real than the other? You might think that the smooth business woman is an act, with the wild child as her reality. But the real Andréa is actually both of these roles. She is an agent in the middle trying to keep each side happy.
So it goes on. Mathias’ assistant, Noémie, lives in a fantasy where her boss is just waiting to ask her to be his wife. Mathias himself is similar to Andréa in the way he has two sides to him, a ruthless business side, and a well-hidden softer side. Like Andréa, he is an agent negotiating the relationship between two roles. Then there’s Gabriel, nice chap and caring agent, who has a weakness for telling people what they want to hear. This lands him in scrapes when different people operate on different versions of the truth. Gabriel’s assistant, Hervé, is always ready with tricks to help his boss bend the truth – often with mixed results. Arlette, now getting older, her energies flagging, calls herself an “impresario” in the hope that this gives the illusion that she is grander than a mere agent. Arlette has a truth-telling terrier dog who has a knack for revealing deception by attacking the trousers of human deceivers. Sofia the receptionist, and aspiring actress, slips her own resumé into submissions to casting directors. When Gabriel ticks her off for pretending to be an ASK client, Sofia furiously responds, by reminding Gabriel of all the tricks she has pulled on his behalf in keeping actors happy. And hanging over the whole series is an audit by play-it-by-the-book tax inspector, Colette, who reprimands the agency for its poor accounting, the way staff treat company money as their own, and a nonexistent division between personal lives and work. And yet, even Colette, whose life seemingly runs along such straight lines, has two sides to her. She is like Andréa in reverse, with a buttoned down character dominant, hiding a carefully controlled sensuous side. Fittingly she has an affair with Andréa. Even a tax inspector becomes an agent balancing roles.
And that brings us to the end of the first series, a wonderful story about fiction and reality. And this isn’t just an abstract game for actors. After all, out in the wider world a lot of people seem to be having trouble reconciling reality and illusion – what with their vulnerability to rumours, conspiracies, and political versions of reality.
I am very much looking forward to the next three series.
Oh, and by the way, if you are a literary agent reading this, please give me a call.
Sons and Lovers was D.H. Lawrence’s third novel, published in 1913.
This was a tricky one for me. I reached the end and wondered what it had all been about. I mean I could see what it was about in terms of the story – a middle class woman accidentally marries a miner, falls out of love with him, and then turns her frustrated love on her two sons – so that the young men become so fixated and dominated by their mother that they are unable to form healthy relationships with women of their own age. But beyond that, what was it about? Suffragettes are mentioned, but it didn’t seem to be about the role of women. Politics and miners’ strikes are mentioned, but the book isn’t about those things either. It was all just background detail to this unsettling account of mother attachment.
And yet it was a powerful story… In the end, trying to make sense of it for myself, Michael McIntyre popped into my head. Yes, Michael McIntyre, that very talented comedian who mines his own life, and the life of those around him, for comedy. Embarrassing details of going to the toilet in the middle of the night, or of Mrs McIntyre putting on her tights, an activity which while slinky at first, gets less attractive at the half way point of donning – all of this, unfiltered and unadulterated, is presented live at the Apollo. And of course now that Michael has said it, the audience know exactly what he means. The thing with Sons and Lovers is that D.H. Lawrence does the same thing with offering up details of life usually left in darkness. And the use of aspects of other peoples’ lives is certainly ruthless and uncompromising. Apparently, an unfortunate girlfriend, recognising herself in the character of Miriam immediately sent Lawrence’s manuscript back to him and ceased all contact! But the show that results from Lawrence’s material is less funny than Michael McIntyre’s, and less likely to give that feeling of recognition. All the hectic fluctuations between love and hate, the unhealthy mother fixation, the emotional cruelty, the transference of personal emotional issues on to someone else. I could see D.H. on stage at the Apollo, looking around for recognition in his audience, and having to say:
“Just me then?”
Of course it wouldn’t just be him. Lawrence said the book reflected “the tragedy of thousands of young men in England”. But even so, I think he is describing extremes of experience, rather than overlooked familiar aspects of life. It is hard to immediately recognise much of what Lawrence is writing about. I was looking in on a situation, with some degree of horror.
On the up side, Sons and Lovers is a good novel in the way it presents life as too messy and indefinable to easily conform itself to neat “issues”. The issue of women’s rights for example is there in the book, but it’s set against complex power dynamics in relationships which can show women possessing a profound measure of control over men. I liked that. It seems to me that’s where novels have the advantage over history books, or tomes on politics, sociology or psychology, or whatever it might be. Novels present messy, contradictory lived experience which can’t be easily placed in neat boxes. In being determined to portray the real details of, in Michael McIntyre terms, going to the toilet in the middle of the night, Sons and Lovers does achieve a raw feeling of reality. I didn’t feel it was about anything, except the messy business of life as seen through the specific situation of these characters. And that was fair enough.
For me this was a striking novel, ruthlessly honest about its subject, effective in conveying messy reality. But in many ways, the truth it portrays is particular. Creepy as I sometimes found the book, I told myself that one of the reasons you read is not to see your own experience but to see other people’s, and gain a wider perspective.
What3words is a location app, dividing the Earth’s surface into 3m x 3m squares each with a unique three word code. I downloaded the app and found myself loving its word combinations. They meant something very specific, at the same time as reminding me of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse. So, out on bike rides, I started collecting word codes hoping to make them into a poem. Here, after much rewriting, is the result, using places I rode through, combined with other places around the world. What3words is designed to reach someone wherever they are. I hope this poem reaches you, whatever your three word location happens to be!
I stopped at a cafe where I found capers.anchovies.nuance
There I sat sticking words.together.sounds, moody with sleepy.stop.salience
As if I were a cars.varying.guru
Now that it’s written I send out my latest.scrap.invite
In my opinions.nest.igloo
My scrap invite goes out over grass.parade.hint
Through a field.readjust.fiction
Around the golfer.tree.diction
And via a wowed.blank.tone
And a balloon.patio.phone
I will give you a call and bring you gearbox.dispenser.home