The individual or the representative

In an era of globalisation and talk of border walls, it is timely that Verso have reprinted Ryszard Kapuscinski’s small book The Other. The book benefits from his travels as a journalist, and in it he recounts the striking story of Liberia’s civil war where in the morning rebels would battle government forces and then in the afternoon the two groups would come together in the marketplace. For Kapuscinski this stands to illustrate his first point that the Other occupies the fluid categories of individual or representative of race or nation depending on the circumstances. Although in human history cultures have routinely been suspicious or hostile to other cultures, in the interests of peace (bearing in mind that war benefits none) we can make a choice about whether we recognise the individual or the representative. This is particularly important in an era of mass media where we may be informed but lack the deeper understanding and connection that comes, as he says, in true community. Kapuscinski shines a spotlight on our current situation where there is plenty of talk – a supposed ‘conversation’ – but the talk is often about people rather than with them.

In order to create peace we need to go beyond what he calls recognition, which we could also term tolerance, to understanding and responsibility for others, which might bring to mind the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus advocates responsibility not just for our own community members but for those who may be deemed Other. Interestingly, building on Levinas, Kapuscinski writes in explicitly Christian terms of seeing God in the Other, of deliberately making the Other my priority. A relationship with God is sometimes thought of in transcendent terms – a vertical relationship with someone ‘up there’. But in the Gospels, and indeed also in the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic writings, a relationship with God is played out through relationships with the human Other – a horizontal connection. (How do we meet Jesus? By visiting prisoners and the sick, etc.) There is a certain practicality here that avoids me-centred spirituality, ironically perhaps, as in a secular age Christianity is sometimes thought of as simply adding a supernatural layer onto existing arrangements, of conjuring a cosmic best friend. Kapuscinski, rather, shows the value of a creed that encourages, at a time when mass media insists on the priority of myself, the difficult but valuable notion of making the stranger my priority. 


The hillbillies are alright

Hillbilly Elegy, J D Vance, Harper.

Hillbilly Elegy was not necessarily meant to explain Trump, but it has been talked about (and bought in large numbers) because it does its bit in explaining Trump, speaking as it does about the forgotten Americans who feel their government has failed them, who are patriotic even if that patriotism is largely unrewarded.

J D Vance comes from Kentucky hill country; his family benefited from the industrial boom of the central US rust belt. He survived a dysfunctional family life through the fierce kindness of his grandmother, who would rescue him from his drug-addicted mother (but who also once set Vance’s grandfather on fire as a sign of her displeasure at his drunkenness).

Vance did a stint in the Middle East with the US Army, somehow got into Yale and is now a successful financier in a company run by a Trump advisor, though the book is at times an attempt to illustrate how you can take the boy out of the hills, but not the hills out of the boy.

The book also tries to show that hillbillies are both alright and not alright. Vance tries to negotiate the contradictions of hillbilly life – conservatism and drug abuse, ties to the land and reliance on chain fast food and pre-packaged meals, Bible reading and conspiracy theories, family loyalty and family breakdown. Hillbillies feel both inferior and proud, he says, and have contradictory attitudes to government. They feel governments do too much and too little. They blame the government but feel it should butt out. The problems are complex and the solutions hard to come by, Vance says, as hillbillies fire indiscriminate, illogical criticism, because they are frustrated. And … hence Trump. Vance doesn’t always disagree, arguing that the wrong people get welfare, a core concern of Trump supporters. He writes that they didn’t trust Obama because he was seen as East Coast elite (yet Obama, like Vance, made spectacularly good from an underprivileged starting position).

Vance notes that in surveys it is poor whites who feel most pessimistic and feel the system is against them (even though they are statistically less put upon than other minorities). Hence Trump’s ability to rally them by promising to listen to the forgotten (white) voices and promising to, somehow, bring back the jobs.

Vance says that hillbillies are Bible readers but not church goers. They tend to avoid church as a middle class phenomenon. They have a kind of home baked faith that is tested by alcoholism and family breakdown and mixed with ignorance and prejudice. Vance himself was attracted to a rigid, more middle class form of Christianity in his youth and he says he ‘loved’ it, and the structure and community he experienced is what many hillbillies need, but this was at the price of, typically, mistrusting the outside world, especially when it came to evolutionary science, modern culture and the perception that atheists were attacking the supposedly natural Christian inclination of the US.

In Vance’s early adulthood the church was replaced by the army, and he has only positive things to say about the military. Iraq was not the military’s fault, and the army holds many contrasting political opinions. For Vance, army discipline is an obvious answer for underprivileged youth. As his focus is the individual he can make these positive comments without really commenting on the wider issue of America’s almost obsessive militarism.

As much as it might give insights into hillbilly life, what comes out of the book is an apology for Republican American values – church, family, military and, above all, individualism. He encourages hillbillies to take their future into their own hands. The problem with this conclusion is the contradictory nature of the idea that hillbillies need to stop blaming the government and take responsibility for their actions when he has just outlined the systemic, cultural nature of the problems hillbillies face. Vance made it by being optimistic and seems to think, in true American fashion, that if he made it, anyone can. His solution to the problem is a version of Benjamin Franklin’s adage that God helps those who help themselves. After-all, he says, the US, no matter how corny it sounds, is still the greatest country on Earth – a notion so patently untrue, so easily rebutted by reams of statistics except those regarding military spending.

Obviously a bit more personal responsibility would be good, but equally obviously, not every hillbilly can go to Yale. Vance’s story is the exception, almost a miracle, but not everyone can be exceptional. And a story like Vance’s success obfuscates the deep problems with sections of the US, and of the world in general. This is the problem with the log-cabin-to-White-House, ghetto-to-Hollywood, American dream (which is a dream, not reality). There are systemic problems that need to be addressed by government. There are inequalities that can’t be addressed simply by the individual.

Communicative threads

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, edited by Sahm Venter, Liveright

Nelson Mandela is described as ‘battering ram’ by the editor of this collection of his prison letters, if you can imagine a polite battering ram. He wore down an unjust system by living out personally the wider perspective of respecting all persons regardless of race.

It is hard to imagine the effects of Nelson Mandela’s decades-long prison term on his emotional and physical health, but it is equally extraordinary to contemplate his sustained determination to retain his dignity and to treat even his jailers with respect, in the face of the injustice of his incarceration, the wider injustice of apartheid, and unfair, vengeful, racist treatment in prison. It is remarkable too how unfaltering is his attitude throughout the collection of his correspondence. 

Collections of the letters of famous people may lack the cohesive narrative of a biography but, more so than biographies, which no matter their truthfulness are driven by hindsight, letters can convey the immediacy of experience and an unfiltered intensity of emotion. Letters were Mandela’s vital link to the outside world, and in them we glimpse not only how he was encouraged by family and friends, but also how he encouraged them, praising, counselling, explaining, reprimanding. Lost letters deprive him of his communicative threads, and it is heart rending to read his anguish, nevertheless articulate, over the harassment of his wife and her arrest and the lack of knowledge about the fate of his young children. But like Martin Luther King, he refuses to duplicate the hatred of his enemies. Later in life, as momentum for change gathers in South Africa, he writes that while he regrets the hurt to his family, he does not regret the fight for justice, his eyes always on the prize.

Necessarily, the letters cover obscure family connections, complaints to officials and long legal arguments. But in each there is the determination not to be embittered, the desire to seek justice for the big and small, and tender, hopeful messages. He writes to his daughter that not even the judge who sentenced him to life knows how long he will actually be in prison. ‘Hope’, he writes at one point, ‘is a powerful weapon’ no-one can take away.

Getting the facts straight


Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction, Giramondo

The fiction of Gerald Murnane, one of our finest writers and winner of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, is a strange kind of fiction – it reads more like nonfiction. (It is somewhat ironic, then, that, according to his publisher, he is retiring from writing fiction.)

There is no dialogue; the essence of a conversation is merely relayed in a retrospective fashion. He long-windedly avoids character names (‘the chief character in this story’), and explicitly refers to the process of writing the story in the story. Along with the formality and neatness of his writing style, this all contributes to the deliberate downplaying of immediacy and the illusion of being in the moment, those preoccupations of contemporary fiction.

His stories read like memoir or formal letters. There is a looping, spiralling character to his writing, a reworking of ideas that moves the narrative forward slowly. Like philosophical writing or the letters of Saint Paul, there is repetition and reworking of phrases in order to build up an argument. There is a sense of carefully getting the facts straight without incriminating oneself, as might occur in a police interrogation, although he deals with subject matter that would otherwise seem mundane. It is not disturbing, only sometimes embarrassing (which are different – the former often exacerbated by a detailed retelling in contemporary fiction, the latter, glossed over by Murnane, in keeping with his formal style), though, weirdly, the publisher marketing for the US edition of the book calls the stories ‘obscene’, ‘brutal’ and ‘terrifying’, which seems slightly hyperbolic, or at least at odds with the calmness of the prose. Unlike much contemporary fiction, in which Murnane seems to have an almost total lack of interest, he is not out to shock or impress with novelty. Rather than jostle to stand out from the pack, he simply stands calmly and obliviously to the side, which makes for its own novelty. His US publishers are in this sense correct to compare him not to peers, but to twentieth century masters of the form – Borges and Nabokov, for example. Or Joyce and Beckett.

Lest all this sound off-putting, there is beauty and intimacy in his precise narration, as well as a comforting rhythm and natural momentum in the looping prose. He draws from his own life – from his Catholic background, teaching career and interest in horseracing. References to Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Bendigo and the Western District might interest Victorian readers. In this heavy use of his own biography he again blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction while alerting us to the oddness of fiction’s attempt to represent the world.

His fiction also alerts us to the importance of memory, the sense of past events crowding at our backs and pushing us forward. As with memory, in Murnane’s fiction there are odd choices as to which particulars are left in and which are left out. But this seemingly arbitrary and pedantic choosing is deliberate, and it reminds us of the richness and uniqueness of supposedly ordinary lives.

Becoming competent

How to Build a Boat, Jonathan Gornall, Simon and Schuster.

Jonathan Gornall is a journalist who calls the sea ‘an ally of imagination’, revels in the exhilaration of sailing and tried twice to row across the Atlantic, both unsuccessfully. In How to Build a Boat he describes his attempt to, yes, build a small boat, ostensibly for his three-year old daughter, though we know it is as much for him, possibly to make up for his past nautical misadventures. Sailing on a ‘sea of ignorance’ he ‘absurdly’ decides to use old-fashioned methods and materials, but becomes an evangelist for the pleasure of hand-crafting objects you can ‘fall in love with’, in an age of smart-phones and diminished handy-man skills. He is self-effacing and wise about his own follies, but develops a particular pride in fixing mistakes and becoming ‘competent’, which is the most fellow amateur, would-be carpenters aspire to. Along the way he introduces us to the language of boat-building, as arcane and foreign to novices as other nautical terms. He also praises old-fashioned adventure in a pre-packaged era, and intelligently and not-overly-sentimentally comments on how the storms of life sometimes toss you onto unexpected and not always unwelcome shores, including parenthood.

Lighting up MRI scans

Diving for Seahorses (Newsouth), from Norwegian sisters Hilde and Ylva Ostby, novelist and neuropsychologist respectively, is not really about seahorses. Rather, the title refers to the seahorse-shaped hippocampus in the brain, which coordinates memory, the book’s main topic. We might think of memories as being like a library of books. And MRI scans can pinpoint sections of the brain that are like sections of the library holding various topics, even if they can’t access the ‘text’ of the ‘books’. But then again, individual memories are not like individual books, they are connections across the brain, like a research paper that accesses bits of information from various books and organises them in a particular way. These connections or patterns that light up in an MRI scan are reinforced by recollection and deliberate memory enhancement techniques, but they also change. Memory is approximate, like a painting rather than a photograph, and unreliable. So if we are our memories, as is sometimes claimed, we have a skewed picture of ourselves.

There are various types of memories, in varying patterns. There is procedural memory, the innate ability to do manual things, like ride a bike, of course. There is semantic memory, which relates to our ability to retain facts. Then there is episodic memory, the ability to recall past situations that are unique to ourselves – memories of holidays, etc. Recalling these is a process of starting off a pattern of neurons firing across the brain, and the more we do this, the more the pathways are reinforced. In the case of episodic memory, it makes sense that the patterns are spread across the brain because we are grabbing various micro-memories of smell, taste, sight, feel, facts to cobble together the memory of the episode.

Memories can also be suggested and fabricated. The authors describe how Scandinavian police interrogations had to change after the realisation that innocent people were admitting to crimes they began to imagine they committed. This is because, in the brain, truth and fiction work similarly.  The acts of imagining and reminiscing light up similarly on MRI scans. Depressed people show diminished levels of both memory and imagination.

The sisters write of chess champions and those rare individuals who have a problem because they can’t forget. Anything. They also relay the stories of those devastated by long-term memory loss, but who retain some sense of themselves, partly because of the fact that various types of memory are stored in different patterns across varying areas of the brain.


The extra, judiciously placed word

First You Write a Sentence, Joe Moran, Penguin.

I recently received an email from an editor inviting participation in a webinar in which the editor proposed to enlighten her audience on various aspects of editing, including ‘a consideration of if editing is the right career’. Considering the clumsiness of her phrasing, she may do well to take the advice in Joe Moran’s book First You Write a Sentence that a writer should sound out sentences to check they flow well.

‘Of if’ shouldn’t matter – after all, the sentence is grammatically correct and the sense is clear. The problem is that, as Moran points out, our reading retains its roots in speech. We are not simply processing information. We write as we speak, unsurprisingly, and verbal language has rhythm and phrasing. As we learn to read faster we scan for key words, but even so we are still sounding out words. And the faster we read, the more likely we are to trip up on arhythmic phrasing. ‘Of if’ sounds clumsy. The way we shape our mouths to speak each word is different. Butted up together, the words grate. ‘Of if’ is the verbal equivalent of tripping on an uneven join in the pavement, something to be avoided by simply changing the phrase to ‘consideration of whether editing is the right career’. Or, since Moran advises ditching unnecessary ‘of’s, which tend to be overly formal and passive in such phrases, ‘considering whether editing is the right career’.

First You Write a Sentence is a ‘how to’ book, but Moran is not a pedant. He says he has ‘patchwork’ grammar (though as one gets into the book one realises he is being modest – he knows his grammatical terms). His advice is not merely centred on what is correct but on what best enhances rhythm and clarity (which are usually the core preoccupations of grammarians, editors and those who truly love writing). He even goes so far as to say that it is the writing not the subject that makes a good book. I agree. Good cooking is not primarily about the ingredients, though the quality of ingredients helps, but rather about their combination, and the execution of the cooking.

He praises Hemingwayesque minimalism. He advises that cutting words often helps clarity, especially where writers use dead adjectives (in phrases such as ‘brisk walk’). He is down on nouns, spruiking verbs instead. He writes that sentences full of nouns, such as in management-speak, tend to obscure meaning and elevate the mundane and pointless. Or they hide the sinister behind the innocuous. While he praises shorter sentences, replacing passive with active phrases, eliminating tautologies and the like, he remains focused on clarity, so he says that short is good but not always. The extra, judiciously placed word can clarify, as can the qualifying clause.

(As children develop we expect them to improve the complexity of their syntax and vocabulary, but children’s writing is often not deficient in sense. And children tend to write as they speak. There is little pretension to tarting up their words. Some adult writers could do well to relearn the clarity their writing may have enjoyed in their youth. ‘I went to Grandma’s. I played on the swing, and I fell off.’ A story such as this is not far from Hemingway, and is a lot clearer than something like ‘non-optimised performance going forward was the ultimate result of process error in regards to active participation in playground activity’.)

When criticising management-speak, and praising fresh, uncluttered writing, he moves into ethical territory. Moran praises Thomas Merton for Merton’s ability to draw us back to the spiritual in the everyday. It is interesting to note that Merton came to dislike the hubris of his earlier writings. As he settled into monastic life, with great difficulty, he began to appreciate the way monastic life made him more attuned to the natural world and the significance of small things, and his later writing reflects this. Moran notes a similar impulse in writer and advocate for simple, local, organic agriculture, Wendell Berry. There is a link between sustainable outlook and simplicity of expression. And Moran is especially fond of the Tyndale Bible, which, in its use of Old English words and simple sentence structures (in Tyndale’s case, parataxis), connects language with the earthiness of the Bible’s settings.

Of course it is a brave thing for a writer to write a book on how to write. Not only must our sage dispense suitable advice, he must also display his knowledge in his own writing. Moran’s writing demonstrates the ease of flow and lack of pretension he advocates. Not only is his prose sprinkled with Terry Eagleton-style jokey examples, his advice entangles showing and telling, such that one feels him encouragingly alongside, rather than admonishing from a lectern, even if when one is writing, and thinking about his advice, one might also have the helpful but uneasy sense that he is looking over one’s shoulder, causing us to take a second and third furtive glance at our newly unrolled sentences. When he writes that ‘the world has enough sentences’ it might give us pause before inflicting on the world more of our own.