Friday 6 January 2017

The plot against America

I wrote this for The Bangladesh Daily Star shortly after the US election and have only just got round to posting it here. There can no longer be any doubt that Trump intends to govern as a kleptocrat: he is already shaping foreign policy around his personal business interests. How his fascistic impulses will be expressed remains to be seen.

In his novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines two years of alternative history for the United States. In the 1940 presidential election, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator and Nazi sympathiser, defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war platform. The drama is played out on the national scale, but what captures us imaginatively is the impact of the new regime on the Roth family in Newark, New Jersey, as witnessed by seven-year-old Philip. (Putting his real childhood self at the centre of a story that in other ways departs so obviously from reality is an audacious move typical of Roth.)

Under the Government’s ‘Just Folks’ scheme, Philip’s older brother Sandy is persuaded to spend the summer with a tobacco farming family in Kentucky. Won over by this experience, he volunteers to work for the newly created Office of American Absorption. He encourages other Jewish city boys to join him in assimilating into the mainstream protestant culture of the American heartland. The Roth parents are profoundly disturbed by this social conversion of their older son. While the family is torn apart internally by conflict between those inclined to collaborate and those determined to resist, outside the home they encounter increasing levels of antisemitism. There are anti-Jewish riots and neighbourhood curfews, Jewish friends lose their jobs or are compulsorily relocated, and the authorities turn a blind eye to acts of racist violence and murder.

When it came out in 2004, I was inclined to interpret the novel as a comment on the Bush presidency. While studying for an MA in Creative Writing soon after, I argued in an essay that it tapped into the unease of conscientious Americans in the era of the Patriot Act. At a time when an internal minority was under suspicion and subject to unconstitutional scrutiny, and the Christian convictions of the President and his circle were encroaching on public policy, Roth’s 1940s Jews seemed to stand in for twenty-first century American Muslims. Of course I wasn’t alone in making this connection. Reviewers had mentioned it, though Roth himself, while strongly opposed to Bush, had denied that this was his purpose. 

In retrospect I see more clearly that the story resists such an allegorical reading. The isolationist Lindbergh, eager to keep America out of the war and do a deal with the expansionist tyrant Hitler, never seemed much like George Bush, who assumed America could effortlessly dominate the world through its military might. The most obvious victims of Bush’s policies were not minority US citizens but the civilian populations of invaded countries and the foreign detainees designated as enemy combatants unprotected by the Geneva Convention. 

Now Roth’s novel feels chillingly relevant. A celebrity without political experience, motivated by crude bigotry and ambition and indifferent to the world beyond America’s borders, Donald Trump looks like Roth’s President Lindberg in a way that Bush never did. As Philip’s father says of his fellow Americans, unaccountably besotted with their new President: ‘They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.’

The unsolved mystery of Elena Ferrante

Ferrante is an Italian novelist in her 70s who has been producing published work for about 25 years. But it was only four years ago with My Brilliant Friend, a novel about growing up in a poor and frequently violent neighbourhood in Naples, that Ferrante achieved international fame. At the heart of that story is a bond between two girls in which love and enmity mingle in constantly surprising ways. Three further novels have traced that relationship through adolescence and into adulthood. The last of this series, The Story of the Lost Child, was judged by The New York Times one of the 10 best books of 2015.

Ferrante is a pseudonym. What little is known about the author has been gleaned from interviews, and a volume of correspondence with editors which appeared in 2003. She insists on anonymity, explaining that she finds it necessary for her work. In an email interview with Vanity Fair in 2015 she said, ‘I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’

In spite of this, two controversial attempts to unmask her were published during 2016. The first drew on internal textual evidence to prove that Ferrante was in fact Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. The author of this paper, a Dante expert, said that he had conducted a philological analysis ‘as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text’. Even in the face of such scholarly evidence, however, professor Marmo insists that it isn’t her.  

An investigation by Claudio Gatti for the Italian newspaper Il Sole received wider circulation when it was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. Using investigative techniques that might be more usefully applied to exposing the corruption of politicians and corporate executives, Gatti followed a trail of payments from the publishers to a freelance translator of German texts, Anita Raja. Raja has also denied authorship.

Bizarrely, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone, a screenwriter and journalist, has previously been identified as the real Ferrante, as has the male writer and critic Silvio Perrella, as if only a man could show such a confident grasp of late twentieth-century Italian social and political history. But to anyone who has actually read the 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan quartet – a slow-burning study of female friendship and rivalry and the struggle to achieve autonomy in a patriarchal society, punctuated by intense love affairs, abusive marriages and intimate explorations of the trials of pregnancy and motherhood – the idea that this is an extended act of male ventriloquism must seem implausible. 

A recent convert to the Ferrante cult having just read this series, I find the author’s identity the least interesting question about it. Sprawling, loosely constructed, with too large a cast and too many tangled plot lines, it shouldn’t work but it does – magnificently. That’s a mystery worth investigating.  

This was originally written for The Bangladesh Daily Star

The flawed brilliance of Bob Dylan

I wrote this in October for my monthly column in The Bangladesh Daily Star shortly after Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

Ever since he appeared on the New York folk scene, presenting himself as an anonymous exile from a place of no distinct identity – ‘My name it means nothing, my age it means less, the country I come from it’s called the Midwest’ – Bob Dylan has worked to elude definition. 

In fact his name was soon going to mean a lot. It already signalled his recognition that a short homespun handle like Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry was required if you wanted to get somewhere in American popular culture. Matt Dillon, the fictional sheriff in a Wild West TV series called Gunsmoke, seems to have been the original inspiration before a change of spelling added a reference to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Soon enough Dylan’s disinclination to be pinned down would cause disillusionment among political followers. For a while he seemed to be the voice of a movement, telling the older generation that their sons and their daughters were beyond their command, but he was disinclined to attend rallies or endorse causes.

He famously offended folk music aficionados who had claimed him as their own when he went electric, responding defiantly to shouts of ‘Judas’ during a concert in England and turning the volume up. In the late 70s he caused consternation among fans when he declared himself a Christian and took to proselytizing from the stage. And through all these phases he has legitimately claimed the freedom to reinvent his own songs in performance. His refusal to show deference or even politeness to the Nobel Committee comes as no surprise.

One of Dylan’s qualities is that he has stayed true to his vision, following where it takes him. Songs like Highway 61 Revisited and Tangled Up In Blue, in their sweeps of impressionistic narrative, offer more density of meaning and suggestion than most words written to be sung. But when he touches on the interpersonal, Dylan’s vision becomes singularly myopic.  

His refusal to be pinned down has shown up in his writing, less attractively, in relation to women. Moving on is what his male characters and alter egos do, usually with more resentment than acceptance: ‘You just kinda wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.’ 

That last phrase appears in the chorus of another song, addressed this time not to a girlfriend but to a mother: It’s all right, Ma (I’m only bleeding) and strikes a similarly sour note. Here, in the context of apocalyptic images of eclipses and warfare, we are exhorted not to be owned, not to give up our autonomy to any person or organisation: ‘To keep it in your mind and not forget that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to’. But the warning comes in response to the realisation ‘that somebody thinks they really found you.’ The song urges us not simply to take ownership of ourselves, but more weirdly, to remain hidden, to resist the normal human desire to be seen and recognised.