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No joke

SIR: To my dismay, I find that the reviewer of my latest book, Marbot, has missed the point of the book: namely, the fact that the hero of this biography has never existed (LRB, 5 August). He is purely fictitious and has no model in cultural history (nor, for that matter, in history). The quotations from his writings, his letters, the letters of Lady Catherine, his diaries etc are my own and so are the English translations. The illustrations of his family portraits depict a certain Baron Schwiter, Mrs Robert Scott Moncrieff, a Herr von Boist etc. There is no Marbot Hall, neither in Northumberland nor anywhere else, nor is there Redford. On the other hand, all persons except the Marbot family, Father van Rossum and Anna Maria Baiardi have existed, including Sir David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope.

Marbot’s non-existence might easily have been found out by looking him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, in Goethe’s Gespräche mit Eckermann, the Letters of Ottilie von Goethe, or Schopenhauer and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the diaries of Delacroix, Berlioz, Count Platen and Lady Charlotte Bury, the writings of de Quincey, Boisserée, Bunsen, Ruskin and others, the biographies of Byron, Rumohr, etc. You will look for him in vain.

In my view, it speaks for the book that the reviewer has taken Marbot’s existence for granted. In fact, he could have existed. My book might have begun as a joke – I don’t remember – but it became increasingly more serious. One does not work four years on a joke.

Wolfgang Hildesheimer
Poschiavo, Switzerland

It speaks for the reviewer that the author of the book should take for granted an assumption, on the reviewer’s part, of Marbot’s existence.

Editor, ‘London Review’

SIR: A trawl through your pages seems to catch more cod than salmon these days. But if you are going to continue your series of spoof reviews may this reader say how very much he prefers the Borgesian Stern on ‘Marbot’ to the leaden Sturrock on ‘Blanchot’ (LRB, 5 August)?

Patrick Taylor
Shepton Mallet, Somerset

The word from Shepton Mullet appears to be that we are getting worse, and that John Sturrock’s article was some sort of low. This is an error. We are getting better, and Sturrock’s piece was among the best we have been fortunate enough to land.

Editor, ‘London Review’


SIR: Oh dear oh dear – that ubiquitous e (Letters, 19 August). Perec, of course, wrote: ‘mais il n’y saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus …’ I don’t know if the fault was mine in transcription or the printer’s – let’s say it was the revenge of language.

As for Blanchot, I am baffled as to why so intelligent and well-read a reviewer as John Sturrock, in the same issue, should react so differently from me. We seem to be reading a different writer.

Gabriel Josipovici
Lewes, Sussex

The anomalous ‘e’ was not the printer’s fault.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Cambridge Theatre

SIR: The hectoring captiousness of Donald Davie’s review of Sue Lenier’s poems (LRB, 19 August) is a replay of one of the oldest and easiest routines in the repertoire of critical scurrility. It operates on roughly the same intellectual level as the vacuous overpraise of her by some newspapers, and is likely to do her less harm. I don’t think she needs any defence from me.

But as one of the people included in the review’s lordly reference to ‘various academic persons’, I’ll just recall that Professor Davie is himself an academic person, and has been one for longer not only than most of us but than the entire lifetime of Miss Lenier.

I should also say, as a matter of simple fact or ‘accuracy’ (a virtue to which Professor Davie’s attachment is notoriously stronger in profession than in performance), that I have never been an ‘intimidated colleague of the late F. R. Leavis’, nor even an unintimidated one. Professor Davie was, on the other hand, both a colleague and intimidated, as he likes to remind us. It would be nice if he relaxed his habit of treating other people as if they were extensions of his own autobiography.

C.J. Rawson
Department of English, University of Warwick

Donald Davie writes: As Claude Rawson is my professional colleague, so both of us have been colleagues of the late F. R. Leavis. He dissociates himself from ‘the vacuous overpraise’ of Sue Lenier’s poetry ‘by some newspapers’. What he wrote of that poetry himself was: ‘There is no doubt of the power. The best poems are shrill in the good sense of shrillness: at the acute cutting edge of feeling. The best things in Swansongs are like that, fierce and clear. The sequence has virtuosity and manages its “literary” ancestry (Yeats, Baudelaire) with a good deal of sureness.’ In my review I gave reasons, backed by examples, for thinking this as excessive and as vacuous as anything that had appeared in a newspaper, and more dangerous because subscribed to by a person of academic eminence. On this issue, the only one that matters, Professor Rawson says nothing at all.

Karl Korsch

SIR: Discussing Bertolt Brecht and Karl Korsch (LRB, 5 August), Margot Heinemann remarks that Brecht refused to identify with the ‘Korschian version’ of Marxism. Yet when Brecht made his hasty departure from the United States, he took with him the revised manuscript of Korsch’s Karl Marx, first published in pre-war Britain, and tried without success to find a Swiss publisher. So even in the late Forties Brecht had a certain sympathy with Korsch’s ideas. Or else he put friendship ahead of the ideological purity that Miss Heinemann credits him with. She goes on to speak dismissively of Korsch as Brecht’s ‘ “teacher” ’ and refers to Brecht’s ‘sharp little pen-portrait’ of Korsch as a drop-out from the class struggle. That is one point of view. Another is that of Paul Mattick, the ex-Spartacist émigré who published Korsch in the magazine Living Marxism. In a tribute written after Korsch’s death, and reprinted in Anti-Bolshevik Communism (Merlin Press, 1978), Mattick said: ‘As in Germany, so in America, his main influence was that of the educator, of the Lehrer, as he was respectfully considered by his friends… The quality of his mind and his moral integrity set him apart, and excluded him from the opportunistic hustle for positions and prominence characteristic of both the academic world and the official labour movement.’

Geoffrey Minish

Margot Heinemann writes: I’m sorry to have annoyed Geoffrey Minish by saying that Brecht, while learning much from Karl Korsch, always refused to identify with his ‘Korschian version’ of Marxism (the phrase, as perhaps I should have noted, is not mine but Douglas Kellner’s). This was not an attempt to credit Brecht with ‘ideological purity’, which would indeed be difficult, but a statement of fact. To ‘identify’ means, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to ‘associate oneself inseperably with (party, policy, etc)’. And this Brecht could not do with Korsch’s Marxism as a whole, though he sympathised with some of his ideas and argued over others at length in the unpublished Me-Ti and in the ‘friendly discussions’ I referred to. As Klaus-Detlef Müller’s essay on Me-Ti in the volume under review (Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice) demonstrates, the two continued to disagree on crucial aspects – notably about the Soviet Union, about Leninism and Lenin’s view of ‘Left-wing Communism’, and about the attitude to be taken towards Stalin, on which Müller says: ‘Brecht defended him because the alternative to Stalinism in the given circumstances was not a better socialism but the counter-revolution.’ With respect, the question at issue is not what Geoffrey Minish, Paul Mattick or I think now about Korsch and his views (which remain of interest), but what Brecht thought and why. For this the short text ‘On My Teacher’ is highly relevant, though not the only source. Since it is not as far as I know available in English, it may be useful to give a translation of it:

My teacher is a disappointed man. The things he took part in did not turn out according to his ideas. For this he does not blame his ideas, but the things that turned out differently. Indeed he has become very mistrustful. Everywhere he sees with a sharp eye the seeds of future disappointing developments.

He believes firmly in what’s new. So he loves the youth, who for me are merely immature. But he sees them as still full of possibilities. So, too, he believes in the proletariat. Sometimes it seems to me that he would feel it his duty to do more if he believed in it less.

My teacher serves the cause of freedom. He has freed himself pretty well from all kinds of disagreeable responsibilities. Sometimes it seems to me that if he insisted less on his own freedom, he could do more for the cause of freedom.

His help with my work is invaluable. He discovers every weakness. And immediately he makes suggestions. He knows a lot. It is difficult to listen to him. His sentences are very long. So he teaches me patience.

He has lots of plans, which he seldom carries out. A passionate desire to give something perfect usually deters him from giving at all.

He does not like telling how he arrives at his often surprising conclusions. It may be that he does not know himself; but it may also be that he is indulging in the deeply-rooted vice of all teachers, to make himself indispensable.

He is very much in favour of the struggle, but he himself does not actually struggle. He says it is not the right time for that. He is for the revolution, but he himself is actually rather developing what evolves.

He has difficulty in taking decisions about his personal life. He always keeps the greatest possible freedom for himself. If something gets lost as a result, even something important, he is not unhappy.

I think he is fearless. But what he is afraid of is getting involved in movements that run up against difficulties. He lays too much stress on his own integrity, I think.

With the proletariat too he would only be a visitor. One never knows when he will take off. His trunks are always standing ready packed.

My teacher is very impatient. He wants everything or nothing. I often think: to this challenge the world has a way of replying: ‘Nothing.’

Brecht looked to Marxism not as a dogma of ‘ideological purity’, but as a method of analysis and a source of ideas that would work in the bitter fight to change the real world of the ‘dark times’. In the practical struggle for socialism he was prepared to see as inevitable compromises, imperfections, wrong turns, even harshness, to a degree for which he has often been attacked since.

The Falklands War

SIR: Since I did not attack Karl Miller’s own writings on the Falklands war, I was surprised that he should react quite so defensively to my criticism of others (Letters, 5 August). It is interesting to learn that the editor of a leading literary magazine thinks that to argue for the accurate use of language is to indulge in ‘professional cant’. I do not understand why he claims that I talk ‘darkly’ of torture. My point was quite specific: does he deny that large numbers have been tortured in Argentina in recent years? He proceeds to lecture me on the meaning of ‘holocaust’. In fact, the word originally meant a complete burnt offering, and was not in any sense derogatory. However, we all know about semantic change, and now, particularly in a context of journalistic rhetoric such as Tam Dalyell’s article, ‘holocaust’ (even without a capital letter) necessarily carries the overtones of the massive slaughter of the Jews which I attributed to it. It also should be apparent that, even if every member of the task force had died and an equivalent number of Argentines, appalling as this would have been, it would have amounted to nothing like events in Nazi-dominated Europe. I agree with Karl Miller that politicians may persuade us into unnecessary sacrifices, but then they can also persuade us against making necessary sacrifices (consider Chamberlain’s remarks on Czechoslovakia). Above all, my main point remains unanswered, which is that the abuse of English by two contributors suggests, seriously, a failure to come to grips with reality.

Charles Martindale
School of European Studies, University of Sussex

I wonder why Charles Martindale supposes that there is any onus on me to declare myself concerning the torture practised in Argentina (and if he supposes that it was a reason for the dispatch of the task force). I still think that his treatment of the word ‘holocaust’ represents an abuse of English, since the word need not refer to a genocide, and that his use of the expression ‘abuse of English’ (or indeed ‘failure to come to grips with reality’) is mostly a way of abusing those with whom he finds himself in disagreement.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Falklands Title Deeds

SIR: I would like to add to Malcolm Deas’s excellent round-up of the Falkland Islands dispute (LRB, 19 August) the confirmation that Argentina’s claim against the United States, for damage caused to Luis Vernet’s settlement at Puerto Soledad in 1831, is still outstanding. Argentina’s protest was suspended, though not abandoned, circa 1890, when the State Department said it would not answer letters on the claim from Buenos Aires until the dispute over the Falkland Islands was settled with Britain. This is dealt with at length in the bilingual volume by the Argentine historian Ernesto J. Fitte: La Agresion Norteamericana a las Islas Malvinas (Emecé, Buenos Aires, 1966). Mr Deas is wrong to reject Hunter Christie’s assertion that Juan Peron revived the Malvinas issue. Although Argentina sent a written reminder of the dispute to Britain each year, as from 1946 Peron aroused popular feeling for the issue by, among other ways, introducing the history of the claim for the Malvinas to schoolchildren at a very early age.

Andrew Graham-Yooll
London NW11

Faculty at War

SIR: I was so shocked by the reply of Tom Paulin to his critics (Letters, 19 August) that I felt compelled to make a contribution to your ‘Faculty at War’ debate. Firstly, it is sad that a distinguished academic and poet at a Northern University is patently unaware that we have now been in a post-literate society for nigh on fifty years, with film and television acting as the main replacement subjects for the narrow confines of English Literature and History. The modern media are, of course, the most important natural disseminators of education for the mass of people today. Secondly, Paulin’s views regarding the recently awarded and published PhD on a ‘soap opera’ (his inference) appear to cast doubt that such drama is literature. Well, Mr Paulin, it is not only literature that we are talking about but modern literature: a subject that we in Further Education have realised as fundamentally more important – critically as well as socially – than any English syllabus become ‘rigorous and much drier’.

Brian Mcllroy
Lecturer in Communications, Drama and English, Lewes Technical College