Contrary to what Adam Mars-Jones suggests, Martin Amis was not the first to use the term ‘murderee’ (LRB, 21 June). ‘It takes two people to make a murder,’ Rupert Birkin argues in Women in Love, ‘a murderer and a murderee. And a murderee is a man who is murderable. And a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound, if hidden lust, desires to be murdered.’
Leiden University, The Netherlands
Adam Mars-Jones remarks: ‘Amis doesn’t so much inhabit his characters as leave them to seethe like charged rods in a viscous bath of language. The pleasures of reading Amis are electrolytic.’ I agree, and would add that the pleasures of reading Lawrence, his characters tossed like lumps of coal into the furnace of his prose, are bituminous; and the pleasures of reading Pynchon, his characters arrayed like silicon modules under his California sky, are photovoltaic. I’m still waiting for a novelist who can perform cold fusion.
St Paul, Minnesota
Adam Mars-Jones is right about the milk bottles. My South London council estate is bordered by swanky Victorian piles on whose steps milk bottles cosily cluster. The milkman refuses to cross the road and deliver to the estate. Brute economics rules; he thinks he won’t get paid.
The Yorkshireman sketch mentioned by Adam Mars-Jones was originally performed by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman on At Last the 1948 Show in 1967. Subsequently, Monty Python performed the sketch live, most famously at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982. However, to call it a Monty Python sketch is to my mind like calling ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ a song by Marmalade.
Thank heavens for Google, otherwise I’d never have known what Adam Mars-Jones (and Martin Amis, for that matter) was talking about in referring to an ‘asbo’. It’s a term unused and, I think, altogether unfamiliar in the US. When I first saw the title of Amis’s book I simply thought: ‘What an odd surname.’ It never would have occurred to me that it could be an acronym. It’s always pleasant to be reminded that the London Review of Books is from London after all and should be a little exotic from time to time.
In Ciudad Juárez
Jonathan Littell’s piece about the drug trade and Ciudad Juárez is no less disturbing in the light of figures presented by Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian of 2 June: a Colombian study has estimated that only 2.6 per cent of drug money stays in the countries of origin (LRB, 7 June). The rest goes via money laundering routes into the wealthy Western economies. The City of London in particular has been a major beneficiary. In the midst of a recession, there is little chance that politicians will tackle this trade: it would sink the financial system even faster than the current government’s austerity policies.
An Access of Butchness
A controversy has arisen about the meaning of a phrase in Alan Bennett’s 1995 diary (LRB, 4 January 1996). The entry is dated 8 December:
Trying to find someone a Meccano set for Christmas, I’m reminded of a couple, friends of Russell H., who had a son of twelve or so who they were worried might be growing up gay. However, they were greatly heartened when the boy said that what he wanted for Christmas was a Meccano set. Delighted by what they saw as an access of butchness, they bought him the biggest set they could find; it was a huge success and he took it to his room and played with it for hours. The day came when the boy asked to show them what he had been making and they were made to wait with their backs turned while he manoeuvred it carefully into the room. When they turned round the boy stood there shyly peeping at them from behind a vast Meccano fan.
The phrase in question is ‘access of butchness’. It can’t be a copy error for ‘excess of butchness’. Is the word ‘access’ being used in its 14th-century sense of a sudden onset of illness?
Fort Worth, Texas
Salary v. Slavery
‘Replacing slavery with a wage relation between employers and manumitted slaves on sugar plantations might be said to have “corrupted” the institution of slavery, but most would see that as a move in the right direction,’ says Glen Newey (LRB, 21 June). Yes and no. What he fails to acknowledge, surely, is that the market does not enter – and, by so doing, ameliorate – the relationship between master and slave at the moment the slave is manumitted and paid a wage. Rather, the market – in its most brutal and savage form – has already defined the relationship between master and slave, who is, after all, a human being reduced to the humiliating status of a tradeable commodity. Nor is there anything inherent in market economics that impels a transition from slavery to salary. On the contrary, the lower the wage bill (for the people who do anything useful) the better the market likes it. Getting paid beats getting bought and sold, but either way you’re getting screwed.
Robert Alter picks out two asymmetries in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: the first that the Holocaust trumps the Nakba; the second that only Palestinians have committed the sin – in Gaza – of having a fundamentalist government (LRB, 21 June). This ignores a much greater asymmetry: Israel is a state, Gaza a prison whose borders are controlled by Israel. It is not surprising that prison inmates adopt extreme views about their guards. In any case it isn’t clear to me why the Israeli government is allowed to escape being called ‘fundamentalist’. It insists on strategies ensuring that Jews remain the majority population and determine government policy in perpetuity, while Israel since its creation has worked to secure at least the most conservative of the biblically defined borders described by Alter.
Colin Kidd quotes a number of lines by poets, notably Shelley and Byron, that denounce Castlereagh, whose name in parts of Ireland is still synonymous with sadistic repression (LRB, 24 May). I came across my preferred denunciation in the margins of the Republican, a radical deist journal produced by Richard Carlile, which was the subject of numerous attempts at suppression by the authorities. ‘Posterity will ne’er survey,’ Byron wrote,
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh
Stop, traveller, and piss.
Andrew O’Hagan depicts Hemingway as a drunk (LRB, 7 June). I’m not sure Hemingway would have cared one way or another about that. There is a long and honourable tradition of alcoholic writers and journalists and the only thing that matters to most is whether they are sober enough, or drunk enough, to write well. I remember Christopher Hitchens complaining bitterly about Blair’s cabinet being full of grey men, nothing like as interesting as the Wilson lot: ‘I mean, think of George Brown. At least he was a drunk – one can say that much for him.’
Hemingway’s famous terseness, his determination to get the maximum impact from the minimum number of words, does not sit well with any view of him that suggests blurred vision. This was the man who declared that a short story could be written in six words, and when the journos who heard him demanded a six-word story competition, won it easily with: ‘For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’
If Lenin had ever spoken of ‘optimism of the will’, as suggested by David Runciman, then presumably he would have been quoting Romain Rolland, as would Antonio Gramsci a few years later (LRB, 7 June). The correct attribution of the quote (‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, variously translated and adapted) is of more than academic interest. In the mouth of the most successful revolutionary in history, it darkly prefigures Leni Riefenstahl. As originally penned by Rolland, and even more so in Gramsci’s prison letter, the phrase is a statement on the dignity and poignancy of the human condition.