As a San Francisco resident who survived the earthquake, I offer my observations as a corrective to some of Alexander Cockburn’s skewed account in your issue of 21 December 1989. Watsonville was far from ignored in the press and television coverage. Although Cockburn calls it a ‘Third World town’, implying that the deprived residents dwell in hovels, the damaged houses appeared on television to be spacious, well-maintained, middle-class dwellings with verandahs, set in large yards. The wide-eaved buildings, dating from the first quarter of the century, would be called bungalows. The force of the quake would have required more than ‘a handful of nails’ to prevent slippage and broken chimneys.
Dragging in politics, as a revolutionary must, Cockburn neglects to mention that Watsonville’s election under the ‘new forms of representation’ still resulted in the election of only one Chicano to the city council. The ‘First World’ destruction in San Francisco’s Marina district received more attention than the Watsonville and Santa Cruz damage simply because it was far more concentrated and spectacular. A big part of a city block burned, with smoke visible for miles. Rows of apartment buildings tilted crazily or collapsed, signifying greater and costlier destruction than happened to scattered buildings in small towns. Yet the damage there was thoroughly displayed. Cockburn neglects to mention the heavy damage in Los Gatos, perhaps because the area is more affluent, thus able to buy all the nails it wants. In West Oakland, the collapse of the double-deck freeway, killing 41 persons inside their cars, was ghastlier than other damage. Press and television, however, gave exhaustive coverage to the misery of poor persons driven from homes and apartments. Cockburn is dead wrong when he blames a supposed shortage of utility workers in the Marina fire on a cut in property taxes. The provider of gas and electricity is the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a private utility. It is not an agency of government and not supported by taxes. ‘Here at least the rich were finally consumed in the fires of their own civic indifference,’ Cockburn gleefully proclaims in a fuzzy, fervid and hardly charitable rhetoric. (Among the three capitalist victims was a twenty-month-old boy.) But a majority of Californians, hardly indifferent to constant tax increases and widespread waste of the money, voted for the tax-cutting measure: hence, Cockburn might infer, the majority of Californians are rich. That would speak well for the system he is trying to tear down. Cockburn waves his red wand in suggesting that property privately owned along the coast be seized and filled with farmworkers. He ignores the questions of where the money will come from to pay for the expropriation or to replace the lost tax base. Perhaps he would simply print more roubles.
In writing about Boswell’s last journal, Karl Miller (LRB, 25 January) points out that he saw himself, in a period manner, as ‘inconsistent’, and proceeds to discuss Boswell’s colourful behaviour in those terms. But then everyone is inconsistent, aren’t they, and the world proposes inconsistent goals and gratifications? So what makes Boswell so special – in his own word, ‘diseased’? Miller doesn’t say enough about that. One part of Boswell’s behaviour can appear to invalidate, or to afflict, another part; a ‘virtuous mind’ kept succumbing to the venereal. But there’s always been a lot of that about. If Boswell’s ghost could bring itself to return to Edinburgh, and take a look at Scotland’s colourful legal profession, he might, according to report, discover, on the bench which he longed to join, one or two fellow spirits: not so secret sharers in Boswellian inconsistency.
Karl Miller doesn’t acknowledge how much the Life of Johnson changes for the better when Boswell comes to know his subject personally, and on this very matter of inconsistency it is wonderfully rewarding. ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’: Boswell manages to subvert Johnson’s well-known words. They are preceded by a tale of Goldsmith’s attending a performance where a puppet tossed a pike, and foolishly exclaiming: ‘Pshaw! I can do it better myself.’ This has its bearing on the remark about the woman preacher – which is immediately followed, moreover, by Boswell’s observation that ‘it was strange to think that the most indolent man in Britain had written the most laborious work, The English Dictionary.’ And he might have added that it was strange, too, that another of the most indolent men in Britain was hard at work on the Life of Johnson. What Boswell does here (I think) is to throw light on what we expect of authors, and preachers. It is made to seem that human life is inconsistent enough to keep disappointing our expectations – that in this respect it’s at least as strange as fiction.
Doris Lessing wonders why World War Two produced so few novels, such a sparse literature, as she sees it (LRB, 11 January). Where, she asks hypothetically, is the novel about the battle of the Atlantic by ‘the sensitive young officer … sunk in the Repulse in the Pacific, and picked out of the water to fight again in the Med? Where the novel, rather than the memoirs, of the POW camps in Germany?’ A crowd is not company and its sequel, The Impossible Shore, by Robert Kee, are about a bomber pilot shot down and imprisoned for the duration. No ‘memoirs’ these, but, taken together, a small masterpiece written with a novelist’s shaping spirit. And there are a number of novels written during or just after the war by novelists like Colin MacInnes (To the victors the spoils), Geoffrey Cotterell, R.C. Hutchinson, to name a few that come to mind. Women novelists too; Virago recently republished three. And Life in Our Hands, by Pamela Bright, a novel about nursing on the Western Front, graphic, tender-hearted and horrifyingly authentic, deserves republication. Add to this Inez Holden’s Night Shift about the Blitz.
Miss Lessing’s own reading is sporadic. ‘Let’s look at what we have’: she cites Evelyn Waugh’s and Olivia Manning’s trilogies, Alexander Baron’s From the City, from the Plough, The Cruel Sea. No word of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, or of Henry Green’s Caught and Back. Of New Writing she is dismissive: ‘Sharp, sardonic sketches, Shaving through the Blitz, by one Fanfarlo’. But almost every contemporary writer, known and unknown, appeared in New Writing. They mostly wrote, as might her prototype young sailor, in short bursts, in the little time left to them – for none of us, as Henry Green observed, whether soldier or civilian, expected to survive. As to poetry, she believes that ‘fragments of verse survive.’ But the war was a stimulating time for poetry. Alun Lewis and his fellow combatant poets left more than ‘fragments’. Roy Fuller, still with us, incorporated his years on active service in a verse sequence, part of a continuous work extended throughout his life (New and Collected Poems 1934-1984).
There are two obvious answers to the question asked by Doris Lessing. One is that the sort of people who write novels tend not to know much about the sort of subjects she mentions (radical politics, poverty, war, industry and trade), so that they tend not to write about them – and when they do they tend to write badly. The other is that, if one looks carefully enough, many if not most of the ‘unwritten’ novels she mentions have in fact been written – on the Chartists, the Marxes, the early Marxists, people at war and, above all, business (even in Britain). Anyway, an obvious reply to her assertion ‘that it is literature, not history, which has created a map of this or that society,’ is that it isn’t – or that if it is, the map in question tends to be very inaccurate.
An easy test is to look at literature about subjects one knows: almost all the many plays and novels I know about the extreme Left or the free-thought movement give ludicrous versions of these things.
The striking thing about Doris Lessing’s article on ‘Unwritten Novels’ was that she is, broadly speaking, correct – it’s difficult to deny that large areas of experience are being left unaddressed by contemporary fiction. It often seems that the only novels which actually have a subject – the only novels which have any informational content, which take the reader to a place he or she hadn’t been before – are what Lessing calls ‘bad literature, comics, airport literature’. Take airports themselves. Why hasn’t anyone other than Arthur Hailey ever written about them? All that fear, all that variety, all that material. Or consider Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, an enormously entertaining read and a novel that deserved its popular success, if only because Wolfe bothered to go out and do some research – why hadn’t anyone else ever written about the justice system in New York, for instance? In fact, Wolfe has recently, in an article called ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast’, been proselytising to just this effect, arguing for the obligation of the writer to go out and report. He also makes the claim that ‘every writer over the age of forty’ knows that ‘90 per cent’ of a book’s interest comes from its material: only 10 per cent of a book’s claim on our attention has to do with its author’s talent. There can’t be all that many subjects on which Wolfe and Lessing agree, so perhaps the similarity of their views on this means that we are about to witness a change in the fiction-writing Zeitgeist.
I expect that Doris Lessing will find herself being offered a fairly heavy reading list. Perhaps to provoke this was part of her intention. If so, she will be pleased to know that she can find in The Daughter (Harper and Row, 1979) a touching study of Eleanor Marx and her awful marriage by one of the most amusing and thoughtful of contemporary novelists, Judith Chernaik.
Kevin Barry’s article on Flann O’Brien/Brian Nolan/Myles na gCopaleen (LRB, 25 January) was interesting, but I felt that it left out of consideration some important aspects of its subject’s work. There should have been more discussion of Nolan’s Irishness – specifically, his attitude towards what he saw as the cod Irishness of writers like Synge, celebrating the idealised identity of an idealised peasantry who live in an idealised poverty. Nolan satirised all this, but he also partook of it: he disliked ‘Irishness’ – consider the dread character in his Irish Times column, for ever celebrating utterly mundane occurrences by intoning ‘only in Ireland!’ – but it was at the same time the basis of his humour. In the early writing, this tension is in control: witness the characters in An Beal Bocht whose journey to school involves having to swim in from Aran, or the parody of Irish poetry in At Swim Two Birds (where Finn’s backside is broad enough to block a mountain pass). Later, Nolan lost control of this delightful equilibrium between celebration and parody; and dislike of Irishness – especially the Irishness he felt within himself, which had gradually become his stock-in-trade as a humourist – was central to the unsustainability of his later life.
I was surprised to read in Jonathan Coe’s review of Soho Square II (LRB, 21 December 1989) that the failure of my husband (Stephen Amidon) to give my name in the Contributors’ Notes was ‘shot through with some very traditional assumptions’. I take this to mean sexist and would like to say that my name doesn’t appear in the notes because I didn’t want it to. Our 14-month-old daughter Clementine did not express similar objections, so her name was put in. I had thought that by omitting my name from my husband’s work I would be able to avoid the attention of condescending males who feel that my worth is derived from his achievement or behaviour. Unfortunately this doesn’t appear to be the case.
The last issue had a picture of a Romanian soldier on the cover, taken by Paul Lowe of Network: an exhibition of work by Network photographers can be seen until 16 February at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery in London.
Editors, ‘London Review’