Sanjay Subrahmanyam doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in his literary taxonomies when he presents Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as an instance of ‘magical realism’ and makes Lee Siegel, an estimable American scholar, appear to be an Indian novelist (LRB, 6 November). Breezily positing ‘two broad categories’ of Indian writers in English, he ignores a host of stylistically original novelists and poets – R.K. Narayan, Arun Kolatkar, Amit Chaudhuri and Vikram Chandra, to name only those whose work has been discussed in these pages. Literary criticism may not be Subrahmanyam’s thing. But the ethnographic authority he invokes while describing the ‘falsity’ of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger doesn’t persuade either. He seems to think it wholly implausible that Adiga’s ‘subaltern’ narrator Balram Halwai (I would rather call him a shrewd member of globalising India’s lumpen proletariat) should know of books by James Hadley Chase, Kahlil Gibran and Hitler. He has clearly not visited Indian mofussil bookstalls where No Orchids for Miss Blandish, The Prophet and, alas, Mein Kampf have long been ubiquitous in Hindi translation, or in cheap English editions (Hadley Chase in especially lurid covers).
Subrahmanyam mocks Halwai, who cannot read Urdu, for claiming Mirza Ghalib as his favourite poet. But North Indians who cannot read Urdu have long had access to the great writers of that language in Devanagari script. According to Subrahmanyam, the expression ‘“kissing some god’s arse" … doesn’t exist in any North Indian language.’ How does he know? In actuality, millions of speakers of Hindi, or Hinglish, improvise such commonplace idioms daily, too prodigiously, perhaps, to be archived at the American university where Subrahmanyam teaches history.
It wasn’t Hans Frank, as Colm Tóibín has it, but Rudolf Hoss who ‘ran Auschwitz’ (LRB, 6 November). Frank was the governor general of the General Government of Poland.
It was encouraging to see the Australian term ‘ratbag’ used by Ross McKibbin, apparently in its characteristic sense of one who adopts fringe or eccentric positions and relishes the associated notoriety (LRB, 23 October). It was more disappointing to see in the same issue the former Australian prime minister John Grey Gorton referred to as ‘Gordon’. Nor did he become prime minister until 10 January 1968.
Matthew Reynolds in his review of Browning’s poems misses the main point of Tennyson’s comment on ‘Sordello’ (LRB, 9 October). He didn’t just say he could only understand the first and last lines of the poem. He added: ‘And they are both lies.’
Auckland, New Zealand
A little correction in turn for J.A. Bosworth (Letters, 6 November). The Domesday survey dates not from 1069 but from 1085/86.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
John Lanchester gives a fine account of the role played by banks and other private sector financial institutions in the ongoing crisis, but ignores the macroeconomic factors that are in play, and as a result draws the wrong conclusions (LRB, 23 October).
For most of this decade US interest rates have been too low. The Asian savings glut has meant that vast quantities of capital washed around the global system looking for productive investments, in particular US assets. It was this Asian, particularly Chinese, appetite for US debt that allowed the Fed to hold down interest rates by so much and for so long. Low interest rates meant booming asset prices, and rising house prices in particular. But it also meant that people who wanted to buy houses had to take on ever increasing amounts of debt. Everyone was sublimely relaxed about this; low interest rates and the consequent boom in house prices created the illusion that home ownership was a one-way bet, so debt secured against houses itself looked as safe as houses.
Asian central bankers are at fault: they should have encouraged more domestic consumption and less saving. Central bankers in the US are at fault: they should have encouraged less domestic consumption and more saving. Seen in this light, Lanchester’s financiers are not the villains of the piece: they are simply intermediaries, if greedy and reckless ones, attempting to allocate mismatched capital flows whose origin was faulty central bank policy.
David Bell is setting up straw men to tilt at in his review of Napoleon’s Cursed War by imposing his own Napoleonic diktats on the book, whose sole theme, as a cursory glance at the foreword would show, is to explain ‘the common [Spanish] people’s initiatives and responses to the war’ (LRB, 6 November).
Along the way, he damns me for not damning other historians, British and Spanish, for their ‘provocative’ arguments. I prefer an analysis of documentary evidence to the academic sport of the jugular. No one reading the book could subscribe to Charles Esdaile’s blithe myth (though I don’t mention it) that Spain experienced no popular uprising at all, since ample documents, which I cite, demonstrate the urban populace’s participation in the anti-Napoleonic risings and the massive plebeian volunteer enlistments to the ‘patriot’ army in 1808. As for Spanish historians who subscribe to the other myth, created for political reasons in the risings’ immediate aftermath, that the revolts were the plebs’ spontaneous expression of an innate patriotism, there is sufficient documentary evidence to show that they were orchestrated, when not actually ‘subsidised’, by small groups of Fernando’s educated supporters, who played on the labouring classes’ xenophobia and fears should Napoleon take over Spain.
My own ‘blithe excursion’ into the counterfactual – that Spaniards might have been better off accepting Napoleon’s regime – was, as Bell acknowledges, an off-the-cuff answer to a journalist’s specific question; nowhere does such a statement appear in the book. And his claim that such is implicit in my comment about Josef Bonaparte as ‘one of the truly honourable (though ineffectual) protagonists’ of the war is an implication he makes, not I. These are hardly the sources a self-respecting academic historian would be expected to use to indict the ‘limits’ of the book ‘as history’. (While on the subject of ‘Josef’, this spelling does not suggest my ‘lack of comfort’ with French, but the reviewer’s lack of comfort with the documents of the period: the Bonaparte king signed all his Spanish decrees as ‘Josef’.)
Because the French were not bent on a ‘revolutionary transformation’ of Spanish society, much of the Spanish population could ‘remain aloof’ from the war, Bell and Esdaile argue. As in any war involving civilians, great numbers of them were anything but ‘aloof’: they were trying desperately to save their lives and food stocks from the imperial army’s (and the guerrillas’) depredations. Many obviously wished the whole thing would end: indeed, I chronicle this through rises in birth and marriage rates in 1810-11. But there is no satisfying the chronically dissatisfied.
I read with interest and some amusement Clancy Sigal’s piece on American deserters in Britain during the Vietnam conflict (LRB, 9 October). There may have been a frisson for Sigal in thinking that he ‘could have been shot’ for his actions, but the statute he paraphrases at the beginning of his essay is a general federal criminal statute, not a part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The maximum penalty authorised by the statute at the time was three years’ imprisonment and a $2000 fine – the same penalty authorised by Congress when it enacted the provision in 1909. (Since then, Congress has amended the fine but the term is still capped at three years.)
Had Sigal been a member of the armed forces subject to the UCMJ, he would, in theory, have been subject to the death penalty. Capital punishment for desertion in time of war is authorised under Article 85 of the UCMJ, and solicitation to desert, under Article 82, may be punished with the same penalty as desertion if the desertion actually takes place. The question of whether the Vietnam conflict was a ‘war’ for these purposes was never decided judicially. In fact, no member of the US armed forces has been executed for desertion since World War Two, and the last execution in the armed forces for any crime was in 1961. In any event, as a civilian who did not fall into one of a few very narrow categories set out in the UCMJ, Sigal was not subject to it.
Andrew Saint’s touching account of the ceremony held to unveil a plaque to Eleanor Marx Aveling contains one detail, which, while strictly correct, will probably mislead non-specialists (LRB, 9 October). She was indeed the first English translator of Madame Bovary, but the first translation of the book in English was published in Philadelphia by ‘John Stirling’ (a pseudonym for Mary Sherwood) in 1881. Marx’s translation was, however, the most frequently reprinted, and in sticking much closer to the French than her many successors, she managed to catch what Jonathan Culler in the 1970s identified as the novel’s postmodern playfulness, the zany style described around the same time by Roland Barthes as ‘l’un des plus fous que l’on puisse imaginer’.
‘If there is too much light, the colour in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs’: I was interested to read this quotation from Rothko in Peter Campbell’s account of the current exhibition at Tate Modern (LRB, 23 October). When I looked at the paintings in Room 3, at least two of them (sections two and five of Red on Maroon) had lighting that bounced off the top two-thirds, turning a dark red into a shiny, smoky pink. It was only possible to eliminate this effect by viewing at a 45º angle. I was told by the Tate that this lighting had been contrived in consultation with the artist’s family, and that it was intended to underline one’s experience of the paintings as objects. Even so, I felt strongly that the proper effect of both paintings had effectively been ruined.
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire
I enjoyed Les Murray’s poem ‘Brown Suits’, but found myself wondering if the irony of the piece might escape some British readers (LRB, 23 October). Would they be aware that ‘bastard’ is frequently a term of endearment in Australia? It is likely that our former prime minister Malcolm Fraser took as much pride in being referred to as ‘the big bastard’ (he was well over six feet tall) as his predecessor John Gorton did in publicly declaring that he had been born on the wrong side of the blanket. Murray himself revelled in the role of ‘Bastard from the Bush’ long after the political demise of both Gorton and Fraser, and even appeared in a television documentary with that title in 1988. So much for his claim that Gorton’s declaration had driven ‘a last stake through that lousiest distinction’.