As I read Lorna Sage’s perceptive, if occasionally puzzling, review of my novel The Key of the Tower (LRB, 1 January) – as, in particular, I read her contention that ‘Adair the novelist has the doubtful distinction of being almost entirely inspired, permeated, by Nabokov’s example’ – something inside me went snap. Now, I realise that when a writer denies an alleged influence, just as when a politician denies a rumoured sexual liaison, the denial seems only to confirm the truth of the allegation; but over the years Nabokov has become something of an albatross about my neck and I wonder if I might set the record straight. Thus: my very real admiration for his work has remained well this side of idolatry; not one of his books (with the possible exception of Pale Fire) is what I would consider an outright masterpiece; as for Ada, it’s the sort of unsalvageable calamity which befalls at least once in their creative lives all but the greatest of writers, an ex-clusive group to which Nabokov most emphatically does not belong; the late, post-Ada confections are each more flabbily written and indolently plotted than the last; and the fabled Nabokovian bewitchment, the undeniable spell cast by his style, works most potently, for me at least, at the paragraph and even sentence level. Let me add that I’m not endeavouring to defend myself in extremis against a ‘mixed’ review. Sage seems familiar with my critical essays and may therefore have read one I wrote two years ago in the Sunday Times in which I not merely expressed distaste for the preening Olympian hauteur of Nabokov the public man but described Lolita, the novel to which I would appear to be most toadyingly in thrall, as ‘unbearable’.
As a shameless poacher of idiolects, I’ve never tried to conceal from even a casual reader’s view the referential mode of any of my books. But for the benefit of any subsequent reviewer, they are as follows:
The Holy Innocents : Cocteau’s Le Grand Ecart, Les Enfants terribles and Thomas l’imposteur.
Love and Death on Long Island : Mann’s Death in Venice.
The Death of the Author: Henry James’s stories of the literary life, as in The Death of (the Lion) the Author (of Beltraffio).
The Key of the Tower: Hitchcock (as more than one reviewer noted).
As for the purely linguistic quality of the latter book, I would say that even if in the English language Nabokov is still probably the most juicily metaphoric of stylists, there exist other languages and some of us read them. The writers I happened to be reading at the time of writing my book were all French – Proust, Cocteau, Giraudoux and Paul Morand, all of them, too, superior (yes, yes, in my opinion) to Nabokov.
Like my novels or hate them – but give me and Nabokov a break!
Before plunging headlong into bigamy, Sue Rickard (Letters, 1 January) should give a thought to Carlo Cipolla’s comment on being asked to furnish a brief autobiography for the Penguin edition of his Economic History of World Population: one’s enjoyment of pâté de foie gras does not mean one would necessarily wish to make the acquaintance of the goose.
After referring to the negotiation of the Sino-British agreement, which was published in draft in September 1984, Murray Sayle writes (LRB, 27 November 1997): ‘after it was thrashed out, but before it was signed, the agreement was subject to tragi-comical ‘consultations’, held by a British professor and a Hong Kong Chinese judge in the neutral ambience of the Hong Kong Hilton.’ Sayle goes on to say that one Hong Kong trade union – one of the many unions, guilds, groups and other organisations and bodies which were consulted – had ‘submitted that the question should be put to a referendum. But of course, it was not.’ The passage implies that no serious attempt was made to consult the Hong Kong people. But the facts are different. Since a relatively limited number of Hong Kong citizens were eligible to vote and even fewer of those who were had registered as voters, a referendum was ruled out as an effective way of securing a legitimate reflection of the views of the Hong Kong people. The British Government had, therefore, decided that, once a draft agreement had been reached, special arrangements should be made to test its acceptability in Hong Kong. To this end a body known as the Assessment Office was established in Hong Kong under a Commissioner reporting direct to the Governor. It was recognised that there was unlikely to be any practical scope for amending the draft agreement. The central question was simply: did Hong Kong find the draft agreement acceptable?
The Commissioner’s report of 23 November 1984 made clear the wide publication of the draft agreement in English and Chinese, the extensive range of invitations to comment, the remarkable extent of media coverage and the large numbers of submissions and letters received by the Assessment Office. The report concluded that the response had ‘provided a credible basis on which to make an assessment’ and that ‘most of the people of Hong Kong find the draft agreement acceptable.’
The Government attached great importance to ensuring that the special process of consultation was open and objective – and seen to be so. An independent monitoring team was, therefore, appointed. It was composed of the Hon. Mr Justice Simon Li Fook-Sean, the senior Chinese appeal judge in Hong Kong, and myself, a retired Whitehall permanent secretary and the then Master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. I am not a professor and my colleague and I never met in the Hilton Hotel (where I alone was accommodated). Our task was to observe all aspects of the work of the Assessment Office and to report independently to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on whether we were satisfied that the Commissioner had faithfully followed the prescribed procedures and had ‘properly, accurately and impartially discharged the duties’ of the Assessment Office. We submitted our report on 24 November. We concluded that we were fully satisfied with the way in which the Assessment Office had performed its task; but, at the end of the report, added:
The minority who reject the draft agreement do so either because they can never accept reunification with Communist China or because they are bitter about the consequences for them as British Dependent Territories Citizens. The majority who accept it do so because they regard reunification as inevitable or are relieved that the terms of the draft agreement are as good as they are … The response to the Assessment Office has demonstrated the realism of the people of Hong Kong.
In short, there was nothing ‘comical’ about the tasks of the Assessment Office and the monitoring team, nor about their reports – which were serious, but not ‘tragic’ – in their full and fair assessment of Hong Kong’s reaction to the draft agreement on the future of the Territory.
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
Denigrating dissidents is one method – among other, more bloody ones – by which autocrats try to stifle dissent. In his article on Chinese politics Murray Sayle offers his contribution to this exercise. Sayle accuses Chai Ling, and other student leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, of using ‘Maoist’ methods. As evidence he quotes an often quoted interview Chai gave just before the crackdown. She said she hoped for a crackdown, for only bloodshed would awaken the Chinese people. Not a very moderate statement, to be sure. But that was all it was: a statement. Maoist methods would involve real violence. And that is something even this least moderate of student radicals never resorted to. The note of desperation is in any case hardly surprising, when an exhausted, hysterical 20-year-old student is trying to defy a brutal government. Sayle then adds that Chai ‘was long out of harm’s way when her hoped-for butchery finally began’. This is not just sloppy, but malicious. Chai was on the square until the last moment, and in fact pleaded with the protestors to refrain from violence. That Beijing’s official propagandists should wish to discredit rebels against its tyranny is to be expected; that Western journalists should help them to do so is shameful.
What to Do with Paul Johnson?
Paul Johnson is known as a conservative historian. Eric Foner is known as a Marxist historian, and perhaps the furthest to the left of holders of chairs in American universities of the first rank. You chose Eric Foner to review Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (LRB, 11 December 1997). Why, other than to make sure you got a very hostile review? If you wanted to get an American professor to review Johnson’s book, there are at least a hundred scholars of stature who are not as far to the left as Foner, although nearly all of them are left of centre. Couldn’t you have chosen one of them?
Eric Foner had an uncle, Philip Foner, who was a Communist and a historian. In the Thirties and Forties Philip used to harangue crowds in Union Square. His books were ignored by academia. He couldn’t get a decent academic appointment. Poor Philip, he was born too soon. Now he could review books for the LRB. Possibly he would have a chair at Columbia University. Time marches on.
Sag Harbor, New York
Eric Foner writes: Norman Cantor’s comments about me do not deserve a reply. But since my late uncle cannot defend himself, it is worth noting that Philip Foner ‘couldn’t get’ an academic position not because of the quality of his books – many of which are today deemed indispensable for students of African-American and labour history – but because of McCarthy-era black-listing. Most Americans who respect academic freedom consider that episode a national disgrace.
Knowing What You Like
According to James Wood, Iris Murdoch just ‘knows’ that Shakespeare and Tolstoy are great artists (LRB, 1 January). The ‘strange, quasi-philosophical circularity’ of this view quite dazzles him. In my experience, it’s the sort of judgment undergraduates come up with all the time. One’s own marginal comments tend to be shorter, and ‘quasi-philosophical’ is not usually among them. What’s odd is that the great artists themselves don’t seem to share this knowledge. Shakespeare’s view of Tolstoy isn’t on record, but Tolstoy makes no bones about the ‘repulsion, weariness and bewilderment’ that the Bard’s work tended to arouse in him. Disloyal, really. Surely a bit of solidarity is the least we can expect from the truly great.
James Wood offers a characteristically robust and enlightening appraisal of Iris Murdoch, but some curious remarks about aesthetics mar his conclus-ions. ‘Aesthetics,’ he contends, ‘does not really exist’ – the reason being, apparently, that ‘it is always a form of criticism.’ This is doubly wrong. Aesthetics does exist, as a branch of philosophy which happens to be in a particularly healthy state. Yet it is not, and never has been, a form of criticism, though it can explore the conditions of criticism.
At the heart of aesthetics – in the tradition of Kant, Hegel and Croce – is the philosophical investigation of the peculiar kind of value attached to objects of beauty. Iris Murdoch, as philosopher rather than novelist, has made a significant contribution to this enterprise which she believes to be inextricably linked to metaphysics and to ethics. When she discusses truth in art, for example, she draws on a well-developed conception of truth (explained in quasi-moral terms) as well as of art. Her distinctions – between fantasy and imagination, the egocentric and the objective, the particular and the accidental, all essential to her aesthetics of the novel, stem from deep philosophical reflection. How odd then for Wood to conclude that ‘her aesthetics is not aesthetics at all, but philosophy.’
Wood’s mistake is to reduce aesthetics to aesthetic (or critical) judgment. Although connected, these are not the same any more than musicology is the same as playing a musical instrument. Iris Murdoch’s aesthetic judgments – on the supremacy of Shakespeare and Tolstoy or the superiority of 19th-century realist over 20th-century Modernist novels – do not encapsulate her aesthetics, though they may find justification in it. A good theory of art – aesthetics done well – is always more than the sum of such opinions and must be accountable both to the norms and practices of a culture and to the rigours of philosophical argument. The weakness, such as it is, of Murdoch’s aesthetics is not that it is too philosophical or that it rests on unfounded crit-ical judgments but that it fails -inevit ably? – to offer sufficient intellectual support for its elaborate Platonist superstructure.
British Journal of Aesthetics – Hull University
Whoa the fairies!
A couple of footnotes to add to the curious story of Victorian fairy-fancying told by Nicholas Penny (LRB, 1 January). The first has to do with the huge and lasting success – extending to reprints and new editions within the past twenty years or so – of the Coloured Fairy Books edited by Andrew Lang: attractively polychromatic anthologies (the Red, the Green, the Gold etc, though never the Black) of mainly traditional folk stories and legends arranged, translated (and suitably bowdlerised) by Lang and others, which were a first introduction to the polyglot riches of folklore for huge numbers of Late Victorians and Edwardians. They were well and generously illustrated, chiefly in the skilled sub-Pre-Raphaelite manner of H.J. Ford; and his drawings of princesses, goosegirls and so on, lissom and uncorseted, were undoubtedly an aid to the early erotic imaginings of generations of middle-class children.
The second concerns pantomime and music-hall. It was surely there that fairies, solid, nubile, in fleshpink tights, really made their presence felt. One chorus perfectly expresses the satisfactions, in lubricious, slightly sadistic fantasy, offered to audiences:
Oh, the fairies, Whoa the fairies!
Nothing but splendour and feminine gender!
Oh, the fairies, Whoa the fairies!
Oh for the wing of a Fairy Queen!
Does anyone know the rest of this song, and its date?
Fermat’s Last Stand
One neglected reason for Andrew Wiles spending all those years wrestling Fermat’s Last Theorem to the attic floor (LRB, 27 November 1997) might be the excitement brought on by the resonance of the phrase itself: ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’. A crucial part of such carefully shaped phrases is the use of the word ‘last’: there is, for instance, Trent’s Last Case (you can feel the tingly resonance there) or The Last of the Mohicans; in radio, Krapp’s Last Tape; in cinema, The Last Picture Show. (There are shaped phrases which carry a peculiar resonance and that don’t have ‘last’ in them, but there aren’t many – ‘trained by Jesuits’ and ‘the storming of the Winter Palace’.)
During World War Two a joke shop in Preston which had published Billy’s Weekly Liar for many years opportunistically trans – muted the organ into the Berlin Liar. The same shop sold matchbox coffins containing corps-es of miniature Hitlers. Opening the matchbox/coffin allowed Hitler’s penis to spring erect (the penises being made from snippets of the fine pink rubber tubing manufactured for bicycle tyre valves). These artefacts were labelled ‘Hitler’s Last Stand’. That the puzzle of Fermat’s Last Theorem was ‘solved’ by Wiles using 20th-century means has brought a sense of loss; hence the assertions that Fermat’s own solution (if it existed) must have been shorter and more elegant. The quest to re-create that solution (if it existed), and thus enable the thrill of the phrase to carry on through history, would require an imaginative leap into the past which all the mathematicians in all the gin joints in all the world couldn’t manage.
If Caroline Crachami was really three years old, and had been deprived of a mother’s care for some time, it is far more likely that she was suffering from severe nappy rash than the more sinister affliction which Gaby Wood implies (LRB, 11 December 1997).
I’m sure I’m not alone in much admiring Michael Wood’s review of LA Confidential (LRB, 1 January). But I wouldn’t think of proposing marriage to him. When I bought a paperback copy of James Ellroy’s book a month or so ago, it had two covers. One was the usual card affair, with author, title and doubtfully illustrative photo. The other, though the film has not yet been released in Italy, had a dustjacket with the movie promo montage and, on the back, a cast list, just like a video cassette. Is this better or worse than flogging a book with a cover using a film or TV still? Am I alone in being disconcerted by the freedom this pick-a-back approach thrusts on me?
Also, am I the only person not to be familiar with the verb and noun ‘hink’? It appears very often in LA Confidential, but I couldn’t fix on its meaning. Can Michael Wood, or Jenny Diski with her whizzy new dictionary, or even James Ellroy, tell me?
University of Bergamo