Sunday, June 24, 2012

Suggested reading: Jenny Diski, Elif Batuman, Zadie Smith

Another in the (very) occasional series where I offer links to some of my favorite recent articles, reviews and the like:

Jenny DiskiJenny Diski derides Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas ("Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis," London Review of Books, 21 June 2012):

"This ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ is the single motif that conditions all the plots of the books and programmes, which otherwise are undistinguished stories of love and money lost and won. Mostly the nothing that will ever be the same is the centuries-old entitlement of a small group of highly privileged people, for whom, for various reasons, we must feel sorry, both before and after the changes..."

Elif BatumanElif Batuman on Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence (Knopf, 2009), for which Pamuk created an actual museum filled with the objects collected by Kemal, the novel's erotically-obsessed main character ("Diary: Pamuk's Museum," London Review of Books, 7 June 2012):
"Pamuk’s museum restores a specialness to objects of mass production, transmuting quantity into quality. A middle-class fake is more magical than a priceless painting, precisely because it’s everywhere at once.

"Late in the novel, no matter where in the world his Byronic gloom takes him, Kemal can’t stop running into F├╝sun’s mother’s saltshaker. Cairo, Barcelona, New Delhi, Rome: ‘To contemplate how this saltshaker had spread to the farthest reaches of the globe suggested a great mystery, as great as the way migratory birds communicate among themselves, always taking the same routes every year.’...

"Every few years, Pamuk writes, ‘another wave of saltshakers’ washes in, replacing the old generation. People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them’. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is always and only in the Louvre, the saltshakers are everywhere for a few years, and then they’re gone, shifting the dimension of rarity from space to time....Pamuk was astounded by the difficulty of getting hold of 1970s toothbrushes: how could they all have vanished from the face of the earth? After he mentioned the problem in an interview, a reader sent him a large collection of old toothbrushes that would otherwise have been lost to posterity."

Zadie SmithZadie Smith reports on her local council's plan to eliminate a beloved bookshop and public market and downsize the Willesden Green Library Centre so that private developers can turn these formerly public spaces into luxury condos ("North-West London Blues," New York Review of Books, 12 July 2012. Subscription—or library card!—required):
"Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

"In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep restating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal."

Update 25 June 2012: I should make it clear that, much as I admire her writing, I don't share Diski's disdain for costume dramas (a term that could as well apply to Mad Men as Lark Rise To Candleford). For one thing, I think she has over-simplified the implicit class perspective of many period dramas; it's not all nostalgia and misplaced sympathy.

In her article she mentions The Duchess of Duke Street as one of the programs of which she "never saw more than one episode." We're watching it right now, and as I recall, in the first episode the Prince of Wales is depicted as a predator who uses bribes and blackmail to coerce an attractive young working-class woman (the "Duchess" of the title) into sex. The compulsory nature of their relationship is made quite clear; not exactly the soothing message about the upholding of "the proper order of things" that Diski imagines is characteristic of the "Vicwardian" genre.

These "costume dramas" (I'd call them "period dramas," but never mind) are often based on 19th-century novels, which can be quite subversive in their attitudes towards the constraints of class and gender. Still, Diski is a brilliant writer and this article is highly entertaining—particularly when she points out the class positions of Julian Fellowes (writer of Downton Abbey and a baron) and Frances Osborne (writer of the novel Park Lane and wife of the current chancellor of the Exchequer): "These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid."

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