Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June 2010
- Let the Great World Spin—Colum McCann
- The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them—Elif Batuman
- Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness—Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
- Lowboy—John Wray
- Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenneyMarion Meade
- The rest of Austerity Britain, 1945–51—David Kynaston
- Just Kids—Patti Smith
- The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
- Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared—Andrew Brown
- Some of Puzzled People: A Study in Popular Attitudes to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Borough, Prepared for the Ethical Union—Mass-Observation
So this last month, I went to the Oscars. I went to the Oscars as a nominee, I should stress (apparently in underlined italics), not as some loser, even though that, ironically, was what I became during the ceremony, by virtue of the archaic and almost certainly corrupt academy voting process. And my task now is to find a way of making the inclusion of that piece of information look relevant to a column about my reading life, rather than gratuitous and self-congratulatory. And I think I can do it, too: it strikes me that just about every book I’ve read in the past few weeks could be categorized as anti-Oscar. Austerity Britain? That one’s pretty obvious. Both words in that title are antithetical to everything that happens in Hollywood during awards season. You’re unlikely to catch a CAA agent in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont reading Andrew Brown’s thoughtful, occasionally pained book about his complicated relationship with Sweden; Elif Batuman’s funny, original The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is populated by people who spend their entire lives thinking about, say, the short stories of Isaac Babel, rather than Jennifer Aniston’s career. (I’m not saying that one mental occupation is superior to the other, but they’re certainly different, possibly even oppositional.) And even Patti Smith’s memoir, which could have been glamorous and starry, is as much about Genet and Blake as it is about rock and roll, and is suffused with a sense of purpose and an authenticity absent even from independent cinema. Oh, and no fiction at all, which has got to be significant in some way, no? If you want to ward off corruption, then surely the best way to do it is to sit by a swimming pool and read a chapter about Britain’s postwar housing crisis. It worked for me, anyway. I can exclusively reveal that if you sit by a swimming pool in L.A., wearing swimming shorts and reading David Kynaston, then Hollywood starlets leave you alone.
Finishing Austerity Britain was indisputably my major achievement of the month, more satisfying, even, than sitting in a plush seat and applauding for three and a half hours while other people collected statuettes. A month ago I had read less than a third of the book, yet it was already becoming apparent that Kynaston’s research, the eccentric depth and breadth of it, was going to provide more pleasure than one had any right to expect; there were occasions during the last few hundred pages when it made me laugh. At one point, Kynaston quotes a 1948 press release from the chairman of Hoover, and adds in a helpful parenthetical that it was “probably written for him by a young Muriel Spark.” The joy that extra information brings is undeniable, but, once you get to know Kynaston, you will come to recognize the pain and frustration hidden in that word probably: how many hours of his life, you wonder, were spent trying to remove it?
While I was reading about the birth of our National Health Service, President Obama was winning his battle to extend health care in America; it’s salutary, then, to listen to the recollections of the doctors who treated working-class Britons in those early days. “I certainly found when the Health Service started on the 5th July ’48 that for the first six months I had as many as twenty or thirty ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions—I mean, of that twenty or thirty there would be at least ten who had complete prolapse of their womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on.” Some 8 million pairs of free spectacles were provided in the first year, as well as countless false teeth. It’s not that people were dying without free health care; it’s that their quality of life was extraordinarily, needlessly low. Before the NHS, we were fumbling around half-blind, unable to chew, and swaddled in giant homemade sanitary napkins; is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, the poor are doing the same? Two of the most distinctive looks in rock and roll were provided by the NHS, by the way. John Lennon’s specs of choice were the 422 Panto Round Oval; meanwhile, Elvis Costello favored the 524 Contour. What, you think David Kynaston would have failed to provide the serial numbers? Panto Round Oval, by the way, would be a pretty cool name for a band. Be my guest, but thank me in the acknowledgments.
My parents were in their twenties during the period covered in Austerity Britain, and it’s easy to see why they and their generation went crazy when we asked for the simplest things—new hi-fis, chopper bikes, Yes triple-albums—when we were in our teens. They weren’t lying; they really didn’t have stuff like that when they were young. Some 35 percent of urban households didn’t have a fixed bath; nearly 20 percent didn’t have exclusive access to a toilet. One of the many people whose diaries provide Kynaston with the backbone to this book describes her father traveling from Leicester to west London, a distance of a couple of hundred miles, to watch the 1949 FA Cup Final, the equivalent of the Super Bowl back then. He didn’t go all that way because he had a ticket for the game; it was just that he’d been invited to watch a friend’s nine-inch black and white television. We stayed in the Beverly Wilshire for the Oscars, thank you for asking. It was OK.
I haven’t read Puzzled People, the Mass-Observation book published in 1947 about contemporary attitudes to spirituality, all the way through. (As I explained last month—please keep up—Mass-Observation was a sociological experiment in which several hundred people were asked to keep diaries, and, occasionally, to answer questionnaires; the results have provided historians, including David Kynaston, with a unique source of information.) And you don’t need to read the whole thing, anyway. The oblique first-person responses to metaphysical matters are ideal, if you have a spare moment to dabble in some found poetry—and who doesn’t, really?—much as the surreality of the Clinton/Lewinsky testimony led to the brilliant little book Poetry Under Oath a few years back. (“I don’t know / That I said that / I don’t / I don’t remember / What I said / And I don’t remember / To whom I said it.”) Here are a couple I made at home:
THE PURPOSE OF LIFE
Now you’ve caught me.
I’ve no idea.
My life’s all work
And having babies.
Well, I think we’re all cogs
Of one big machine.
What I’m wondering is,
What is the machine for?
That’s your query.
I wouldn’t mind
Being like Him
But he was too good.
Didn’t he say
“Be ye perfect”
Or something like that?
I bought Fishing in Utopia because I found myself in a small and clearly struggling independent village-bookshop, and I was desperate to give the proprietor some money, but it was a struggle to find anything that I could imagine myself reading, among all the cookbooks and local histories. And sometimes imagination is enough. Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having—a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point, needless to say, but Fishing in Utopia—quirky, obviously smart, quiet, and contemplative—is exactly the sort of thing I was going to pick up when I became someone else. By reading it now, I have got ahead of myself; I suspect that the vulgarity of awards season propelled me into my own future.
And in any case, the Sweden that Andrew Brown knew in the late ’70s and early ’80s is not a million miles, or even forty years, away from Austerity Britain. Our postwar Labour government was in some ways as paternalistic, and as dogged and dour in its pursuit of a more egalitarian society, as Olof Palme’s Social Democrats, and one can’t help but feel a sense of loss: there was a time when we were encouraged to think and act collectively, in ways that were not always designed to further individual self-interest. In England after the war, no TV was shown between the hours of six and eight p.m., a hiatus that became known as the Toddler’s Truce; the BBC decided that bedtime was stressful enough for parents as it was, and, as there was only one TV channel in the UK until 1955, childless viewers were left to twiddle their thumbs. In Olof Palme’s Sweden, you bought booze in much the same way as you bought pornography: furtively, and from the back of a shady-looking shop. It would be nice to think that we have arrived at our current modus vivendi—children watching thirty-plus hours of TV a week, young people with a savage binge-drinking problem, in the UK at least—after prolonged national debates about individual liberty versus the greater good, but of course it just happened, mostly because the free market wanted it to. I may not have sold Fishing in Utopia to you unless you are at least a bit Swedish and/or you like casting flies. But Andrew Brown demonstrates that any subject under the sun, however unpromising, can be riveting, complex, and resonant, if approached with intelligence and an elegant prose style. He even throws in a dreamy, mystical passage about the meaning and consolations of death, and you don’t come across many of those.
Despite my affection for my German publishers, and for Cologne, the city in which my German publishers live, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading at LitCologne, the hugely successful literary festival that takes place there every March. I had been traveling a lot (I was actually nominated for an Academy Award this year, believe it or not, and that necessitated quite a lot of schlepping around), and the novel I was reading from feels as though it came out a lifetime ago, and I hadn’t written anything for the best part of a year. And then, the morning after my reading, I was in Cologne Cathedral with Patti Smith, and our German editor, admiring the beautiful new Gerhard Richter window, and I remembered what’s so great about literary festivals: stuff like that usually happens. It’s not always Patti Smith, of course; but it’s frequently someone interesting, someone whose work has meant a lot to me over the years, and I end up wondering what I could possibly have written in these twenty-four hours that would have justified missing out on the experience. I started Just Kids on the plane home and finished it a couple of days later.
Like Dylan’s Chronicles, it’s a riveting analysis of how an artist ended up the way she did (and as I get older, books about the sources of creativity are becoming especially interesting to me, for reasons I don’t wish to think about), and all the things she read and listened to and looked at that helped her along the way. And it was a long journey, too. Smith arrived in New York in the summer of ’67, and her first album was released in 1975. In between there was drawing, and then poetry, and then poetry readings with a guitar, and then readings with a guitar and a piano.… And yet this story, the story of how a New Jersey teenager turned into Patti Smith, is only a sub-plot, because Just Kids is about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the young man she met on her very first day in New York City, fell in love with, lived with, and remained devoted to for the rest of his short life. One of the most impressive things about Just Kids is its discipline: that’s Smith’s subject, and she sticks to it, and everything else we learn about her comes to us through the prism of that narrative.
There is a lot in this book about being young in New York in the 1970s—the Chelsea Hotel, Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, Wayne County and Max’s Kansas City, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Gregory Corso and Sam Shepard. And of course one feels a pang, the sort of ache that comes from being the wrong age in the wrong place at the wrong time. The truth is, though, that many of us—most of us—could have been right outside the front door of Max’s Kansas City and never taken the trouble (or plucked up the courage) to open it. You had to be Patti Smith, or somebody just as committed to a certain idea of life and how to live it, to do that. I felt a different kind of longing while reading Just Kids. I wanted to go back to a time when cities were cheap and full of junk, and on every side street there was a shop with dusty windows that sold radiograms and soul albums with the corners cut off, or secondhand books that nobody had taken the trouble to value. (Smith always seems to be finding copies of Love and Mr. Lewisham signed by H. G. Wells, or complete sets of Henry James, the sale of which pays the rent for a couple of weeks.) Now it’s just lattes and bottles of banana foot lotion, and it’s difficult to see how banana foot lotion will end up producing the Patti Smiths of the twenty-first century; she needed the possibilities of the city, its apparently inexhaustible pleasures and surprises. Anyway, I loved Just Kids, and I will treasure my signed hardback until I die—when, like all my other precious signed first editions, it will be sold by my sons, for much less than it will be worth, probably to fund their gambling habits. And then, perhaps, it will be bought secondhand by a rocking boho in some postcapitalist thrift store on Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street, and the whole thing will start up all over again.