I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:
(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)
So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:
“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’
‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”
And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:
“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”
But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.
“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”
Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.
Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.
“Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”
The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.
Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.
“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”
Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.
“It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”
Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:
“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”
And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.
“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”
Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:
“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”
To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?) Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…