T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Some writers are their stories. They have witnessed remarkable things. They have overcome massive obstacles. Nevertheless, it is their personal literary style which separates them from ordinary survivors of trauma, poverty or discrimination. Maya Angelou is an inspirational author and teacher of this type.

Many readers will be familiar with her personal tale of suffering and abandonment. They will know her description of the terrifying American South during the Depression. However, they might not have read Mom & Me & Mom. This illuminating text revisits the complex dynamics of her tough family.

However, the later work does in part reveal that writers can find it hard to let go of their best material. Jeanette Winterson is another superb author who has kept raiding her early life for content when her most famous effort has been completed. However, Angelou developed a brilliant honesty which distinguished her from many of her contemporaries. Perhaps she inherited or copied this trait from her mother:

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: They will come back to you.”

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

“Our sweet illusions are half of them conscious illusions, like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags.”

This Gothic novella by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is a fascinating read. It is a radical departure from her typical realism. Beautifully written, the compelling narrative wastes no time. When the story gathers momentum, the writer allows the plot to unfold without excessive description.

The central character suffers considerable emotional torment. Nevertheless, the text is composed cleverly so that the reader is not overly affected by all the anguish. This makes it a suitable Christmas book for people who want to be distracted from the commercial excesses of the season.

Evans put this tale together from a male perspective. This is interesting because she used a masculine pen name in order to guarantee a serious reception for her work. One message of the chilling story is that tyrannical individuals should not be given emotional support. Hence Evans injected some shrewd psychology into her attempt to convey horror.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This delightful book is ideal for a holiday read. At the same time, it is written so beautifully that it can be digested at any time of the year. Composed in the early 1920s, it has all kinds of qualities for those with the leisure to revel in them. However, the politics of the novel are also of some interest.

While the characters in the book have no genuine connection with the working class except through the distorting prism of the servant relationship, the author is ideologically aware enough to mention the fascist threat. However, the dominant attitude is conservative and seems equally troubled by opposition to fascism. The conservative nature of the text is evident in that the development of the narrative can be seen as a retreat from feminism. What begins as a tale of female courage and autonomy ends as a story of dull romantic harmony.

Ideology aside, the novel captures a moment when English people became more aware of the beauty of foreign parts. Familiarity with the cold made affluent people long for warmth. The social constraints of the time seemed much less relevant abroad. The author was able to cleverly hint at her own methodology in the text:

“It was quite easy to fasten some of the entertaining things he was constantly thinking on to other people and pretend they were theirs.”

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

This allegedly comic text is partly spoiled by tedious misogyny. One clue to this is the regular and gratuitous use of the c-word. However, it is not only prudes who will be bored by the anti-feminist postmodern ramblings central to the novel. The dentist anti-hero is an unreconstructed male who is more knowledgeable about molars than anything else. He could almost have stumbled out of the pages of a  Bret Easton Ellis story.

Certainly, there are a few wisecracks about religion to lighten the mood. And there is a primitive critique of capitalism on display. Further, the alienating aspects of modern technology get a reasonable treatment. However, the refusal of the main character to listen to women is remarkably frustrating. People who find visiting the dentist painful might actually prefer to have a tooth out than to read this work to the end. A novelist who does not show their appreciation for personality can be dull.

Obviously, some individuals must have enjoyed this baggy narrative. Nevertheless, other readers might have struggled with the blatant snobbishness evidenced by a disdain for janitors. More seriously, the following digression on getting older is quite nauseating:

“My patient, Bernadette Marder, looked so hideously old, so hideously and prematurely aged since the last time I’d seen her, that all her most stressful and trying years might have been crammed into six months…Her hair had thinned out and just sort of died on the back of her head. A scaly pink meridian divided one limp half from the other. An array of wrinkles, radiating from her pale lips. had deepened and fossilized, and her face sagged.”

Althusser, Baldwin, Corbyn: the A B C of media matters

The philosopher Louis Althusser was adamant that the media should be viewed as an Ideological State Apparatus. He was convinced that it served as a non-repressive arm of the capitalist state. However, even significant Conservative politicians like Stanley Baldwin have bemoaned the influence of press barons. Baldwin once bitterly commented that Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere had obtained:

“power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

At the present time, Jeremy Corbyn has been perceived by some as a short-term threat to a few business interests in the UK. He has been on the receiving end of a variety of shrill denunciations in the press. However, it may be wise for radical media critics to remember that journalists can change their mind.

The economic policies advocated by Mr Corbyn are not extreme. If he survives the current media onslaught to make a reshuffle, he could promote the competent Angela Eagle. If she had a major post it might put those who have criticised the composition of the Shadow Cabinet on gender terms in a really awkward position. Such a switch would have to be made without sacrificing hardly any of the populist team’s hostility to austerity because excess moderation could cost them dearly.

Corbyn and Louise Michel: lessons from the Paris Commune?

The Paris Commune and the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest might not have very much in common. Nevertheless, both could be interpreted as manifestations of class struggle. Furthermore, it is possible to see both events as moments where socialist values bubbled up in a way which threatened to disturb the power of hegemonic ideas.

In addition, the two events led to a situation where the movements which flourished under them were under immediate threat. The Paris Commune was threatened by military force on the ground, whereas Corbyn and his followers have been threatened by the power of the mass media. In both cases, political survival  became a priority.

Louise Michel was a veteran of the Paris Commune. The anarchist heroine continued her political activities after its unfortunate demise. Corbyn supporters should learn from her resilience and her love of the struggle. In her memoirs, Michel wrote:

“Yes, barbarian that I was, I loved the cannon, the smell of gunpowder and grapeshot in the air, but above all, I was in love with the revolution!”