Saturday, 30 December 2017

Brexit: Reading the runes

Evans and Menon’s Brexit and British Politics is not the first book about Brexit, but it’s a shrewd and convincing analysis. This referendum wasn’t just about Europe

Anyone who, in the wake of the Brexit vote, still thinks that it is politics as usual should read Evans and Menon’s Brexit and British Politics. This slim volume explains clearly why the June 2016 referendum wasn’t wholly about the EU. It also demonstrates that the mendacity or otherwise of the campaign may be moot, because the result was probably preordained. It’s a convincing thesis in many ways, but there are one or two odd omissions.

Geoffrey Evans is Professor of the Sociology of Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford. He has published widely on inequality and politics. Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College, London. He has written a great deal on the European Union, including but not limited to Britain’s role in it. Together they are, I suppose, paid-up members of the great and the good, and the sort of experts that Michael Gove thinks we have all had enough of. That hasn’t stopped them from writing a challenging analysis on the roots of the Brexit vote.

The authors point out that in the 1990s and 2000s, Europe wasn’t really the pressing issue for the public that it was for Tory MPs. “The percentage of Britons citing Europe among ‘the major issues facing Britain today’ rose to double figures in the 1990s ...but the EU never became a decisive political issue,” they say, pointing out that by 2001 it had sunk back so that just 14% named it as an issue that might determine their vote.

What was happening at the same time, however, was an evolution in politics that concentrated all debate in the centre. Evans and Menon see this as a phenomenon of the Blair era and they are surely right to ascribe a large part of it to the New Labour project; as Labour chased Basildon Man, a broader polity disappeared. One might call this centrification (my phrase, not theirs). They refer to it as an elite consensus. Within it, acceptance of globalization was not open to question. Importantly, neither was a certain liberal set of values on matters such as gay marriage and capital punishment. One of the nice insights of this book is that it sees this “values factor” as equally important in fostering a sense among those not part of this consensus that they were excluded from influence, and that politics did not serve them. The authors also note a growing homogenization in MPs’ backgrounds; professional politicians replaced the trade-union representatives of the past, for example. So when the 2016 referendum offered people a rare chance to register a protest against the elite consensus, they took it.

Evans and Menon may ascribe a little too much of this “centrification” to Blair’s era; there was concern in the early 1960s about so-called Butskellism, the easy consensus around certain centrist preoccupations or views. (Rab Butler was a prominent Tory politician of the late 1950s; Gaitskell the moderate Labour leader of the same era. Both were robbed of the premiership – Butler by Harold Macmillan, and Gaitskell by death.) Even in the 1970s, a lively time in politics, there was a perception that ideology no longer mattered. I can remember William Davis, editor of Punch, writing in 1973 that it was now, “Forget the politics: Are we better managers than the other lot?” So this ossification around an elite consensus in the 1990s was not really new. But it is true that interest in politics fell away rapidly in the time of New Labour, as Evans and Menon themselves demonstrate. “In the 1970s and 1980s, close to 80% would go to the polls,” they say. “Since the turn of the century, ...the average has been around 63%.” But for the Referendum it was 72.2%.

From all this, one could conclude that people voted leave purely because they had a chance, for once, to give the establishment a good kicking, and were not that interested in the EU at all. In fact, Evans and Menon don’t go quite that far. They make it clear that many voters did have reservations about the EU and that most British people had never really identified with Europe (apparently they scored 28th out of 28 for “feeling European”). The Single European Act of 1987, creating the single market, probably took integration as far as most British people really wanted to go. Neither do they ignore the role of immigration in the debate. The authors are also careful about the common analysis that Leave voters were the poor and those left behind by globalization and European integration. There is truth in this, they say, but it is not the whole truth; there were actually more middle-class Leave voters than there were working-class (to be sure, this does turn a bit on definitions). Brexit was not entirely a revolt by the dispossessed. Neither do Evans and Menon ascribe the breakdown of confidence in politics solely to “centrification”; they also cite (for example) the ghastly expenses scandal of 2009, when MPs were caught fiddling their expenses on a massive scale.

Even so, the authors make a compelling case that Brexit was not simply a vote on Europe. It was to a large extent a rebellion against a centrist consensus – and against a perceived elite with which that consensus was identified. The referendum campaign itself, as they demonstrate, made very little difference at all.

However, there is an elephant in the room that Evans and Menon ignore, although it has been trumpeting loudly and crapping on the floor for many decades. This is the British electoral system, which they mention only two or three times, and very briefly. They are clearly aware of it as a factor, but do not seem to attach much weight to it. But it is the biggest single factor in the exclusion of most people from the political process.

This is partly just because it delivers results that do not reflect popular voting intentions, and also excludes huge areas of the political spectrum from power. This is evident from the 2015 general election results. The Tories were able to secure an absolute majority in the Commons although they received the support of only 37% of the voters , and only 24% of those registered to vote. Again, the culprit is the “winner-takes-all” electoral system. According to the UK’s Electoral Reform Society: “Labour saw their vote share increase while their number of seats collapsed. The Conservatives won an overall majority on a minority of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly all their seats – despite winning 8% of the vote. The SNP won 50% of the Scottish vote share, but 95% of Scottish seats.” UKIP won more than one in eight of the votes cast but just one seat. It could be added that many will have abstained because they knew their votes wouldn’t count where they lived. No wonder people feel that politics does not serve them.

However, simple inequities in the result aren’t the whole story; even worse, the system makes a relatively small number of voters pivotal and sends the political discourse in their directon, excluding everyone else. If you’re not a floating voter in a marginal, no-one cares for your opinions. This is what happened in the 1990s when the two main parties chased Basildon Man. They forgot about everyone else. On June 23 2016 the political establishment paid the price for refusing to change an iniquitous electoral system that kept them in power.

There is a further point that Evans and Menon don’t discuss, although they will be aware of it. This is the perceived denigration of national identity by a pro-European elite – an especially sore point amongst the English. This is related to the “values” issue that the authors do cover so well. However, it is distinct from that and especially toxic, as the referendum and its aftermath have been accompanied by some nasty displays of noisy nationalism. The way some in politics have played on this has been very worrying – for example, the silly business about getting blue passports back (the old ones were black not blue, and in any case the colour change wasn’t insisted upon by the EU). And yet one understands how some English people feel. The morning after the referendum, a picture was widely posted by Remain voters; it showed delicious European foods on one side and a solitary can of beans on the other. The picture was well-shot, and in a way witty, but one wonders if it was wise. No-one likes to see their culture insulted. Remain voters may be right, but they often struggle to understand the other side.

Notwithstanding these caveats, Evans and Menon’s analysis is shrewd and interesting. If they miss one or two insights, they have plenty more to offer – and in any case, it is early days; one suspects they will have more to say when the time is right. In the meantime, Brexit and British Politics is thought-provoking, and a good read.

Evans and Menon finish by warning that the Brexit vote has left British politics in disarray, with a rudderless political establishment trying to work out where it now stands, and a deep divide between the governors and the governed. In a telling quote, they describe how one of them warned in a pre-vote debate that Brexit would cause a reduction in GDP – only to be told by an audience member, “That’s your bloody GDP, not mine.” Late in the book, the authors quote journalist Chris Deerin, writing in The Herald Scotland in summer 2017: “The collapse of trust in our politicians, our politics, our institutions and our post-war settlement is real and it is profound. It pervades every layer of British society ...The titled, the humble and the dogs in the street alike know that our democracy has gone wonky.”

So what do we do now?

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Make the reader do the work

Three books that work the reader 
hard, and are the better for it

Show, don’t tell. It’s the classic advice to writers. My character was woken by a recurring nightmare of the night she fell asleep at the wheel and drove her car into an oak tree by the side of the road, and was cut out and taken to hospital where she spent 18 hours in theatre as surgeons attempted to reconstruct her legs. But I shan’t write that. I’ll make her wake in sweat-soaked sheets, haunted by a vague memory of drowsiness and then an impact and the shatter of glass and the crunch of metal; and then I’ll have her lift herself upright from the bed, the pins her thighs hurting her as she leans to take hold of her stick. The reader can fill in the gaps, and in so doing they will commit themselves to the story and engage with their own imagination.

But I could, if I wished, take it further. Let us say that the reader learns nothing but that our woman’s sleep is disturbed, and even that only by implication. She may, coincidentally, express a little fear when a passenger, and we learn, in an unconnected vignette, that she cannot walk far. These facts are scattered across the surface of the story so that only the attentive reader will find and connect them. If they fail to do so, they will know nothing of the accident; the book will not move them, and they will not know why. If they pick up the clues, however, the story will come to life for them through the agency of their own mind’s eye. This will be more vivid than a writer’s words.

The three books I review here are by exponents of this art, but each in their own way. In Samuel Astbury’s dystopian Forgetting, one knows what is happening but does not know why. Yet now and then there will be a clue glinting in the grass. The short stories in Rebecca Gransden’s Rusticles, by contrast, are not set in dystopia; they are rooted in a world almost crushing in its familiarity, and yet the reader is always eerily aware of something that they have not been told. Finally there is Leo X. Robertson’s extraordinary Findesferas, now republished as Out Black Spot, in which a fantastical story is told in so deadpan a way that we accept the lack of an explanation until the end, when we look back at where we have been.

It helps that all three books are written well. They may be hard to understand, but not to read – indeed, they are a pleasure, so that it is a shock when we realise just how much the writers have messed with our heads.

First, Samuel Astbury.


A young woman is “born” in a Manchester car park. She has no idea who she is. But she has credit cards and ID in her pockets and knows that her name is Elizabeth.

She establishes herself in a flat, gets a job – but is haunted by memories that link her identity to that of a boy in a town outside the city. She goes in search of him. It is a quest that will take her to a strangely deserted Cheshire dormitory town, where she sees something deeply disturbing; then to Hong Kong; and thence to the megalopolis of Shenzen, where she must confront a strange horror that has followed her from England. What is that horror? What does it mean? Is it a part of her, or of the boy she seeks?Don’t expect easy answers – this is Samuel Astbury so you’re going to have to find your own. But it’ll be worth the read.

Forgetting is Astbury's third book. He’s a master of dystopian mystery. His second book, War Blanket, was an absorbing thriller set in a near future that was both familiar and yet radically changed by climate change (making it part of what’s apparently a growing genre called Cli-Fi). However, Forgetting contains several references to Astbury’s first book, Cloud Storage, the story of a British backpacker’s frenetic journey through an Asia of drugs, nightclubs, neon and alienation, ending with a tech-related, ice-white iNightmare from which the main character struggles to escape. It was obviously written, and edited, in a hurry. But it was so vibrant and well-imagined that it was one of my reads of 2014. Forgetting is clearly intended to be related in some way, but Astbury never says how. Probably there is another book ahead in which he will explain – to the extent that he ever does.

It doesn’t matter. Forgetting can stand alone. Elizabeth’s “birth” in Manchester, her journey to Hong Kong and her long walk into China, are wonderfully well described; Astbury’s a very visual writer and every page is a pleasure. As Elizabeth walks through Manchester in the night: “budget brand cigarette ends and splashes of pearlescent oil. Hoodied wraiths with mottled, oily skin huddled together in disused off-licence doorways. Decaying terraced houses and late-eighties smoked glass office blocks.” In Hong Kong: “ and concrete monoliths forming a supercondensed, vertical city. Live octopus and dangling red meats neighboured a fleet of glistening 65in OLED television sets. Hard-smoking grandmothers fired globules of phlegm at the pristine pavement outside a flagship branch of Versace. ...I gorged on every image.” I did, too.

Shenzhen: Dystopia? (Alison Cassidy)
Moreover, while Astbury never tells us exactly what’s going on, he scatters enough clues for the reader to build their own theories. Thus Elizabeth wonders whether she is dreaming of the boy, or whether she is stuck in his dream. Now and again the nature of reality itself is called into question. As Elizabeth walks through the countryside beyond Hong Kong: “The roar of insects near-deafening. Cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. As I listened more closely, I noticed that the cacophony was in fact a single looping sample. Some obscure, low-bandwidth proprietary format, I thought to myself. It was more than adequate though. It was fit for purpose. It sustained my disbelief.” This is a theme with Astbury, in Cloud Storage and to some extent War Blanket as well; what is technology? Does it subvert reality and identity?

I really liked this, as I did Astbury’s previous two books. I don’t know where he’s going with the Cloud Storage theme. I’m not sure I care. I’m enjoying the ride.

From Shenzhen we go to the prototypical English suburbs. Rebecca Gransden’s collection of short stories, Rusticles, sucks us into her imaginary town – Hilligoss, the most normal of places – and then confronts us with the unknown, the sinister and the supernatural against a background so familiar that these stories have a weirdness all their own. They are also written in simple, elegant prose. In fact these stories are compelling – for me; but they are subtle.

The most obvious of these stories is the second, Dried Peas on a Wall, in which young girls dare each other to ring the doorbell of the house of a reclusive lady who is rarely seen. Nothing happens when they do. It is only from the girls’ conversation that we realise one of them has seen something elsewhere in the town that really is dreadful. It left me a little in shock. Other stories are indirect. In the one that follows, The Serpentine, a man makes his annual trip to see the local smackheads and ask if they know what has happened to his son. His actions when he returns home make us wonder if he does not, in fact, know all too well. But we are not told. Another story involves the ghostly presence of a child and there is a grim hint of how his life may have been ended, but again we are not told; we must use our imagination. This subtlety endows Gransden’s stories with real impact - and even more if you read them twice.

But this is probably what Gransden intended. She has done this before. In her 2015 debut novel, anenogram. (sic), a mysterious young girl is picked up by an adult man, and they travel together through the English landscape; you know at once that this may not end well. But it is not clear who the girl is and where she came from. After a while, however, you realise that this might not be the point. Moreover in anemogram., as in Rusticles, a big part of the book’s power lies not in the story but in the telling of it, for both are beautifully-written with a very detailed, evocative sense of place.

I greatly like Gransden’s work and would like to see more of it, but I think we’ll be waiting a while. She clearly crafts her work with care, and one suspects it doesn’t bother her if a short story takes her a year. It will be worth the wait. In the meantime, these stories are challenging – but those who are prepared to read them with attention will not regret it, and will likely remember what they have read for a very long time.


The third and last book takes us back to sci-fi, but in a way quite unlike anything that I’ve ever read before. It also takes us to South America.

I’ve never been to Paraguay, but I’ve seen it. Some years ago I attended a conference in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. In between sessions, a number of colleagues crossed the bridge over the Paraná River to the Paraguayan side to buy cut-price peripherals. One morning we drove past the bridge and I looked across to the opposite bank, which was dull-green and misty – it was a grey, humid morning. In a flippant mood, I asked someone, “What goes on in Paraguay?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I suppose I’m wondering, why is Paraguay?”
He thought for a moment.
“Well, you get cheap USB sticks there,” he said.

Writer Leo X. Robertson does know something about Paraguay and in Out Black Spot (originally published as Findesferas), he weaves history, science fiction and Guaraní mythology together to create an original novel that is highly readable, but also – despite being quite short – has an almost epic quality.

At the beginning, we’re in a post-apocalyptic world. Someone has bred bacteria that can clean oil spills, but it’s got out of control and cleaned up most of the world’s oil. Now countries are fighting over what little is left, using pre-Oil Age technology such as steamboats and muskets of brass. Paraguay, led by a cruel and vainglorious Marshal, is embroiled in a war against Brazil. Brothers Juan and Matías are fighting; their mother and Matías’s wife are struggling to survive in an imperilled and hungry Asunción.

Then the two women are visited by the Pombero, a boy-like, stunted creature from Guaraní mythology. The monsters of the Guaraní creation myth – Robertson lists and describes them – are, like the humans, starving, and have spotted Juan and Matías in the jungle. Shall they eat them? Or will the women agree to provide another human as sacrifice instead? Meanwhile, alongside this story, is a parallel one – a science-fiction plot in which a spaceship has lifted Juan away from the earth.

Francisco Solano López
This all sounds a bit mad, but this book richly rewards readers who try to understand it. A quick bit of Googling established that Robertson does know his Guaraní mythology; the Pombero behaves as it should, as do the other creatures, including the awful Luison, which lives on rotting flesh. Moreover the Marshal’s campaign is, it turns out, a rerun (more or less) of Marshal Francisco Solano López’s towards the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s. In this war, Paraguay took on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and lost, with catastrophic consequences. The dead are thought to have amounted to 400,000-odd, including about half Paraguay’s population; many died through disease and starvation. Yet little is known of it outside Latin America.

Why write a novel in which mythical creatures eat rotting flesh, a 150-year-old war is refought and a spaceship takes off for an unknown destination? Everyone will draw their own conclusion; although a good read, this book isn’t easy to pin down. I thought I had the answer somewhere towards the end, and it does concern oil, its organic origins and the cycle of existence to which we are all bound. Mythical creatures consume flesh, but so does oil – a cycle by which all life (including us) is transformed below the earth from organic matter into a substance from which its energy can be re-released. Perhaps Robertson is saying that, if we choose to ride this cycle, we become caught in a loop in which oil both gives life and consumes it, and history will repeat itself until we break that cycle. But every reader is going to have to figure this out for themselves.

They will enjoy doing so. To be sure, Out Black Spot isn’t perfect – it takes concentration to read (it starts with an Epilogue, which does not help). The science-fiction elements do not always work as well as the war and the mythical creatures do. Even so, whatever Robertson’s message (if any), Out Black Spot is strikingly original; there can’t be many books that remind you of both Gabriel García Márquez and Kurt Vonnegut. I strongly recommend this. And one thing’s for sure; next time someone mentions Paraguay, I shan’t think of memory sticks. 

Three books that make you work. You won't regret it.

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

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Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Being Beastly in Fleet Street

Alexander Starritt’s novel The Beast is a savage satire on the tabloid newspaper. It’s a worthy successor to Evelyn Waugh and J.B. Priestley’s efforts. And it’s as timely as they were

About 40 years ago Punch published a cartoon strip in which a downtrodden journalist walks into his editor’s office.

Editor: Now, about that nun who was raped by the International Red Cross.
Journalist: But that was last week.
Editor: It sold six million, so we’re having her raped again. Dammit, do I have to do everything round here myself?

The cartoon was, I think, by the great J.B. Handelsman, whose work graced not only Punch but also The New Yorker. I found myself thinking of this strip while reading Alexander Starritt’s The Beast, a savage and funny satire set on the sub-editors’ desk of a British tabloid.

Starritt’s Beast is clearly the Daily Mail. Apart from anything else, its HQ definitely sounds like that of the Mail, in the old Biba building in Kensington; I visited it a couple of times when, as I young man, I had an abortive try-out as a feature writer. In fact, I bet its lawyers have given the book the once-over. If they have, they’ve likely told management to draw as little attention to the book as possible. I would, if I were them.

The story in The Beast is simple enough. Jeremy Underwood is a sub-editor; subs are the link between the reporter and the finished paper, taking the stories, hacking them into shape, headlining them and getting them ready for the page. Returning from holiday, Underwood walks past two women in burqas apparently hanging around near the building. Feeling he should tell someone, in case it’s a story, he tells the reporters. They do see a story and quickly “confirm” that there is a credible threat to the Beast. In fact, the two young women in burqas were looking for a branch of Wholefoods. But nothing can now stop the mayhem that starts to unfold, as the Beast embarks upon a string of stories about an alleged Muslim plot to destroy it. This starts a chain of events that has violent results in the country. The book ends with a slightly bathetic tragedy that you don’t see coming, but is entirely logical. In between, tabloid journalists scream and growl at each other and seethe with casual racism while people get killed in the world outside.

Scratch the surface of this book and you will find much more than satire. You’ll find a vivid picture of how a story comes together once it hits the sub’s desk, and it all has a ring of truth. Boring facts relayed by some reporter drudge in a county court can be quickly reassembled to support whatever theory the paper is pushing that week, whether it be on health foods or Muslim terrorists. It’s all done under a tyrannical, unstable editor who sees himself as the embodiment of British values. (In a neat touch, Starritt calls him Brython, which is a Welsh-derived word sometimes used to refer to pre-Roman Britons.)

The Beast is also a very shrewd depiction of who tabloid journalists are, and how their sub-culture has survived, insulated against a changing world. The older ones remember the world of Fleet Street as it was. It’s a world that I myself saw briefly, just before it ended; the hot-metal typesetters, the clatter of machinery, the great rolls of newsprint being winched from lorries in the narrow streets that ran from Fleet Street down to the Embankment. The subs also remember the legends who worked in the Street of Shame; the long liquid lunches, the tradition of boozy contempt for morality. And they proudly pass this tradition on to the young recruits who join them.

Yet it’s not a world that anyone should be proud of preserving. Lord Northcliffe, who founded the Mail, is alleged to have said “Give them something to hate every day”; in fact this is apocryphal, but that is certainly how the tabloids have been sold. The Mail whipped up alarm about Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and perpetrated the awful Zinoviev Letter hoax in the 1920s in order to discredit the Labour Party. As for the Daily Express, one remembers what Max Hastings wrote about a famous prewar journalist, H. V. Morton – that he had “the qualities of an outstanding Beaverbrook journalist of his period: masterly understanding of public taste, deployed in a moral void.” Starritt’s characters clearly do function in a complete moral void, and bad things happen as a result.

But the Beast, of course, predates Starritt. It first appeared in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop, in which it is widely assumed to have been not the Mail but the Express. Robert McCrum once wrote that Scoop was “the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal.” I can’t completely agree.  I think Starritt gets closer to the mark, and there’s a third book that I think is even better than either – more of that in a minute.  But Scoop certainly has its points.

It begins with a fashionable but bored writer, John Boot, persuading an aristocratic patroness, Lady Stitch, to use her influence and get him sent abroad on a newspaper job. Milady obliges by badgering press magnate Lord Copper, who issues the appropriate instructions to his staff. Unfortunately they misidentify Boot as their own William Boot, their countryside correspondent, who comes from an eccentric family of impoverished gentlefolk in the West Country. This Boot is duly dispatched to cover an incipient crisis in an African country called Ishmaelia. This is clearly Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where Waugh had just covered the brutal Italian invasion of 1935-36. Boot is widely supposed to be based on one of Waugh’s fellow correspondents, Bill Deedes, then a very young correspondent for the Morning Post.

Some of Scoop is funny, and acute. Boot has a long and uncomfortable trip down the Red Sea on a second-class ship (the era of sea travel was not always glamorous). In the capital, he joins a foreign press corps whose coverage of the war quickly declines into farce. When one correspondent is rumoured to have got a lead, excitement reaches fever pitch. Eventually, most of the press disappear into the country on a wild goose chase while Boot is smoothly swindled by Kätchen, the attractive mistress of the Fascist agent. It all ends with Boot being lionised for a dispatch that he did not write. Meanwhile in London no-one notices that the wrong Boot has been sent; all are too scared of the tyrannical press baron, Lord Copper, so do not question why he has sent a countryside correspondent to cover a war.

There are some lovely moments in Scoop. Boot’s non-romance with Kätchen is well done (there is a charming scene when they sit in a collapsible canoe together). Boot’s family seat in Somerset is lovingly described at night, white in the moonlight. The old Fleet Street and the Express building come nicely to life. Also, as critic Thomas Jones once pointed out, Scoop is a keen satire on patronage networks – the writer Boot can get an assignment because he knows a powerful society hostess; the paper gets its tips from the police; in Ishmaelia, William Boot is at an advantage over other correspondents because he has been to school with a senior staff member at the Embassy. As Jones reminds us, the media still works that way.

In some ways, however, Scoop has not aged so well. It lays on the satire heavily; The Beast also does that, but is near enough reality to get away with it. Scoop may have been too, when first written, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. Lady Stitch is too eccentric, Boot is too naive, and Lord Copper never quite takes shape. Boot’s rural relatives seem to have escaped from Cold Comfort Farm.  

Bill Deedes, the supposed model for William Boot, was not impressed. Deedes went on to long careers in both politics (as a Minister under both Churchill and Macmillan) and journalism (he was a successful editor of the Telegraph, a role he filled as late as 1986). A few years before his death in 2007, he refuted his supposed role as Boot in a long piece for the Telegraph in which he claimed that few good novelists really caricature anyone; their characters, he argued, are composites. He also gave Waugh a kicking:

To some readers, Scoop confirms the impression that Waugh was a successful novelist but a failed newspaper reporter. Behind the banter, they reason, we find a man poking fun at a profession that humiliated him. He takes his revenge on those who outclassed him in the newspaper business by lampooning them and with a storyline that has them all outwitted by a country hick. It is not an unreasonable interpretation...

It isn’t. Waugh had, on graduation, had a trial in Fleet Street, and had failed. It was not the first time he had taken revenge on those who had found him wanting. He had not been a huge academic success at Oxford either and on that institution, too, he had sought revenge, through a series of attacks on the Dean and later Principal of Hertford College, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. Waugh’s attacks on Cruttwell probably hastened the latter’s mental illness and death. Waugh may have forgotten this in later life, but Oxford didn’t. My father, who was an undergraduate at Hertford during Cruttwell’s final illness and was later a Fellow, had never read a book by Waugh and would not discuss him.

That, then, was what drove Scoop – not genuine anger at the newspaper world and its venality or the patronage networks it depicts. They don’t anger Waugh; they afford him a certain malicious amusement at a world that had rejected him. Starritt, by contrast, does seem angry.

So was J.B. Priestley.

Priestley’s Wonder Hero was published in 1933. It concerns Charlie Habble, a modest young night worker in a chemical works whose actions one night appear to have prevented a fire and an explosion that might have blown his drab Midlands town to smithereens. In fact, they were the actions of another man whose role Habble cannot, for honourable reasons, reveal. Meanwhile a feature writer for the Daily Tribune happens to be in the town, having come to chase an important story. Having failed to secure it, he is anxious not to return to London empty-handed, and fastens onto Habble’s instead. The hapless Habble is hailed as a hero. He is dragged to London, suited and booted, recorded on newsreel, given a substantial cash award by the paper and lionised in its pages. Moreover the Tribune gives him a taste of the high life, housing him in a luxury hotel, and insisting that he make an appearance at the theatre and at a fashionable nightclub in the company of another newspaper protégé, a beauty queen also from the Midlands, Ida Chatwick. They clearly wish to hint at a romance between their two creations.

Habble is a straightforward provincial working man but is neither stupid nor dishonest, and these events trouble him. His qualms increase when the proprietor of the Tribune, the tyrannical Sir Gregory Hatchland, decides that Habble is the sort of fine upstanding young man he needs to parade before his pet political party, the vaguely fascist League of Imperial Yeomen. As the meeting progresses, Charlie, waiting backstage, feels a distinct lack of enthusiasm. As he waits, he hears from his uncle; his aunt, who lives in a Northern industrial city called Slakeby, is very ill. He abandons the Tribune and the League without making his appearance, and goes north to see if he can help.

It’s a chance for Priestley to confront us with a terrible contrast. One moment Habble’s being wheeled from luxury hotel to nightclub to theatre, shown off like a prize pig to London’s glitterati. The next he is right in the very worst of the Great Depression – or as it was also called at one time, the slump. He uses the award from the Tribune to get his aunt the help she needs. When he returns to London, the paper has lost interest in him. Ida Chatwick, too, has been tossed aside. They are yesterday’s fish-and-chip paper and they know it.

Wonder Hero is an angry book. The slump, the unemployment, the arbitrary behaviour of Hatchland and the press, all are there. When Habble decides he must go to Slakeby, he takes leave of the cynical but friendly young journalist who has escorted him for the Tribune. The journalist warns him that he won’t be a story any more if he goes. “Perhaps they’ll send me up to see you at wherever it is – perhaps. Not much chance, though; we don’t like putting the spotlight on that part of the country. Your uncle could hardly have lived in a worse place. He’s taking you right out of the news.”

A few hours later Habble stands on the bridge across Slakeby’s river:

Where were the shipyards and ships he remembered all along the banks? The sheds were there and a crane or two, and that was all. Everything else – finished, gone.  ...Some of the towns in the Midlands had been knocked sideways by the depression, but this place had been knocked flat.

But that is not news.

There is no doubt that this did anger Priestley. The following year, 1934, he would publish his English Journey, in which he described his progress through a country in which the ravages of the Great Depression were all too evident. In a memorable scene, he describes a Northern reunion with members of his former regiment, who he has not seen since he was badly wounded in 1916. He is affronted that some cannot afford the clothes to attend the event. (He did not forget this incident, and mentioned it again in his much later book Margin Released.) It would be easy to conclude that Wonder Hero was a product of the same journey. In fact it wasn’t; it was published in 1933 and Priestley set off on his travels later that year. But it’s clear that his two books were driven by the same anger.

It is this anger that makes Wonder Hero memorable and I believe that is also true of The Beast. It is also why both books are superior to Scoop. Waugh may have been angry with the Fleet Street that rejected him, or with his friends, or with Cruttwell, but he seems to have felt little real anger at the abuses he was supposed to be satirising. Scoop is a good yarn, but as satire it is vapid.

There is no doubt that all this matters. It did in the 1930s, when Priestley’s fictional Tribune showed no interest in the state of the country, and when the real Mail was busy printing scare stories about Jewish refugees pouring into Britain; one wonders how many failed to obtain asylum as a result, and in due course died. The press still distorts the agenda today. In a much-admired feature in the The New Yorker in 2012, Lauren Collins described how in 2000 Tony Blair ordered his advisors to focus on several issues that, as it happened, the Mail had highlighted that morning. Collins also quotes a story that illustrates why the treatment of Muslims in The Beast  is so important. She describes a story the Mail ran of a “hardworking café owner” who had to get rid of an extractor fan because the smell of bacon was offending Muslims. But if one read carefully to the bottom of the story, one found that complaint had been made by a neighbour who said “Muslim friends” had not liked the smells when they visited. No Muslim had complained. It also turned out that the café owner’s husband was Muslim. Still, one should never let the facts take the edge off a good headline, and in Starritt’s book the subs make sure it doesn’t. And this does have consequences. As the distinguished journalist Ian Jack has said in a warm review of The Beast: “The real achievement of the popular press is to have played a part in making Britain, particularly England, the strange, febrile country we now know.”

But does all this matter as much as it did? The newspaper world Starritt describes is a dying one. Print newspapers have nothing like the circulation they did in the 1930s, or even 20 years ago. Starritt’s characters know that; they look over their shoulder at the online editions that they know will soon replace them. But what Starritt nowhere mentions is fake news; the bizarre websites that spread rumours – for example that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, or that the liberal establishment was running a child-abuse ring in restaurants. The latter rumour, 2016’s Pizzagate “scandal”, which led to a shooting, was apparently spread (though not invented) by a site called – the stories for which, according to a story in The Times, are allegedly made up by the site’s owner’s mum. I’ve written myself about this assault on truth, which bloody petrifies me (On truth and lies, June 2017).

Neither is this a solely Anglophone problem. In October 2017 the New York Times reported that in Italy, the Ministry of Education had been sufficiently alarmed to launch a pilot project in 8,000 high schools, teaching pupils how to tell fake news from real. It quotes Laura Boldrini, President of Italy’s lower house, as saying that fake news “drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it.” Compared to the damage these “fake news” sites may do, tabloids are mild stuff. British newspapers are vicious and mendacious. But they always were, and we may soon miss them as we are hit with something much worse. Does this mean that Starritt’s, Waugh’s and Priestley’s books are no longer relevant?

I don’t think it does. The message that we can draw from these books is that every news outlet has its agenda, and that whenever we see anything inflammatory, we should ask the lawyer’s question: Cui bono? Who benefits? What was the story meant to make you believe, and to what end? Why is that news outlet in business anyway – what is its business model, and why is it there? The rise of fake news sites hasn’t made books like Starritt’s,or Priestley’s, irrelevant. On the contrary, they have invested them with more meaning than ever before.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

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Sunday, 13 August 2017

On whether he warned us

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian writer from the 1920s and 1930s. Exiled by fascism, he committed suicide in 1942. Now liberals hold him up as a prophet of tolerance and internationalism. Why? And who was he really?

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian middlebrow writer known for his novellas and for his historical biographies. His work was widely translated between the wars and was immensely popular. From quite a young age he travelled widely, especially in Europe, and had friends in the arts in much of the continent. But he was Jewish and in 1934, sensing what would happen in Austria, he went into exile in England – ironically, one of the few Western countries where he was not well known. In 1940 he moved to the US and eventually to Brazil, where, despairing of Europe’s future, he committed suicide with his wife in Petrópolis in February 1942 at the age of 60.

Zweig in 1939 (NPG/Bassano)
Until recently Zweig, once a best-seller, was largely forgotten. In recent years, however, there’s been a revival – and this time it has extended to Britain, where he has been championed by the Pushkin Press, which has brought out new editions of much of his oeuvre, both his biographies of historical figures, and his fiction. Some years ago Pushkin published a new edition of Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, begun in 1934 and finished just before his death in 1942. It is less a conventional autobiography, more a sentimental journey through Zweig’s world as a cosmopolitan young writer before the First World War, when he knew figures such as Rodin and Rilke. The book describes, too, the war itself, its aftermath and the gathering storm of fascism.  Pushkin has now brought out Messages From A Lost World, a collection of lectures and articles Zweig produced between 1916 and 1941, translated by Will Stone. Much of this material has hitherto been unavailable or never existed in English.

Why this sudden interest in Zweig? He is long dead and, although very popular in his lifetime, was not a literary heavyweight. He had languished for years in obscurity; I only discovered him myself when searching for someone else (Arnold Zweig, the pro-Soviet author of The Axe of Wandsbeck). But now it seems we cannot get enough of him. There is a clue as to why in a recent brief piece by George Prochnik, one of Zweig’s biographers (The Impossible Exile, 2015), in The Atlantic (February 6 2017):

I wonder how far along the scale of moral degeneration Zweig would judge America to be in its current state. We have a magnetic leader, one who lies continually and remorselessly—not pathologically but strategically, to placate his opponents, to inflame the furies of his core constituency, and to foment chaos. The American people are confused and benumbed by a flood of fake news and misinformation. Reading in [The World of Yesterday] how, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, many well-meaning people “could not or did not wish to perceive that a new technique of conscious cynical amorality was at work,” it’s difficult not to think of our own present predicament.
In other words, he resonates with those who hold certain views about our own times. This seems to be the case also from Nicholas Lezard’s adulatory review of Pushkin’s reissue of The World of Yesterday  (The Guardian, December 4 2009):

 ...[T]his is more than just an autobiography; it is a long lament for a lost world, a testament to the values of decency, toleration, humanism, and artistic and cultural endeavour ...he has produced a document which, however well you think you know the story, is essential to our understanding of history. For it was as an enthusiast for the pan-European cultural project that Zweig found his greatest motivation and, eventually, his greatest pain... 

Here we have Zweig used as a stick with which to beat Trump in the US and also, though only by implication, to support European integration in the UK.  If I wished to be cynical, I would say that the Zweig revival was nothing more than the anglophone liberal establishment co-opting a long-forgotten mediocre Austrian writer in order to make points of their own, exploiting the pathos of his death to do so. But is that fair?  It doesn’t help that Zweig divided the critics during his own lifetime. His sales were enormous. In Brazil, he received a state funeral in the presence of President Getúlio Vargas (himself to commit suicide a few years later).

Yet in a highly critical piece in the London Review of Books (Vermicular Dither, January 28 2010), critic Michael Hoffman excoriated Zweig and pointed out that other writers of the era had had no time for him. “As well as knowing him best, a man’s contemporaries have every reason for getting him wrong,” wrote Hoffman, “but the fact remains that there is an unusual consensus here – Mann, Musil, Brecht, Hesse, Canetti, Hofmannsthal, Kraus – [all considered that], save in in commercial terms, [he was] an utterly negligible figure.”

To justify his revival, Zweig would have to bring us some message of his own from the time in which he lived. There are two ways one can do this from the grave: as a witness; or as a prophet. The World of Yesterday would be his claim to the first role. Messages from a Lost World, his lectures and articles, would establish his claim to the second. Do either of these books succeed on those levels?

The answer to that is, in fact, quite messy.

Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday was published not long after his death. It has never really disappeared, but has come back into vogue of late. It is alternately infuriating, charming and gripping. It is, at its best, profoundly vivid. One reason for its impact today is simply that Zweig was well-connected, and the book includes pen-portraits of many figures who are still historically important. Many are literary or artistic; we meet Romain Rolland (who Zweig knew well) and Auguste Rodin; in one of the book’s best passages, Zweig sees the master at work in his studio, so absorbed in his work that he forgets the young writer’s presence, and is startled when he realises that Zweig is still there. Hofmannsthal appears, and gets more generous treatment than he ever gave Zweig, who he despised (one of the good things about Zweig’s own memoir is that it is largely spiteless). Richard Strauss is also in the book; Zweig briefly succeeded Hofmannsthal as Strauss’s librettist, to the mortification of the Nazis. Neither are all Zweig’s acquaintances from the arts. He knew, and warmly describes, German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, who he saw not long before his tragic assassination in Berlin – an event supposed, by some, to have helped set Germany on the road to Nazism. There is also a memorable description of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, who was Zweig’s first editor.

But The World of Yesterday can often grate. Zweig is an incorrigible name-dropper. As Leo Carey remarked in a review in The New Yorker (The Escape Artist, August 27 2012), it is sometimes “tempting to see his sedulous gathering of eminent friendships as a counterpart of his manuscript collecting” (Zweig was a noted collector of scores, manuscripts and memorabilia). Late in the book there is a long list of those who, he says, stayed with him in Salzburg (including not only Hoffmanstahl but also Thomas Mann, who does not appear to have liked him much either). There is also a whiff of cant. Early on he claims that he wondered if he should ever have dared submit his early work. Later there’s more evidence of his wretched false modesty when he recounts how gobsmacked he is when Maxim Gorky is to write an intro to his work, or he affects to have been humbled to have been approached by an American publisher (it was Benjamin Huebsch of Viking). “Such apparent success was apt to confuse one whose faith, hitherto, had been in his good intentions rather than in his ability and the efficacy of his work.” Oh, do shut up, Stefan. After all, there is an undercurrent of ego simply in making one’s work available.

One is also irritated when he ‘modestly’ praises his own writing, citing his “distaste for everything redundant and long-winded... I had always felt it incumbent on me to study the causes of the influence of books or personages within their own time, and I could not but ask myself in hours of reflection to what particular characteristics my books owed their, to me, unexpected success.” He then says that it was his concision, which is scarcely evident in this passage. In fact, Michael Hofmann goes so far as to refer to his “abundant, facile and unhindered lifelong logorrhoea.” That is not fair, but it is true that Zweig could be wordy.

Neither is Zweig always a reliable witness. He spent the latter part of the First World War in Switzerland (for reasons that will be discussed below), and then recounts how he returned across the Austrian frontier to a most poignant moment:

Upon alighting I became aware of an odd restlessness among the customs officers and police. [A]n old lady in black with her two daughters, from her carriage and clothes presumably an aristocrat... [was] visibly excited and constantly pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.

A train rolls slowly into the station:

...not the customary, shabby, weather-beaten kind, but with spacious black cars, a train de luxe ...Then I recognized behind the plate glass window of the car Emperor Karl, the last emperor of Austria standing with his black-clad wife, Empress Zita. I was startled; the last emperor of Austria, heir of the Hapsburg dynasty which had ruled for seven hundred years, was forsaking his realm! 

It is a wonderful moment – but a few pages later he describes how the cold autumn air came through the broken windows of his own carriage as he rode on into Austria. But the Emperor did not leave Austria in the autumn but on March 24 1919; moreover he entered Switzerland with a British escort, something Zweig would surely have noticed. In short, Zweig was probably not there. 

Oliver Matuschek, author of an excellent recent biography of Zweig, Three Lives, does not mention these disparities, but notes it is strange that Zweig had never mentioned this incident before. He is reluctant to accuse Zweig of lying, , but concludes: “The most likely explanation is that Zweig’s account is not to be taken literally, as a description of events that he actually witnessed, but rather as a narrative allegory.” This is a polite way of saying that Zweig made it up.

Matuschek is a little harsher regarding an episode from 1911 that is not in The World of Yesterday, but which Zweig had recounted elsewhere. In April 1911, the dying Gustav Mahler was brought home by his wife and family aboard the German liner Amerika; the young Zweig, who had been visiting New York, happened to be aboard. Zweig’s account of the voyage in the presence of the dying composer was emotional. But in fact he only saw him once, from a distance, on disembarkation. He had sent an offer of help to the family, but Alma Mahler was suspicious of his motives and later said that far from helping, Zweig had disappeared rapidly at Cherbourg. Once again, however, Matuschek seems to suggest that Zweig is not being overtly dishonest; rather, that he felt he had a duty to chronicle what he saw as his presence at history. He may be right. The fact remains that, as the work of a witness, The World of Yesterday must be found wanting, and it is therefore hard not to call much else in the book – the distinguished friendships, for example – into question. 

But if Zweig did wish to capture history in The World of Yesterday, he succeeded – not in his relentless name-dropping, or in his portraits of the great and the good, or in moments such as the departure of the Emperor, but when he was not trying so hard. It is in these passages that he tells us most. 

Thus he goes to the quiet resort of Baden to enjoy the summer: “Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in their tender green...” One day, reading in the park,he senses a flurry of disturbance; the band stops playing; people press towards a news placard. What has happened is the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. But nobody seems terribly upset.

Franz Ferdinand lacked everything that counts for real popularity in Austria ...He was never seen to smile, and no photographs showed him relaxed. He had no sense for music, and no sense of humour, and his wife was equally unfriendly. My almost mystic premonition that some misfortune would come from this man with his bulldog neck and his cold, staring eyes, was  ..shared by the entire nation; and so the news of his murder aroused no profound sympathy. Two hours later signs of genuine mourning were no longer to be seen.

Zweig sees no reason to change his plans and trots off to visit friends in Belgium, where the Belgian army has started to prepare for war; even this seems slightly farcical (in a charming detail, we learn that their machine-guns are mounted on carts pulled by dogs). It comes as a shock when he realises that war really is imminent, and he takes the last train to cross into Germany. The atmosphere of that summer – the insouciance regarding the assassination, the doubt there will be war – is well expressed. And yet Zweig has sensed an undercurrent. For the last year he has been uneasy. First there is the arrest of Alfred Redl, a spy at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian intelligence machine (this is a fascinating episode, well described by Fitzroy Maclean in his book Take Nine Spies). Then he finds himself watching newsreels in a cinema in Tours and is taken aback when the Kaiser and Franz Joseph appear on the screen:

A spontaneous wild whistling and stamping of feet began in the dark hall. Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant, I was frightened. I was frightened to the depths of my heart. For I sensed how deeply the poison of the propaganda of hate must have advanced through the years... 

It may be these incidents did not alarm him so much at the time as he would have us believe. Even so, resonance can be retrospective, and he is telling us a lot here. This does echo in our own time; the media politics of hate, a rottenness at the heart of the establishment, and a failure to know when they are coming home to roost. One wonders if we will recognize the beginnings of the third world war. Could it be taking shape in some current crisis – perhaps the confrontation between Qatar and its neighbours?

It goes on. Zweig’s description of the aftermath of the First World War is an excellent read. As the Austrian currency collapses, Germans stream over the border to Salzburg to quaff multiple steins of virtually-free beer. Then along comes the German inflation of 1923 and the Austrians stream into Bavaria to get tanked up. A visit to Berlin:

Into the stove, 1923 (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)
For a hundred dollars one could buy rows of six-storey houses on Kurfűrstendamm… some adolescent boys who had found a case of soap forgotten in the harbour disported themselves for months in cars and lived like kings ...All values were changed, and not only material ones; the laws of the State were flouted, no moral code was respected, Berlin was transformed into the Babylon of the world. ...the Germans introduced all their vehemence and methodological organization into the perversion. Along the entire Kurfűrstendamm powdered and rouged young men sauntered and they were not all professionals; every high school boy wanted to earn some money and in the dimly lit bars one might see government officials and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame. ...Whoever lived through these apocalyptic months, these years, disgusted and embittered, sensed the coming of a counterblow, a horrible reaction. ...For the German people, a disciplined folk, did not know what to do with their freedom and already looked impatiently toward those who were to take it from them.

Is that us, bored with our cheap booze, porn and wide-screen TVs? Is the election of Trump, and Brexit, a result of sheer boredom and frustration with ourselves? If so, The World of Yesterday did warn us.

I began by saying that, to justify the new attention being showered on him, Zweig would have to justify his stature as either a witness or a prophet. His claim to be a witness rests mainly on The World of Yesterday. It is flawed. Sometimes it is long-winded and discursive. At other times Zweig tries too hard to insert himself into history, in claiming (for example) that he saw the last Emperor leave, or Mahler on the point of death; at these points the book is misleading, or simply not true. Yet maybe Matuschek is right to forgive him, for in a broader sense, The World of Yesterday really is an extraordinary work of witness. For the moment, with reservations, I’m with the defence.

But what of those who see Zweig as a prophet, trying to warn us from the past? For this we turn to the second book, Messages from a Lost World. The title does in itself claim, for Zweig, the mantle of a prophet (it isn’t his title; the book is a modern anthology of Zweig’s articles and speeches put together in 2016 by the Pushkin Press). The pieces in Messages from a Lost World vary in subject, but mostly reflect on Zweig’s sense of loss for the cosmopolitan, unified Europe of his youth, and his wish to see the borders come down again. Given this subject matter, and the circumstances of Zweig’s death, it’s easy to see why Pushkin would think this book relevant for 2016, with its rising nationalisms and threat of European disunity.

On first reading I was rather impatient with the book. Translator Will Stone suggests in his detailed introduction that Zweig’s internationalism was really just a series of personal connections, and there is some evidence for this in this collection as well as  in The World Of Yesterday. The phrase that kept occurring to me was “liberal elite”. There also seemed to be a hefty dollop of nostalgia. Zweig seemed to hark back to a pre-WW1 Europe that was indeed united for the educated and multilingual, but a place of division for the rest. This contrast has a nasty modern resonance.
This is evident in one of the earlier pieces in the book, European Thought In Its Historical Development, a lecture given in 1932 in Florence.  Zweig traces several divisions and reunifications of Europe. The fall of Rome splits Europeans asunder, but they are reunited, to some extent, by the founding of the universal Church, which replaces temporal power with a spiritual one. Then Latin revives and “spiritual men across Europe ...can now correspond with each other again ...It matters not in the epoch of Humanism whether you study in Prague, Oxford or Paris.” Well, that does not help if you happen to be an illiterate goatherd, or even a modestly prosperous merchant, but this dimension seems not to have engaged Zweig. Instead he recounts the continuing atomization and reunification, as he sees it, of the continent. The Reformation splits civilization apart again; music reunites it, but the introduction of nationalism into music shatters the surface once more, according to Zweig.

In fact, national music was the expression of a struggle for freedom from empires, and cannot be regarded as simply a divisive force. And in general, these arguments present Zweig as an elitist whose concept of European unity was profoundly superficial. Worse, they present him as a reactionary. Not long after reading Messages From A Lost World, I happened also to read Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, in which he analyses a certain type of intellectual reactionary – one who believes that all was well before The Fall, whatever, for them, that Fall happened to be (and he quotes the Reformation as one example). Is that all that Zweig was? If so, translating these pieces was a waste of time; we can make our own nostalgia.

Moreover there is the feeling that Zweig is serving a class interest – a project of an international elite. Zweig did realise this at some level. In European Thought In Its Historical Development, he comments that  “only a slender allegiance by all states to a superior governing body could relieve current economic difficulties, reduce the propensity for war – [but] ...For until now it has been the domain ...of a selective higher class and its roots have not yet penetrated the roots of the people.” I was reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s 2016 book Against the Double Blackmail.  When Western liberals point the finger at working people in their own countries for being bigoted peasants, says Žižek, this is part of the “culture wars” fuelling movements such as Trump’s (he could have added Brexit in Britain, had he written the book a few months later). The “culture wars”, in his opinion, are themselves class conflict between the disadvantaged and a liberal elite that wishes to denigrate them to maintain its own position. At times it seems that all Zweig is doing is unconsciously confirming Žižek’s present-day analysis from the depths of the last century.

It does not help that for a man being praised for his foresight on fascism, Zweig actually did little, in the public space, to fight it. Leo Carey, in an absorbing piece in the The New Yorker (The Escape Artist, August 27 2012), comments that he was often asked to support anti-Nazi and Jewish causes:

He was anything but outspoken, however, and his silence frustrated other writers of the time and has been much criticized since. Klaus Mann, who failed to get him to contribute to an émigré journal he was running, was disparaging of Zweig’s decision to remain “ ‘objective,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘just’ toward the deadly enemy.

Arendt: A harsh judgement
Hannah Arendt was contemptuous. In 1943, not long after his death, she condemned Zweig in the strongest terms for not fighting for the Jewish people:

Without the protective armor of fame, naked and disrobed, Stefan Zweig was confronted with the reality of the Jewish people. ...Thus this Jewish bourgeois man of letters, who had never concerned himself with the affairs of his own people, became nevertheless a victim of their foes and felt so disgraced that he could bear his life no longer

... For honor never will be won by the cult of success or fame, by cultivation of one's own self, nor even by personal dignity. From the "disgrace" of being a Jew there is but one escape-to fight for the honor of the Jewish people as a whole.

This is probably far too harsh. It seems to suggest that Zweig’s suicide was driven by shame at being Jewish. True, Zweig never seems to have bought into Zionism, despite knowing and admiring Herzl when he was younger.  But there is no evidence I know of that Zweig felt shame at being Jewish. His suicide was driven by his despair at the death of the civilised world he had known. Moreover, while he may not have been an activist, he did quietly assist fellow-writers who had fallen on hard times in this period; according to Matuschek, he was really quite generous. Where Arendt may have a point, however, is the suggestion that Zweig’s fame and prosperity had put him into a protective bubble in which he did not feel the brutal reality of Nazism until quite late. In fact, although he went into precautionary exile in London in 1934, he continued to visit Austria right up until Anschluss. As Arendt wrote in 1943 of The World of Yesterday (which had just been published): “The world that Zweig depicts was anything but the world of yesterday; naturally, the author of this book did not actually live in the world, only on its rim. The gilded trellises of this peculiar sanctuary were very thick...”

But Zweig had paid his dues, in the First World War if not against fascism. He had written a pacifist play during the First World War; it was by all accounts not very good, but could have got him into serious trouble, especially since it was produced during the war in neutral Switzerland (this was why Zweig was there when the war ended). As to the narrow nature of Zweig’s internationalism, even Arendt acknowledges that Zweig did, in the end, understand that he lived in a changed world. Reading Messages from a Lost World, one does see when this understanding came to him, for Zweig’s thinking had evolved before he died. The European Thought essay is not the best thing in this book. There is also a remarkable lecture called The Historiography of Tomorrow, given during a lecture tour in the US in early 1939. This is seven years after European Thought; much had happened in between, not least that Zweig had been forced into exile.

Zweig's home in Petrópolis (A. Maislinger/Creative Commons)
In the intervening period, Zweig appears to have moved from a theoretical support for closer international cooperation to the idea of a totally different world. In Historiography he explains how, while moving house, he has found an old history book from his schooldays and is taken aback that its chief objective is to impress upon the pupil the greatness of the Austrian empire in which s/he has been raised. “But twelve hours by rail from Vienna France or Italy, the school textbooks were prepared with the directly opposing scenario: God or the spirit of history laboured solely for the Italian or French motherland.” The key dates, he says, are all wars. “It is deeply pessimistic and depressing."

As this lecture progressed, it seems, Zweig argued for a new set of values on which to base the study of history. In a telling passage, he points out that in 1797 Napoleon defeated Austria on Italian soil at Rivoli – but that victory, the type of event lauded in history schoolbooks, has long collapsed into insignificance, whereas in the same year and region Alessandro Volta produced the first feeble spark from his first battery – an event of far greater weight. More important still, Zweig states that: “I still remember the revelation I experienced many years ago, from a book which completely overturned [my] conception of history.” It was, he says, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, in which the theory of a struggle for existence is challenged by the notion that evolution is the product of cooperation. So Zweig is not driven solely by solidarity with an international elite of which he is a member; there is something deeper here. And he is certainly not a mere nostalgic – at least not by the end of his life.

Even in the earlier pieces, in which Zweig is driven mainly by nostalgia, he has a message for us. In almost the last piece in this book, The Vienna of Yesterday – a lecture given in Paris in April 1940, just a few weeks before the fall of France – he talks of the artistic identity forged by a Vienna whose best and brightest came from elsewhere. The fact that they did, did not negate its genius; it was its genius. “Gluck,” he says, “came from Bohemia, Haydn from Hungary, Caldara and Salieri from Italy, Beethoven from the Rhineland, Mozart from Salzburg, Brahms from Hamburg, Bruckner from High Austria, Hugo Wolf from Styria.” The important point is not that they didn’t come from Vienna; it is that they went there. Eighty years later, in a time of rising borders, this is something London would do well to remember.

Zweig is a fragile figure in some ways. It does sometimes feel that his suicide has lent him a weight that his career alone would not have done. But his contemporaries were – being jealous perhaps – unfair.  Reading his fiction today, one finds a tendency to exposition rather than inference. But there are interesting psychological insights (Zweig was an associate of Freud); I found his novella The Burning Secret very satisfying for that reason.  He is not perhaps a great writer. But he is a good one.  And he is a witness; The World of Yesterday is fascinating, even if its perspective is narrow and its facts open to dispute.
A street in Rio de Janeiro

As for Messages from a Lost World, these essays and lectures have been revived because they appear to make a link between our own times and Zweig’s, rather than for any intrinsic merit of their own. They aren’t really great literature; the early selections, in particular, are quite verbose, and nothing in them is a true revelation. On first reading I rather dismissed them. But I should not have done, for there is a fascinating evolution in these pieces, from nostalgia for a lost world to, in his last months, an understanding that the way led not back to that world but to a different concept of global organization. 

Besides, although these pieces are mostly not great writing, there are times when they make you sit up. In a 1936 essay called 1914 and Today, Zweig writes: Argentina I visited the slaughterhouses and saw those beasts down in their enclosure, absorbed in their gentle grazing and lowing (a few pairs were even still indulging in the pleasures of love) whilst on the floor above you saw the flashes, heard the hammering of machines that ten minutes later would kill them, chop, carve, slice, disembowel and dismember them. But then the animal is enveloped by its unconscious; it has no idea to where it is led. Our human herds in Europe, who are today much closer to the butcher than they realize, have no excuse. ...Deep down they all know the menace that threatens and their dearth of will to confront it.

At the beginning of this piece, I asked whether the Zweig revival was nothing more than the anglophone liberal establishment exploiting a long-dead middlebrow writer for their own purposes. To an extent I think they are doing just that, and he cannot really bear the weight that is now being placed on his shoulders. It is our own job to find our own arguments for our own time. Indeed I wonder if Arendt would make just that point, were she still with us.

But that does not mean Zweig has nothing to tell us. The last piece in this book, In This Dark Hour, is an address given to the American PEN Club in May 1941. Zweig told his audience that  “this dark hour” was necessary to make everyone realize that “freedom is as vital to our soul as breathing to our body.” Or, as he also said on that occasion: “Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of the stars above our heads.” Let us hope that we never have to re-learn that lesson in my lifetime.

Mike Robbins’s novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

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