Category Archives: misogyny

An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

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Filed under authors, fiction, Iris Murdoch, literary classics, misogyny, The Philosopher's Pupil

Facebook treats rape page as ‘pub joke’

WOMEN’S VIEWS ON NEWS MEDIA RELEASE: Monday 26 September 2011

Facebook treats rape page as ‘pub joke’

Over 3,000 people have signed a UK petition asking Facebook to delete a page that contains ‘joke’ posts about rape against women. The page –  ‘You know she’s playing hard to get when your chasing her down an alleyway’ (sic) – contains posts such as ‘I have raped many women….no lie’ and ‘I rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome’.

The petition was launched on Aug 19 2011 by student Orlagh Ni Léid after Facebook issued a statement likening the page to a pub joke, despite thousands of people protesting against it through the Facebook report mechanism:

“It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining – just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” (Facebook statement 17.8.11.)

Orlagh commented:

“I stumbled across this page and was shocked to see not only rape ‘jokes’, but outright advocacy and even apparent confessions.

I started the petition when I found out that Facebook refused to take the page down and the UK mainstream press proved unresponsive to a letter from Rape Crisis England and Wales.

To date, thanks to articles on sites like ‘Women’s Views on News’, the petition has drawn strong support from around the globe and is building on a US petition against similar pages that has attracted over 170,000 signatures.

Facebook is an influential social force and in a world where 1 in 5 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape, these pages are more than a ‘pub joke.’ Surely Facebook should not be perpetuating rape culture?”

Facebook appears selective about how it applies its rules – for instance, a policy against breastfeeding pictures is upheld, indicating that breasts are offensive, but that rape is not. In doing so, Facebook has made it clear that it does not consider groups that condone rape to be in violation of its own hate speech rules (terms and conditions, section 3 safety, point 7).

The petition can be signed here.

Information for Editors:

1. Contacts

Email: Steffi1965@googlemail.com2

2. Selected screenshots from Facebook rape page

3. Facebook rape page: You know she’s playing hard to get when your chasing her down an alleyway’

4. UK Petition

5. US petition

6. Facebook bans pictures of breasts (Reported by LA Times newspaper) and Facebook bans Topless Statue of Liberty

7. Facebook statement: Given to the Annie Othen Show, 17.8.11, BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire:

‘We want Facebook to be a place where people can openly discuss issues and express their views whilst respecting the rights and feeling of others.

We have now more than 750m people around the world of varying opinions and ideals using Facebook as a place to discuss and share things that are important to them.

We sometimes find people discussing and posting about controversial topics

It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining – just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

8. Facebook terms and conditions

9. Background on Women’s Views on News

10. Stats on rape

‘Worldwide, an estimated one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime’ (UNFPA state of the world population 2005 report)


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Filed under abuse of women, anti-feminism, Facebook & Rape, feminism, misogyny, violence against women

On ‘Ho*ney Money: The Power of Er*otic Capital’ by Catherine Hakim, plus Cristina Odone’s celebratory book review of it. Or: Golly Jee, Mr – Fancy a Flirtatious Smile & a Metaphorical BJ with That?

Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery & find out you can succeed in the workplace & in life just by using your feminine charms, make-up, fluttering eyelids, smiles & —why gosh! — yes, even by wiggling your bottom. Oops! I mean by being flirtatious.

Ah, the joys of women pandering to men’s needs; now there’s no “sex discrimination”, according to writer and journalist Cristina Odone. (Or is she paraphrasing Catherine Hakim, academic sociologist at the prestigious, world-renowned London School of Economics and who is, it seems, known for “criticising feminist assumptions about employment” it says in her Wikipedia profile: No doubt Hakim’s proud of that fact, as any right-wing thinking woman should be.  One also wonders whether Hakim wrote the copy for it, or just had one of her devoted disciplines write it, with her permission?)

My review here is a type of Russian nesting doll-in-a-doll set, in that I’m critiquing both Odone’s own women-denigrating review of the book in The Daily Telegraph; a book which in itself comes across as equally women-denigrating, sexist-supporting, anti-women, by Hakim in Honey Money.

A few years ago I saw Cristina Odone a couple of times on the serious talk-panel programme, Question Time on the BBC, and I thought then: well, clearly she’s a hardcore conservative; unsurprisingly —not a good thing, in my view.  In fact, she reminds me a lot of David Starkey, the historian whose expertise is the Tudor period, is a bestselling author and popular presenter of his own TV series based on his own bestsellers and — unfortunately — is often invited to spout right-wing nonsense on TV about issues in modern society.

Odone comes across as an intelligent person, but she seems to have zero emotional IQ and certainly no empathy for those she judges: take the recent furore she just caused over her criticism of NHS nurses on Question Time on 14th April 2011, and in her follow-up blog comments the next day in The Daily Telegraph.  As if NHS nurses are in charge and to blame for the way the NHS operates.  I’d love to see Odone, no doubt on a great salary and living happily in a beautiful home, try being a nurse just for a day.  I suspect she may be prepared to revamp her comments radically in favour of the difficulties and challenges and stresses all of them face.  But then, maybe NHS nurses, along with any other woman who happens to be hardworking in a poorly paid job, need only take heed of the counsel dished out to women in Honey Money by Hakim: just use your ‘erotic capital’ and voilà, you may find a rich man, but certainly life will become easier because men will treat you better.  The whole Waldorf Salad-enchilada-Nine-Yards fandango. So that’s how to be successful modern woman of the Noughties. Wow! Who’d have it could be so utterly straightforward as that?  All you need to do is smile, maybe wear high heels, dress in body-shape-enhancing clothes, flutter your eyelids and definitely use a certain appealing you-know-nudge-nudge tone of voice and — oh!  — please don’t worry if you or others think you’re not pretty; no, says Hakim, erotic capital is really all about your attitude.

Eva Longoria, here as a Stepford Wife in © Desperate Housewives; a ma*le fant*asy sexist man's dream version of the perf*ect woman. Or (no ref to Longoria — rather this idealised woman'!): "Can I get you suds with that, big boy? Or maybe a sprinkling of Er*otic Capital from my Hakim Ho*ney Money Pot?"

Radical thinking?  Does this sort of tripe even merit publication (and by the respectable Allen Lane publishers in the UK, no less!).  Hell no: this book in most ways reflects a pre-90s-typically 1950s/60s/70s attitude towards and about women all over again. It perfectly echoes Ira Levin’s 1972 bestselling satirical fiction, The Stepford Wives, and the films it inspired. (The first, in 1975, was great — script by William Goldman, directed by Bryan Forbes, and performances by Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss; the second simply over the top silly, directed by Frank Oz (never very subtle anyway; he should have stuck with movies for kids), and with Nicole Kidman — ghastly in it — and Bette Midler, who is entertaining in it and milks the role for all the camp it’s worth and she could muster, both of which are a lot, bless her.)

In Levin’s novel, the men’s sexist attitudes have led to their desire for and then creation of ‘the perfect woman’ in an equally perfect, secluded gated community. The robotic-type women are always smiling, the perfect hostess, submissive, forever wanting to please her man and doing so, at his bidding, and most of the time before it. I think this all sounds remarkably similar to what Hakim is advocating in her book and Odone endorses, though both may argue otherwise, namely: A woman should always please the men in their lives, whether co-worker, boss or husband, potential partner or just a guy serving you in a shop or wherever else. Give him a smile, be demure, flutter your eyelids. Paint your face. Massage his tense shoulders from being stressed at being a man in the modern age. Just glow with your erotic capital, m’dear, then all will be well in your world. I mean, jes*sus H frickin unbelievable that this sort of vomit-inducing nonsense is being spouted by a senior academic at one of the leading British universities and is further endorsed by Odone and her absurd statements.  Take one such example of Odone, where she says Hakim is:

at her best when she provides a refreshing antidote to the boiler-suited, shaved-head thinking that keeps masculinists from reflecting ordinary women’s ambitions

Who on earth can she possibly be thinking of who is in real life at all like this “masculinist”, as she defines it; who, to take her metaphor seriously, even metaphorically dresses/acts/speaks like this — and with a shaved head, too! My goodness, but they must be female monsters, foaming at the mouth, head-butting charming men (for there is no other kind), with their extraordinary women’s ambitions!  (And even if some women did really dress like that, and really have a shaved head, that Odone wasn’t writing metaphorically well — who frickin cares — aren’t they still women, with rights and voices to be heard?!)

I suppose this is Odone’s pathetic attempt at being witty – but at the expense of whom?  Women who speak up and challenge the sexist status quo, that’s who. God forbid that a woman, to cite Rebecca West, differentiates herself from a doormat; suddenly you’ll be thought of as being shaven-headed and boiler-suited in your attitudes (of course, West really said ‘feminist’, not shaven-headed etc!).  Ah, but her metaphor also is a criticism of any woman who doesn’t use her femininity to her advantage, be at work, home or elsewhere; if you aren’t, the metaphor seems to imply that you must be a pastiche for a guy; a fake female; even a fake sort of guy.  Perhaps not so oddly, I’m suddenly reminded of Lady Gaga’s exhaustively relentless efforts at being radical/leading, when in fact she copies her idols and tiresomely takes on an easy target, i.e., the traditional, Catholic religion (Madonna), or attempts sad nonsense in the form of Joe Calderone, her alter-ego (that alter-ego link will take you to a fantastic critique by “Robin”, an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte, USA; there’s also an entertaining critique/review of Calderone’s performance in an LA Times blog. BTW, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying I think Gaga is without talent; far from it; some of her early songs were great in The Fame Monster and showed she merited her fame and success; especially via Poker Face and Bad Romance, her videos of those songs and her amazing costumes).

The assumptions made by Odone are sexist in themselves, derogatory, and a stereotypical portrayal of women and their rights. As an academic, Hakim really has no excuses; I’m sure of that. In the book review, Odone talks about the gratitude felt towards feminists for “getting rid of sex discrimination“, but clearly she’s clueless that one such fundamental part of sex discrimination that remains rife and is a global issue, is gender pay disparity. On this alone, there is a mass of research and reports readily available for anyone who has access to the web.

On the subject of pay disparity alone, since it is important and that discrimination continues to be faced by the majority of women in the workplace across the globe, despite the backing of their rights in most if not all Western countries through legislation for equal pay, such as with the UK’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, here are a few research reports to illustrate how rife such discrimination is.  First, a Google search alone brings up a wealth (sorry for the bad pun) of pay disparity reports/material, here.  There’s also the World Economic Forum’s Global Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 and, as one example into a specific, global major industry, financial services, there’s a 2009 report published by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission,  called Sex Discrimination and Gender Pay Gap Report (that link is just for the press summary of the report; but you can also find the full report on the site, too; and there’s also a fascinating 2011 report from the same organisation, this one on women being passed over for top jobs – just click here).

As anyone who is even half-awake about the realities of the world knows, sex discrimination is far from over and Hakim’s Ho*ney Money and Odone — far from celebrating women and helping to challenge sex discrimination, objectification of women and trivialisation of them by the appalling notion of “ero*tic capital” — reinforce such objectification, discrimination etc. (And you can just see the consequences of Ho*ney Money-type thinking in the City/Wall Street/the financial services industry, or frankly any other male-dominated workplace. Such trivialisation will go down a treat with the guys in power/control, over women who work with or for them, as the women will be at the mercy of their being charged with using such capital, when in fact the women are being sexually harassed by the men. You can just imagine a future law court scene in which the male defendent uses the defence of ‘ero*tic capital like this:

“I’m not guilty, m’Lud – she was using erotic capital on me, so I couldn’t help but rub my gen*itals against her bu*m in the office. She made me do it – she wanted it, when she smiled at me in that way, massaged my shoulders and gave me a metaphorical BJ.”)

Most people, I reckon, unfortunately, have enough to contend with: either being in crap jobs, if you’re fortunate enough to have a job in the first place and, with women, they have the double-edged sword facing them unlike the majority of men, even now in the Noughties, given most still do all or most of the shopping/cleaning/cooking as well as be a co-wage-earner. Hakim and Odone point to such hardships and question whether or not it was worth it for women to win the fight for the right to work as equals to men, rather than be forced into only one option, that of being a stay-at-home-mum (obviously for those women who choose this, all well and good, but for those who want other choices as well, to be deprived of other options is far from good).  Surely one of the key points of feminism was and is to make sure women have equal access to all industries and all jobs available, just as it is to make sure such access exists for education and equal pay, based on talent, qualifications, experience, etc.  Hakim, however, seems to be saying that adopting a Ho*ney Money attitude towards the men in your life – and Odone clearly endorses this view in her book review — will likely give you a far better chance at a better quality of life than the misery of modern work. Why golly gee — you could may be lifted off your feet by a rich, dashing, non-gay Rock Hudson, and escape from the drudgery of common working life.  But I think we can count such women on one hand, or perhaps one digit, unless you watch the rich women in Orange County and/or already happen to be rich.

As for Odone and Hakim – well, they need not worry – one’s a successful journalist and the other an established academic who seems to sneer at women’s rights at least as far as employment is concerned.  All while they have their own delicious cake and also get to eat. “Do as I say, not as I do”, in other words.

Ultimately, Ho*ney Money’s credo, its advocacy of erotic capital, will be seen for what it is: a sexist revisionism of genuine women’s rights and self-empowerment— the Empress’s New Clothes, to paraphrase the cliché.  It is intellectually dishonest, morally bankrupt thinking that wholeheartedly pejorative towards women; it is, therefore, explicitly anti-feminist,anti-women’s rights in the workplace (to be treated as an equal to men, not to be slathered over because of flirting with them), and echoes back to a denigrating time, culture and thinking that is, at most, pre-1980s, and frankly smacks, as indicated earlier, of the 1950s and before.  I’m reminded of an age-old sexist chant by men, typically drunk when they sing it, that would agree wholeheartedly with the essence of Hakim’s and Odone’s arguments. Namely, it seems to me,whether you use your body, tone of voice, eye contact or some such other, you are effectively doing what supposedly funny but only pathetic, sexist drunken men want you to do, when all they chant together at women: “Get your t*its out for the lads.” Awful, right?  (Unless you’re a drunken man with a snout, but then you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?!)

So Hakim and Odone not only seem to disapprove of modern feminism, but worse, think there’s no need for feminism or feminists anymore; after all there’s no more “sex discrimination” ! Well, I for one don’t approve of their characterisation of women as sexual Stepford Wives of this decade or any other.  Talk about backwards, sexist thinking.  Even shallow pop culture trivialisations of feminism for young women’s consumption — by characterising women’s rights as “Riot Grrrl” and, before that, “Girl Power”, are genuinely more meaningful, in-depth and useful to women, young and old,  than the nonsense of the reviewer and this sociologist; both of whom, via their views, bring shame to the history of women’s struggle, and the women who have fought in every sense for their rights.  There is nothing to celebrate in two bright women celebrating as a way to get ahead an encouragement for women to focus on their appeal to men via their own looks/consideration of them/flirting with them/body language/tone of voice/femininity. In short, god, let’s say that awful phrase one more time: ero*tic capital.  It’s as if I’ve just swallowed a cup of cold sick thinking and writing about this.  Let’s hope you don’t feel the same way from reading about it.

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Filed under abuse of women, anti-feminism, catherine hakim, feminism, misogyny, non-fiction, right-wing women, Sexism, Stepford Wives, women's rights

Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi – A fable-like novel of feminist power and revenge

Do you love and relish great opening lines to fiction?  Then how about this:

“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough . . .”

Fantastic, eh? This is strong, provocative fiction whose style is reminiscent of such distinctive writers and their fiction as — sadly many of whom are now either discarded or vastly under-appreciated — Gordon Lish (Peru: A Novel, Dear Mr. Capote), early Jenny Diski (Nothing Natural) and Andrea Dworkin (Mercy, Ice and Fire), in terms of its honesty to consider and portray the disturbing realities of society through the experiences of its female characters and the chameleon forms of violence perpetrated against women. Dirty Weekend, an account of 48 hours of violence against one woman, and her retributions, is by turns bizarre, poignant, powerful and empathetic.

The plot

From the outset, the story of Bella takes on the level of a fable or parable. By the opening pages, she has already been threatened with sexual violence by a man who lives opposite her. He promises to pour acid on her skin. But then ‘Fate found Bella one night … and whispered in her ear. And when she woke up, she knew she’d had enough’. It is from this point that she is empowered; no longer wishing to stay persecuted and victimised by the ignorance and violence so common in so many men. She decides, with the help of a mystic, that – since men seem only to view her as a victim – she is unable to at least act even as a bystander and avoid their glare, so concludes that she has no other choice than to take action.

In a series of explicitly and clinically described episodes, Bella enacts her ideas of retribution upon one violent man after another. If these extreme scenes are powerful, it is because of the brutal honesty in the evocation of Bella’s pain and outrage, and the attitudes of the men that only wish to threaten and oppress any iota of self-regard that she may have.

Recommendation

It is an uncompromising, powerful novel, working as it does within the ugly, hypocritical shadows that our supposedly moral society casts.  Occasionally clichés do spill over the overall quality of the writing, yet Zahavi’s key strength and great talent that is to be celebrated — and ridiculous to deny — is in her fluidity and razor-blade precision to evoke a dark vision; a sinister fable-like version of feminist understanding and empowerment.  Unfortunately, this novel is sadly, unforgivably, out of print, but you can buy it from Amazon as a Kindle edition (for the US and UK markets). However, for those without a Kindle, you should be able to borrow a copy from your local library (or through their inter-library loan system), or otherwise buy a low-cost copy from one of the online secondhand dealers, such as abebooks. com/.co.uk, alibris.com/.co.uk, or one of Amazon‘s marketplaces.

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Filed under Andrea Dworkin, Dear Mr Capote, Dirty Weekend, feminism, fiction, Gordon Lish, Ice and Fire, literary classics, Mercy, misogyny, violence against women

The Blind Owl – A Persian/Iranian literary classic about madness, obsession, betrayal and murder. In brief: GOD, I love it.

Front cover of The Blind Owl novella published by OneWorld Classics

Click on the image to buy it (free worldwide delivery)

I’ve just read The Blind Owl, first published in Farsi in 1937 by Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat (confusingly, his name is spelt in two different ways, depending on when/where he was published in English/American editions).  It is a hallucinatory tale that is simultaneously sinister, troubling, disturbing — yet always compellingly so.  The eeriness itself, its atmosphere, is reminiscent of Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-tale Heart, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Kafka’s claustrophobic environments and strange experiences in The Castle and in the city of Joseph K.’s The Trial.  It strikes me that the author has consciously accounted for these influences, though there may be many others from Persian/Iranian literature, which provided his own cultural background.

So how could you not be drawn in? After all, it is a story of madness, obsession and horrific murder, even — perhaps — necrophilia, and of lying down with her in bed as she decomposes (I say perhaps because his madness or at least derangement and hallucinatory frame of mind makes uncertain whatever he says or claims to have done).  Some of this, understandably, does sound like some sort of gross-out horror story, right?  Actually, parts are, just a tad, but nothing compared to the provocative gross-out crimes to be found in certain fictions by such entertaining writers as sorry, these examples are just off the top of my head, not some well-thought through/ranked list — Joe R. Lansdale, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates (especially her novel, Zombie), Stephen King, Val McDermid and Hubert Selby, Jr..

But I assure you, while shocking/horrific, it’s more that you feel disturbed than grossed out, I think (unless I’m some sort of psychonut and just can’t tell anymore ahem).  The tale is sophisticated and complex and at the same time it is ‘told’ to you in such a matter-of-fact way albeit in a poeticised form of mad narrative, it does all remain coherent, rather than something out of  Joycean stream-of-conscious that inevitably it is disturbing, though surely this should be the case of any tale of madness?

"Ooh, yes, just adjust that screw a bit to my right, dear. Aah, that's better. Lovely reconditioning, that." Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell in one of the great scenes of A Clockwork Orange

The English translation by D. P. Costello in fact, it is the one originally commissioned and first published in the UK way back in 1957 is clear, using accessible language, and yet, as I’ve indicated, it is also deeply poetic.  The language itself, though, is part of the tricksiness/duplicity of the story, in that you begin to realise by which time it is too late anyway to do anything about it that you are being lulled into a false sense of security, of trusting the narrator, and you become increasingly aware that the simplicity of the telling is part of a trap the author has set you, the reader… you, read on innocently, uncertain of the future you are about to imbibe, and almost immediately the author has a stranglehold on you as you’re imprisoned in the character’s mind; yet the quality of the language, and the compelling strangeness of the story itself makes you feel as if your eyelids are forced open and you’re being made to watch.  Akin, I felt, to that famous scene — I refer you, dear reader, to the lovely image left/above in this paragraph — with Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which the charming sadist Alex is being forcefully ‘reconditioned’ to become conformist and obedientExcept here, the power alone of The Blind Owl is enough to glue you to itself.  Now that’s quality fiction for you.

The plot

The narrator comes across as an unassuming, simple man, who makes his living as an artist creating designs on  the lids of pen-cases.  The design is always the same image — ‘in the grip of a mad obsession’, as he sometimes unconsciously refers to himself as if his actions were those of another — the design is of ‘a Cypress tree at the foot of which is squatting a bent old man bent like a fakir [… and] a woman ‘holding a flower of morning glory in her hand. Between them runs a stream’.  This is one of many phrases he repeats throughout the telling of his tale.

You soon realise that madness is central to the story as is murder (or, that the madness  itself is caused by the murder).  A handful of pages in, and he’s describing to you the severing of his wife’s head with a knife, and his disposal of her body is grotesque and surreal, involving amputation, a heavy suitcase — three guesses as to why — and a creepy old man who helps him bury it.  But has he really done these things or are they, in fact, delusions/fantasies?  Either way, whether he’s ‘only’ deranged and has fantasised about killing of his wife, or if he actually has, you can’t help but read on, Alex-like, ‘looking’ at what is happening to him, in the same unhealthily curious way drivers/passers-by often look at a traffic accident, wanting, yet not wanting, to ‘witness’ the horror, blood, guts and terror of it in stark reality. Yet probably most of us do look.  It is like that here; it is genuinely disturbing to think we, in ways comparable to the narrator, can’t help ourselves.

Clearly, the narrator is having — or has experienced — what seems a complete nervous breakdown/break from reality, and the world he describes is that of a socio/psychopath, though he never really sees himself as such or, if he does, it’s only momentary; a fleeting thought.  He has no real sense of time, admitting that an event of a thousand years ago may seem to him more real than something that occurred yesterday. On top of which, he has an addiction to opium —  in ever-increasing daily doses, and is drinking wine.  You know from how he describes himself and his situation that he is absolutely conflicted and confused in a number of ways: he wants — is compelled — to tell you his story, yet at the same time he tells you he smokes opium because he wants to forget; and that he’s not even sure what really happened: ‘life is a fiction’, he says early on, ‘a mere story’.  And here we are, smack in the heart of it.  He doesn’t seem to sleep, he hardly eats or if he’s eating, it’s making no positive difference to him… he is becoming a ‘shadow’, he says, just wasting away:  ‘A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this, that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived’.  He is alienated, an outsider, despising and being disgusted by others and has no value for or appreciation of his own life: in these ways he is reminiscent of the central characters of two existentialist novels in particular (though this novel was published before both of these; did this novel influence the two authors and their fiction I’m about to cite?!): Meursault, in Camus’ Outsider, and Antoine in Sartre’s Nausea.  In The Blind Owl, the character thinks that ‘For some reason all activity, all happiness on the part of other people made me feel like vomiting.  I was aware that my own life was finished and was slowly and painfully guttering out’; he has nightmares of beheadings, of butchering; the butcher’s opposite drawing his eye when the former works away with his knife into the flesh of his dead animals just delivered to him; he obsesses about the knife, he buys one exactly like the butcher’s own.

Such a breakdown doesn’t exclude his own sane insights into his self and circumstances and events, yet these thread through as a pattern in a cloth of a different colour overall (for example, just two pages into the story, while admitting his one ‘fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself’, he immediately goes on to say ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people’).  These and others demonstrate moments of genuine self-awareness/insight, yet you know they’re not the threads holding the entire cloth together anymore; his sanity is in that sense a sort of occasional, remote echo, one of many operating levels both psychological as well as verbal in the telling of his story. In fact, only in the first an very very brief chapter, in effect a prologue, does he seem to be entirely compos mentis, as he leads on to say he is determined to make sense of it all ….

You know that he utterly loathes his wife, and he obsesses and returns time and again to key phrases and expressions, just like someone with a serious psychological fissure/crack in their worldview. Yet even his hatred for his wife — he only ever refers to her as ‘the bitch’ ‘because no other name would suit her so well’ and he believes her to have had countless affairs; not even affairs, as such, but animalistic, sexual betrayals, sleeping with anyone she chooses — and yet his hatred appears to be based upon love and lust turned dark, inwards, brooding, sadistic in tone and, ultimately, vengeful. You come to understand that because his love for her is unreciprocated (as we know, this perennial theme of revenge/murder occurs often, whether in real life or in fiction).  He believes she never truly cared for him, unless possibly when she was a child; he has loved her since then. You’re also never quite sure what is part of his own inner world; his temptations and perceptions based on manifestations of rage and frustration, and instead to what degree he has truly acted upon what he refers to — especially, of course, the killing of his wife. You do know that he is morbidly consumed by her, and wants to consume her; that he feels humiliated, ridiculed and belittled by her sexual betrayals and the whole local population knowing what’s going on.

It ends as it begins, the character with his psychosis, his derangement, his endless circling, repeating thoughts and memories and hallucinatory memories; his guilt weighing down on him … or is that weight he feels on his chest bearing down on him actually the body/remains of his wife? You decide.

Recommended? Hello!

At first the author’s relentless use of certain stock phrases may irritate you, as it did me, and you may find yourself thinking is this just bad writing?! and doesn’t the author know he’s repeating himself?!  But of course, he’s not obsessively repeating himself, rewinding and spiralling down and up and back and forth like a distressed mouse in a mad scientist’s maze. Rather, you recall, that you are in his character’s world (doh — yes, I know I is a muppet!).  The stock phrases are typically haunting and seemingly disconnected/disassociated from the real world; hey include ‘I am writing only for my shadow’; ‘I saw a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress tree with a young girl […] The old man was biting the nail of the index finger of his left hand’.  He often hears a ‘mocking laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end’; the laugh issues from his own mouth – sometimes he’s aware of this, sometimes not and attributes to others, or perhaps it is others, or bother; but there is darkness, and there is a sense of death he, and you the reader, have.  He thinks ‘Only death does not lie’; well, he’s not dead, so is he telling the truth?  Besides which, there are many other strange memories/and repeated, recollected phrases.  All of these are hugely effective; you go from thinking WTF to god, this is bloody good and creepy!; voyeuristically, sadistically, you delight in the telling of the tale; you’re thinking, wow, this guy really is deranged and you keep on turning the pages, reading as quickly as you can.  And at the same time you feel for him, knowing he could well be a sadistic murderer of his own wife, so you also feel disgusted, appalled; creeped out; yes, horribly, delightfully so, for a fiction reader’s need of suspension of disbelief.  Yet you also feel conflicted, because he may ‘only’ be deranged and actually needs therapeutic help (and staying off the opium and wine wouldn’t be a bad idea — unless he did kill her!). The narrative, then, has real power.

It is well worth the read, despite its cover price (after all, it’s only 150 pages in length, and that’s because of some generous layout/design — my first Harvill paperback edition of the same translation only had 98 pages). On this point, however, the link I have embedded in the book cover’s image at the top of this post is to online booksellers, BookDepository.com, and they have provided a 19% discount from the RRP and include free delivery wherever you are in the world, so you’re paying a total, inclusive price of €7.21 / £6.45 / $10.38, which surely we all agree is better than a kick in the rubber parts, right?  (Okay, so most things are…) On another positive note, OneWorld Classics, which has produced this edition, is an imprint within an excellent indie publisher and, as with their other editions and imprints, this is high-quality, as you should rightly expect.

On a sad note, however, it is disappointing that this marvellous fiction and Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat himself don’t seem more read or known to non-Persian readers of world literature, as it deserves a wider audience and reputation, along with the publication and promotion of some of his other works into English (there’s only one other, listed in my last sentence, below, as far as I can tell, that is available).  After all, during the author’s lifetime he was regarded as the foremost Persian/Iranian writer of fiction and I believe he remains so in Iran and among Persian readers and, no doubt, a select group of others.  Also, English-speaking reviewers and publications have already raved about it since its first publication here by Calder publishers in 1957, including The Guardian — I’m afraid this link is the only one to an actual review and not general info about the name highlighted, unlike the others in this paragraph — the award-winning, throbbingly big-brained playwright Tom Stoppard, the award-winning poet, Ted Hughes, The Times Literary Supplement — which I regard as the world’s most respected, widely-read and most wonderful of all intellectual journals — and the novelist, Alan Warner, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award for his first and most well-known novel Morvern Caller. But, of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that a literary classic and great writer has been overlooked or is republished in subsequent decades, yet still has the tendency not to be more widely known (Paula Fox comes to mind as one such example of this phenomenon).  Anyway, I can assure you that, once read, you certainly won’t forget it. So! …Now I can’t wait to read a collection of Hidayat/Hedayat’s short stories: Three Drops of Blood. Bring it oooooon (erm, yes, I do get rather excited by great books phwor!).

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Filed under A Clockwork Orange, Camus, fiction, Henry James, Jean-Paul Sartre, literary classics, misogyny, Nausea, Outsider, Sadegh Hedayat, Sadiq Hidayat, The Blind Owl, The Castle, The Trial, The Turn of the Screw, violence against women

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Still Selby’s best novel?

Controversy has always surrounded Selby, Jr.’s writing. From the start, with Last Exit (being his first novel), his original UK publisher Calder and Boyers, faced government prosecution in 1967, under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It was a major trial, especially as it was originally found guilty of being `obscene’, and because, more importantly, the Appeal in 1968 overturned that decision and paved way for a much more open-minded interpretation of literature as to merit.

In some interviews, and in one introduction to the novel that he wrote, Selby himself said that he when he was writing this novel (six years in the making), he `was aware of the rage and anger within’ (quoted from the QPB edition in 1994). He also acknowledged that, while he has no favourite among his novels, he singles out The Room, and then this novel, notably, because through it he `truly did learn how to write’ (quote from same QPB edition).

Set in New York in the late 1950s, the story grabs you from the start, conveying an incredibly raw, visceral, yet always disturbingly poetic quality throughout. It is superb for its genuine grittiness, horribly grim reality and ugliness of modern inner city life – of thought, attitude, action and feeling – both projected outwards, as well as internalised, all of which Selby captures through voices of the dispossessed, alienated, disenfranchised. Selby is mould naturalist/realist fiction, but he goes a significant step further, in that, often through his first-person character narratives/viewpoints, he achieves an hallucinatory quality whose intensity strengthens the realities he conveys.

One critic, James R. Giles, in his excellent study of Selby’s works, Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. (Understanding Contemporary American Literature), wrote `It is true that, while all the characters in the novel are victimized by a brutal environment, they are guilty of moral failures that make their victimization complete and irrevocable’, and Selby does this by exploring without fear or judgement powerful themes that resonant as much today as they did on first publication in 1964 in the US: drug addiction, misogyny, violence of rape and beatings, prostitution, the relentless drudgery and alienation of most jobs as well as unemployment, without value or meaning and hate and a distressingly dark, twisted humour – when not expressed through seething resentment or explosive anger – permeates life in general.

I reckon, Dante would have regarded Last Exit as a worthy match to his own vision of Hell – especially through characters who represent the sick underbelly of the city: self-deluding, beaten-up prostitutes, incredibly violent youths and gangs, a desperately lonely, elderly woman who has no life other than pathetic memories of her dead husband and son, among others. As for disturbing, truly dark humour, one such example will give you a powerful sense of it: at one point, two women sitting chatting on a bench in a miserable New York housing project, joke about and look forward with sick, twisted glee to the prospect of a baby – crawling on an upper-storey tenement window-ledge – falling to its death: they’re disappointed by its being saved in the nick of time).

In particular, the portrayal of the lives of a handful of people is done with great psychological depth, narrated most often from the first-person viewpoint, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion that remains clear, coherent and compelling. These viewpoints capture their desperation, self-loathing, hatred and confusion about themselves and their environments: defiant yet self-deluding Georgette, a hip drag queen who is pathetically in love with Vinnie and convinced she can change him for the better and that he will truly love her; while he is a psychopathic and sociopathic gang leader interested in only in sadistic and often instant gratification; Tralala, a violently angry, predatory prostitute who ultimately is destroyed in the most horrifying way imaginable; Harry – interestingly, that name is ubiquitous among male characters in Selby’s fiction, acting as a synonym for the type of man who is misogynistic, dispossessed, angry, self-loathing, and self-deluding – who is a trade union leader, loathsome, selfish, arrogant and boring, who is despised or at best tolerated by his co-workers – and, worse, whose misogyny is so genuinely convincing and disturbing, which we hear, being `inside his head’, listening trapped to his banal voice, desperation, loathing and perspective, such that it makes Bateman’s misogyny in American Psycho appear not only over the top, but utterly unreal (and never mind Ellis’ darkly satirical intentions).

Rightly and insightfully so, one great critic describes Selby as a `clinician of violence … whose novels have the immediacy of art’ (Josephine Hendin, Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945 (A Galaxy book)), which I think is true; likewise, he is a literary master of demonstrating through his characters a moral ugliness, misogyny and existential despair, and whose power as a novelist, I think, is unprecedented in fiction (Sartre’s famous Nausea (Penguin Modern Classics), by way of contrast, and yet also a great novel of existential despair, is a happy walk in the park compared with Selby’s vision). He is a truly remarkable writer, and, while he wrote six novels in his lifetime, I believe the most powerful and compelling (while not the darkest), remains Last Exit. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a genuine work of art, but its power is dark and troubling, so I would likewise highly recommend you stay clear of this novel if you find yourself in a depressed frame of mind…

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Filed under abuse of women, fiction, Hubert Selby, Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre, Last Exit to Brooklyn, literary classics, misogyny, Nausea, violence against women