August Miscellany (2010)

So I return to produce the first monthly miscellany since February. It is my intention under my new regime that these miscellanies will actually be shorter and I will have more individual entries.

Since my recovery on August 5th (as usual it was fairly sudden and I can therefore be specific) the rest of the month has been a good one. My big regret is that the weather has not been better as I have missed so much of the summer and the sun this year.

On the political front I do note that it appears that there is the beginning of a fight-back against the Lib-Con cuts in the form of a Coalition of Resistance ( : although I shall only be a side-line observer (my disastrous attempt at public engagement has taught me that lesson!) I hope this might see the start of some kind of united left front in England, even if its aims are limited (of course as a veteran observer of English left politics for many years I would not be that optimistic – but hope must spring eternal in the socialist breast or you would just roll over and die!.) The need for such a Coalition and the individual effect of the cuts and attacks which the LibCons are making is vividly illustrated in the following disgusting story, which I am indebted to my friend Ellen for pointing out to me, at


 Caroline Franklin’s Byron A Literary Life is an entry in the MacMillan Literary Lives series. Each book presents a literary biography of a particular writer. In the case of Byron this is particularly fascinating and interesting, because we are able to have a biographical account stripped of all the many complications, debates, arguments, theses, hobbyhorse and interpretations which inevitably litter the straight biographies. This is not to say that these are not of importance or relevance, because they are; but we do not really need another one. The Byron biography is an industry in its own right. Here Franklin takes us on a fairly chronological journey, although each one of the six chapters is arranged around a central theme (Byron and Murray, Byron and the Theatre etc.). We are given a great deal of information on the particular cultural conditions in which Byron was working, especially those relating to the business of publishing. Franklin is one of my favourite writers on Byron. She is always clear, but full of insights and ideas. Her obviously genuine love of the work communicates itself without sacrificing any critical rigour. Franklin summarises her purposes and ideas in writing the book in the opening chapter by citing Foucault and saying…

This literary life of Byron focuses on such fields of exteriority – those circumstances and interconnections which helped to bring texts into being in their particular historical moment.

Byron A Literary Life is an excellent account of precisely that. I would hope to re-read it and make a detailed commentary at some future date. Very highly recommended.

A couple more Very Short Introductions ( see  for comments on the series). Catriona Kelly’s A Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature was extremely disappointing. For this I blame the OUP (Oxford University Press – the publishers) as much as Kelly. Early on she writes ‘There are many excellent linear outlines of Russian literary history already: there is no place for another one’. But a linear history, preferably excellent, was exactly what I was looking for. And I think this is exactly what the book’s title and anyone who has read other entries in the series would expect. The OUP should have said ‘well if you don’t want to write such a book go away and we will find someone who will’. In fact this is a case of a book which fails under the Trades Description Act! The book which Kelly does write may well be interesting – it certainly convinced me of the importance of Pushkin in Russian literature – but it signally fails to convey the information I was looking for. There is, for instance, almost nothing at all about Turgenev, in whom I particularly interested as I reading him at the moment. All in all very definitely not recommended as an Introduction to Russian Literature, though it may be of interest to those already well-read in and having a good grasp of the subject.

Nicholas Boyle’s A Very Short Introduction to German Literature was a vast improvement, if merely by doing what it said on the label! Boyle does produce a linear approach, covering all the main writers and setting them in their political and historical context. The problem here is that Boyle becomes more and more polemical as the centuries progress, and his approach to modern literature is decidedly C/conservative – for instance Christa Wolf is mentioned without any reference at all to feminism which seems a most peculiar and critically inept assessment. Still this is a very useful Introduction and will provide me with a basic reading list and approach for when I get the time to actually start reading some German Literature.


The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), directed by Juan Jose Campanella, is an Argentinean movie which won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Oscars. Although described as a thriller, this is in fact a very inadequate description of a movie which is part-thriller, part-love story, part comedy, part psychological study, part political history. Any attempt to describe the story compromises the film’s complexity but some such attempt is necessary. Briefly then it tells of a recently retired state prosecutor (the equivalent of a Deputy District Attorney I would imagine, though my knowledge of the Argentinean justice system is non-existent) who is trying to reassess his life. His focus becomes that of a case of some 25 years earlier in which a young married woman was brutally raped and murdered. The majority of the film is spent in the previous time frame, though at the end we return to the present for the last half-hour or so. The film is over two hours long and I have to admit that there were certainly times in the first hour when I found myself becoming just a little bored. This was an unfair reaction and I suspect that on a second viewing I would actually not experience any of this boredom. And it was probably in any case my own fault. Because viewed purely as a thriller one would undoubtedly say that this is over-long and insufficiently taut. But in fact, and seen in totality, the length is necessary to build up the other aspects of the story which only become apparent with the film’s conclusion.

In particular the extent to which the film is finally revealed as a love-story only becomes apparent towards the end ; it is this which enables the film to have a happy, satisfying and slightly comic ending. The comic aspects are perhaps the most disturbing because, despite Tarantino, it is still an element which I think Western audiences have most difficulty in fitting into a ‘serious’ film. And this film is deeply serious. The politics are a struggle for an averagely ignorant English viewer (which is how I would see myself), because we tend to forget and have little knowledge of what a brutal totalitarian regime Argentina was at the time. In fact I think that the film is set at a very particular time in Argentinean history – the mid 70’s which saw the slide from democracy, through Peronism, to military junta. I am sure that an Argentinean audience would pick up the references very quickly but they are far from obvious (until they become blatant) to a Western audience. In a way then, this film is an act of remembrance for those times. And they are chillingly dramatised in one brilliant scene in a lift and in the film’s second murder – which affects us more than the first because we are emotionally invested in the character who is killed. It is this latter who is also at the centre of the film’s comedy, which makes his assassination all the more shocking.

Cinematically the film is handsomely mounted and has a few interesting and one stunning visual moment. The latter, stunning, one is very out of keeping with the rest of the cinematography and lifted me almost out of my seat: it is also from this point that the film changes pace and the action becomes much more tense and involving. It start as an aerial shot by night  from some distance of a magnificent football stadium; the camera slowly glides in, the noise of crowd and commentator growing, then picks up from overhead the action on the pitch, before moving to a crowd shot, zooming slowly in until our protagonists are picked out. It is an absolutely magnificent shot which is strongly out of keeping with the more staid cinematography of the rest of the movie and I think it is deliberately used to signal the shift of gear to which I have referred. The acting is very fine throughout with the two leads (Ricardo Darin and Soleded Villamil) both giving outstanding performances.

The Secret in Their Eyes is a film which grows in retrospect. I am sure that I missed many things in my first viewing and my respect for it has grown since I saw it (yesterday!). Its genre crossing propensities provide a real depth and in the end it manages to work as both thriller (the final revelation is disturbing and satisfactory), love-story and political commentary. Pulling this trio off is a very considerable feat and I can see why the Oscar was awarded.

[One thing which really annoyed me about this film was its rating – 18. Obviously this had nothing to do with the makers! Now this is a film with a very limited amount of sex and violence – the rape/murder is shown briefly and non-pruriently – far, far less than many Hollywood action movies which get a 15 or even 12 certificate. So why this rating? Because a man’s penis is shown, again very briefly, on-screen. This shot is important for the film, and is in, no possible way, pornographic. But because a particular part of the human anatomy is shown the film cannot be shown to anyone under 18, while the censors are perfectly happy for multiple deaths, often glorifying violent behaviour, to be shown to 15 year olds! It is not that I think anyone under 18 would appreciate this film as in terms of its themes and weight it is definitely aimed at adults, but I still find the rating procedures absurd and objectionable.]

Bon Mots

‘It is economic change that is required. The conditions that led to change if Europe and the United States can not be replicated totally in all societies; it is painfully necessary for the these societies to go through their own revolution’ Petina Gappah The Times 7th August 2010. (on the emancipation of women).


 In 1996, the 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN. Albright maintained that sanctions had proved their value because Saddam had made some admissions about his weapons programmes and had recognised the independence of Kuwait (he did this in 1991, right after the war). Asked whether this was worth the death of half a million children, Albright replied: ‘We think the price is worth it.’ Years later, as Gordon observes, Albright was still ‘trying to explain her way out of her failure to respond more effectively to what she described as “our public relations problem”’. (from  a brilliant piece on the Iraq sanctions to which Ellen Moody referred me – see ).(my highlighting – this is obviously the opposite of a bon mot whatever that may be: rather it is a chillingly horrible example of right-wing realpolitik).

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