Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland

Pointless fact about Marshall McLuhan: he has always been oddly tangled up in my mind with Malcolm McLaren, he of the Sex Pistols and Buffalo Gals. The lingering after-effects of a youthful misunderstanding. Malcolm McLaren, in turn, gets mixed up with Malcolm McDowell.

I’m a fan of Douglas Coupland’s novels — they’re not all masterpieces, but they’re always worth reading — and his fascination with media, pop culture and technology made him seem an intriguing person to be writing a biography of McLuhan, based on my vague idea of McLuhan’s work.

And I think it’s true that there’s a real meeting of minds there, and this book is quite readable, but I was left wondering if biography was the best form it could have taken. It might have been more interesting to read a book in which Coupland responded directly to the work; i.e. by taking a couple of essays and surrounding them with commentary, annotation and footnotes. A bit of playful fisking.

Still, the book served well enough as a short, light, introduction to McLuhan’s life. It made me think I ought to pick up one of McLuhan’s own books, so it clearly worked on that level.


The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

The Fortunes of Wangrin is my book from Mali for the Read The World challenge.

It’s a novel — or at least it seems to be universally described as a novel, despite the fact that Hampaté Bâ says in the Afterword:

I don’t know why, even is spite of the specific assertions contained in the Foreword, some people continue to ask themselves whether this narrative is fiction, reality, or a clever mixture of both…

I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who might still be in doubt, that I heard everything related to the life of the hero, from the account of his birth (a story told by his parents), through the relationship with the animist world, the various predictions, and so forth, all the way to the downfall caused by commercial bankruptcy, from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humour, and vigour, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Diele Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.

[…] I rounded off the information already at my disposal by visiting everyone who had frequented him… I have made up no event or circumstances whatsoever. Every single story was told by the people in question or by someone in their circle, either griot, houseboy, or friend.

Which is interesting case. Because it does read like fiction, stylistically; I certainly read it that way and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. It is told as a single coherent narrative with the kind of omniscient third person narrator normally associated with fiction. To use a television analogy, it is more like a dramatisation of real events than a documentary. And I don’t think it is like a biography in the standard sense, a work of history intended to establish the true events of a person’s life.

Rather, it is a work of oral history — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Hampaté Bâ was an ethnologist and folklorist. It has the qualities of a good storyteller telling the story of their own life: not perhaps outright fabrication, but just enough massaging and selection and elision and exaggeration to turn the messiness of reality into something beautifully moulded and polished. It’s like a memoir told in the third person.

And Wangrin is certainly an interesting character; the son of a prominent family, he was sent to the colonial school to learn French and worked as an interpreter, which put him in position as the literal and symbolic intermediary between the French colonial administration and the native population, able to play off both sides against each other. Which he did, enriching himself in the process. So a bit of a crook, then, even if a likeable one.

His position between the French and the Africans makes this book a fascinating look into the functioning of colonial life; one of the more striking things for me was how thin the layer of bureaucracy seems to have been: a very small number of French administrators on their own out in the bush, in charge of a large population of people of various languages and religions with whom they share neither culture nor language. And that makes the interpreter a rather more important figure than the title suggests.

I certainly recommend the book. Like so many of these books in translation, it had a few too many endnotes for my taste, and the edition I read had some truly awful typography inflicted on it* — but I can hardly blame Hampaté Bâ for that.

* The front cover and the page headers are set in Lithos Bold, a typeface which is a typographic cliché for black/African literature, despite being based on Greek inscriptions, so that’s at the very least unimaginative; but worse, the chapter headings use a numeral in Lithos Bold and then a chapter heading and an ornamental initial in Papyrus, another typeface used to give a generic impression of the exotic, and a rather ugly one at that.

» The masks are from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I just found themby putting ‘Mali’ into the search engine, and thought they were particularly striking.


The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling

The Unknown Matisse is the first of two volumes, taking our hero from 1869-1908. I actually bought it some time ago on Jee Leong‘s recommendation, but it has taken me some time to finish, mainly I think because the simple physical size of it makes it slightly awkward to read in bed. It’s not that huge, but it’s quite a fat volume and printed on large format paper to make space for some colour reproductions of the work. Which are, of course, lovely and very welcome.

It’s fascinating to read about the outrage that greeted paintings which now seem, if not tame exactly, at least uncontroversial. Indeed the first time he shocked the Parisian public, it was with a painting (The Dinner Table) that now looks positively conventional.* Over the past hundred years, outraging the public has become an explicit part of the job description for artists; but how much more satisfying to shock people not by placing a sculpture of Christ in a glass of urine, or exhibiting a work consisting of a room with the lights going on and off, but with a painting of a woman in a hat.

Not that Matisse seems to have been temperamentally inclined to shock people for its own sake. Some of the other modern artists obviously rather enjoyed the opportunity to wind up the public: André Derain came back from a visit to London with a classically tailored English suit made fauvist by the choice of a green fabric, with a red waistcoat and yellow shoes. Matisse, though, was more inclined to respectability: partially because unlike most of his contemporaries he had a young family, which meant he needed at least enough saleable work to keep them in food. But also because (through no fault of his own) he was caught up in the most magnificently baroque financial and political scandal I’ve ever heard of — really, it would merit a book by itself — which gave him enough experience of public notoriety to last a lifetime.

It’s a fine book, readable, evocative, well-researched.  Or at least it gives the impression of being well-researched, which is as much as I have the expertise to judge.

* Although actually, in one of their periodic fits of cynical outrage about the Turner Prize, the Daily Mail held a ‘Not the Turner Prize’ competition, open to the public, and the work in that suggested that there are still plenty of people in Britain who feel that the highest aspiration of the painter should be photographic accuracy. Preferably of tigers. Or steam trains.


Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow

 Jenny Uglow wrote the excellent The Lunar Men, about the Lunar Society that included Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Matthew Boulton. Nature’s Engraver is a biography of the wood engraver Thomas Bewick who, born in 1753, was just about contemporary with those men. He worked in Newcastle at a time when it was just starting to turn from a small provincial town into a major industrial city, but his subject matter is overwhelmingly rural. His masterpiece was his History of British Birds, which, quite apart from its artistic merits, was a landmark in the development of British ornithology.

The sensitivity with which he manages to reproduce feathering in an awkward medium like woodcut is remarkable. But the incredibly fine detail is even more apparent in the little decorative vignettes he produced which were used to fill gaps in the text of books. Engraved into the cross section of pieces of box wood, they are rarely more than 3″ across, but they are staggeringly finely worked. In the book, which is decorated with these vignettes throughout, they are printed at life-size; but since computer screens are simply not high-enough resolution to show them that way, here’s a 2″ section enlarged to show the workmanship: 

The book is almost worth reading for the pictures, but Uglow also does a great job of evoking the period: the life of a provincial craftsman; the growth of interest in natural history that coincides, not perhaps by chance, with the coming of industry; radical politics and the response to the American and French Revolutions.

» Both pictures are taken from the website of the Bewick Society.


Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The definite article in the title seems a little hubristic. I don’t know if this is the definitive biography of Shakespeare — haven’t read any of the hundreds of others — but I certainly enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I completely trust Ackroyd as a historian; it’s probably unfair, but I just get a nagging sense sometimes that he’s a bit too fond of a good story. He has clearly done a ton of research, though, and as you’d expect he’s very good at providing historical context. And he writes well.

bar in Neuchatel, found on flickr, used under a CC licence

There’s a perception, perhaps, that we have very little historical record of Shakespeare other than the plays themselves, so if anything I was surprised by how much material there was: legal stuff, references to him in other people’s writing and so on. Certainly there’s enough to build up a broad-brush picture of his life. What there isn’t is much that is truly personal: no letters back and forth between London and Stratford, no learned essays on theatrical technique, no gossipy personal journal.

So instead of the common pattern of literary biographies, where the biographer tries to use the details of the life to shed light on the work, here it’s more often the other way round: trying to mine the plays and poems for details that might tell us something about his life. It’s all hints and scraps, and any conclusions are tentative and contingent, but it’s all quite interesting even so.

In the end, I think Shakespeare remains elusive: but then, if we knew every moment of his life, I suspect it would only serve to emphasise the fundamental mysteriousness of genius. What biographical detail could possibly be adequate as an explanation?

» Pub sign in Neuchatel, Switzerland, posted to Flickr by iwouldstay (Stefan) and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Culture Other

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a biography of Stalin, focussed on his domestic life and the tightly-knit group of people around him: his own family, and politicians, bodyguards, and their families.

As a piece of history, it’s very impressive. It’s clearly the result of a huge amount of research by Montefiore: he seems to have personally interviewed just about every living relative of the major figures, quite apart from the endless reading of archives and memoirs that must have been involved. As a casual reader I found it slightly hard going at times. I didn’t do it any favours by largely reading it in bed at night, but even allowing for that, I found it hard to keep track of all the people involved. I found I was having difficulty remembering which was which even of the most important figures, like Molotov, Mikoyan and Malenkov.

I don’t know if that’s an inevitable result of a book with quite so many people in it — it’s not a subject I’ve read about before, and all the unfamiliar Russian names didn’t help — or if it’s my fault for reading it while drowsy, or if there’s more Montefiore could have done to fix the various people in my mind. I didn’t find I got much sense of their various personalities that would have helped me keep them separate. Still, what I did get was a strong sense of Stalin himself, and his trajectory from a charming (though ruthless) young man living an almost campus lifestyle at the Kremlin, surrounded by the young families of his colleagues, to a sickly, garrulous old despot wandering nomadically from dacha to dacha and living in a vortex of terror and awe.

But even a sense of what Stalin was like to live and work with doesn’t get you much closer to understanding his motivations and the motivations of people around him. Was it just about power or did he believe to the end that he was acting in the interests of Russia and the party? The inner clique around Stalin clearly knew at some level that all the denunciations and show trials were arbitrary and could attach to anyone: they saw the process happen over and over again. And when colleagues they had known for years confessed to ludicrously unlikely accusations, they surely can’t have believed it. But the things they said and wrote suggest that at the same time they sort of did believe it, and remained theoretically committed to the ideology to the end. It made me inclined to reread 1984, because the concept of ‘doublethink’ is so startlingly apt.

In some ways the Stalinist purges are even more incomprehensible than the Holocaust. The Holocaust at least has a kind of simple central narrative: an attempt to exterminate the Jews. It fits into a thousand year history of European anti-Semitism as well as a broader human history of racism and genocide. The purges don’t offer any kind of similarly clear story: at different times they focussed on different things. It might be a whole social class, a profession, an ethnicity, or it might start with one or two individuals that Stalin was suspicious of and spread out through their colleagues and families to take in hundreds of people. Targets included kulaks, engineers, doctors, army officers, Poles, Jews, ethnic Germans, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Koreans: in fact any ethnic minority that could provide a possible focus for dissent. The total number of deaths, including not just those executed but those who died in slave labour camps or famine, is disputed; but 20 million is apparently a plausible ballpark figure.

At one stage Stalin was setting two quotas for the different regions: the number to be shot and the number to be arrested. These numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but the regions were soon writing back and requesting that their quotas be extended — out of ideological zeal? In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty? Or just because these things have a momentum of their own?

It’s a staggering story and despite the slight reservations I expressed earlier, this is a very impressive book.

» The photo, Posing for communisim, was posted to Flickr by famous boxer and is used under a by-nc-nd licence. It was taken at the 2006 May Day protest in London and shows members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The CPGB-ML website has a link to the Stalin Society, “formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” Which just goes to show… well, I don’t know what, really.