From the monthly archives:

November 2022


by Miriam Ronzoni on November 8, 2022

I have been researching around ADHD fairly actively for family reasons in the last year or so, and the Youtube algorithm has hence decided that I must be interested in neurodivergence more broadly. So, thanks to it, I have recently discovered two excellent channels on autism with lots of instructive and nuanced videos – Autism From the Inside by Paul Micallef and Yo Samdy Sam by Samantha Stein (I know, here we go again: isn’t it adorable how it’s 2022 and I have just discovered Youtube content creators?). That, and two insightful conversations I have recently had, got me thinking about the concept of autistic masking. [click to continue…]

Reading Céline

by Chris Bertram on November 6, 2022

I’ve been reading more in French this year. In fact, my last four novels have been in French, which I’m kind-of retrospectively surprised about. Naturally, they come in various degrees of difficulty for someone whose conversational French is good but not perfect. Happily, a good deal of mine was picked up in argot-laden Parisian interactions in the 1970s, and that has definitely helped with some of my more recent choices, and particularly with Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), which is widely thought of as one of the great 20th-century novels in the language, but it little-known in the anglophone world, perhaps because neither of its clunky English translations is available from a mass-market house like Penguin. I wonder also whether Céline’s deplorable personal history (anti-semitism, Nazi collaboration etc) don’t make the prospect of reading him unappealing to an anglophone audience. (Oliver Kamm once wrote to insist on the importance of his enduring cancellation.)

Voyage is a pretty strange book, with an extraordinarily implausible plot, which nevetheless redeems itself through the the penetration of its grimly misanthropic vision, its rush of quotable aphorisms, and its striking conversational language and idiosyncratic vocabulary. We follow the central character, Bardamu, through a quick sequence of different episodes from the First World War, to colonial Africa, to New York and then the Ford Motor Company in Detroit before the novel settles down to a slower-paced telling of the story of the impoverished doctor in the suburbs of Paris he becomes and the murder plot he becomes entwined with. He’s a miserable selfish character, but knows himself to be one, so acts without self-regard while pitilessly dissecting the egoism and brutality of those around him and concluding that pleasure alone can make life bearable in the time before sickness and death. In all of this, he intersects with the mysterious Robinson, whom he first meets in the First World War, then again in Africa, in Detroit and back in the suburbs. The book contains many episodes of stunning description and psychological insight. To name but two, on the Western Front Bardamu is sent on a reconnaisance mission to see if a small town has been occupied by the Germans. The eerie description of him leading a clip-clopping horse through the deserted streets, accompanied by a deserter (Robinson) he has met, would, just on its own, give the book a place in literature. Much later, out on a boating trip with Robinson and his fiancée Madelon, he is invited to a birthday party on a barge and feels acute discomfort and resentment at being treated with generosity by people he knows to be better than he is: his self-hatred feeds his dislike of those who are kind to him. Céline evocation of this sense of resentful underservingness is wonderfully done.

Definitely worth your time, even if Céline was a horrible character, and a book worthy of revived attention. Why don’t Penguin or Oxford World Classics issue a new translation? I’m planning to read Mort à credit over Christmas.

Sunday photoblogging: Marseillan

by Chris Bertram on November 6, 2022


Vote for democracy (please!)

by John Q on November 5, 2022

It seems highly likely that the Republican Party will win control of the US House of Representatives, and possibly also the Senate, next week. Unless the margin is so narrow that a handful of believers in democracy can tip the balance, that will mean the end of electoral democracy in the US for the foreseeable future. Most House Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 election. All (except a few who were on the way out) voted against the Electoral Count Act which is supposed to make cheating more difficult, but which will surely be ignored if necessary. That’s without considering the vast numbers of election deniers who will win (or already hold) crucial offices at state and local level, and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will enable them further. And once the Republicans hold all the levers of power, they will never let go of them.

There is still a slim chance that this disaster can be staved off but, even if it isn’t, it will be a shameful memory to have abstained, or voted for a third party with no chance, in this last real election. That’s true whether the decision is out of laziness, hopelessness or a pseudo-left (in reality, aristocratic) view that both sides are equally bad. If you fall into one of these categories, (or if you actually want a Trumpist dictatorship), please don’t comment on this post, or interact with me in any way from now on.

Everyone in the world will be affected by the end of American democracy, but the great majority of us have no vote. All we can do is appeal to those who do to make the right choice, as I am doing here.

It’s been a week since Elon Musk, funded by a distasteful assortment of backers, bought Twitter. In no particular order, some thoughts on what it means for various groups.

Predictably, swaths of US employees have been sacked without notice or compensation, in contravention of Californian law. Many of them were sacked soon before share ownership rewards were to deliver. All of them were ordered a week ago to work “24/7” on objectives the new management deemed urgent. For the several hundred at-risk or sacked employees in the UK and Ireland, there are legal protections which may be harder to ignore. But breaking labour law is at worst subject to fines, so simply a cost benefit operation for firms who can break the law with impunity. (Following a UK ferry operator sacking all its ship workers and immediately employing agency staff earlier this year, there is a growing case for strategic and profitable law-breaking on this scale to be criminalised to create a genuine disincentive. I don’t see the next Labour government having the backbone to do it, however.)

The US employees will find themselves out on the street with no health insurance. That’s catastrophic, and stop-gap insurance cover is prohibitively expensive. I availed of it myself over a decade ago, and it was more than a thousand dollars a month – not the kind of money you have lying around when you’ve just been sacked. Many senior Twitter managers resigned before they were sacked, and the mass lay-offs were clearly in the post, so many employees – the ones with the sense not to work 24/7 to keep a job they were likely to lose, anyway – will have taken steps to stay in contact with former colleagues once they’re locked out of their work messaging channels. The levels of chaos and dysfunction inside Twitter right now can only be imagined. Relatively few workers are unionised, and in these situations many people think they can keep their jobs by screwing their co-workers or just ignoring abuse, so those who remain will be in an increasingly toxic situation. It can be fifty-fifty as to whether the lucky ones are those who got sacked or walked early on. [click to continue…]