Sunday 21 July 2013

Re-imagining Nationalism in Literature

Samuel Selvon's "The Lonely Londoners"

There can be few more contentious topics than nationalism. In the UK – or, more accurately, in England – nationalism is seen inextricable from racism, zealous hatred and kneejerk reactionarism. Ask someone to describe a nationalist and they will likely describe an EDL member, a staunch opponent of immigration, a white supremacist etc etc. 

It has become a sort of Nietzchean slave morality – a belief defined completely by an opposition to another, and therefore an unsubstantial one. It creates an ‘us v. them’ scenario – those within the haven of our national boundaries (with justifiable reason to be there) versus those without.

This highlights the arbitrary nature of modern nationalism, specifically English nationalism. During World War Two, when Britain was under a real threat of invasion by the forces of Hitler’s Germany, such nationalism became almost a practical necessity, if a sometimes unpleasant one. Nowadays, with most of the world connected in an open forum of information exchange, it feels archaic and redundant.

Johann Gottfried Herder first coined the term “nationalism” in the 1770s while developing his philosophical concept of the “Volksgeist”, or “spirit of the people”. Seventy years later, another prominent German writer, Arthur Schopenhauer, would pour scorn on the concept, and on people who hold nationalism up as a defining facet of their character;

“The cheapest sort of pride,” Schopenhauer wrote, “is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud.”

Schopenhauer was writing over 160 years ago, but his comment on nationalism and national pride still stokes the fires of debate today. The truth is – speaking from my experience as an Englishman – the majority of English people would readily distance themselves from the “nationalist” tag, while simultaneously attempting to renegotiate some semblance of national pride from elsewhere.

For example, you may cry when England lose a penalty shootout, you may proselytise about the unparalleled beauty of the Peak District or the Lakes, you may feel a flush of pride when watching footage of the Olympic closing ceremony – but are you a nationalist? No way!

Nationalism is an increasingly awkward concept, particularly now that transnational borders are becoming more fluid and global mobility is more readily accessible. It seems to me that a person should align their pride to their surroundings and to their community – on as wide a scale as they may wish – rather than practice a simple, blind loyalty to a sovereign state.

Literature thrives off this awkward pairing of the individual human soul and the arbitrary groupings of nationality. Passages in Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” , for example, act as symphonic love letters to the Czech capital Prague, but are told through the eyes of exiles and neurotics, each dislocated from the city in their own unique way.

Another example is Salman Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. In his 1995 novel, Rushdie deconstructs what is supposedly a key aspect of nationalism – language; exposing it as the organic, polymorphous beast that it truly is, all the while in the midst of a Portuguese merchant enclave in India, and later in southern Spain.

The blisteringly brief, but nonetheless brilliant novel “The Lonely Londoners” by Samuel Selvon is amongst the most immediate examples of negotiated nationalism in literature. Penned in 1956, the novel charts the life of a group of West Indian immigrants who arrived in London following the British Nationality Act of 1948, the parliamentary bill that effectively ushered in the first waves of migrant workers from the Commonwealth.

The book examines the different cultures emanating from distinct Caribbean islands and their transplantation into a metropolis on the cusp of the next stage of its evolution, cultures that become unintentionally homogenised as the émigrés clamour to find their place in a new society. In the eyes of the indigenous Brits, this gaggle of lonely Londoners are refugees from only one nation: “Black”.

Trinidadian, Jamaican, Antiguan, Barbadian, even Nigerian; none of these distinctions matter in the eyes of the racially suspicious post-war Britons that Selvon’s characters come into contact with. It is this aspect that makes the novel one of the most fascinating critiques of modern nationalism and identity in twentieth century literature.

As the global community continues to develop, and artistic inspiration ceases to be limited by parochial geographical locale, the debate surrounding nationalism – and the great art and literature that springs forth from it – can only become more fascinating, more discomfited and more vital to our sense of human identity, than ever before.

Saturday 20 July 2013

A Writer’s Hangover - Literature and Alcohol

Today an interesting article appeared on The Guardian’s website entitled “Why Do Writers Drink?”. Penned by Blake Morrison, the article discussed the relationship between alcohol and literature, examining the drinking habits – and, obviously, the writing habits – of some of the best loved authors of the past two centuries.

On reading the piece, I began to question what it was about the article I found interesting. At its heart is a generalisation, and one that I found troubling: writers, by definition, like to drink.

As with most generalisations, this is perhaps unfair, although history does record a long line of writers who looked for success in the bottom of a bottle, as well as a long line of drinkers who looked for a way out in the written word.

Morrison’s smart conclusion sheds some light on why this may be.

“Most [great authors] get there despite the drinking, not because of it,” he writes. "'Drank like a fish, wrote like an angel,' would make a pleasing epitaph. 'Drank like a fish, wrote like a fish' is more likely.”

Writing is an exercise in exposing oneself to the world. While writers are self indulgent in what they create, no one sets out to write a novel that no one is going to read, and as such they are preparing their souls for a thorough going over whenever they sit down to work.

This takes courage, not to mention temerity and fortitude. Human beings, as a species, have been known to turn to liquor in search of these qualities. This might explain the link, and why writers are susceptible to this kind of substance abuse, but to imply that it is unique to literature in any way is disingenuous.

In my own experience, drinking and writing in tandem has produced staggeringly variable results.  I drink, very often I drink too much, but nowadays I ensure that my drinking and the mechanical process of actually putting pen to paper remain separate.

William Wordsworth wrote about poetry as taking its “origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I find that this is mirrored in the Hemingway quote that Morrison uses in his piece: 

"What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whiskey?" asks Ernest, presumably while pouring himself a straight.

When you’re drunk, ideas come pouring forth from you. Probably only one in every 100 will be of any use to you, but maybe – just maybe – one might be the key to unlocking that tricky part of your novel, or creating a satisfactory closing stanza for your poem. However, I can think of few worse states to be in when applying the necessary finesse to those raw ideas than blind drunk.

I found this out to my detriment in the early days of my writing. Reading back over poems and prose composed drunk in my late teens and early twenties is like being first on the scene of a car accident: terrifying, horrifying and instantly humbling. Mind you, so is reading most of the stuff I produced sober in those years.

I must admit that, like many young writers, I was seduced by the idea of Kerouac with his winesacks and his desolation angels, or of Fitzgerald and his Pernod in Parisian cafes. Fitzgerald died aged 44 of a heart attack, while Kerouac was 47 when he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. A relative of mine – also a writer, also seduced by that imagery – was around the same age when he died of a similar illness to Kerouac’s. This is not a sustainable way to be.

I’m not here to moralise. I like to drink, I like to write. Writing is all about experience, without experience you can’t write. Where you find that experience is up to you. Just try to be sober enough for it all to make sense when you write it down in the morning.