Sunday, 18 May 2008

Bad Faith, Carmen Callil, book coverBad Faith, Carmen Callil's 2006 threnody for her psychotherapist, has a dangerous title.

It is unlike Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas' 2005 novel about anti-Semitism and exploitation, or Anna Funder's 2002 Stasiland, a work of literary journalism that probes deep because it includes the author's persona.

It is also, unfortunately, unlike Nabokov's 1959 biography of Gogol (New Directions, San Francisco), and chapter four of his The Gift (written between 1935 and 1937, published in Russian in 1938, and in English in 1963), which deals - hilariously and effectively - with earnest Russian late-19th century writer Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky.

Nabokov's animus coalesces with Fyodor's enthusiasm - those hours spent in the Berlin library! - to forge one of the great moments of twentieth century pastiche.

Once read both books - as well as Tsiolkas' and Funder's - are with difficulty forgotten. In the case of Chernyshevsky, the chapter will characterise the man. The same may not be true for Gogol but here, too, is clever writing.

The problem with Callil's book is the strident deprecation. Again and again - we hardly need reminding - we're told what a loathesome coward and "mountebank" Darquier was.

It is unnecessary because telling the story shows it. The main issue is not that Darquier facilitated the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, many just children.

It is the complicity of so many - unnamed - 'collabos' including (and this could be further stressed but is probably dealt with in other books) Francois Mitterand, the past president of the republic.

Like the British sugar industry and the millions it contributed to both state and private coffers, French involvement in anti-Semitism is still largely unacknowledged in the broad public sphere. Darquier

was the natural inheritor of generations of anti-republican attacks by the old order, of ideas borrowed from strangely revered French intellectuals such as Charles Maurras, of centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and nationalist myth-making. (p 443)

The epithet "strangely revered" is slightly unpleasant. It suggests there is - you only have to ask! - a 'correct' canon of French history that right-thinking Frenchmen (and others) should consult.

The complicity of others - individuals, nations - in the global community must also be recognised.

The next move would be to investigate our own, home-grown and fierce, monarchists - such as Myrtle Jones' family in northern Tasmania - whose "aspirations were similar" to Darquier's. "[N]o one ... could match [Myrtle's] devotion to the British royal family" (p 413).

"The upward climb of the Jones family and their insistence upon respectability" (p 425) may, in fact be the problem. Indeed, Darquier's amazing ascendancy is nothing if not astonishing: from debt-ridden hack to government minister in a few years. The right man at the right time, perhaps.

But perhaps Darquier is also something of a poet. One propaganda script reads (p 363):

A reporter visits a working-class suburb. He is standing in the courtyard of one of the housing blocks. The text and the sound evoke the lack of light, the poverty and the dirty, miserable games which keep the children entertained.

He exhorts people to save the race and make this plague disappear.

Other sounds and words show that children need sunshine and fresh air.

The soundtrack evokes life in the country, open fields, campfires at night, singing, gymnastics and a balanced life. 'That,' the reporter concludes, 'is youth enjoying life.'

The thing here - and Callil misses it - is that this kind of 'imagining' the future was routine, and not only in France under Petain or in Germany under Hitler. Identical messages gained support of elites in Australia. There are certainly instances in the United States, and probably also in Britain.

Callil need only consult Isobel Crombie's Body Culture (2004). I bought an American magazine at a Queensland junk shop recently (Physical Culture, July 1919) with an essay by George Bernard Shaw entitled 'Morality and Birth Control'.

The stench of hypocrisy whispers a soft but insistent chord, reading Callil's book. It's not just the aborigines (p 444: "Remembering has to do with justice, and as there is no justice, acknowledgement has to do."). Crombie shows that such entities as Darquier's Scientific Commission for the Study of Racial Biology and Institute of Anthropo-Sociology were the norm in the West.

Similar "guardians of racial purity" (p 316) enabled people - this is before Darwin's 'mechanism' (DNA) was discovered (1960) - to understand how to improve themselves, and to ensure the strength of the nation.

Notions such as "the quality of the human being" and "healthy individuals rather than imbeciles and the physically handicapped" and "improving cultivation, breeding and race" (p 316) are part of the global background noise of the Depression years. Steinbeck's years.

Maurras' entreaty - "to sort out - to judge, to condemn, to execute" - simply contains one clause too many. Otherwise, it could apply anywhere in those lean years.

At some point in the book - I forget where - Callil also mentions the dangers inherent in the times when politicians start using words such as "the family". This points to the present; not only Rudd but Obama, too.

Callil is 'sorting out', 'condemning' and 'judging'. Not unfairly. But it is too easy to shift blame wholesale to the vanquished. In fact, it may even be dangerous.

Most students of 20th century history now regret the punitive nature of post-WWI sanctions and penalties. Applied to Germany - an ancient enemy of France - it became easy for a demagogue to make mischief.

1 comment:

derrida derider said...

Yes, Callil sometimes breaks one of the most important rules in writing - "show, don't tell". But I think her book is better than you give it credit for - in particular, she's quite good at irony. Its a ghastly subject which she manages to make amusing.

I particularly like the way Darquier's evident resentment of the generosity of his Jewish employer and mentor was an important motive for his broader anti-Semitism. As they say, "no good deed goes unpunished".