Tag Archives: memoir

Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy

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The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism (part II)

In an earlier post about The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, I selected a scene from Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. Nikolai’s mother died when he was four years old, and she left 7 children behind. He has a fairly miserable childhood marked by benign neglect but full of interesting incidents and observations. In one section, he notes visiting his uncle, a commandant of a fortress. The name of the fortress isn’t given but I’m wondering if it is the Peter and Paul Fortress as Wrangel tells us that the Decembrists were kept there until they were executed or exiled. Wrangel glimpses an unknown prisoner held captive during Catherine’s reign and still there sixty years later through the reigns of three tsars.  I thought right away of the Man in the Iron Mask–he was a prisoner for 34 years.

Wrangel seeds his memoirs with commentary about Russian society. For example he notes how each landowner was required to deliver serf “recruits” for the army, and these poor devils were then expected to serve for twenty-five years.

More was demanded of a man than he could possibly do. They were beaten and treated like dogs, and many died under the lash. The method was to kill three if necessary, in order to train one man.

The people themselves looked on the conscript as a man condemned to death, and on his departure as the equivalent of a funeral. As soon as the choice was made, the man chosen by his master was immediately handcuffed, imprisoned and guarded to prevent his committing suicide. The whole village gathered about his prison, and he would be given spirits to console him.

And then there’s a particularly despotic landowner, Count Visaur, murdered by a couple of his serfs. Wrangel makes a visit with his father to the dead man’s estate. It’s for sale:

Instead of one big house he had six or seven fairly roomy small ones, each built in a different style. According to his steward, each had contained a harem of women recruited from the wives and daughters of his serfs. They were all dressed to match their surroundings–in Chinese costume in the Chinese house, in Spanish dress in another house, and so on. The Count lived first in one house, then in another.

These houses were surrounded by a beautiful garden containing flower beds, canals with gondolas floating on them, artificial pools and statues. However the statues were no longer there and only their pedestals were there to be seen. The count’s old steward explained their absence telling us they were working in the fields. In the dead proprietor’s time the statues were living men and women, stripped naked and painted white. They had to stay motionless in their poses for hours at a time, when the Count was sailing in his gondola or walking in the garden. He even showed us the torture house–a torture chamber would not have been enough. It contained everything–whips, the boot–I cannot remember them all now. Being neither an executioner nor a victim, the names of these things did not interest me.

The Count’s death was quite as fantastic as his mode of life. One day when he was strolling past a group representing Hercules and Venus, the two statues jumped down from their pedestal; Venus threw sand in his eyes, and Hercules broke his neck with his club.

They were tried and condemned to the knout. Venus died under it and Hercules was sent to Siberia.

Later,in 1859,  a formative, traumatic incident takes place which illustrates the sorry lot of some poor educators who have the misfortune to work for the nobility, but I can’t say that the incident is exclusive to Russia as it’s a scene that could very well take place in a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s a scene that Nikolai witnesses, puts two and two together, and comes up with the correct, sordid conclusion.  A failed attempt at suicide ends with Nikolai requesting to be sent to Switzerland, and his father agrees.

This is a wonderful time for Nikolai, and he quickly adapts to the free spirited society in which he mingles. He meets Dumas and Princess Metternich but rather disappointingly doesn’t give us his impressions of the former. Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander II abolishes serfdom, Geneva is swarming with nihilists and anarchists, and Wrangel has time for neither. An anecdote concerning Bakunin sounds third hand.

Wrangel returns to Russia and then he sees the reforms for himself. The serfs can now marry as they please and it is illegal to beat them (that doesn’t stop Wrangel’s father), but the abolishment of serfdom has backfired in ways that no one predicted:

These months which I spent in the new Russia gave me an impression which I cannot describe. A new era had begun. Serfdom, which is an obstacle to all progress, no longer existed, but its abolition had not yet had the results which one was entitled to expect.

Neither the lords nor the former serfs could keep pace with the new order. The former, accustomed to forced labour which cost them nothing, thought themselves ruined, let their land go to the devil, turned everything they could into money by cutting down their woods wholesale, and by selling their property to speculators who did not buy with the intention of working the estate, but held it in the hope of a rise in land value.

The serfs, trained in obedience, and as yet incapable of looking after themselves, used their liberty to have a good time and drink as much as they could hold.  Meanwhile agriculture and the land fell into decay.

The Russia of the past had vanished, and that of the future was yet to come.

That’s Wrangel’s version of the reforms, and it’s patronizing towards the serfs, who according to Wrangel, seem to see life as one big party, and without a master to ‘guide’ their decisions, they have become degenerates.  He doesn’t mention that household serfs, who used to work as free labour, now were to be paid, so the landowners learned (or tried to learn) to manage with less, so many former serfs were simply cast adrift. The land serfs–now peasants–were so deeply harnessed with debt for the over-priced, usually poorer quality land they’d been allocated, they were working harder than ever trying to dig their way out of impossible debt.  The former serfs were to repay the debt as ‘redemption payments’ over a period of 49 years.

Now that landowners had to pay wages, they discovered that they had to cut back their lavish lifestyles:

“I’ve made some reforms too” said my father. “I’ve only got twelve carriage horses in the stables now, and five saddle horses; one for myself, two for your sisters, and two for visitors. It’s quite enough. Nobody comes to the country anymore. The kennels are done away with, the hot houses are shut up, and there are only eight gardeners left. Manners change with the times. You’ve got to put a check on your fancies nowadays.”

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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Filed under Non Fiction, Wrangel Baron N

The Filthy Truth by Andrew Dice Clay (with David Ritz)

The Diceman Cometh… back.

“I wanted to show the world that a comic could be as big as a rock star.”

There was a time in the late 80s when I swore that one day I’d see Andrew Dice Clay in concert. In those years he was everywhere–the raunchy hottest comedian around; his shows were rude, crude and lewd–the sort of comedian bound to offend someone. In fact, even saying that you were an Andrew Dice Clay fan raised eyebrows. No matter, I love a good laugh and my sense of humour has always been in the gutter.

the filthy truthIn spite of my intentions to one day attend a Diceman concert, it never happened. Most of Dice’s fans are aware of the ‘controversy’ that buried Dice’s career–Dice was slated to appear on SNL (yes, that supposedly cutting edge comedy programme) when one of the cast members boycotted the show. The boycott was joined by Sinead O’Connor, and then MTV slammed a lifetime ban (lifted in 2011) on Dice following the 1989 MTV awards (come on, if you make Dice a live prime-time TV presenter what the hell do you think is going to happen?) and then the Puritanism snowballed from there. Dice, at the top of his game and able to sell out tens of thousands of seats in minutes, suddenly became a hot PC potato. He disappeared, reappearing briefly in a sadly harnessed performance for a drab television sitcom.

Frankly, it was startling to see how Dice’s career was eviscerated practically overnight. William J Mann’s book Tinseltown documented the witchhunt that threw Fatty Arbuckle to the ‘moral reformers’ and ruined his career. Perhaps we could expect scapegoating in the 1920s–those days of imminent film censorship, but it is startling to see the same sort of thing occur again in the 90s. And let’s not forget that Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder before emerging, an innocent man, from no less than 3 trials. The most Andrew Dice Clay can be accused of is bad taste, and I bet he’d gladly admit it.

If the press didn’t understand that the Diceman was a character who amplified certain attitudes that millions of people had–not only amplified those attitudes but actually made fun of those attitudes by making fun of himself–then the press had its head up its ass.

I’ve missed Dice over the years, but I’ve had the occasional Dice Nostalgia Night with a rewatch of one of the many Dice concerts or even his cult film: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and I was delighted to see Dice in the role of a disgruntled ex-husband in Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine. Could this mean that the Diceman is back?….

The Filthy Truth, Andrew Dice Clay’s memoir, begins with Dice at the lowest point of his life. He’s “lost millions” and with two marriages behind him, “broke, grinding through the toughest decade” of his life, is about to play to an audience of 16 in the back room of a Las Vegas sushi bar–a far cry from the days when he sold out two consecutive days at Madison Square Garden–the only comic in history to do so. Dice says of the experience in the back room of the sushi bar,  “that night was the beginning of the ride back,” The book then moves from Dice’s childhood in Brooklyn, through the beginnings of his comic career, the formation of his Dice persona, the struggles, the successes, the marriages, the pinnacle of his success and his fall.

The book includes details of several sexual encounters, and this is when the book is at its weakest. Unlike Dice’s jokes, these encounters don’t come with a punch line, and the stories just read as titillation rather than interesting or even erotic. The details of Dice’s family, known as the Originals are wonderful; you just knew that he had to come from some pretty extraordinary people, and Dice’s parents (his mother especially) come to life in the pages. There’s the sense that Dice had an incredible career that was unique for a number of reasons, and Dice always seemed to be able to gauge the right moves at the right moment–that is until he drastically underestimated the power of Moral Righteousness and “the orchestrated campaign” which finally dragged his career into the undertow.

I ran down to the newsstand on the corner and picked up the paper. And right there, in a five-word description of the Diceman Cometh, I read, “The Demise of Western Civilization.”

I was half amused, half amazed that the Times took me so fuckin’ seriously. But I wasn’t upset. I was actually glad for the attention. Let the press write whatever the hell they wanna write. I work for the fans, not the press. All the press could do was bring me more fans. I didn’t see then–and remained blind to for months to come–the power of the press to fuck me up.

It’s clear that Dice, born and raised in Brooklyn, was always a ‘character,’ as we read of his childhood (he was a “third-rate student and a first-rate clown,”), how he “dated” his mother’s fur coat, his first and last trip to a bordello (“the madam looked like Bela Lugosi in drag,”) and worked at a men’s clothing shop selling cheap suits “a little better than papier-mâché.” But it didn’t take long for Dice to realize that he was not going to have a traditional career, and so we follow how he developed his first act and made the decision to move to L.A. where he built his routine at the Comedy Store. Reading the book gives the impression that Dice is in the room telling his story complete with frank admissions of mistakes and failings, and there’s the sense that a fall will occur as we hear about the houses bought, the huge gambling losses, the purchase of a car for sixty-nine thousand in cash, and the night he played Vegas with three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of chips stuffed in his pocket.

Included in the book are snapshots of various celebrities who befriended Dice or gave him a kind word along the way–including  Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke, and Eminen.

The Filthy Truth will appeal to all the fans out there who’ve missed Andrew Dice Clay and are still cheering for him. Those familiar with Dice will know what to expect in terms of language and subject matter, so readers can’t bitch when they find the first four letter word. Dice’s role in Blue Jasmine signals his triumphant return, but his fans never forgot him in the first place.

I got up onstage and I took my sweet fucking time lighting my cigarette with a flick of the Zippo and an over-the-shoulder back of the-head drag. I opened with the nursery rhymes.

Review copy

 

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The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

After reading Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a fictionalized  account of his experiences in WWI, I read an entirely different account written from the Hungarian view: The Burning of the World: a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. While the narrator in Fear conveys the initial, naïve sentiment that many men looked forward to the war as an “adventure,” a break in their monotonous lives, Béla Zombory-Moldován (Béla from this point on) makes it quite clear that the war arrived as an unwelcome interruption. Fear and The Burning of the World are such completely different books, while still on the same topic of WWI, that they act as good companion books to be read fairly close together. That said, it’s probably inevitable that we identify with one book more than the other.

the burning of the worldBéla, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, and a member of a privileged Austro-Hungarian gentry family, is enjoying himself on holiday on an Adriatic beach, taking a solitary swim and trying to shake off the effects of the wine drunk the night before when he spies someone walking towards him with “some haste.” It’s through this man, the bathing attendant, that Béla receives the startling news that war has been declared and that a list giving “call-updates by year of birth” has been posted to the bathing station wall. The news comes so quickly and so jarringly rips apart Béla’s holiday, that we are almost as shocked as he is, and while the manner in which the news is conveyed may be simple, this is a moment that Béla, and anyone else who survived the war, will clearly never forget.

I stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke, reading it over and over, until I realized that I was just looking at words rather than taking in the meaning.

Although Béla has a few precious days before he must report for duty, he can no longer enjoy his holiday. A page has been turned, and life which previously seemed carefree, can no longer be enjoyed. But Béla isn’t the only one altered by the news. The rhetoric, drama, and nationalism of war has invaded even lunch at the hotel dining room:

The dining room had changed. All the usual convivial noise, larking about and tittering had ceased. The guests had gathered at separate tables according to their nationalities. Groups which had previously spread themselves around now clustered together. Sereghy and his wife had come over to join us. Czechs, Serbs, Croats. Germans–all sat apart. People leaned in together over table and discussed events with animated gestures and low voices.

[..]

Everyone spoke in their mother tongue as is encyphering what they had to say.

The nationalistic segregation spreads, and it’s worse by dinner time. Hungarians who had not previously spoken to Béla join his table, the area no longer feels safe, everyone wants to return home.

There was something almost ostentatious now about the separation of nationalities. The Slavs huddles together. The Germans looked the least concerned: a huge country with a fearsome army.

These unique observations which show the narrator’s world changing with the speed of a natural disaster underscore the idea that the carefree holiday has turned into something completely different–the holidaymakers may be potential enemies. Béla grasps immediately, the flash of the bigger picture, that while some people speculate that the war will be over before it really begins, it may not be so simple:

This war may just be the first act of a global tragedy. It’s as if someone were struggling against an angry sea, while behind his back towers an immense wall of ice, ready to collapse onto him at any moment. This is the socialist revolution which will, one day, fall with full force on nations weakened by war. The war could be the least of our problems. Socialism has been agitating and organizing for the last hundred years. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to take power. Maybe it would be better if it did: one of its basic principles is to put an end to wars of conquest. Maybe it’ll be they who stop this war, if political theory and practice coincide for once.

Given what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is an interesting comment made by a man “caught up in the maelstrom [of] the fateful year when everything fell apart.” 

Béla returns home to Budapest, says his farewells to his family and his favoured locations. Initially, he wears a “mask” of normality and “confident gaiety” which finally drops. Béla joins the Thirty-First regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army as an ensign and since he’s there early, he witnesses the “torrent of men streaming” in from all over the region. The idiocy begins immediately when the regiment is ordered to make a seventy-five kilometer march, which as it turns out, is right into the Russian lines at Rava Ruska. The mouth to hell opens there in the wood as Béla encounters piles of abandoned rifles, clothing, and the corpses of dead Hungarians. Initially forbidden to dig foxholes “as this ‘leads to cowardice and undermines discipline’ ” Béla ignores that order after the officer who gave it is blown to shreds, and Béla digs in using a tin lid, while other men use their hands.

The term cannon fodder leaps to mind in the sheer insanity of shoving exhausted, inexperienced men right into the line of fire. The sense of chaos reigns, and Béla’s first encounter, almost surreal in its rapid, blinding intensity, is over almost before it begins. Always there’s Béla’s unused sword, part of his natty uniform getting in the way; it’s an incongruous, antiquated and as it turns out inconvenient accessory.

There’s a sense of privilege to Béla’s miraculous tale. Had he not been an officer with a “Slovak lad called Jóska” as a burly batman it seems doubtful he would have survived. As an officer, he fares better–better food, better billets, and throughout it all Jóska acts as Béla’s personal bodyguard ensuring that he gets home, gets food, acting as his feet, arms and legs when Béla is too weak to fend for himself. It’s in Béla’s attitude to Jóska, that the sense of privilege grates. The patronizing divide between classes gapes wide. To Béla, Jóska is a peasant, a “man-child”:

I owed a debt of gratitude to this healthy resourceful lad: though I knew that this personal service had been an opportunity for a bit of bunking-off on his part.

And:

My mother received Jóska without much enthusiasm; she seemed anxious. “Where shall we put him?”

“All he needs is a straw mattress at night, which can be put away somewhere during the day. He’s a good decent lad, and I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Let him rest here for a week as well. Then he’ll go back to the regiment.”

Jóska bathes and attends Béla and on the third day, Béla tells Jóska to return to the regiment.

The Burning of the World, as a memoir, is a much more personal document than Chevallier’s fictionalized account of his WWI experiences.  Whereas Fear is openly anti-war, The Burning of the World is not. Béla shows the chaos, lack of preparation and stupidity of those in command, but his complaints about “armchair generals” are directed towards ineptitude, archaic attitudes and methods of fighting, but he never  bitterly questions the hierarchy of the society in which he lives.  Whereas Chevallier’s narrator Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”

The Burning of the World covers a period of about eight months beginning with Béla hearing the “news of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia” until March 1915 when he reports back to duty after being injured and recuperating. At 184 pages, we are left wishing for more, but the introduction explains what happened to Béla for the rest of the war and beyond.  The book includes some maps, a painting from Béla, and a wonderful photograph of a large group of people on holiday at Novi Vinodolski–“three days before Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and the start of the first World War. ” It’s peculiar how some people can dominate a photograph, and in this photo, Béla, a man of his time and his class, stands out.

The manuscript for The Burning of the World was found in 2013 “locked away among family papers,” and what a wonderful find this is. Translated and with an introduction by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován who notes that “by the end of the war, Austro-Hungarian casualties were almost seven million out of a population (in 1914) of fifty-one million.”

 Review copy/own a copy

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The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part I)

A few years ago, I watched a fantastic French film called L’Elegant Criminel (a 1990 release also known as Lacenaire). It featured one of my favourite actors–Daniel Auteuil in the main role of Lacenaire, an infamous 19th century French criminal. An earlier portrayal of Lacenaire is found in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). Lacenaire’s influence didn’t stop there. After reading about the crime, Dostoevsky  “published Lacenaire’s memoirs in Russian in a magazine he edited, and he used him as a model for Raskolnikov, the double murderer in Crime and Punishment” (The Crimes of Paris, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler). Now almost 200 years after his execution, Lacenaire’s name has faded, but it has not entirely disappeared. But why does Lacenaire remain a figure of interest at all?  He was hardly a criminal mastermind; in fact his criminal career was fraught with ineptitude, and his crimes didn’t yield much profit either. So why does he remain a fascinating figure?

There are two basic, interconnected reasons for Lacenaire’s propelled fame: his highly entertaining trial and his memoirs–both of which guaranteed a certain amount of attention. The astonishing trial, subverted by Lacenaire, became entertainment rather than the usual mechanism for punishment, and then his memoirs, censored and published in 1836, the year of his death, fed that notoriety.

Part of Lacenaire’s fascination is that he was a member of the bourgeoisie. He was educated, dashing, witty, and utterly charming. The fact that he appeared to be an elegant, affluent, dandified gentleman allowed him to commit crimes that the shabbily-dressed illiterate man could never hope to get away with. Part of the fascination resides in the notion that a man who emerged from a relatively privileged background and who had a number of talents chose a life of crime–brutal, vicious crime. 

 The French philosopher Michel Foucault gets at that entertainment idea when he argues that Lacenaire was a:

 “symbolic figure of an illegality kept within the bounds of delinquency and transformed into discourse–that is to say, made doubly inoffensive; the bourgeoisie had invented for itself a new pleasure, which it has still far from outgrown.” (Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault)

When I discovered that Lacenaire’s memoirs were available in English, well I had to get a copy.  The volume is ‘put together’ and translated by Philip John Stead, so he’s listed as the author in spite of the fact that a large section of this book is straight from Lacenaire. For the curious, my first edition copy is from Staples Press– dated 1952 and runs to 238 pages.

The book begins with an invaluable 3-part introduction which provides the background of the memoirs:

I The Hand of Lacenaire

II The Trial

III The Prisoner in the Conciergerie

The memoirs follow pp. 51-266, and then a short epilogue, a bibliography, appendix and acknowledgements. I add these details as the volume is fading from view, and there’s a slim chance that someone else on the planet may like to know this information. 

Lacenaire was guillotined for his crimes, so we know how the story ends, but it’s how things got to that point that make up the majority of the book.  The book begins with The Hand of Lacenaire— “the severed hand of a murderer.” There’s no explanation of how the hand “yellow and mummified as a Pharoah’s claw” ended up owned by Maxime du Camp, but it sat “on a cushion in his house,” and there it apparently captured the imagination of Gautier. The author, Philip John Stead says that it was the line from Gauthier: “Il fut le Manfred du ruisseau,” which led him to the story of Lacenaire.

Stead sets the stage for Lacenaire’s memoirs by describing the crimes that brought him to the attention of the Paris police. The first crime–the brutal murder of Widow Chardon and her son took place in 1834. It was estimated that they’d been dead for two days when the police broke down their door and found bloody, ransacked rooms and two dead bodies. The son, who’d been murdered by a chopper was “badly mutilated.” His mother had been viciously stabbed to death with a shoemaker’s awl. No one was particularly sorry to see the last of the Chardons. The son was an ex-convict who engaged in petty fraud as a “begging letter writer,” and the police suspected that the murders were committed by acquaintances of the victims. After the crime, Lacenaire and Avril went to the Turkish baths in the Boulevard du Temple to wash away the blood. Then it was dinner and the theatre.

Two weeks later on Dec 31st 1834, another crime occurred, and even though no-one was murdered in this case, the police took the crime very seriously as it involved a bank. The victim was bank employee Genevay. He was lured to an address and attacked by two men who attempted to steal the approximately 11,000 francs  he carried. The crime was bungled and Genevay escaped. Both crimes were referred to Monsieur Allard of the Sûreté. A series of events led Allard and Chief Inspector Canler eventually to round up several men involved in the crimes: François, Bâton, Avril, and Pierre-François Lacenaire. Lacenaire, raised as a gentlemen who lacked the means to actually live like one (more of that later), was both the ring-leader and the brains behind the crimes. François and Avril played various thuggish roles to one degree or another while Bâton turned into a key witness.

At the time Lacenaire was arrested, he was voyaging through the country on a forgery gig, but bad luck plagued him and when he was caught he was using one of many names: Jacob Levi. In the end, François and Avril both eagerly pointed fingers at each other and at Lacenaire, and Lacenaire decided to damn them both. Stead details the sensational court case–a  “melodrama” in which Lacenaire frequently interrupted the lawyers who argued the case. He interrupted not to be rude–but to correct information, and in one instance to tell the court where a missing witness could be found. To add to the salacious details of the case, Lacenaire had attended Seminary with the counsel who defended François.  In the courtroom, the elegant, well-spoken and obviously intelligent Lacenaire astounded the legal profession with his nimble verbal arguments. The public swarmed to witness the entertainment of a man eagerly and wittily embracing his crimes in order to enact revenge against his accomplices.

Part of the Lacenaire sensation resides in the fact that he wanted the guillotine. And he got it. In the interim between the end of the trial and his execution, Lacenaire entertained visitors in his cell and furiously penned his memoirs. The trial opened on November 12th, 1835.  He was executed on January 9th 1836, and the memoirs were written during this period.

Stead states that approximately 200 murders a year took place in Paris at this time, yet Lacenaire has the dubious honour of standing out from the crowd.  Stead argues that Lacenaire was by no means a ‘typical’ criminal, and this is underscored by the fact that Allard even commissioned a portrait to be painted of Lacenaire. Lacenaire appeared to take a “great liking to Allard the police chief, which curiously seems to have been reciprocated. He was on friendly terms with Canler, but Canler did not succumb to his charm.” That use of that last word ‘charm’ is significant, for it perfectly describes Lacenaire’s behaviour during interrogation, the trial and even at the execution. He appears to have used that charm to further his forgery crimes too, and yet a dark violent side existed within Lacenarie. Stead argues:

 The trial, which was ostensibly an act of social justice, was turned into an act of personal revenge by Lacenaire. It conferred a lurid glory on him; it was his gloomy apotheosis. How he stage-managed it is interesting enough to trace in some detail.

Stead very wisely doesn’t take the memoirs at face value. More of that in part II

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Bash the Rich by Ian Bone

“The Jethros–a well tasty mob of old hippies from Exeter–are going up the West End to start trashing Oxford Street, waterfalls of glass cascading everywhere. The Jethros had some idea about crashing a load of cars together at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and torching them but they’re talked out of it in case innocent bystanders get blown away. One of them mutters Emile Henri’s famous line “there are no innocents!” The Jethros line was either fight with us or get what’s coming to you. Oxford Street is duly trashed. All the out-of-towners act the same, forming little hit squads with their mates, coalescing, melting away and striking again. The cops are ill-prepared for the diversity of the actions and completely taken by surprise.”

After reading the June KSL Bulletin which included a review of Ian Bone’s memoir Bash the Rich: True Life Confessions of an Anarchist in the UK, I decided to pull the book from my shelf and start reading.

Bash the Rich is a lively read, covering seminal incidents in Ian’s anarchist life (there are very few personal details here), and Ian’s sense of humour seeps through on every page. On page 66, I knew that I was going to really enjoy this book:

“One of the best compliments I had in my Alarm-writing days was that I wrote just like I talked. Since every other word I use is ‘fucking’, to write without swearing would have been impossible. The swearing caused a lot of arguments – some people thought we’d be restricting our audience to youngsters or politicos or punks (this was 1977 by the way!) or men. I stuck firmly to the ‘let’s have lots of fucking swearing’ line. If you call a council leader a ‘wanker’ in print that was fine, but if you called the council leader a ‘fucking wanker’ that was even better. If you called the council leader a ‘FUCKING WANKER’ and stuck it on the front page, that was better still.”

After finishing the book, I felt as though I’d spent a few hours with Ian having a chat–him with a pint in one hand, and me listening as he recounted the story of his life from his birth in 1947 to where the book ends in 1985.

bash the richIan’s father came from mining stock and would have been down the pits like everyone else if he hadn’t had the ‘lucky break’ of becoming a servant. Ian’s father rose from the dizzying heights of third footman to butler by the time Ian was born, and so he grew up in a succession of “big houses” as his parents passed through a series of employment situations as butler and housemaid. It was certainly this exposure to the lifestyles of the rich and famous that put Ian onto the path of Class War. A few pages are spent establishing Ian’s Class War roots as he explains the ‘tied cottage’ system and early exposure to instances of gratuitous selfishness on the part of his parents’ wealthy employers.

After discovering anarchism at 15, Ian later attended Swansea University and remained in Wales for 17 years. Producing leaflets, mingling with Welsh nationalists, anarcho-punks and members of the Angry Brigade, as well as attending marches, and selling papers in an ever-growing anarchist scene, Ian went on to co-produce the Swansea Solidarity paper with its emphasis on “encouraging workers on strike or facing redundancy to organize sit-ins and take over the running of their workplace and kick the bosses out.” Another highly successful venture Ian was involved in was the Dole Express–a paper geared towards the unemployed. And some of the results from this anarcho-agitation make for hilarious reading.

In 1977, Ian along with some like-minded comrades began producing Alarm: “an organ of organised class hatred.” The paper amassed stories of scandal and corruption in local politics, and I had a good laugh when I read that Welsh politico Sid ‘Vicious’ Jenkins when (finally) arrested on corruption charges shouted to a TV reporter on the scene who had a copy of Alarm in his hand: “I haven’t read it but it’s all untrue. It’s all the work of anarchists.”

In 1982, Ian moved to London, and he really shook up the established anarchist scene, noting “the twin pillars of English anarchism Freedom and Black Flag and their respective gurus Albert Meltzer and Vernon Richards. The labyrinthine feuding between the two stretching back over 30 years had been a major factor in rendering the English anarchist movement impotent.” The book’s implication is that the anarchist scene was–well more or less dead–and needed a swift kick in the bum: “Apart from trawling through the obscure anarcho-periodical section at Compendium and Housemans, Freedom Bookshop and 121 Railton Road were the anarchist bookshops where you might hope to pick up signs of any sentient life in the anarchist movement.” And with Ian Bone’s arrival in London, the anarchist movement certainly livened up, and by 1983, The Sunday People newspaper ran the headline stating that Ian was “unmasked… the evil man who preaches hate to children.” Ian’s response: ” ‘Evil man’ and ‘children’ have a kind of Gary Glitter feel about it rather than your Che Guevera ‘dangerous revolutionary’ kind of tag.’ ”

With Ian’s move to London came the creation of Class War–a no-holds barred, confrontational tabloid style newspaper that was “pro-action and violence.” The book includes some of the Class War headlines, cartoons and articles. Ian’s description of the goals of Class War includes the following: “It would be big and tabloid brash, lots of short articles and graphics, no long boring shit. It would be fucking funny as fucking fuck. It would plagiarise and pinch like there was no yesterday.” I’ve never seen any of the Class War newspapers, so it was great to see these clips included in the memoir. Details here include: The rise and fall of Class War–the triumphs, the problems, and the arguments with other anarchists and anarchist groups that began to emerge over issues such as heterosexuality.

Ian describes the principles of Class War, the paper’s growing circulation, the mistakes made and its phenomenal successes. Also covered are the Class War Conferences, the riotous Stop the City action, the Bash the Rich march, and Class War solidarity with the striking miners. And through it all Ian unabashedly admits: “Our real political influence was the English mob and we intended to be the proud inheritors of that mob tradition stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt but finding its first real form in the London mob of the civil war period.”

Irreverent, unapologetic and with flashes of witty wisdom (many points taken), Bash the Rich also includes some great lessons learned: “Delusional triumphalism has been refined to perfection by the SWP which keeps its members in a permanent state of retarded ejaculation by news of a cleaner’s strike in Barnoldswick, five papers sold in Rugby or a tide of global events interpreted by the leadership as proof of that their cogent analysis of capitalism has, yet again, been demonstrated correct by events.” Ian, if you read this, we need part II of your True-Life Confessions. To quote Ian: “Those were the days my friend. Oh yes, those were the days.”

Ian Bone just sold the rights to Bash The Rich for the whooping sum of 10 pounds to British filmmaker Greg Hall www.bashtherichfilm.wordpress.com  Can’t wait for that one….

For Ian’s blog and to read about what he is up to these days: www.ianbone.wordpress.com

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I Cried. You didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight Edgar Abbott

“That day, at that hour, I became the predator rather than the prey.”

I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight E. Abbott is a harrowing, haunting read. In the 1950s, following a car accident that placed his parents in hospital for months, 9-year-old Abbott was sent to Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Within minutes of arriving, he was hit in the face by another boy, and that evening observed rapes occurring in the showers. On the third day, a counselor sexually assaulted Abbott. When Abbott defended himself from another assault, he ended up in solitary confinement for 90 days, and here he remained until his father arrived to take him home. Abbott acknowledges that he was no longer the same child, and that it took just “four months for the county to construct” a “walking time bomb.”

When he returned home, Abbott was withdrawn and traumatized. His grades dropped, and he reacted with explosive violence to threatening situations. At age 12, Abbott was back in Juvenile Hall again, and then sexually assaulted by a manipulative counselor. From here he was moved to the ironically named Optimist Home for Boys and endured further molestations and beatings. When he was released to his parents, Abbott was even less able to integrate back into family life, and he was on the slippery slope to becoming a lifetime criminal.

The memoir charts Abbot’s gut-wrenching experiences, and each step of the way, the institutions he’s locked up in are tougher, and more brutal, and Abbott’s fight for survival becomes more violent. At 13, he’s locked up in the state mental hospital at Camarillo, stuffed in a strait jacket and given shock treatments. From here it’s onto the California Youth Authority (CYA), and their various facilities–Whittier, Pasa Robles, Ione, and the Deuels prison in Tracy. Abbott details the tiered system within each of these prisons, just how important it was to be seen as tough, and that “showing emotions was a sign of weakness.” To be viewed as a “sissy” or a “punk” translates to being brutally raped by everyone above you on this violent food chain. This memoir makes “it clear that within youth prisons there is no social order other than that based on violence.”

Abbott’s survival within the system caused him to “develop a set of social reflexes and assumptions” that made “him totally incapable of negotiating life outside of institutionalization.” According to conservative statistics, 75% of those released from CYA are locked back up within three years. Clearly rehabilitation just isn’t taking place within the CYA, but just what transformations do take place is the subject of this deeply disturbing book. According to Abbott, “there is nothing left of the softness of morality or conscience, only strength and will.” I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority was recently republished by AK Press. This new edition includes an excellent, informative preface by Books Not Bars.

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Bending the Bars by John Barker

“News came through that a con on C wing had been murdered by screws in the block beaten to pulped pulp then hanged to cover it up, a suicide story. It seemed too cynical to be true. I knew screws could be brutal but this was too much, all my deepest fears congealed.”

In the 1970s, a group called the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for a number of actions in Britain–including the bombing of the home of employment minister Robert Carr. After other bombings, arrests took place followed by the longest conspiracy trial in the history of the British legal system. At the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington Eight (this refers to the eight people eventually tried for conspiracy and weapons possession) twenty-three-year-old John Barker received a ten-year sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade. Deemed a Category A prisoner–A Danger to the State, Barker was locked up and rotated through several British prisons. After completion of seven years of this sentence (1971-1978), Barker was released. Bending the Bars is a collection of essays covering those seven years inside.

The book is not a memoir in the strictest sense. This is not a chronological account of day one forward until release–although the book does end with Barker walking out of prison. Instead this is a collection of essays highlighting some of Barker’s experiences in prison. Barker states that “the cops had framed an guilty man,” so there’s no self-pity–but there is a strong analysis of exactly what it’s like to be caught in the net and tossed into a system that attempts to manage and control Barker and his fellow cons. In spite of some very hard times, in the foreword, Barker states that his “time inside was the golden age of such prisons…. Since that time we have endured Mrs. Thatcher, Michael Howard and Tony Blair, all keen on punishing people who are not ‘Hard-working families who play by the rules’ as Blair put it. Prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not ‘play by the rules’.”

Barker argues that prison is “like an experiment in social control” with a purpose under New Labour “to destroy what remains of collective solidarity amongst cons.” Indeed Barker cites many examples of protest solidarity amongst prison inmates, and it’s clear that to the Barker and his fellow cons, they had to stick together. The sense of unity amongst cons prevails–from Barker’s contacts with the Irish prisoners to the odd con rumble, but the cons attempt, for the most part, to retain the sense that their collective situation and condition warrants solidarity. Indeed it’s quite clear that when the cons stand together, they are at their strongest. In-fighting and the odd snitch weaken their solidarity, and tension and frustration erode friendships at times.

The first essay Early Days: Brixton covers Barker’s “comprehensive tour of misery”–his initial adjustment, his boredom, and the realization that in prison you can’t control even a tiniest detail of your own life. Everything is subject to routine–when you get up, when you go to bed, and Barker describes the feeling of power prisoners experience when they execute a seemingly minor act of independence. On the receiving end of the system, Barker recognized that “a sadist in the Home Office” dreamed up many of the conditions inside the prison (Derrick Jensen’s book Welcome to the Machine goes into the subject of prison design in some length). Barker’s argument that some sicko had to have had a hand in designing the prison and its systems of control is a point made repeatedly throughout the book–from the petty humiliations, the “shit parcels,” and the sweat box. On one occasion, the prisoners are ordered to make a large number of prison beds for Saudi Arabia, and on another occasion, the cons gather to watch a film that just happens to have a death row, execution sequence. “Asylum mode” cube shaped cells at Long Lartin Prison seem designed with a clinical interest in isolation in mind, and Barker wryly notes that he “could do without the deluxe shitting service but did not want to live in a box.” In this regimented, depersonalized and isolated world, with privacy stripped away, small kindnesses carry great weight.

The thing I found most surprising about the book is that Barker’s sense of humour prevails. In spite of confinement, in spite of losing someone he loved, he conveys moments of joy, and relates many amusing conversations amongst the prisoners. For example, in the chapter Manoeuvres, Barker recalls a conversation about Pavlov–a touchy subject given the situation. One con enrolled in an Open University course on behavior proceeds to defend Pavlov as a man who “was just describing the facts.” Barker answers: “But the facts as you call them came out of a set-up. The dog didn’t need the fucking bell to eat his dinner.” In another chapter, a con “had this thing about spaceships.”

Bending the Bars comes across as a remarkably honest, direct and unpretentious record of some of Barker’s experiences. This is not an account written by a cynical, hardened, angry individual. Instead, Barker comes across as an accepting individual who learns to cope with imprisonment, who fights depression and despair. He notes guards who seem to have some sort of standard of behavior and guards who are just sadistic and have an unhealthy enjoyment of their jobs. Included are some fascinating observations about the Irish prisoners, and this brings up the issue of hunger strikes. Barker includes his thoughts on the hunger strike as a tactic and notes that while he was willing to join such a motion in solidarity, “we didn’t believe in it as a tactic because it seemed to assume that the other side were ultimately humane people.” I’d never thought of it in those terms before.

The book makes it clear that the notion that prison is supposed to ‘rehabilitate’ inmates is ludicrous. It’s all about punishment, power, and control–although Barker did get to make a few pillowcases. On another note, I wish the book included some sort of glossary. I was able to infer meaning into some terms used, but in other cases, I had no clue what some words meant.

On an aside note, and to reiterate Barker’s observation that “prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not “play by the rules” Z Magazine January 2008 pp. 23-24 included the “Prison Challenge Quiz.” If you haven’t seen this and are interested in the subject, get your hands on a copy. Anyway, question 12 asks: Which crime will get a stuffer sentence?

a. embezzling $5,000,000
b. stealing a doughnut.

In case you made the mistake of using common sense to gauge your answer, I’ll include the answer; it’s b: stealing a doughnut. A man pinched a doughnut. This was shoplifting, but pushing a shop worker in the process turned the incident into armed robbery. That would normally have netted a 5-15 year sentence, but a prior record could bring a sentence of 30 years to life.

The million-dollar embezzler, on the other hand, an Enron conspirator pled guilty to helping himself to more than 5 million. This landed a 6-year sentence but good behavior could shave off 2 years.

If you are interested in reading more about The Angry Brigade, I recommend Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague and The Angry Brigade: The Cause and The Case. Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr.

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