After the goldrush

Introducing the “crisis novel”

Le Monde has been running an interesting series this week on what its literary editors are calling the "crisis novel". Every day, one of their writers examines a work "inspired by economic upheaval". Among the books discussed so far have been Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, The Big Money - the final volume of John Dos Passos's USA trilogy - René-Victor Pilhes's 1974 Prix Femina-winning novel L'Imprécateur and Italo Calvino's A Plunge into Real Estate (1957).

I've not read the last of these, but Jean-Michel Bezat's piece "The postwar economic miracle" has persuaded me that I should. Written at the height of a property speculation bubble in Italy in the late 1950s, this is the work of a disillusioned leftist. Bezat notes that around the same time, Calvino left the Italian Communist Party, of which he'd been a member for more than a decade. He writes:

Calvino is not nostalgic for the pre-capitalist, peasant world idealised by Pier Paolo Pasolini; he doesn't denounce, as the film-maker would 15 years later . . . the consumerism in which the latter saw 'the true fascism of today'. No, Calvino gives us instead . . . a society reflected in the eye of a scrutineer looking at history through a keyhole.

We're still waiting, of course, for the first great novel of the current financial crisis. I doubt that Sebastian Faulks's new book, A Week in December, a partial roman à clef that prompted this silly-season story in the Observer a couple of weeks back, will be remembered that way, but it does contain a rather convincing, if somewhat lurid, portrayal of a hedge-fund manager named John Veals, described by David Horspool, in his TLS review, as having the "reliable qualities of the monomaniacal villain". The novel is set in late 2007, but Veals already has an intimation of the catastrophe that is brewing:

Veals was worried. Anxiety was the staple of his work: night after night. His immediate problem was that the markets were so skittish, so nervous of financial collapse, that even the minimal movements he had seen might be noticed by others. The financial world was in a kind of suspended animation. On October 31st, only seven weeks earlier, financial firms on Wall Street had lost 369 billion dollars in a single day. The writing was smeared in letters ten feet high across the wall, but still people were trying to ignore it. The party was still on; the hard core, drunk on risk, unable to believe the gold rush might ever end, would not go home.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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