Universal soldiers

Asterix and Obelix, 50 years on

For the past couple of weeks, Asterix the Gaul's 50th birthday has been the subject of sustained media attention, thanks largely to the tributes that erupted all over Paris throughout October. (In 1959, a short Asterix and Obelix comic strip in the magazine Pilote was published -- it wasn't until 1961 that the first full "album", Asterix the Gaul, started a ball rolling that soon became known as "le phénomène Astérix". So be prepared for further celebrations come 2011.)

But, depressingly, most commentators have seen the golden jubilee of René Goscinny's and Albert Uderzo's greatest creation as an opportunity to explore the way in which the Asterix brand has become a little tarnished in recent years -- following the mediocre film adaptations starring Gérard Depardieu, for example, as well as Uderzo's decision to sell the series rights to the mega-publisher Hachette and the high-profile feud with his daughter that ensued -- and to ignore the undiminished brilliance of the books themselves. A piece that appeared in the Times is typical. "It happens to plenty of men," it suggested. "They turn 50 and all the vim disappears. But it shouldn't happen if you have access to a magic potion that revives your powers faster than Viagra."

An excellent essay by Mary Beard that appeared in the LRB a few years ago does a better job of celebrating Goscinny's and Uderzo's genius. It even reserves praise for the several albums that Uderzo has composed alone since Goscinny's premature death in 1977 (which have been the focus of some particularly scathing birthday criticism).

But having spent the weekend rereading my collection of Asterix and Obelix titles, I think that something rather important has, for some reason, gone largely unacknowledged in all the furore: how extraordinarily well both men's work (and, of course, Anthea Bell's and Derek Hockridge's English translation has aged. Far better than, say, Tintin in the Congo, yes. But, more than that, in a manner which makes the fact that they were written decades ago almost entirely irrelevant.

Which raises the question: why is it that Asterix stories feel as fresh as they do, thirty or fifty years on? Here are three suggestions of mine. Feel free to make any of your own in the comment box below.

Literary references: The stories' penchant for referring to cultural touchstones -- Asterix in Belgium (1979) opens "with apologies to: George Gordon, Lord Byron, Mr Wm Shakespeare, Mr John Milton and Peter Breughel the Elder" -- is well known. That these references invariably come from canonical classics -- from Horace's Odes to Cervantes's Don Quixote (the eponymous knight-errant and his squire make a cameo appearance in Asterix in Spain (1969) -- ensures that Asterix's adventures feel timeless.

Metanarrative: Asterix in Belgium and Asterix and Son (1983) feature flourishes of an altogether contemporary literary postmodernism. "Look, we're only just starting this story," Asterix explains early on in the former. "It's much too soon for a banquet."

Well-chosen modern touches: Instead of alluding to 1960s- and 1970s-specific issues that might have quickly lost their relevance, the books ingeniously make use of durable modern ideas. So, a character in Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974) suggests that "if anyone ever decides to go digging up the past behind this house, he'll have a few archaeological problems on his hands". And Obelix points out in Asterix and the Banquet (1965) that, compared to boar, "Oysters are all right, but you can eat boar even when there isn't an 'r' in the month . . ."

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser