Bonfire of the vanities: Russell Brand joins protesters in London during the Million Mask March on 5 November. Photo: Getty
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Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?

Ed Smith’s Left Field. 

The idea that writing should primarily entertain – the pleasure principle – is the bane of all literary theorists. As Philip Larkin put it, “Life and literature is a question of what one thrills to and further than that no man shall ever go without putting his foot in a turd.”

We all know the difference between a worthy book and one that makes you almost grimace with delight. Listen to your body. The way you lean forward in your chair, your back suddenly straighter, your toes tapping on the floor. The sleepy, dutiful weight of earnest texts that ought to be read, the measuring out of the morning in coffee cups and errands, the glancing at your watch, wondering if it’s too early for lunch – all forgotten. Your expression tells the story: the half-smile of expectation at hearing a mischievous and authentic voice, the heady oxygenation of eager anticipation, like an animal following a scent. You are sure, quite sure, that you are about to be entertained.

What had done this to me? Beginning research on a new project, I noticed, listed in a bibliography of minor relevance, a reference to Tom Wolfe’s essay “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine”. An excuse! A legitimate excuse! If I could find my copy, I could reread his essays. Furnished with my self-justification, I settled in for the morning, reacquainting myself with Wolfe. Only it lasted for days, not hours.

I had a ball. So I feel obliged, especially as his reputation has suffered a decline recently, to describe what exactly made my toes tap and my back straighten and my mouth turn up at the corners.

Wolfe’s gift, his satirist’s sensibility, is the combination of sublime confidence and raw courage. He makes you confront modish nonsense, snapping you back to your senses. More simply, he has an unfailing nose for bullshit. I find myself yearning to know what he would make of Russell Brand.

Here is Wolfe on the 1970s fad of “anti-fashion”, from his essay “Funky Chic”: “Terrific. Right away anti-fashion itself became the most raving fashion imaginable . . . also known as Funky Chic. Everybody had sworn off fashion, but somehow nobody moved to Cincinnati to work among the poor. Instead, everyone stayed put and imported the poor to the fashion pages.”

But should a serious writer “descend” to the level of describing fashion at all? “Writers seem to find the courage to write about society, in the sense of fashionable society, only from a great distance – either from across an ocean or across a gulf of a century or more in time, and preferably both.” Stop holding your nose, Wolfe is saying. Status – who’s up, who’s down; am I rising or drowning? – is central to the human condition.

He never expressed that argument better than in “My Three Stooges”, a retort to critics of A Man in Full. With the novel a success, Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving joined forces to denounce it as mere attention-seeking. “Does that make you feel bad?” an interviewer asked Wolfe. “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain “literary” writing. “The novel is dying,” Wolfe replied, “not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

But how good are the novels? I greatly enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities, though something about it made me feel uncomfortable – was Wolfe beginning to be too dazzled by the extravagant worldly success he once satirised? That strand, an ageing man’s obsession with Nietzschean power, expands to fill the still marvellously entertaining A Man in Full.

I abandoned the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, bludgeoned and bored by the relentless, detailed descriptions of loveless humping by college sports stars at frat parties, the “rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut” (I think that is roughly the right amount of rutting; I haven’t counted the syllables) of “two-backed beats herkyjerky humping bang-bangbang”. Instead of the authentic voice of the locker room – which I know better than Wolfe – I was hearing the fantasies of an old man, lived through two-dimensional “studs”. And I have scrupulously avoided 2012’s Back to Blood, lest it contaminate my affection for Wolfe’s early work.

Instead of begrudging a career that trails off, however, we should give thanks for the good times. (Even Evelyn Waugh’s reputation collapsed in the last decade of his life.) Wolfe’s central insight was to distrust what intellectuals said about taste.

Writers should not speak only to themselves, in self-congratulatory riddles. A lifetime of reading, Nick Hornby once said, made him trust “readers’ books” over “writers’ books”.

Wolfe’s attacks on the liberal elite explain why admiring him has always carried some reputational risk. Once, staying in New York as a house guest of friends who possess modernist tastes, I made the mistake of reading out a mischievous passage in From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s attack on brutalist architecture. For a while, it was touch and go: would I be tipped out on to the street?

Fifteen years later, for all my awareness of his flaws, I’m still at it, on the phone, reading out Wolfe to my friends, smiling at the guts and the gusto, wishing he was on top form now, poking his stick at hypocrisies waved through on the nod of fashion, stirring the hornet’s nest. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit