What has Ben Masters done for the Oxbridge novel?

Is 'Noughties' a fresh take on the genre, or just a pensioner in a hoodie?

Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), imagines that he is responsible for composing a list of subjects, scenes and structures which novelists are to be banned from using. He appeals for a prohibition on ‘more novels about incest…not even [excluding] ones in bad taste’, as well as a case-closed-consensus against ‘scenes in which carnal connection take place between man and woman in the shower’ (his reasons for the latter are ‘primarily aesthetic, but also medical’).

Geoffrey’s terms wouldn’t be too disruptive to novelists. Scrapping incest interludes and shower shagging oughtn’t to be too tight a clamp on plot-writing pulses. And any panic excited by Geoffrey’s proposal to cease staging novels in abattoirs would subside briskly enough -- especially after the news that God (‘bearded head gardener’; ‘wise old sea captain’) is also barred from fiction for twenty years. However, there is one item on the list flammable enough to cremate a paper palace of young novelists’ plans: by Geoffrey’s bell, book and candle, ‘novels set in Oxford or Cambridge’ are excommunicated from our bookshops.

The source of Barnes’ heckling is quite blatant. It might be mistaken as traditional for authors educated at Oxford and Cambridge to write growing-up tales of emotionally inelegant, hazily spiritual studentship. Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street (1914) set a tone for the hopeful, bathetic Oxford spirit. Max Beerbohn, author of the Oxford-set, suicide-strewn Zulieka Dobson (1911) praised MacKenzie for giving ‘the actual Oxford experience’, and ‘miraculously [making] you feel what each term was like’; a pattern up-ended in the sympathetic story of Philip Larkin’s Jill (1946), about the callow compulsion to lie in order to fit in a little better. Vladimir Nabokov’s Glory (1932) re-designs his own experience as a Russian exile at Cambridge (with a little less goal-keeping and, by all accounts, no fewer affairs), and Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes (1976) tracks the careers of a group of Cambridge graduates, whose trails are lit with the memories of irretrievable studenthood.

It would be amiss to neglect The Rachel Papers (1973), in which a precociously bright, precociously sexed Oxford candidate scrambles to sleep with an older woman before he touches twenty. The denouement of Martin Amis’s novel is the ‘arseless’ hero’s Oxford interview, in which his lordly exam papers are cauterized by a curly haired don.

Val McDermid said of her alma mater that ‘Oxford exerts a strong influence on those it touches’, yet there are audible pleas for that influence to be reined in a little. Somewhat bravely, therefore, Ben Masters, a recent Oxford graduate, published Noughties (2012). Set during the protagonist, Eliot’s, final night in Oxford, it writhes through memory and desire to achieve a familiar poignancy. But is it familiar enough to be spat out as an unwanted remake of a dusty recipe?

There are obvious reasons to celebrate this novel. Masters prioritises comic and fresh perceptions. Using images and metaphors to hop-scotch around reality, he describes the spot in which Eliot loses his virginity as an ‘embarrassed bed’, and his girlfriend’s inner thigh as ‘so exquisitively smooth and soft that it feels as if you’re about to slip off the earth’. He modulates his decoration carefully, and one trusts that his style will hulk and sweat into something exuberantly baroque -- an underappreciated prospect. Yet its critics have derided Noughties as an unambitious chip off the old block, with pouting self-pity standing in for affecting story-telling.

The novel does have a primitive structure and scope, and its supporting characters are not drawn with the cartoonish fluorescence which they (and we) crave. Yet this is part of the point. Masters introduces the group of friends as ‘four flat characters…Scott with his question-mark nose, Jack with his inverted-comma eyebrows, Sanjay with his square-bracket ears’. Completing their degrees has flattened them out like paper, and they are inscribed with marks of education -- metamorphosed, even, into the fundamental tools of the only trade they know. They are members of a culture in which ‘everyone goes to university; you just kind of end up there’ (Eliot imagines his friends from home studying ‘Golf Course Management with Experimental PE’ and ‘Socio-Bio-Dance with History’). In Noughties education has become so dispassionately arbitrary that it defines its characters, even physically, to the exclusion of anything else.

Take its epigraph: ‘but to the wise/ Often, often is it denied/ To be beautiful or good’ (W.H. Auden, Oxford). Eliot has learnt a lot about lashing and a lot about literature during university, but we wonder where he will go to learn compassion and kindness. And as for beauty, it brushes by their pub table only briefly. On the second page a ‘droopy man’ falters past them in the King’s Arms, who ‘wears the heady bonfires and dissident blossoms of the cool summer air, stirring fragrances of ale and tobacco’. This natural, softly pervasive beauty which many recognise in Oxford departs with its unlikely bearer. Masters sterilizes his novel of it. It returns only at the very end as Eliot drives away for the last time and sees the ‘shadows of many partings’; common, brief and quietly momentous occasions, crucial to many Oxbridge novels, glimpsed here only in shadow.

Masters is presenting an entirely different view. The novel’s vernacular (the students speak like Amis’s yobs) is important to this. Keith Talent could mingle indiscernibly among the and thats, innits and yeah mates of Eliot’s circle. This becomes especially grating beside passages like the florid tutorial on the place of the poet in The Prelude, in which few but humanities students could take much pleasure. This tension between the inarticulate and the over-articulate is dramatised when conversation between Eliot and his home friends turns to STIs. On hearing Rob’s account of having ‘a fob mathingy up [my] jap’s eye’, Eliot considers mentioning an episode in Herzog, maybe even Rochester’s ‘tingling cunts’, but checks himself (if following instances are consistent, for fear of puzzled gurns and accusations of hermaphrodidity.)

It is this disharmony which is both the novel’s problem and its purpose. Masters gives the Oxbridge formula a nastiness which it hasn’t really held before. It is not the absence of the old gentility, more the neutralisation of the pseudo-mythical quality of the sub-genre which one feels. The Auden quotation becomes an epitaph for the ‘beautiful and the good’ which, in the Oxford of Noughties at least, has been spray-painted over.

So what has Masters done for the Oxbridge novel? Little more than given a pensioner a hoodie and a snakebite and wheeled him into a nightclub? Or is his paradoxical, contorting account, uneasily street-smart and nervously high-brow, a closer representation of Oxbridge’s current condition? Perhaps, if the latter, its disjunctions have shaken up the bones of the elderly prototype, and produced a rejuvenation; perhaps, one of which Geoffrey Braithwaite, at a second glance, might be forgiving.

Oxford students in a display of camaraderie, 1935. (Photo: Getty Images)
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era