Reviewed: Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun

Obsession in the age of the internet.

Give Me Everything You Have: on Being Stalked
James Lasdun
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99

In James Lasdun’s marvellously creepy novel The Horned Man, we meet Lawrence Miller, a middle-aged Englishman who, like his creator, lives in the US and teaches at a college in the New York area. Such colleges, in Lasdun’s black satire, are forcing houses of guilty hypocrisy about sex. Miller serves on a sexual harassment committee and proves himself more than willing to censure fellow teachers who “cross the line” with their students. Yet as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Miller’s conscious virtue is only one half of a split personality, whose other half is, by a strict Freudian logic, all the more depraved for being so totally repressed. This other half, the reader gradually figures out, is a wife-beating, stranger-stalking, paranoiac murderer, whose deeds even Miller struggles to explain: how can the same mind contain such enlightenment and such evil?

The Horned Man is, in its nightmarish way, a convincing study in male sexual guilt. The more you try to hide the horn, Lasdun suggests, the more grotesquely tumescent it will become. Indeed, that kind of guilt – the unease of a highly civilised mind as it ironically parries its own drives – is a keynote of Lasdun’s work. You can see it again in the stories of It’s Beginning to Hurt, above all in short sketches such as “The Woman at the Window”. In this tale, an Englishman in New York is hailed on the street by a woman who claims to be locked in her apartment. Warily, the man agrees to break down the woman’s door and, once he does so, he is tempted to turn rescue into seduction; but, somewhat abashedly, he tames himself and walks away. The second half of the story contains the pay-off: the woman, Lasdun shows, pulls this same trick regularly in order to attract strange men. Like a Manhattan Lorelei, she is trying to suck men into the whirlpool of desire, where they will be consumed.

Only a reader somewhat familiar with Lasdun’s earlier work – in addition to fiction, he is also an accomplished poet and screenwriter – will fully appreciate the horror of the story he has to tell in his new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have. For the events of Lasdun’s life starting in 2007 have exactly the lurid, parable-like quality of The Horned Man. A few years earlier, he writes, he had taught a fiction workshop for graduate students, in which the stand-out writer was an Iranian-American woman in her thirties, whom Lasdun calls Nasreen. The class ended, time passed, and then Nasreen got back in touch with him, asking his help in finding an agent.

Impressed by her novel-in-progress, an autobiographical work about the 1979 revolution in Iran, Lasdun helped her and began a friendly, at times mildly flirtatious email correspondence. But, he makes sure to point out, he never allowed it to become openly sexual. He is a devoted husband and father with no interest in straying and when Nasreen makes inappropriate suggestions – for instance, “proposing to smuggle herself into my roomette” during a train journey Lasdun was planning to take – he realises: “Something more explicitly discouraging than a mere tactful silence was going to be required of me.”

Lasdun, in other words, has all the conscious, cautious rectitude of Lawrence Miller dealing with his female students. You can imagine his sense of dread and recognition, then, when Nasreen begins to invent for him an alter ego, compounded of her own fantasies, obsessions and hatred, that is as wicked as Miller’s. In emails sent at the rate of dozens a day, she elaborates a bizarre fantasy in which Lasdun commits all the sins he has taken care to avoid. Nasreen accuses Lasdun of sleeping with another student in their workshop, leading him to discriminate against her. Then she insists that he stole ideas from her novel and sold them to other writers. Then she claims that the story “The Woman at the Window” – which, Lasdun explains, was inspired by something that really happened to him in his early days in New York City – is based on her.

As her fantasies grow more florid, Nasreen’s emails – which Lasdun reproduces in the book – become violently profane: “I think this is called verbal terrorism,” she acknowledges in a rare moment of lucidity. They also, with a dismal inevitability, become anti- Semitic. The agent and editor to whom Lasdun referred her were both Jewish, as is Lasdun; to Nasreen, this makes them natural players in a Jewish conspiracy to defraud her. “I think the Holocaust was fucking funny,” she writes, and, “How fucking crazy Jews are these days,” and, “Do you have to be the stereotype of a Jew, James?” Eventually, Lasdun writes, she makes her way to “one of those words that scorch everything they come near. The word is ‘rape’.” “I say if I can’t write my book and get emotionally and verbally raped by James Lasdun, a Jew disguising himself as an English-American, well then, the Holocaust Industry Books should all be banned as should the films,” Nasreen rants.

Poison pen letters are nothing new. What makes Give Me Everything You Have a cautionary tale for the 21st century is the way that email and the internet make it possible to give such slanders instant, worldwide circulation. When Nasreen begins to repeat her accusations in the form of reviews of Lasdun’s books on Amazon, he has a sense that his very being in the world is under siege:

An ordinary negative review is depressing, but it doesn’t flood you with this sense of personal emergency, as if not only your book but your life, or at least that large aura of meaning that accumulates around your life and gives it value, is in imminent and dire peril. Call that aura your “character”, call it your “good name”, your “reputation”, your “honour”. Whatever it was, as I read the review on my screen I seemed to be seeing, as if through a powerful medical instrument, the first stages of some irreversible damage spreading into this nebulous yet indispensable entity.

Seen in a different light, or by a different victim, being stalked in this way might appear as just a piece of very bad luck. Yet it is striking how little credence Lasdun gives to the possibility, which will announce itself to any reader, that Nasreen is simply insane – a paranoid schizophrenic whose fantasies randomly focused on a man who happened to cross her path. If Lasdun had seen it that way, he might well have suffered less; but he would not have been able to write a book such as Give Me Everything You Have. For a writer, an experience only becomes an inspiration if it finds a ready welcome in his mind – if it fits into certain patterns of expectation and desire and dread that are already present.

It is this willingness to appropriate his worst experience that shows Lasdun’s true courage as a writer and that enables him to turn his book into something more than just another memoir. As he meditates on his relationship with Nasreen, Lasdun is drawn to works of literature that feature themes of sexual guilt and secret complicity. His refusal to respond to Nasreen’s sexual overtures seems to have ignited her mania; this makes Lasdun think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Gawain’s rebuff of a seductive queen goes along with a partial ­acquiescence in lust. As he crosses the US on a train, he thinks of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, another story of stalking, in which an upright man becomes the secret accomplice of a killer.

In each case, it is the impossibility of true innocence that obsesses Lasdun. In a refinement of scruple that can only be called morbid, he wonders if his refusal to feel any compassion for his stalker is the reason why he deserved to be stalked: “Perhaps if I could summon such feelings, the great sense of injustice lodged inside her, whatever its source, would stand a chance of being salved.” Finally, thankfully, Lasdun refuses this kind of guilt: “I feel . . . confronted by something unassuageable and beyond all understanding: a malice that has no real cause or motive but simply is.”

The element of Nasreen’s malice that proves most troubling for Lasdun – and therefore most stimulating – is her anti-Semitism. The son of Jews who joined the Church of England, Lasdun describes himself as having only a tenuous and conflicted sense of his Jewishness. However, like many Jews before him, he finds that his subjective experience of being Jewish makes absolutely no dif­ference to the way he is perceived by an anti-Semite.

What is particularly disturbing is the way Nasreen’s hate messages draw on anti-Semitic tropes that became prevalent during the George W Bush years. Nasreen instinctively understands that “neocon”, for instance, is an anti-Semitic code word. In her messages, Lasdun is seen as part of a Jewish conspiracy that begins by stealing her work and ends by starting the Iraq war, invading Gaza and inventing the “Holocaust industry”.

Lasdun sees himself as a singularly inappropriate target for such abuse – “I am not a supporter of Israel’s military policy, let alone any kind of Zionist,” he writes. But the last section of the book finds him travelling to Jerusalem, needing to find out more about the Jewish identity and the Jewish state for which he is, willy-nilly, held responsible. He begins to awaken to the prevalence of the kind of anti-Semitism Nasreen spouts: “There is something uncannily adaptive about anti-Semitism: the way it can hide, unsuspected, in the most progressive minds.”

In this way, Give Me Everything You Have joins a short list of insightful books about Jewish experience and anxiety in the post-9/11 world, along with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. At the time of writing, Lasdun concludes, Nasreen’s campaign of terror has grown more intermittent but it continues. In producing this book, however, he has at least regained control over his public image and become once again the authority on his own life. The most important lesson here is that everyone needs this kind of control – and that, in the age of the internet, it is shockingly easy to lose.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His most recent book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press, £20)

 

Under siege: James Lasdun. Photograph: Dorothy Hong/Guardian News & Media Ltd

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain