Reviewed: Fractured Times - Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century by Eric Hobsbawm

Looking for Eric.

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century
Eric Hobsbawm
Little, Brown, 336pp, £25

Reviewing a book by his fellow historian Raphael Samuel about the “lost world of British communism”, Eric Hobsbawm praised Samuel for his “melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past”. Fractured Times, Hobsbawm’s final work, published after his death in October last year, displays a similar quality – though it evinces melancholy empathy not for the milieu of the British Communist Party, which he joined when he arrived in England from Berlin as a 15-year-old in 1933, but for the art and culture of the “bourgeois society” that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War.

The essays collected here, which were written between 1964 and 2012, are not focused exclusively on the “lost world” of European bourgeois civilisation. There are several pieces on the situation of the arts in the early 21st century – reflections on the consequences of technological progress and the “democratisation of aesthetic consumption” – but Hobsbawm’s analysis of our postmodern cultural condition nevertheless presupposes, as he acknowlegdes, a“plunge” back into the final years of what he terms the “long 19th century”, stretching, roughly, from 1789 to 1914. Without that look back, the current scene cannot be understood. The seven chapters devoted to the “culture of the bourgeois world” therefore form the centre piece of the book.

Much of this will be familiar to readers of Hobsbawm’s earlier work. His point of departure here is the claim made in The Age of Empire (1987), the third volume of his great trilogy on the long 19th century, that August 1914 marked a definitive “natural break” in the history of Europe. That moment was regarded, he argued there, as announcing “the end of the world made by and for the bourgeoisie”. And intimations of imminent death were felt especially keenly in the cultural productions of the period, especially in literature and painting, to which The Age of Empire devotes a substantial chapter.

The first part of Fractured Times picks up where that chapter left off and serves as a useful reminder of just what kind of Marxist historian Hobsbawm was. His interest in the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues in the Communist Party Historians Group of the early 1950s – men such as Samuel, Christopher Hill and E P Thompson. As he wrote in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), his Marxism had developed out of the attempt to understand the arts:

What filled my mind [in the mid-1930s] was not the classic macro-historical problems of Marxist debate about historical development – the succession of “modes of production”. It was the place and nature of the artist and the arts (in fact,  literature) in society or, in Marxist terms, “How is the superstructure connected to the base?”

Hobsbawm’s indifference to the main problems of Marxist historiography, not to mention his mellifluous prose style, ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries did (something attested to by the voluminous media coverage of his death).

As Perry Anderson has put it, in Hobsbawm, Communist “militant and historian . . . remained separate identities”. One might add as a corollary that the identities of historian and writer were jumbled up in him. The “Overture” to The Age of Empire shows this well. The book begins not as grand narrative but as autobiography. Hobsbawm tells the story of how his mother, scion of a Viennese Jewish family of some standing, met her future husband (and Eric’s father) in Alexandria, where her uncle did business.

There was a serious point to this anecdote, Hobsbawm insisted. “For all of us,” he wrote, “there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” The Age of Empire fell into that twilight zone. Fractured Times – or the central section of it at any rate – does too. And this is what gives much of it the kind of melancholy air that Hobsbawm found so attractive in Samuel.

He confesses to having chosen examples from his own “cultural background – geographically central Europe, linguistically German”. And, he might have added, Jewish. In Interesting Times, Hobsbawm evoked the prosperous, largely secular milieu of Jewish Vienna from which his mother’s side of the family had sprung and which had mostly disappeared (or persisted only in the most attenuated fashion) by the time he was born in 1917. The finest piece in the new volume, on the “emancipation of Jewish talent” in central Europe, is a paean to the German language, the “gateway to modernity”for Mittel European Jews in the second half of the 19th century – and, of course, the native tongue of young Eric Hobsbaum himself.

Eric Hobsbawm in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

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

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism