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Jared Diamond: "I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, The World Until Yesterday, asks what we can learn from traditional societies. How do you define “traditional”?
Traditional societies are the small-scale societies of the past – sufficiently small, with relatively little social stratification and political centralisation. Today, the world is divided into states but embedded within our state societies are lots of traditional mechanisms.

So those traditional mechanisms don’t necessarily wither away as societies develop?
No. Take Japan. Japan went through a profound change in the second half of the 19th century. But the Japanese were explicit about the traditional things they were going to retain: they were going to retain the emperor, the Japanese language, the role of the military. And they were going to change other things: Japan was going to become industrial.

Would it be fair to say that in this book you’re drawing up a balance sheet, with the advantages of modernity on one side and the disadvantages on the other?
That would be accurate. And the reason one has to do it is that I had to avoid the trap of romanticising traditional societies. Yes, there were wonderful things that we can learn from them but also terrible things about them – their getting locked in cycles of war, parents getting used to the deaths of children, short lifespans. So we can’t romanticise.

On the other hand, there are things that we can learn from them. At the end of the book, when I summarise the things that we have learned, in order to deflect the accusation that I’m romanticising I remind readers of the advantages we’ve got.

I’ve got some New Guinean friends who were very clear to me about what they liked about living in the west. They liked the anonymity; they liked the way that they weren’t constantly surrounded by their clans. So there’s a freedom and a possibility to get ahead in the west that you don’t have in traditional societies.

Would you say, by contrast, that one of the advantages of traditional societies is the way they nurture connections?
Yes. A friend of mine spent a lot of time in Africa. I asked him: “How would you compare your time spent in Africa with all your time spent in the US? Have you ever considered moving to Africa?” His summary was that life in Africa is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.

The reality is that friendship and lifelong maintained friendships are much more scarce in western societies for obvious reasons. The average American moves every five years: you move away from your childhood friends, your parents and your siblings, whereas in traditional societies there is much less movement so you spend your life surrounded by your childhood friends and family.

How does this book relate to your previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which you tried to account for the emergence of European civilisation?
We in the European world behave differently from people in traditional societies not because we’re different people but because we inherited cows, sheep, goats, pig, horses. We combine all the stuff from the Fertile Crescent that has all these consequences.

But the fact that we inherited all this different stuff doesn’t mean we also inherited better ways of bringing up children, better ways of dealing with older people, better ways of dealing with disputes – we didn’t.

Do you enjoy writing for a non-academic audience?
Some academics find it difficult but I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things. I think it came, first of all, from my mother, who was a schoolteacher. She loved explaining things to me.

The other thing is that I have a younger sister, so growing up I was constantly in a position of explaining things to her. It’s in the course of explaining something that I come to understand it.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

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

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide