Sep 072014

The Public Image, Muriel Spark, Virago, 2014.

First published in 1968, The Public Image tells the story of Annabel Christopher, who is a movie star, and her husband, Frederick, an actor who never made it big. They have known each other since their youth, and it was only by chance that Annabel was ‘taken up’ by a PR expert and turned into a celebrity. Annabel has become very popular in Rome and her much-polished public image is that of an ‘English Lady-Tiger’, which I take to mean that she was rumoured to be be pretty hot between the sheets. Ho Hum. Plus ça change, and all that.

Spark’s tone is world-weary and cynical. How much more world-weary would she be now, having to deal with our ludicrous celebrity culture and a 24-hour news cycle that spews out headline after headline after headline. Anyway, when Annabel had a small part in an Italian film, the film-maker took a fancy to her and decided that she would be the next big thing. She is one of those actors who plays herself on the screen, but she does it very well. The public is intrigued by her manufactured image and before too long she is given better roles and a lot more money. Her husband is jealous because he thinks Annabel is stupid and he cannot understand how she got to be so rich and famous. Their marriage is on the rocks when Annabel decides that a having a baby would be a good PR move. Frederick does not have much say in anything any more, and the baby is duly born. Not long afterwards, something happens to throw everything into disarray, and we get to see the ‘real’ Annabel hit her stride as she does whatever is necessary to maintain her public image.

I felt rather ambivalent about this book. I like it, but the writing feels a bit detached, a bit cold, somehow. The Public Image was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1969 and critics had plenty of good things to say about it, but it did not really hit the spot for me. Maybe that is because in the nearly fifty years since the book was written, the world has changed a great deal and what was once fairly cutting edge – the idea of a woman taking control – was somewhat fascinating back then. Many famous actresses of yesteryear seem to have had a husband or manager controlling them, but Annabel is not putting up with that. Although she is objectified as a ‘Lady-Tiger’, she remains true to who she is and does what she wants to do. She is content to play the role of a ‘Lady-Tiger’ for the public, but she does not fall into the trap of believing she really is one. When the ordure hits the fan and things are looking grim, Annabel refuses to fall in with other people’s plans for her and plays her adversaries like the champion player she is.

Second-wave feminism was kicking off in the late 1960s, and Annabel’s actions can be seen as an awakening of her feminist self and a bid for liberation from male control. I think there are a lot of issues to do with identity construction, self-image and role playing that could be explored through this book. No one is quite what they seem – including a very creepy little girl who speaks as she finds and almost ruins everything. The main characters are scrabbling for fame and money but none of that makes them happy. There is a lot of outright lying, and some surprising twists as people behave in unexpectedly good ways. The narrative zips along and is funny, bordering on the farcical at times, but the only real warmth is in the relationship Annabel has with her baby. There is certainly not a lot of love lost between Annabel and her husband:

She smiled reproachfully, apologetically and conspiratorially all in one, a composite smile that infuriated Annabel. She went to look at the baby. On the way she heard a key in the lock. Frederick, it must be. She intended to hiss instructions to him to get rid of these tramps and queer louts at once, at once.

There are some zinging lines:

…in those earlier times when she began to be in demand in English films, she had no means of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid, for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that it thrives on the absence of a looking-glass.

I like Spark’s writing; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite novels and I love the adaptation starring Maggie Smith. I am looking forward to reading this biography and some of her other novels. There are twenty-six Spark novels, I believe, so that should keep me going for a while.

Sep 012014

Shy: A Memoir, Sian Prior, Text, 2014.

OK, I admit I read this book to see what Sian Prior said about Paul Kelly and their break-up. For those who do not know, Paul Kelly is an Australian musician, a much loved and respected singer and songwriter. He writes fairly amazing songs about his life and what is going on around him, and most of them can be read as poems. He is hard-working and prolific and can still pull a good crowd, and at fifty-nine, it seems that he can still pull the ladies, too.

It was no real surprise to find that Sian Prior expresses a lot of rage in this book, all of it directed at Paul Kelly. After a lovely night out he told he that, after ten years together, he did not want to be in a relationship with her any more, that he wanted to be with other women. This revelation came out of the blue and hit her like a thunderbolt, although with hindsight she could see that the signs were all there, if only she had been paying attention. The situation was made worse by the fact that before they got together Kelly had a smack habit and she gave him an ultimatum: heroin or her. He chose her and said that he liked the person he was when he was with her and promised to be faithful. Sadly for her, it turned out that he had not been faithful, and when he told her he wanted to be free to do horizontal folk dancing with other ladies, she was devastated. Ten years of love and friendship and shared life down the gurgler.

Sian Prior is a journalist, writer, opera singer, musician, and a lot more besides. She is ENOUGH, but she never felt that way. Her father drowned when she was young, after saving two other people who got into trouble swimming in the ocean. Her mother sounds like a remarkable woman, and a good role model, but Prior was shy and awkward, and she never ‘grew out of it’ as some people do. Although she could go onstage and perform, speak to large crowds, and schmooze at celebrity parties, she felt anxious and unsure of herself.

I think most people are ‘shy’ to some degree; no one is brimming with confidence and self-belief 24/7. I did not learn anything new from this book about the cause of shyness, but I did learn all about Ms Prior’s insecurities and it was all rather dreary. She wrote the memoir as part of her PhD in creative writing. Enough said, probably, given my dislike of that sort of writing. I really have no clue why anyone with such a high public profile would want to publish something so very personal. She is obviously extremely angry with Paul Kelly and the parts of the book about him feel like payback.

There were a few bits that made me think:

One day I heard a woman on the radio talking about social media and the ‘virtual self’. She described how people use Facebook and Twitter, posting photos and updates, comments and gags, to ‘display themselves’ to the world. The presenter asked her if she thought we were all ‘tinkering with what we’ve put online in order to project the image of ourselves that we want to project’. The social media expert told him we’re all ‘sculpting ourselves’ using the medium of digital data, creating ‘virtual doppelgangers’ out there in cyberspace in order to ‘craft Brand Me.’

I can relate to that. I think that when I was on Twitter I was trying out ‘public selves’, but it felt kind of empty, really. I am a private person in real life, so it was surprising to me that I blabbed so much about myself online for a while. I guess it was something I needed to try, but those selves werre not ‘me’.

When Tom [she uses a pseudonym for Paul Kelly] was working away from home he used to write to me every night. A letter from London. A missive from Massachusetts. A poem from Paris. Words were our love tokens. They kept the connection. They counted for a lot… Did he sit down and write to me in between fucking different women? I guess there’s no reason he should have kept it to one a night. If the offers were there, I mean. What’s the difference between one or several other women? Writing to me might have been a nice little break. A palate cleanser.

Did he think of those other women as hamburgers, or as steak? Or as some other variety of meat?

Ouch. I wonder what Paul Kelly thought when he read that vicious serve of character assessment?

Aug 282014

The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, Anne Manne, Melbourne University Press, 2014.

**I read the eBook, courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley.**

In The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, Anne Manne argues that an epidemic of narcissism is having a profound effect on individuals and society. Her analysis of the causes and effects of narcissism is wide-ranging and she uses real-life examples in order to facilitate the discussion. The book begins with an in-depth look at the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011. Although, initially, he was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, psychiatrists subsequently decided he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and was not mentally ill. Manne discusses both his crimes and his trial, and maintains that Breivik’s behaviour places him at the extreme end of the narcissism continuum. She then undertakes a comprehensive survey of the literature on narcissism, exploring the theories of influential psychologists and psychoanalysts, and draws the conclusion that a combination of genetic predisposition and dysfunctional parenting leads to some people developing a pathological form of the narcissistic tendency that exists in us all as children. Manne also looks at the behaviour displayed by Lance Armstrong, the once-respected cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win seven consecutive Tours de France but who finally admitted that his wins were made possible by long-standing and sustained cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs. Manne avers that his behaviour was driven by NPD, as was Ayn Rand’s, the novelist and Objectivist philosopher whose anti-communist and pro-individualist rhetoric had a marked effect on the USA’s monetary policy under the auspices of her acolyte Alan Greenspan, who was chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. Manne argues that narcissists may be found everywhere and that such people’s self-interest and sense of entitlement, coupled with their lack of empathy for others, profoundly impacts the rest of us through dysfunctional relationships and interactions, or through their harmful influence on public discourse.

For Manne, individualism and materialism enable the self-interest and greed that are becoming more prevalent in Anglo-American societies. She argues that successive generations of children are becoming more narcissistic and cites studies which show that narcissism is on the rise amongst the young. Adults do not escape criticism, however, and she points to people’s complacency in the face of obvious climate change as evidence of their narcissism, and discusses how caring roles in the community are devalued because narcissists see altruism as a bad thing. The idea of caring about the planet and other people is anathema to narcissists who are only interested in themselves and satisfying their own needs. Manne also discusses the sense of entitlement some men display in their attitude and behaviour towards women: their interest in violent pornography, their belief that they are entitled to sex and their propensity for sexual predation on women are all analysed in terms of narcissistic self-interest.

There is very good evidence that the problem of narcissism is growing worse. Changes in our culture have created an economic, social and relational world that not only supports but actually celebrates narcissism, cultivating and embedding it as a character trait.

Manne’s thesis is thought-provoking and she explores it in depth as she examines narcissism’s impact on culture and discusses how culture promotes the growth of narcissism. She identifies three main problem areas that contribute to the development of highly narcissistic individuals: dysfunctional parenting, economic rationalism, and the advent of the internet, which she sees as enabling and encouraging people to ‘perform’ their lives in the public sphere. For Manne, economic rationalism has turned people into consumers who are trapped in a cycle of work-earn-spend; they always want more and better, and are never satisfied with what they have. Reality TV makes it possible for anyone to become famous, and the internet makes it possible for everyone to be seen. In this analysis, social media is a narcissist’s paradise and provides ready access to a wide audience which allows people to have their egos stroked through ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram, and the accumulation of ‘friends’ and followers.

Celebrity worship and reality TV, and the ever-growing blogosphere and social media’s attempts to record our every move ensured the look-at-me-mentality. Any action, thought or picture, however banal can be recorded for posterity on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, in a new theatre of the everyday.

It could be argued that the book is perhaps too ambitious in its scope and that because Manne attempts to cover a vast array of subjects, the result is somewhat disjointed. She divides the book into two parts: the first part details the lives and circumstances of ‘infamous’ narcissists and discusses clinical understandings of narcissism, and the second part delves into the impact of narcissism on society. The beginning paragraphs of the book give no clue to the book’s structure and it is not until the second part that Manne’s political position and her areas of concern become clear. She relies heavily on research undertaken in the USA, most of it with college students as subjects. It may be contended that Australians are inherently less narcissistic than Americans, in light of our ‘tall poppy syndrome‘, our love for the underdog – which other country’s unofficial national anthem praises a sheep stealer who commits suicide to avoid being arrested – and our propensity to make fun of people who have ‘tickets on themselves‘. Manne does not offer any conclusive evidence to show that narcissism is as prevalent in Australia as it appears to be in the USA. Also, labelling people as narcissists may be more a matter of convenience than a true reflection of their state of mind. There is no clinical test for narcissism and the symptoms of NPD overlap many other psychiatric disorders, so although it might be expedient to reduce complex behaviours and label them ‘narcissistic’, those behaviours may be attributable to other causes. How did playing a violent war simulation computer game, sixteen hours a day for an entire year, affect Breivik’s state of mind, and what were the psychological effects of Rand being caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when communists confiscated all her parents’ property and forced them into exile? How did Armstrong’s childhood abuse and poverty influence his decision-making and his win-at-any-cost attitude towards the ethics of competition in the gruelling but financially lucrative sport of cycling? Is it possible that their behaviour was a reaction to environmental conditions rather than the expression of a personality disorder? Manne’s discussion of this issue is not convincing, although she does point to affluence as a cause of a sense of entitlement:

[t]he evidence shows that, as people get more affluent, they can become more entitled, more grandiose, meaner and less charitable, and even more likely to cheat. Call it the asshole effect.

The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism is a timely book and makes for interesting reading. Anne Manne is clearly concerned about the lack of empathy and leadership displayed by governments, as is evidenced by their hard-right economic and social policies. She rightly criticises an inherent lack of compassion and care in public discourse with regard to vulnerable members in our society, and she highlights how the material wealth people strive for does not make them content. These things are all worthy of concern and discussion, but people have been saying for eons that we are all going to hell in a handcart. The real question is whether the handcart labelled ‘narcissism’ is really a greater cause for concern than the myriad other moral panics that have caused vexation throughout the ages.

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?
— Plato (424-348 BCE)

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE)

Aug 222014

My Greek Island Home, Claire Lloyd, Penguin, 2012.

Claire Lloyd is an Australian artist, designer and photographer who was living in London, but the pace of life there was a little hectic and she longed to slow things down. So, she and her partner bought a house on Lesvos, a Greek island, as you do.

I guess this is one of those books you read and say, ‘If only I had the money, I would love to do that.’

Lloyd’s photos are beautiful and the book is designed to show them at their best. Snaps of gorgeous elderly ladies cooking in their ‘functional’ kitchens sit alongside recipes for scrumptious Greek dishes; shots of old men chatting in the sun outside a cafe; pictures of the interior of Lloyd’s renovated home, all cream and white and lovely; portraits of some of the animals who live at her property, which has become an unofficial sanctuary. I like the way the photos capture colour and texture; it is clear that Lloyd has a painterly way of seeing the world.

I am always struck by the generosity and spontaneity of these people. It is refreshing; such a contrast to rigid city life. I still have to remind myself to enjoy the moment and not worry if things don’t turn out as planned.

I think that a lot of us long for simplicity and authenticity in our lives. Many of us who are stuck living in cities, even supposedly nice cities like Perth, feel trapped and out-of-step with our surroundings. Oh well. At least there are books such as this to remind us that there are lovely places out there and even if we are not able to live the Dream, we can still catch a glimpse of what it is like to buy a house on a Greek island and let your life slow down enough so you can catch your breath.

Driving into Molyvos is like going back in time. Most of it sits high above sea level and the traditional stone buildings have doors, windows and shutters in a deep burnt red colour. The ruins of a Byzantine castle crown the village.

A lot of people come from all over the world to visit Perth and many think it is a beautiful place. Maybe it is the traffic congestion, and the constant noise and rush, and all the building work going on here that make it unbeautiful to me. Maybe it is the shopping mall culture and the newness of everything, and the rip it out and bulldoze it down attitude to the landscape. I long for a landscape that is not constantly changing, for quiet, for breathing space. I long for my own Greek island adventure.

Claire Lloyd’s website.