Publisher's Note — November 17, 2016, 10:58 am

Mitterand’s Centenary

“Mitterand remains an emblematic figure for President François Hollande, who is trying to attach himself to his predecessor as he tanks in the polls.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 7, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

One can find much to deplore in the life of François Mitterand, whose centenary passed on October 26: his work for Marshal Pétain during World War II, his postwar loyalty to René Bousquet and other figures linked with Vichy France, and the famous attentat de l’Observatoire, the Observatory Avenue attack, in which Mitterand himself, for political profit, is believed to have orchestrated a fake attempt on his life. One could also look down on him for the way he conducted his private affairs—his countless mistresses, who he would unceremoniouslydrop without really breaking offwith them—and for his behavior toward his allies and his constituents, who he would keep waiting for hours without explanation. The great man’s arrogance and selfishness can be irritating.

A story that particularly aggravates me is recounted by Laure Adler in her book François Mitterand, journées particulières (Flammarion) and concerns Mitterand’s choice of campaign headquarters when he was running as theSocialist Party candidate in the 1974 presidential race. “To the great astonishment of certain militants, Mitterand’s team sets up shop in the Tour Montparnasse,” a symbolic insult not only to the gracious architecture of Paris but also to the traditional conception of socialism. According to Adler, “the oldest members stress that a big alteration of scale was taking place in those days, and that the technical sophistication of the young ENA (National School of Administration) graduates, along with the arrival of the ‘communications pros,’ changed the game: politics became a highly specialized profession and a world in which brilliant, ambitious young people wanted to make their careers.” And, indeed, the Socialist Party, following Mitterand’s inclinations, was beginning its transformation into a party of executives and intellectuals, a party largely divorced from the working class and the common people; i.e., those most in need of protection against economic liberalism. The party was starting to change, in short, into the Socialist Party of today, which is outdistanced by the right-wing National Fronta party that profits from the anger of the unemployed and the disillusioned, who feel abandoned by the official left.

Nevertheless, Mitterand remains an emblematic figure for President François Hollande, who is trying to attach himself to his predecessor as hetanks in the polls. In an intraparty primary that he’s probably going to lose, Hollande is focused on placing himself in the wake of a politician whose tactical aptitude was extraordinary. At a recent ceremony held inside the Louvre Pyramid in remembrance of Mitterand, Hollande praised the former president’s “fierce will” and paid particular homage to the ideological flexibility that got Mitterand reelected to the presidency for a second term: “He was attacked by the right for being a leftist, and by a part of the left for not being left enough.”

To be sure. But sailors know that a little boat can be submerged in the wake of a bigger one, and at the European level, Mitterand’s wake is precisely what has engulfed his socialist successor and threatens to drown him. Mitterand stood godfather to the Europe of the euro and of German austerity. With the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union and, eventually, the euro, he tied France to a single currency, beyond national and democratic control, and to a foolishly rigid policy that prohibits any fiscal deficit over 3percent of GDPin the name, naturally, of economic and social stability. According to the American economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book The Euro), the reality is exactly the opposite: “The Maastricht restrictions on fiscal deficits can effectively be an automatic destabilizer. As tax revenues plummet [for example, in the period following the 2008 crisis], when the 3 percent deficit target is breached, there have to be cutbacks in expenditures, which lead to further declines in GDP.” So here’s France, in a state of permanent instability ever since the inauguration of the euro in 2000, with an unemployment rate near 10 percent. Here’s France, suffering from industrial relocation that has demoralized an entire generation of workers and stripped them of their confidence in the future. Here’s France, dominated by the European Central Bank—which is itself dominated by Berlin—and deprived of the fiscal tools it could use to improve the health of the country.

I noted with interest the lively polemic that followed the publication of a collection of “conversations” with Hollande, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça, (A President Shouldn’t Say That) (Wipf andStock). Eithernarcissistic or downright stupid, this collection goes hand-in-hand with the recent publication of love letters from François Mitterand to Anne Pingeot, his clandestine mistress for more than thirty years. These books are two literary titbits that gloss over the contemporary collapse of the French left. Laure Adler convincingly describes Mitterand’s determination, his eagerness to conclude the Maastricht Treaty with the then German chancellorHelmut Kohl. He’d given his all, in December 1991, to realize “his greatest ambition… Ever since 1984, Mitterand had been walking at Kohl’s side, lavishing friendship on him unreservedly, calling him up for no good reason, introducing him to some of his favorite Parisian restaurants…” Sounds like a pair of lovers. The “Franco-German” couple and their child, the euro, are François Mitterand’s odd legacy, a legacy more important even than Mazarine, the long-hidden daughter he had with Anne Pingeot. François Hollande’s lot is to suffer that legacy’s consequences.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:


In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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