Yambo Ouologuem

Christopher L. Miller’s letter (September 2) raises an important point that did not make it into the limited space of my review of La plus secrete mémoire des hommes (August 12): that Yambo Ouologuem, the real-life author who served as model to Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s fictitious writer, was accused of plagiarism in an unsigned editorial exposé published in the TLS (“Something New out of Africa?”, May 5, 1972). I agree with Mr Miller’s call for anyone who knows who wrote it to speak up.

What constitutes plagiarism and authenticity is a moot question, and today’s statistics churned out by similarity reports are surely no better answer than the exposé that compared to Graham Greene’s and Ouologuem’s texts, when originality defined as a literary tabula rasa constitutes a long-abandoned notion. Rereading the TLS reviews of Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence and its English translation, as well as the subsequent exposé, one is struck by how the discussion was riddled with notions that now seem antiquated – “an African who writes as an African” and who is expected to bring “something new out of Africa” – and fraught with (post-)colonial unspoken fantasies and fears reflected in the titular “Genital reminders” of the first review (by John Mole, December 19, 1968). It placed the author under an impossible double-bind injunction – that of writing in French and being authentically African. That André Schwarz-Bart was instead flattered to be associated with Ouologuem may have to do with French republican universalism, which suppresses minority identities. Yet, equally, that Sarr’s novel was hailed last year by the Parisian establishment as being a “hymn to literature” – that is, in fact, mostly the western canon – remains problematic in that respect.

Henriette Korthals Altes

Basil Bunting

Sam Milne (Letters, October 14) questions whether I was right, in my review of the Letters of Basil Bunting (October 7), to state that the “perceived enemies” denigrated in Bunting’s letters include Ian Hamilton Finlay, and quotes conciliatory sentiments in Bunting’s letter to Finlay of August 26, 1969. The letter I had in mind, though, was the one Bunting writes to Ronald Johnson on August 7, 1969, in response to a letter Johnson had written to Bunting’s friend and publisher, Stuart Montgomery. Bunting labels Finlay “an eccentric” who, after writing “verses teeming with whimsy and with what seemed to be self- regarding sentimentality”, went on to disguise “the essentially trivial nature of his work under tricks of typography”. After suspecting “any statement” from Finlay to be “warped”, and further comments on the “nullity” of Finlay’s verses, Bunting pauses to regret the fact that Johnson’s letter has caused him to write such things and “make an enemy of a man who has done me no harm”. He may have regretted upsetting Finlay, but I don’t think what I wrote was misleading.

William Wootten
University of Bristol

Literary executives

Nicola Shulman’s account (September 23) of pay-as-you-go use of James Joyce’s works recalled my frustration in seeking to introduce, in my chapter of The Oppens Remembered (literary friendships of George Oppen), two lines by Louis Zukofsky. The watchful editor, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, experienced in the hawklike predation of Zukofsky’s heir on any quote, protected me, herself and the University of New Mexico Press by resorting to paraphrase. Time for an international list of “stalkers” and “text offenders”?

Samuel Klonimos

Zen Buddhism

Twice in his review of Gary Snyder’s Collected Poems (September 30), Dennis Zhou refers to the poet’s “Buddhist faith”. That reference is misleading. Zen Buddhism is not a faith, but a practice. Although the Buddhist themes of impermanence and interdependence permeate Zen literature, Zen is not a belief system to which one converts. Rather it is a daily practice in which one trains the mind and cultivates compassionate wisdom. If any faith is required, it is only the faith that sitting still and paying attention to breath, posture and awareness are worthwhile things to do.

Shiju Ben Howard
The Falling Leaf Sangha, Alfred, New York

The decline of metaphysics

The two fundamental questions that I raised in my review of Dmitri Levitin’s book The Kingdom of Darkness (September 23) were: the central role of morality and how to live one’s life in the understanding of metaphysics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and the role of the responses to the Wars of Religion in reshaping European intellectual culture. In Dr Levitin’s letter (October 7) there is no response to the first question, so I assume he effectively concedes the point. His response to the second is to maintain that raising the Wars of Religion is to make this “single political event” the source of changes in what he terms “the European system of knowledge”.

What the responses to the Peace of Westphalia did was give the failures of metaphysics an urgency that educational and confessional disputes could never have had. These latter take on a wholly new standing in the wake of the inability of metaphysics to offer any reconciliation in the Wars of Religion, and the claims of metaphysics become a pressing matter of wide interest. At the same time these issues transformed both the kinds of questions addressed and the urgency with which they are addressed in the confessional and educational disputes.

Dr Levitin calls my arguments “out of date” and “idiosyncratic”. Really? They are certainly not idiosyncratic in the sense of being held only by me. He is presumably in possession of the up-to-date views. In that case, perhaps he can tell us how one can make sense of the reaction to Part I of Descartes’s Principiafor example, without the distinction that I draw.

Stephen Gaukroger

Chips Channon

Chris Mullin’s rather snide review (October 7) of the third volume of Henry “Chips” Channon’s diaries does not do them justice. The problem is a mistake about genre, as is evident from Mullin’s preference for diarists such as John Colville and Lord Alanbrooke. Channon’s intention was to record the life that he lived, which happened to include life as an MP, but also much else. The others were political chroniclers with a notice, here and there, of say fox-hunting. A better comparison is to the diaries of Harold Nicolson, which, interesting as they are, fail to match the sense of a complete life that Channon’s give us. That Mullin seems to disapprove of that life is his privilege, but it does limit his appreciation of Channon’s account of “the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture”, as Edmund Wilson wrote about Proust’s A la recherche (which was also a touchstone for Channon).

The subtitle of Mullin’s review refers to the diaries as “unexpurgated”. This is not quite true. There are ellipses on nearly every page, many of which apparently conceal details of Channon’s sexual activities. This is one of the few points of Simon Heffer’s heroic editing with which I would quibble.

Michael Holzman
Briarcliff Manor, New York

Robert Greene

In his generous review of my book, Reading Robert Greene: Recovering Shakespeare’s rival (October 7), Andrew Hadfield notes that the study “aims to clear away the myths, confusions and detritus, ready for Greene to be re-evaluated and, perhaps, edited and published.” I am delighted to announce that I have recently been appointed as general editor for The Collected Plays of Robert Greene, to be published by Edinburgh University Press. Greene plays a significant role in our understanding of Elizabethan literature and of Shakespeare’s beginnings as an actor-dramatist, and I look forward to working with a team of internationally renowned scholars and editors to bring the first collected edition of his plays in more than a century to print.

Darren Freebury-Jones

Economic progress

Contrary to the heading of Paul Seabright’s review of J. Bradford DeLong’s economic historySlouching towards Utopia (“Trouble in paradise”, September 23), economic progress is a great cause for celebration. The marked increase in dissatisfaction this century reflects the stagnation that has replaced progress. The pain suffered as a result of declines in income is much greater than the pleasure felt by equivalent increases. Annual changes in incomes are not shared equally. If the average is flat the winners and losers are equal in number, but unhappiness rises, the management of the economy is rightly questioned and politics becomes strained. I have attributed this stagnation to the “bonus culture” that followed the dramatic change in the 1990s in the way corporate managements are paid (Productivity and the Bonus Culture, 2019). This altered the balance of incentives away from investment, with its short-term costs and long-term rewards. The dissatisfaction with the resulting stagnation was amplified by the rise in inequality in wages.

Andrew Smithers
London W8

Out of Catalonia

In Patrick Graney’s good review of Eva Baltasar’s novel Boulder (In Brief, August 19/26), the only hair I would split is that he describes Baltasar as a “Spanish author”. This is a bit like describing AL Kennedy or Irvine Welsh as British authors. It’s technically correct but culturally misleading. Baltasar is a Catalan-language writer and Boulder It was declared Catalan Book of the Year in 2020 by Òmnium Cultural, the largest independent cultural association in Europe, dedicated to the diffusion and defense of the Catalan language and the culture it generates. Surely – now that Catalonia is very much on the map both politically and culturally – it wouldn’t have been impossible to mention that Baltasar is one of its most important living writers?

Matthew Tree

Nicholas Breakspear

I was pleased to see that Cardinal Breakspear, later Pope Adrian IV, is the subject of a new biography (September 23). My particular reason is that Breakspear funded my alma mater when he arrived in Nidaros (now Trondheim) in 1152. The Schola Cathedralis Nidarosiensis is thus Norway’s oldest public school. I and many other alumni have paid homage to our erstwhile fundator et primus rector at his sarcophagus in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Egil Alnæs

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