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Book Reviews, Politics, Reviewing

Review of Notebooks, 1922-86 by Michael Oakeshott



Collection of Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks reviewed for the Bookbag.


Michael Oakeshott is usually described as a conservative thinker. According to Perry Anderson, his work influenced John Major’s style of politics; he named him in the London Review of Books in 1992 as one of four ‘outstanding European theorists of the intransigent Right’. Luke O’Sullivan, who edited this collection of notebooks, has often said that he considers such descriptions limiting. O’Sullivan is clearly enthusiastic about Oakeshott’s work and strove to enable these notebooks, spanning a period of over sixty years, to be published.

For those interested in Oakeshott, this book will be valuable. As O’Sullivan tells us in the introduction, the philosopher frequently mentioned the notebooks and kept each series of them in a numbered sequence. As such, they were probably meant to be published, or at least pored over by students and followers. The book’s layout is clear, with each notebook presented separately and each note numbered. These can range from one line to a couple of pages in length. The book offers an interesting corollary to the thinker’s published work, giving us a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into his mind.

O’Sullivan’s introduction gives us an idea of how useful and sometimes surprising these notebooks are. For instance, while Michael Oakeshott’s published work discussed Hobbes a lot, using his ideas to build a theory of the state, the notebooks refer little to him. O’Sullivan explains that Oakeshott probably used loose papers and annotated the books he was working on. Conversely, the notebooks demonstrate that their writer had an interest in Nietzsche, interest which is not mirrored in his published work.

This hardback is obviously aimed at admirers of Oakeshott’s work, and for them the book will be of definite interest. Now what of those who don’t know or like him? For many such readers, the first hurdle would be getting over the instantly repelling title of ‘conservative thinker.’ Curiosity may compel readers to pick up the book, as well as an urge to reach out beyond one’s political views and be as widely read as possible. And the notebooks are a pleasant and informative read. Oakeshott taught at the LSE for nearly twenty years and has much of interest to say on the subject of philosophy, history, politics, literature and art.

This can lead to surprisingly different takes. From Oakeshott’s point of view, Voltaire as historian was prejudiced in his view of the church, a ‘“barbarous” absolutism.’ The common stance is usually to applaud Voltaire’s clear-headed dislike for what was then a repressive institution.

Similarly, a one-liner goes: ‘Hardy clearly preferred his women dead.’ The double-take occasioned by such comments can be refreshing, the equivalent for the brain of swapping Pilates for yoga and stretching one’s muscles in an unexpected and slightly painful new direction.

Intriguing too are the ‘Belle Dame’ notebooks. In them, a young Oakeshott speaks of women he is in love with and discusses the various aspects of love and attraction. In October 1931, we find an elegant description of post-coital gloom: after an encounter in London with a woman called Elizabeth, he laments ‘the inherent impossibility of satisfaction, the impossibility of penetrating another self, & the foolishness & the misery of attempting.’

Oakeshott was a prolific creator of aphorisms and there are many here that will entertain and inform. Some offer us witty perspectives on the philosopher’s role: ‘It is the fortune of the philosopher to be an outcast, useless to men of business and troublesome to those of pleasure.’ Others are simply beautiful: ‘Decadence, Venice as it is now, is not a defect, it is the fruit of which power & glory were only the flower.’ Yet others, like the stark ‘The woman whom love & youth have deserted takes offence at everything’ will shock by their narrow-mindedness.

Religion is a recurrent theme. Oakeshott takes a sometimes dispassionate view yet lauds the importance of religion in society. He compares primitive Christianity with the times he is living in and its different beliefs. There is often a functional edge to his notes on religion’s role and in notebook 10 he reflects on Kant’s and Schleiermacher’s thought about religion, concluding with Durkheim for whom ‘society is the primary object of religious devotion.’ In notebook 15, he says: ‘God is not a being or a person, it is a way of thinking about human life.’

Oakeshott himself comes across as iconoclastic and his writing is stylish. One to buy for those who can afford it. For the others, it is well worth borrowing.



Book Reviews, Letters, Reviewing

Here and Now: Letters by J M Coetzee and Paul Auster

Here & Now

 Here and Now: Letters by J M Coetzee and Paul Auster – book review.


Reading letters by writers affords a particular pleasure. They give us access to the functioning of a writer’s mind when it’s somewhere between work and rest. Sometimes they reveal secrets, offer startling revelations about their writers and insights about the times they lived in. Here and Now, an exchange of letters between J M Coetzee and Paul Auster between 2008 and 2011, describes itself as ‘an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends.’

Accordingly, the theme of friendship runs through the book. It is at first theoretical as Coetzee, in his first letter, reflects on its enigmatic nature. As the correspondence goes on, the men’s friendship cements, helped along by face-to-face meetings all over the world.

The book is understated and thoughtful, led by Coetzee’s observations and questions and Auster’s attempts to answer them. The exchanges show us two curious people intent on understanding things as varied as sport on TV and the 2008 financial crash.

There are interesting insights. Auster is bewildered by a set of coincidences. Coetzee shows exquisite self-awareness when he tells of his inability to remember anything distinct about his travels, wondering why all he picks up are signs that tell me that life is the same everywhere in the world, rather than signs of the distinctiveness of every tiny part of creation?

As the book progresses and the reader gets attuned to the writers’ voices, it takes on a hypnotic rhythm, with references to sports becoming a friendly leitmotiv. By the end of it you feel like you’ve spent time with two intelligent friends.

However, these letters, riveting as they are, seem to be the result of an experiment rather than respond to a need. Now that letters are an optional mode of communication, they have lost their vital nature. When you hear about letter-writing nowadays, it is often preceded by the words ‘death of.’ This means that such an exchange can seem contrived, especially as the letters are devoid of personal revelations or strong opinions about contemporary writers. The writers remain composed throughout and the enjoyment in reading these letters comes from the intellectual exchanges.

Of course, the loss of letter writing is to be lamented and in a way this collection reminds us of what we have lost. It shows us just how important writing was in building a rapport between two people. Letters used to be the only way in which friends living far away from each other could communicate. Everyone got a chance to experience the particular alchemy that happens when you express a thought or describe an event, however minute, in writing. As Paul Auster says, soldiers from the American Civil War used to write better letters than many English professors do now.

So yes, a delightful journey in the company of Coetzee and Auster, but a peaceful rather than a startling one. The tone is never urgent. When the writers discuss the financial crisis or foreign affairs, it is not with an ardent desire to solve these things. Does this stem from the place of the writer in our society, no longer as ‘engagé,’ or from the fact that the two men have reached a placid stage in their life and writing? They are after all established writers, approaching the third stage of a life in art brilliantly described by Coetzee in one of his letters.




Book Reviews, Reviewing, Thrillers

No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne

RNo Regrets, Coyoteeview of a ‘Florida Noir’ thriller for thebookbag. No Regrets, Coyote, published by Serpent’s Tail.


You may or may not be aware that there is a style known as the South Florida Noir. The action tends to take place in daylight, in the glare of the Florida sun rather than in nightclubs or dark alleyways. If you’re not familiar with South Florida Noir, No Regrets, Coyote is a good place to start. And if you are, well, be assured that it is a perfectly crafted example of the genre.

Wylie ‘Coyote’ Melville, the hero of the book, is not your usual cop or private eye. He’s a therapist and has his own practice where he sees dysfunctional patients. He even has certain days reserved for couple counselling. The therapy sessions are both dark and funny; we get to quite a selection of strange characters, such as a porn-obsessed shelf-stacker. Coyote also volunteers as a forensic consultant with the Eden police force.

When the action starts, on Christmas Eve, the police call him to request his services. When he turns up, a scene of carnage awaits him. A man, Chaffin Halliday, has apparently murdered his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself. Murder-suicide, or something else? That’s what Coyote wants to find out. From then on, the case obsesses him. He keeps remembering all the small things that didn’t make sense and starts digging for more information.

The brilliant thing is that we sometimes wish he’d stop, drop the case and get on with his life. Do normal things, look for a girlfriend and above all keep safe. Because we fear for our hero. He’s faced with brutal enemies and doesn’t seem to know it. The reader realises the dangers Coyote is in, but he himself seems unable to understand how nasty people can be.

He’s genuinely nice, a guy who analyses his own dreams and shows endless compassion to those around him. He’s the opposite of macho. When he catches his friend, tough cop Carlos, staring into space over his breakfast sandwich, he asks him, ‘where did you just go?’

Coyote uses his keen observation skills and his understanding of what makes people tick to get himself out of sticky situations. And how sticky they are! We tremble for him as his honesty makes him enemies so ruthless that they seem to be just about to kill him or at the very least set him up for a life in prison.

But he goes on, delves deeper into the investigation. He finds out that Halliday owed gambling boats and that his wife may have had a mysterious past. He’s determined to get to the truth. Coyote is clinging to his own sense of order and this drive is a recurring theme. He wants to believe that justice will win out in the end. The tough guys tell him that his reality doesn’t exist. They are convincing – the bullies do seem to be in control in the corrupt little town of Eden, Fl.

But Coyote, soft though he looks never deviates from his sense of what is right. Luckily, his friend Bay Lettique, a professional poker player with useful links to the underground, is on hand to assist him. Bay, a charismatic character, always turns up just when things are getting desperate.

Apart from Bay, Coyote is surrounded by a little network of dysfunctional people. His family, an obese sister and father with Alzheimer’s, is needy. His adorable cat Django relies on him for survival. He befriends a homeless man and his cleaner is a schizophrenic patient of his. Coyote is generous and kind to them. These qualities are unusual in a sleuth and make him easy to relate to.

The novel has it all – suspense, psycho killers, sleaze and corruption, gangsters and explosions. Dufresne’s style is clear as glass, polished as steel, with beautiful sentences bubbling up here and there. The action is taut and thrilling and the denouement satisfyingly unexpected. Above all, No Regrets, Coyote has an original voice. It’s a high definition mix of magic, humour and menace under the unrelenting Florida sunshine.








Book Reviews, Reviewing

A. Gennevraye or the Allure of the Pseudonym


 L’Ombra is a novella from 1881 about a young woman who uses a pseudonym to be able to perform as an opera singer. It was written by a woman using a nom de plume.

She was born Émilie Adèle Monden-Gennevraye but married twice so is known by at least two other names, Mme Janvier and Mme Perrot. Dumas fils knew her as Adele Janvier. Flaubert mentions her in her letters as Mme Perrot. (source: Claude Schopp from the Université de Rouen)

As a child, I read the first part of l’Ombra in an issue of 1881 literary magazine ‘La Revue des Deux Mondes,’ that I’d found in an abandoned house. I yearned to find out how the story ended – it had melodramatic cliff hanger – but had no idea how to get the next issue of a magazine published over 100 years before. Thanks to the internet, I have the complete story at last. And I’m preparing a piece about its mysterious author…











Reviewing, Theatre Reviews

Lured Into Enjoyment: The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic | Litro



Lured Into Enjoyment: The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic | Litro.


“The Scottsboro Boys gives an unsentimental account of a tragic event that destroyed nine lives. It is also a reminder of an important period in history – the case influenced the burgeoning US civil rights movement. It is only in April this year that the Scottsboro nine were posthumously pardoned by the state of Alabama. On a video on the Young Vic website, Dante-White expresses the hope that the musical will encourage audiences to think about the events and look for information about them. The Scottsboro Boys manages this successfully, as well as – or, rather, because of – providing breath-taking entertainment.”