Bookmarks: Magnificently unpleasant fake history
A fortnightly look at books and writers
Time then to think about holiday reading and, although not my bag, George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood (HarperVoyager), the latest addition to the biggest fantasy franchise in history, will undoubtedly be topping many a list of books within which to lose oneself this December. While the rest of us wait for the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones to be screened some time next year, it should be noted that this is not the final Westeros novel – that one, The Winds of Winter, featuring the further adventures of Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon Snow and others, is way, way overdue. Interestingly, what was originally envisaged in 1993 as a trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire, has since expanded to five novels, a bunch of short stories and two volumes of what Martin has referred to as “fake history”, of which this 736-page brick of a prequel is one.
It is not technically a novel, but rather a tangled account of Daenerys’s incestuous ancestors as told by a gossipy and pompous cleric, Archmaester Gyldayn. Writing in the London Sunday Times, the historian Dan Jones praises it as a “masterpiece” of the popular history form, balancing storytelling with analysis and weaving “inconveniently fragmented events into a sublimely realised whole”. Despite the hundreds of characters, and 150-year time span, the book is a memorable and vivid read.
“It is also magnificently unpleasant,” Jones writes. “As I was reading, I made a list of the various modes of death suffered by characters. A (small) sections reads: ‘Burned by dragon. Defenestrated by old lady. Slowly dismembered. Poisoned with wine. Smothered in brothel. F***ed to death by horse. Slipped in mud. Flogged for adultery. Choked on peach pit. Hurled on spikes. Killed by throne. Hurled on spikes (again). Tortured for a fortnight. Throat slit by a ‘doxy’. Eaten by wildlings. Fell from horse drunk. Burning worm fever. Brained with a cobblestone. ‘The Shivers’.”
The big memoir of the moment is Becoming by Michelle Obama (Viking), and there are huge piles of them on display in bookstores across the country. It is beautifully written, according to the critics.
In the Guardian, Afua Hirsch writes: “It’s hard to be cynical about either Obama’s strength of character or her authenticity. Her book confirms what was observable about her time in the White House, that while she may have had to shape herself into the mould of what politics requires of a first lady, it was still a first lady-shaped version of something real. Her genuine dislike for politics is hard to avoid, in a book rooted in a high moral ground above insults and mudslinging, the political process itself seems the only thing she allows herself to freely insult.”
As Obama herself put it: “The appeal of standing in an open gym or high school auditorium to hear lofty promises and platitudes never made much sense to me. The political world was no place for good people … Because people often ask, I’ll say it here, directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever.”
The cult surrounding her husband continues to thrive, however. Barack Obama was the first US president to give his correspondence a formal role in the White House: each day his staff had to diligently trawl through the thousands of e-mails and letters the president received, and whittle them down to 10, which would be given to the president to read before bed.
They were known as the “10 Lads”, or “letters a day”, and Barack Obama replied to many of them, and the best of them, along with their backstories, have been collected by Jeanne Marie Laskas in To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair (Bloomsbury). Let’s just say there probably won’t be such a volume from the Trump presidency.
REREADING WILLIAM GOLDMAN
The screenwriter, novelist and author William Goldman, who died on Friday, aged 87, gave investigative journalists the world over their most direct instruction and motto: “Follow the money.” The line appears in his Oscar-winning adaptation of All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s journalistic account of the 1976 Watergate scandal. This memorable bit of dialogue, delivered by the whistleblower “Deep Throat” to Woodward, never actually took place. In the book it appears as: “The key was the secret campaign cash and it should all be traced.” After changing it, Goldman was so convinced that his line would enter movie folklore, he called a friend to say, “I just want you to remember that I wrote ‘Follow the money.’”
Goldman’s big movie moment was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the 1969 hit Western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It was his first original screenplay, which he sold for $400,000, the highest price paid for a script.
He was a fairly successful novelist, and tried his hand at various genres. Perhaps the best of these were the fantasy romance novel The Princess Bride (1973), the suspense conspiracy thriller Marathon Man (1974) and the psychological horror story Magic (1976). All were adapted for the screen by Goldman.
His best book, by far, is his memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting (1983), described by the New York Times as “one of the essential books about the movies” and “a wickedly witty, take-no-prisoners peek behind the curtain of showmanship and bravado, revealing a world in which as he wrote, ‘nobody knows anything’.” In 2000, Goldman produced a sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, which included yet more musings and insider dirt on the industry. (One of its more memorable essays, about the the authorship of the script to Good Will Hunting, was extracted by the Telegraph and can be read here.)
These things are hardly scientific and the results should be taken with a pinch of salt but the last time we checked, we discovered that South Africans getting the most in the trouser department were in the 41- to 50-year age bracket, followed closely by the 50- to 65-year-olds.
According to the 2017 Sunday Times Lifestyle Sex Survey, it seems that the millennials and their ilk are experiencing a veritable drought in bed, which is perhaps surprising, this being the age of Tinder, Grindr, random hookups, booty calls, friends with benefits and what have you.
But fear not. Help is at hand – and we don’t mean the Malusi Gigaba type of help, either. Basically, we need to change our economic model. This is according to a new book by Kristen R Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (Bodley Head).
It’s a slim, chatty volume and not nearly as silly as the title suggests. Ghodsee’s basic argument is that capitalism is bad for women; it forces childcare on them, pays them less, and makes them dependent on men. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, she writes, hit women there particularly hard. But it wasn’t all wine and roses for women in the workers’ paradise, at first. Russian women born between 1920 and 1945 endured sex as another burden alongside work and raising families. It was only after 1945 that sex took on a more romantic flavour and was associated with “emotion and feelings”. Two decades later, the 1960s caught up with those Russians, and sex moved into a more hedonistic phase. Communism’s 1989 collapse, however, ushered in an era of rogue capitalism dominated by crude sexism: all poverty, pornography and prostitution.
Capitalism may not be perfect, but there’s a very good reason why communism collapsed: it was rubbish. Ghodsee does at least admit as much; East Germans, she says, were thought to have had better sex lives than West Germans not because they enjoyed economic equality (of a sort), but because the “East German regime encouraged people to enjoy their sex lives as a way of distracting them from the monotony and relative deprivation of the socialist economy”.
SPEAKING OF WHICH . . .
While filming Alexander Korda’s Fire over England in 1936, an exhausted Laurence Olivier was asked by a fellow actor about the physical demands of his role in the period drama. “It’s not the stunts,” Olivier replied. “It’s Vivien. It’s every day, two, three times.” This from a wonderful new biography, Dark Star: The Untold Story of Vivien Leigh by Alan Strachan (IB Tauris). Leigh, meanwhile, said of the passionate affair with Olivier: “I don’t think I’ve ever lived quite as intensely since.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Few have set out with more coldblooded deliberation to become first a hero and then a Great Man.” – Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane).