Walter Kraut on Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis in Cologne, Germany, in 2012. Credit: Maximilian Schoenherr

Can a writer create a character who is more stupid than himself? It’s a task that one of Britain’s foremost intellectuals, Martin Amis, sets himself in his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

The character of the title talks like an idiot and Amis takes noticeable pleasure in describing his speech – Asbo acts like a brain-damaged hooligan and even finds the Sun too intellectual.

Asbo is a petty but ruthless criminal. He is one of seven siblings, most of them from different fathers who were, of course, absent when they grew up. While in jail, he learns that he has won an unfathomable sum of money in the lottery, which turns him from stupid into stupid and rich – and then into stupid, rich and famous, a social category much liked by the British tabloids. (And, you get the feeling, much despised by Amis.) But Lionel’s stupidity, you start to realise early on, is deliberate.

Most of the action is seen from the perspective of his younger, more intelligent nephew, Des Pepperdine. “The difference, it seemed, was one of attitude. Des loved . . . intelligence; and Lionel hated it. Hated it? Well, it was plain as day that he had always fought it, and took pride in being stupid on purpose.” It’s an easy way out for Amis and the wilfulness of Asbo’s stupidity somewhat takes the sting out of Amis’s criticism.

Lionel Asbo is written with energy and verve. It’s smart and entertaining but, as a satire, it slightly misses the mark. The problem with British society isn’t that people pretend to be stupid; it’s that most people are. But real stupidity, it seems, can’t be portrayed by a work of literary fiction. When a head is empty, it’s difficult to fill it with words.

Yo Zushi on Yukio Ninagawa and the Israel boycott

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa for the New Statesman magazine. [You can find the online version of the full conversation here.] Ninagawa was in London with his Japanese-language production of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which ran at the Barbican between 29 May and 2 June.

Little attention seems to have fallen so far upon his next major project, a staging of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, currently being developed in collaboration with the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. I asked him about the production, which opens in Israel in December:

YZ: What do you hope to achieve?

Ninagawa: We are gathering together Jews, Palestinians and Japanese in one place and putting on a play. Each group has its own political views and inevitably there’s going to be some friction – I have seen it myself at our preparatory workshops. In a way, it’s a microcosm of real life. I know that staging a play may be a small gesture, like adding a small pebble to a heap of stones. It might not have a grand meaning, but these pebbles can accumulate. It’s a way of expressing hope. For me, this is how to do it.

What do you think about the call for a cultural boycott of Israel? There were protests [in May] at the Israeli Habima Theatre’s staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe in London . . .

I think it’s a futile action. However much your opinions differ, you have to allow the work to make its case. Disrupting things before this can happen is a mistake, because you’ll lose the opportunity to share your ideas about what you believe in.

Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town and patron of a Holocaust remembrance centre in South Africa, once argued: “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel.”

After a visit to the Holy Land in 2002, Tutu said: “It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” If conditions in Israel are an echo of the old apartheid (an assessment confirmed in 2007 by UN special rapporteur John Dugard: “Israel’s laws and practices certainly resemble aspects of apartheid”), should the old tactics not be applied?

Boycott is a proven method of organised dissent. Even in Japan, where, according to a journalist friend, mainstream awareness of Middle East politics remains dim, calls to draw attention to the Israeli government’s horrific treatment of Palestinians are beginning to be heard. In February, the Japanese cosmetics company Daito Crea announced that it would stop distributing products made in illegal West Bank settlements; Muji cancelled plans to open a branch in Tel Aviv in 2010.

Is Ninagawa correct in his assessment of BDS?

Yo Zushi is a musician based in London. His most recent album, Notes for “Holy Larceny”, was released by Pointy Records (£9.99) 

Ross Palmer on “Let Me Be the One” by the Carpenters

Songs of pain: Karen Carpenter

Derided by rock fans in their era, the Carpenters have taken the long way round to critical credibility and are now cool with the critics and the kids (or, at least, those with catholic tastes). While they deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable after her heartbreakingly early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy and perceived emotional distress in Karen Carpenter’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

One of the unarguably great singers in popular music, Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as “There’s a Kind of Hush”, “Top of the World” and “Close to You”). To downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

“Let Me Be the One” comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in “Superstar”, “This Masquerade”, “Yesterday Once More”, “I Need to Be in Love”, in their version of “Ticket to Ride”, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic “We’ve Only Just Begun”.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the finest arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the architect.