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Ghosts of Writers Past


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PARIS — Last Friday, the London Times duly reported, was Glenda Jackson’s 67th birthday. Jackson, as you surely know, is the MP for Hampstead, London’s equivalent to the Upper West Side. She is a retired actress, so her politics are predictable: She makes lots of speeches explaining, at high volume, how awful American policy is now that Bush is president.

I liked her much better 30-odd years ago, when she played a sex-staved lady in The Music Lovers. The story was based on Tchaikovsky’s bizarre marriage; Richard Chamberlain played the gay composer, of course, and she played the nymphomaniac he married. She was so naked so often that I thought she was brilliant in the role.

I don’t have much use for Glenda Jackson’s politics. But I respect her for this much: She isn’t trying to do now what she once did so well then. She makes her speeches but, thank God, she keeps her clothes on.

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If only the same could be said for Margaret Drabble. It’s not that she takes off her clothes in public. It’s that she keeps going on like this, doing badly at what she once did with some skill (although surely the best thing about Margaret “Millstone” Drabble is that she’s not Margaret “Handmaid’s Tale” Atwood). As you must know by now, the old dear, grown a bit pudgy on American royalty cheques, used the pages of last Thursday’s Telegraph to announce her loathing of the United States. She had been doing well controlling her hatred of America, she said, until she turned on the telly and saw that Americans had painted grimacing faces on the noses of their fighters. That did it. “A nation that can paint those faces on death machines must be insane,” typed Drabble. “It is grotesque. It is hideous. This great and powerful nation bombs foreign cities and the people in those cities from Disneyland cartoon planes out of comic strips.” She’s right, of course. If we really want to scare the natives, we ought to decorate the front of our F-16s with the faces of angry, ranting British novelists.

After all, Drabbling — the loopy rant of an elderly writer pontificating noisily from the head of a table to which he wasn’t even invited — is now a genre. These ancient, sere celebrities of a sham intellectuality keep popping up like Marley’s ghost, with extra Wailers, rattling on and on. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Norman Mailer took up space in The Times to do a kind of angry geezer’s version of Michael Moore. “Why did we go to war?” Norman asks. To gratify the ego of the “white American male” (he forgot the fat part, I guess). The apotheosis of this character? Dubya. To Mailer, George W. is the “man at the wheel whose most legitimate boast might be that he knew how to parlay the part-ownership of a major-league baseball team into a gubernatorial win in Texas.” Which might trump parlaying ancient success at novel-writing into a career as producer of trite, gaseous political commentary. What happened to this guy? He used to be a tough guy, a contender, like Brando! Now, he’s like Brando.

In my mind, the art of the Drabble was perfected by Harold Pinter, who celebrates his 134th birthday this year, making him twice as old as Glenda Jackson. He’s been around so long there’s a Cambridge Companion to the guy — no lie. Pinter got on record early — last November, in fact — when he put his name to a Drabble that appeared in the Telegraph. Pinter wrote that he was worried about his health until he thought about “the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence” which is his view of the war on terrorism. Then he felt better: “The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world.” Including Grenada and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Elsewhere, the French Left is doing the Daschle shuffle and opposing pension reform, something that is needed in France even more than it is here. In France, as many of you know, people work 35-hour weeks, take a month or so paid vacation, and, if they work for the government — as one in four Frenchmen do — retire on full pensions at age 57. The bad news is that this is all coming apart because the good news is there are fewer and fewer Frenchmen being made these days. Soon, the ratio of working Frenchman to loafing Frenchman will be one-to-one. Nevertheless, as Le Figaro reports, tomorrow there will be enough of them around to fill the streets of Fromageville and stage a national strike (no tolls!), with more problems — and more demos — to come. At Chirac-Central, this is called “poll erosion.”

Meanwhile, New York architecture is becoming a Euro-Press fascination. Over at Le Monde, the brainiacs are lamenting the fact that the U.N. is dégradée — French for “a big building on the East River that should be filled with people doing real jobs and paying taxes.” The Telegraph is also interested in famous, brain-drained buildings, like the one on West 43rd Street: “The New York Times, America’s most formidable — and critics would say ‘smuggest’ — daily paper made an extraordinary public confession yesterday, unmasking one of its reporters as a serial plagiarist and fraud,” wrote Marcus Warren, the Telegraph’s man in New York. Several other papers covered the Jayson Blair affair, too, although none at the length given to the whole thing by the New York Times itself, where Howell Raines and his smuggers produced thousands and thousands of words about the journalistic incompetence of the paper’s editors and the blatant dishonesty of their reporter. Yet not one of those words was “Duranty.”

Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.



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