by Richard King

Eleph 1When economist Branko Milanović first published his now-famous chart showing changes in global income distribution between 1988 and 2008 he furnished the world with a neat explanation for the various anti-establishment types now rocking the boat of Western politics: sandwiched between the Asian middle class and an increasingly bloated 1%—the winners from twenty years of “high” globalisation—the middle class of the rich world had been left behind and was voting in the rabblerousers. He also furnished it with a serviceable metaphor. From memory, it was Toby Nangle who first noticed that the chart resembled an elephant, and his inspired little graffito (below) twittered across the world in a flash. Journalists needed no further prompting. The chart was the elephant in the room … No: It was a sleeping elephant that threatened to wake up and destroy the joint … No: It was the eponymous pachyderm in the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant—a beast the nature and significance of which depended on which bit of it you happened to be feeling … And so on and so on.

Eleph 2Now the metaphor-making has entered a new phase. Responding to a report by the Resolution Foundation that seems to cast doubt on Milanović's data, or some of the interpretations of it, some commentators have declared the “elephant chart” irrelevant. Once called “the most important chart for understanding politics today”—the one gif you need in order to make sense of the current intersection of domestic politics and macroeconomic trends—it is now a liability, a statistical howler. Scribblers in the conservative sheets were especially keen to ventilate the report's findings and the presses ran hot with their picturesque efforts. The elephant had been shot, no, tamed …No: It had wandered off from the herd and gone in search of the elephant graveyard … It had packed its trunk and said goodbye to the circus. (Okay I made that last one up; but surely it's only a matter of time …)

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The European Union used to solve collective problems, now they are killing it

by Thomas R. Wells

ScreenHunter_2246 Sep. 26 10.04Collective action problems pit individual selfishness against the collective interest in areas as diverse as pollution, trade, peace, and public roads. The invisible hand of the market can't reach them. Instead we need politics. The European Union used to be good at this. But not any more.

An example. Public goods like roads and schools and police are worth far more than they cost. We would all be better off as individuals if we each donated some portion of our gains from them into a collective fund for providing them. Unfortunately, we would each be even better off if we were able to escape paying our fair share while everyone else paid theirs. Then we would have our cake and be able to eat it too, to drive on the roads that other people paid for. But then only suckers would contribute, and so the roads wouldn't get built and we would all travel very slowly and inconveniently.

Collective action problems are mitigated rather than solved. The main approach is the one recommended by Hobbes in his classic statement of the problem: we call our donations ‘taxes' and appoint someone with a big stick to come along and make sure everyone pays. Introducing an external power ('the government') with the power to punish anti-social behaviour changes the pay-offs attached to our choice of whether to contribute to the public good. Now individual rationality lines up with rational collective choice and the roads get built.

There are however two alternative approaches to the Big Stick. We can institutionalise cooperation, for example by making it easier to make binding promises to each other. Or we can moralise it, by taking up a 'team' perspective and acting on the maxim, 'Act as I would wish others to do'.

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Frugality, simplicity, and environmentalism

by Emrys Westacott

Many people today are drawn toward the ideals, values, and lifestyles that fall under the broad concept of “simple living.” ImgresDownsizing, downshifting, embracing radical frugality, building and living in “tiny houses,” going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts: these are all part of this trend. So, too, is the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life. The movement includes Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[1]

According to some, the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) are helping to boost this trend Compared to their elders, they are less interested in home ownership, happy to share cars rather than buy them, and savvy at using technology to save money and keep things simple through using companies like Zipcar (transport) Airbnb (accommodation), and thredUP (clothes).

A lot of people live frugally out of necessity, of course. But there are also philosophical arguments in favor of simple living. In a venerable tradition stretching that goes back to ancient thinkers like the Buddha, Socrates, and Epicurus, two lines of argument have been especially prominent.

1. Simple living is associated with moral virtue. E.g. It keeps us physically and spiritually pure, fosters traits like resilience and independence, cultivates sound values, and is typically viewed as a sign of integrity (think Gandhi).

2. Simple living is the surest path to happiness. E.g. It helps us be content with what we have, enhances our enjoyment of simple pleasures, allows us more leisure time by enabling us to work less, keeps us closer to nature, and generally promotes peace of mind.

In recent times an additional reason for embracing simplicity has come to the fore: namely, the environmentalist argument.

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On “The Discrete Charm of Geometry”

by Carl Pierer


As in any other academic field, outsiders as well as insiders often ask what do pure mathematicians actually do? What do they work on and how do they work? It probably does not help that whether the objects of study actually exist, or rather, what it would mean to say that they exist, is unclear. Who, then are the people who are drawn to this field?

It is notoriously difficult to make a film on intellectual work. Yet, there has recently been a surge in this kind of films: from Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt (2012) and Maria Schrader's Stefan Zweig: A Farewell to Europe (2016) to the more Hollywoodian Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game (2014) and Matt Brown's The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015). The difficulty is really rather trivial: there is not very much to show about intellectual work. Somebody sitting at a desk, tearing her hair out? Typing a couple of words, only to delete three more sentences? Or the theatrical stare into the distance while chewing on her glasses? That hardly makes for a feature-length film. But the protagonists of these films are famous beyond their respective field. As some kind of ‘intellectual celebrity', their lives and characters have a special sort of attraction. There is a natural interest in their persona, maybe because of their work's status in general culture. To tell their story, then, is sure to attract interest, because their names have become a sort of institution. It is quite a different task to shoot a film on current, less glamorous and perhaps more ‘ordinary' research: the ongoing work of academics.

After the very well-received Colors of Math, Ekaterina Eremenko has recently come to Edinburgh to screen her most recent film The Discrete Charm of Geometry. Eremenko graduated with a masters degree in mathematics from Moscow State University in 1990, but later obtained a second masters degree in Film Directing from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She has directed a few documentaries before turning to films about mathematics.

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Alice Maher: The Glorious Maid of the Charnel House

by Sue Hubbard

Purdy Hicks Gallery, London

ScreenHunter_2242 Sep. 26 09.42Ideas of shape-shifting are ancient. The possibility that a person can take the form of another being – usually an animal – can be traced back thousands of years, across diverse cultures, continents and religions. Shape-shifting appears in fairy tales and myths. In stories from Greek mythology, Zeus transformed into a swan, a bull, and an ant. The myths of the ancient Egyptians depicted gods with animal heads, such as Horus and the dog-headed Anubis, while those of the Norsemen showed the mischievous god Loki change into a giant and a woman, as well as various bestial forms.

Some of the earliest depictions of shape-shifting come from the Cave of the Trois-Frères, in southern France, where many believe that the drawings indicate a shamanic belief in the ritual of transformation. In later Christianity shape-shifting became a metaphor for the merely human to metamorphose into the divine. In the Mass bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body of Christ.

The Irish artist, Alice Maher, has always flirted with notions of transformation in its many guises. In a series of autobiographical photographs in which she used herself as a model, she covered her face with a mask of snail shells, wore a necklace of lambs' tongues, and covered her body and arms with birds' wings and moss. These powerful images spoke of the slippage between the feminine and the chthonic, between nature and nurture, the sensual, the profane and the divine. Working with a diverse range of materials she has, in the past, created installations, drawings, sculptures and photographs.

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The price of free speech in Bangladesh

Ahsan Akbar in the Los Angeles Times:

La-1474647113-snap-photoIn February this year the authorities in Bangladesh took Shamsuzzoha Manik, a 73-year-old publisher, into custody for publishing a book titled “Islam Bitorko” (“Debate on Islam”). His arrest and the shutting down of his stall marked a sour moment in the nation’s largest book fair, Ekushey Boi Mela, held annually at Bangla Academy in honor of the International Mother Language Day. While the book, deemed to be offensive to Islam, has been taken out of circulation, seven months later the publisher remains behind bars.

Manik’s imprisonment adds to a series of recent attacks on freedom of expression in the country, which have included a number of killings perpetrated by extremist groups. There are laws that allow the government to ban or confiscate any publication that may be considered blasphemous. The law extends to any form of publication — in print or online — and led to the arrest of four bloggers in 2013 for “hurting religious sentiments” with their blog posts. Self and state-censorship coupled with lack of protection for writers at risk have meant free speech and freedom to publish are in dire straits.

Bangladesh is not unique in facing the threat of terrorism, which is now a global issue, but it is sadly the only country where writers and publishers are specifically on the hit lists of the killers.

More here.

New Take on an Ancient Method Improves Way to Find Prime Numbers

Matias Loewy in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2241 Sep. 25 23.02Peruvian mathematician Harald Helfgott gained worldwide attention in 2013 when he solved a 271-year-old problem: the so-called Goldbach’s weak conjecture, according to which every odd number greater than 5 can be expressed as the sum of three prime numbers—such as: 2 + 3 + 5 = 11 and 19 + 13 + 3 = 35.

But Helfgott, 38, went even farther back in time and conceived an improved version of the sieve of Eratosthenes, a popular method for finding prime numbers that was formulated circa 240 B.C. Helfgott’s proposed version would reduce the requirement of physical space in computer memory, which in turn would reduce the execution time of programs designed to make that calculation.

Prime numbers are something like “atoms of mathematics,” which can only be divided by themselves and the number 1. Eratosthenes of Cyrene—a Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer who was director of the Library of Alexandria and became famous for calculating the circumference of Earth—also proposed a practical method to identify them: the “sieve,” or filter. “Like many other children, I was taught this it in primary school when I was 10, with a table,” says Helfgott, who is currently a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Göttingen.

In order to determine with this sieve all primes between 1 and 100, for example, one has to write down the list of numbers in numerical order and start crossing them out in a certain order: first, the multiples of 2 (except the 2); then, the multiples of 3, except the 3; and so on, starting by the next number that had not been crossed out. The numbers that survive this procedure will be the primes. The method can be formulated as an algorithm and computers can quickly run it.

More here.

Cut-throat academia leads to ‘natural selection of bad science’, claims study

Hannah Devlin in The Guardian:

2240Getting stuff right is normally regarded as science’s central aim. But a new analysis has raised the existential spectre that universities, laboratory chiefs and academic journals are contributing to the “natural selection of bad science”.

To thrive in the cut-throat world of academia, scientists are incentivised to publish surprising findings frequently, the study suggests – despite the risk that such findings are “most likely to be wrong”.

Paul Smaldino, a cognitive scientist who led the work at the University of California, Merced, said: “As long as the incentives are in place that reward publishing novel, surprising results, often and in high-visibility journals above other, more nuanced aspects of science, shoddy practices that maximise one’s ability to do so will run rampant.”

The paper comes as psychologists and biomedical scientists are grappling with an apparent replication crisis, in which many high profile results have been shown to be unreliable. Observations that striking a power pose will make you feel bolder, smiling makes you feel happy or that placing a pair of “big brother” eyes on the wall will protect against theft have all failed to stand up to replication.

Sociology, economics, climate science and ecology are other areas likely to be vulnerable to the propagation of bad practice, according to Smaldino.

More here.

The NY Times’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for President

The Editorial Board of the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2240 Sep. 25 22.44In any normal election year, we’d compare the two presidential candidates side by side on the issues. But this is not a normal election year. A comparison like that would be an empty exercise in a race where one candidate — our choice, Hillary Clinton — has a record of service and a raft of pragmatic ideas, and the other, Donald Trump, discloses nothing concrete about himself or his plans while promising the moon and offering the stars on layaway. (We will explain in a subsequent editorial why we believe Mr. Trump to be the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.)

But this endorsement would also be an empty exercise if it merely affirmed the choice of Clinton supporters. We’re aiming instead to persuade those of you who are hesitating to vote for Mrs. Clinton — because you are reluctant to vote for a Democrat, or for another Clinton, or for a candidate who might appear, on the surface, not to offer change from an establishment that seems indifferent and a political system that seems broken.

Running down the other guy won’t suffice to make that argument. The best case for Hillary Clinton cannot be, and is not, that she isn’t Donald Trump.

The best case is, instead, about the challenges this country faces, and Mrs. Clinton’s capacity to rise to them.

More here.

Thine Every Flaw


Rajiv Sethi over at his blog:

It's glaringly obvious that international trade, migration, and technological progress have brought enormous benefits to many of us. Our handheld devices are more powerful than the computers that launched our first satellites into orbit. Our system of higher education remains a magnet for eager students from every corner of the world, in part because we have attracted and retained the finest research talent. We are on the verge of a revolution in transportation and urban form as driverless cars make their presence felt. Our cultural products—movies and music among them—continue to attract strong global demand. And our Olympic medal winners encompass many different identities, religions, and countries of origin.
But globalization and technological progress have also left in their wake economic devastation and social disintegration across large swathes of the country that were previously prosperous and stable. The kind of deprivation once confined to inner cities—and tolerated for decades by the rest of society—is now pervasive in once-thriving industrial areas. In his recent and acclaimedmemoir, JD Vance laments the decline of Middletown, Ohio from a proud and bustling steel town to “a relic of American industrial glory,” with abandoned shops and broken windows, derelict homes, druggies and dealers, and places to be avoided after dark.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton have reported a startling increase in midlife mortality among white Americans without a college degree, “largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” Stratification by sexreveals that this phenomenon has hit white working class women especially hard. Trends in criminal justice tell a similar story: the incarceration rate for white women has risen by a staggering fifty percent since 2000, while that for black women has fallen more than 30%. Similar, but much less striking trends are in evidence for males.
All this has led to what Dani Rodrik calls the politics of anger.
More here.

Between Experts and Citizens


Jo Guldi in Boston Review:

It is safe to say that the Brexit vote—only the third nation-wide referendum in the history of the United Kingdom—disrupted ordinary political norms and expectations. There was the surprise of the vote itself, and David Cameron’s quick abdication; the baffling disappearance of Boris Johnson, followed by his appointment in Theresa May’s new government; and then the failed coup in the Labour Party, leaving Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Britain’s systems of representational democracy have traditionally functioned to block popular disruptions of this kind. What historical forces are behind Brexit’s spectacular exception to this rule?

One answer begins in the second half of the twentieth century. Several commentators have read the vote as the result of a 1970s turn toward neoliberalism that left the working class behind in a program of coal pit closures and denationalization. Historian Harold James has underscored that the European Monetary System (EMS) grew out of proposals for an international money market that promised escape from national cycles of monetary expansion and inflation. From 1977 onward, the EMS made cheap credit, backed by European nations, available to private banks. In James’s account, this stability-focused monetary policy created a twenty-first century economy that was unaccountable to the working class, diminishing national and local control.

The identity of the European Union is wrapped up in hopes for peace after decades of war. But the neoliberalization narrative also sees in the EU a symbol of the rise of rule by financial experts and the discounting of class-based, representational politics. The financial management once beholden to local and national politics was placed in the hands of an international body, and national governments lost control—or simply divested themselves—of the levers they once had claimed for raising wages. Among the casualties of this transformation were the nationalized industries disassembled under Margaret Thatcher, which had leveraged the power of the state in bargaining between workers and employers. In short order, CEO pay ratcheted up and wages stagnated, and a landscape of ruins was left behind.

More here.

Rise of the robots: I feedback, therefore I am

Will Self in Prospect Magazine:

GettyImages-53378696_webWritten by Norbert Wiener, an MIT mathematician, and published in 1948, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is the book which first brought the term “cybernetics” to public attention. Synthesised from the Ancient Greek kubernan (meaning to steer, navigate or govern) the coinage has resonated ever since, giving rise to all sorts of odd, cyber-prefixed neologisms—my personal favourite being the chain of American-style confectioners dubbed Cybercandy. Wiener, a famously eccentric character, had been driven to develop an overarching theory of the machine by two vital problems that had arisen during the Second World War. The first was the need for an automated system that would allow British anti-aircraft gunners to hit German bombers—and by extension make it possible for any gunner to hit a fast and erratically moving target; and the second was the dropping of the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945. Wiener, like many scientists of his generation, responded to the split-second incineration of 125,000 Japanese civilians with horror: he had an epiphany in which he saw a future of deadly conflict dominated—and perhaps even initiated—by sophisticated machines. But again, in common with so many scientists of the era, Wiener had already tried to bring about just such a future, by creating a machine that would massively enhance our ability to locate, aim and unerringly deliver military ordanance.

This Janus-faced—or perhaps, more properly, Manichean—inspiration was thereby encrypted into the cybernetics blueprint from the outset: on the one hand this was intended to be a general theory of how all possible—not just actual—machines might work, with a view to assisting those intent on building them. On the other hand, it was a minatory account of how interaction between humans and human-like machines might lead to the latter becoming firmly ensconced in the driving seat. Given 2016 has already seen the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car, now might seem like the ideal time to take stock and calmly examine the last 70 years of human-machine interaction—possibly with the ulterior motive of discovering whether it’s a “who” or a “what” in control.

More here.

Sodom, LLC: The Marquis de Sade and the office novel

Lucy Ives in Lapham's Quarterly:

SargentIn the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution. On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.

As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day. But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.

More here.

Sunday Poem


It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

by Thomas R. Smith
From Waking Before Dawn
Red Dragonfly Press, 2007


Snap among the Witherlings


Michael Hofmann in the LRB:

The Soft Machine drummer, Robert Wyatt, his Cockney tenor cracking with fervour, once sang:

I’m nearly five foot seven tall
I like to smoke and drink and ball
I’ve got a yellow suit that’s made by Pam
and every day I like an egg and some tea
but most of all I like to talk about me.

The American poet Wallace Stevens liked his tea – he took to it in connoisseurship and prudence, ‘imported tea’ every afternoon, ‘with some little tea wafers’, partly in order to ease himself off martinis (Elsie, his ‘Pam’, disapproved of his drinking) – but otherwise everything is different. He was six feet two, 18 stone, got his identical elephant grey suits from a fellow in New Jersey and then from his son, hated talking about himself, didn’t smoke much after the cigars of middle age, and I don’t know about the balling, or the eggs, which Auden says are the test of bad biography.

But there are bad biographies that tell you nothing about their subject’s breakfast preferences, and The Whole Harmonium is one such. Stevens is one of those apparently fortunate, self-standing poets who are not greatly involved with the styles or personalities of their time, whose work sets no puzzles and makes a sufficiently vivid impression all by itself. It’s hard to disagree with Elsie, who after her husband’s death sold his books and artefacts, destroyed letters and wrote to an earlier would-be biographer: ‘I must say that a critical biography is not needed for the understanding of Mr Stevens’ poetry. Mr Stevens’ poetry was a distraction that he found delight in, and which he kept entirely separate from his home life, and his business life – neither of them suitable or relevant to an understanding of his poetry.’ In particular, Harmonium(1923), Stevens’s scintillating first volume, seems to leap fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. What is there at the back of it, apart from the French dix-neuvièmeand Shakespeare (and all of Stevens is like a greatly expanded version of the drama and relations of The Tempest: the magic, the tropics, the search for a different earthly orientation or accommodation)? Maybe Browning or Henry James – the Master and onlie begetter, I am increasingly coming to think, of all the great modernist poets, of Pound and Eliot and Moore and Stevens?

More here.

The Camus Investigation

Camus Invest

Ryu Spaeth in TNR:

The English-language publication of the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation in the summer of 2015 occasioned a wholesale reassessment of Camus’s reputation in the mainstream press. Daoud’s novel, which is told from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab that Meursault kills in The Stranger, became an instant classic of post-colonial literature, rendering vividly Camus’s blind spots and latent biases. The Moroccan-American novelistLaila Lalami suggested that whereas The Stranger had erased Algerians, Daoud made the country “more than just a setting for existential questions posed by a French novelist.” The Guardian reported that Daoud’s novel had revived criticisms of Camus’s “inability to see violence through a non-white, non-colonial prism.”

Camus’s complex relationship with Algeria is one of the central themes of Alice Kaplan’s new book, Looking for “The Stranger,” which attempts to reconcile Camus’s dueling legacies. It is a historical account of how Camus’s novel came into being, starting with the famous opening sentence—“Today, Maman died”—scrawled in a notebook marked “22” in the fall of 1938 in Algiers. But, like the characters in Daoud’s book, Kaplan is also conducting an investigation. She searches for the creative origins ofThe Stranger in the strained relationship between Arabs and Europeans in Algiers’s lower-class neighborhoods of Belcourt, where Camus grew up, and Bab-el-Oued. And as her investigation deepens, she is drawn into the real-life story behind the unnamed Arab who, like Camus’s shadow, lives on as a silent rebuke to his creator.

More here.

The Schooldays of Jesus

Alex Preston in The Guardian:

JesusJM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction. The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

Eventually, Simón, Davíd and Davíd’s mother, Inés, fled Novilla, heading for a town called Estrella. It is here that we pick up the story in the second novel in the series, with Simón and Inés arguing over how best to educate the six-year-old Davíd. Finally, after the intercession of three wealthy sisters, Davíd is sent to the local Academy of Dance, run by a Juan Sebastián Arroyo and his elegant wife, Ana Magdalena (many of the names in the book are obscurely significant). The education at the Academy is unusual – students learn maths by “dancing down” numbers – and yet Davíd, who’s a precocious and exasperating child, appears to flourish, forming a particularly close bond with Ana Magdalena.

More here.