x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Book review: Across the Pond explores differences between Yanks and Brits

Saul Austerlitz's literary roundup includes insights on the difference between Britons and Americans, a lead singer's drug-addled memories and the bullying of Superman's creators

The singer of Ministry tells a familiar tale in Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. Paul Bergen
The singer of Ministry tells a familiar tale in Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. Paul Bergen

The phrase "Marxist literary critic" is not generally found in close quarters with "laugh riot" (although there are unconfirmed rumours that Georg Lukács was quite the card at parties). British academic Terry Eagleton is best known for his one-volume introduction to literary theory, but with Across the Pond, he is likely to reach an audience unable to distinguish Walter Benjamin from Benjamin Button. Eagleton, who taught in the United States for decades and is married to an American, interrogates the differences - linguistic, stylistic and moral - that separate Americans from their British and Irish cousins.

Pleasantly acerbic, Eagleton uses national stereotypes to peek at the blind spots and cultural anomalies peculiar to each country. Brits insist that, while marmalade may be consumed at breakfast, jam and, heaven forfend, jelly, are strictly verboten. Americans insist that "feeling good about yourself is a sacred duty, like placing your hand on your heart at certain patriotic moments". And the Irish "are shaped by the fact that for many centuries, the justice system in their country was not their own but a colonial imposition. This is an excellent excuse for parking your car in someone's front garden." Americans insist on describing anything and everything as "awesome", and so greatly prefer taking photos to actually touring foreign countries that Eagleton suggests sending only their cameras to tourist offices abroad, where pictures could be taken for a small fee.

He is also interested in the mutual incomprehension the English-speaking nations bear towards each other. "In fact," Eagleton says, referring to the former US president's tendency to mangle multi-syllable words, "the public speeches of George W Bush seemed to many of the British to be constantly warning against the evils of tourism". Eagleton, appalled by smoking bans and the American insistence on waking up at ungodly hours of the morning, is wildly amusing in - stereotype alert - what Americans think of as the dry British tradition.

Style is conjoined to substance in Across the Pond, precisely as Eagleton would have us all insist on the best of both. But the platitudes we murmur to each other have a deeper meaning, as any literary critic would insist, and Americans, in Eagleton's reckoning, still have some growing up to do, particularly in their insistence on denying the finality of death: "Americans are indeed superb at problem-solving. They are resourceful, ingenious, inventive and constructive. It is just that you can be all these excellent things without suppressing the truth that all human beings finally come to utter ruin."

Speaking of the American denial of death, Ministry lead singer and mastermind Al Jourgensen reports back from a two-decade-long drug-and-alcohol bender rivalling the most debauched antics of Led Zeppelin and Mötley Crüe in his autobiography Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, cowritten with Jon Wiederhorn. As he says, "If you remember the nineties, you weren't there." Jourgensen, born Alejandro Ramirez Casas in Havana in 1958, translated the whitebread anomie of life in suburban Chicago into a musical career, first as a featherweight neo-disco pop singer, and then as the inventor of the punishing part-metal, part-electronic musical hybrid known as industrial.

Jourgensen, who cattily dismisses his disapproving fellow band members as "the Book Club", is more interested in the two years he spent living with Timothy Leary, serving as an unpaid guinea pig for Leary's drug experiments, or the time he told William S Burroughs to feed methadone wafers to some pesky raccoons in order to slow them down enough to shoot them. By the end of his drug-haze days, Jourgensen's 160-kilogram tour manager would unroll an Oriental rug in whatever bar he happened to be in, roll the star up inside it, and lug him back to the tour bus.

Ministry is charming and offputting all at once. Even at 300 pages, the book feels padded; no one needs so generous a helping of Jourgensen's political analysis, and his theory that aliens stole a foetus from his wife's belly is yet further proof, if more was needed, that being a rock star, like playing professional contact sports, takes a permanent toll on its most dedicated practitioners.

Jourgensen, amazingly, survived 20 years of rock-star excess, while George Gershwin, hardly enamoured of excessive libation, died at 38 of a brain tumour. The story of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's musical-theatre triumph, has traditionally been sung as a minor-key tragedy about genius abruptly taken in the flower of his youth. Joseph Horowitz's "On My Way", while enamoured of Gershwin as the progenitor of a musical style with its roots in the American folk songs of African-American slaves, prefers to widen the scope of its narrative to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Porgy's director, Rouben Mamoulian. Best known as the director of such winning Hollywood genre exercises as Love Me Tonight and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mamoulian was also the original director of the musical-theatre landmarks Oklahoma! and Carousel.

Horowitz builds off his discovery that Mamoulian directed the original Porgy stage play, based on DuBose Heyward's novel, and that Gershwin's innovative musical was rooted in the staging and implementation of Mamoulian's Porgy.

"Mamoulian's fixation on sound and rhythm girded his aesthetic: stage action should be 'stylized', never realistic, in order to maximise emotional truth," observes Horowitz. The "detailed sonic tapestry" of Porgy and Bess transforms life into rhythm, with the show's famed morning sequence a Mamoulian staple familiar from Love Me Tonight. Mamoulian and Gershwin made for a partnership of artistic opposites, with the director "experimental by conviction" and Gershwin "experimental by habit". After Gershwin's death, whatever tenuous ownership of Porgy he retained slipped out of Mamoulian's grip, with the final indignity being his firing from the feature-film version in 1958. Mamoulian may have been, as film critic Andrew Sarris observed, "an innovator who ran out of innovations", but the cinematic Porgy made without him was, in Horowitz's learned if arid estimation, "so sanitised … that we feel we are witnessing affluent African-Americans inhabiting a movie set".

Horowitz finds a new take on Porgy and Bess, but can there possibly be anything fresh left to say about Hamlet? There are still hidden facets to Shakespeare's greatest play, but Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster's psychoanalytic gloss in Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine is less "infinite jest" and more "quintessence of dust". Critchley and Webster dip in and out of Hamlet haphazardly, borrowing from and arguing with distinguished sources like Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan.

The two authors are particularly interested in the gap between thought and action in the play. Hamlet is a profoundly modern hero because he knows he must kill Claudius, and yet that very knowledge paralyses him. Stay, Illusion! is studded with illuminating asides and fascinating nuggets of Hamlet trivia; who knew that the first recorded performance of the play took place aboard a British ship off the coast of present-day Sierra Leone?

But putting Hamlet on the couch is ultimately a reductive process. Hamlet has much more to say about Freud and Lacan than they could possibly have to say about him.

"Superman," says Brad Ricca in Super Boys, his joint biography of the original superhero's creators, "like Hamlet's father, is a 'GHOST!' who defies rational explanation and drives the rest of Jerry Siegel's professional (and perhaps personal) life. Just as only Hamlet and the audience can really see the ghost and understand it, so too is Superman's identity a shared secret." Siegel's father, like Hamlet's, dies unexpectedly, and Ricca sees the saga of Superman as a refracted superhero version of Siegel's adolescent tragedy.

Readers of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay who are not otherwise sophisticates of comic-book ephemera will be amused to spot the resonances between his novel and the story of Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland who fall in love with comics in the 1930s and dream up a caped-crusader doppelganger. Ricca locates the hidden wellsprings of inspiration that aided Siegel and Shuster, from photographs of American sprinter Jesse Owens (like Superman, a scourge of Nazi racists in the 1930s) and the strongman craze of muscular men bench-pressing cars and pulling locomotives with their teeth.

Siegel and Shuster, two wildly imaginative kids who dream up a fabulously successful business, fall prey to hucksters who swindle them out of their rightful share in Superman. "When the dust settled," Ricca says of their first serious contract negotiation, "Jerry and Joe weren't so much blackmailed or bamboozled; they were bullied. The creators of Superman were bullied."

Ricca strongly hints that Siegel ended up marrying Shuster's longtime love, possibly sparking a rift between the two men that lasted for years. But Siegel, too, in the words of a journalist who interviewed him in his later years, was "bitterly disappointed, let down by those he had trusted". Amid all Ricca's fervid speculation about pen names and doubles, and his occasional oversharing of not-quite-pertinent information (we do not, as it turns out, need to know where the Cleveland Shipping News' printing press was located), Super Boys is a surprisingly melancholy book.

For all its emotional investment in the magic of artistic creation, it is about two men never rightly compensated for creating the first and greatest superhero, and practically inventing the comic-book industry.

The inventors of Superman spent their lives being treated like Clark Kent.

 

Saul Austerlitz is the author of the forthcoming Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community. He can be followed on Twitter at @afmess.