Jonathan Franzen, MI6, and Other Reads from the TLS
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: Jonathan Franzen’s many failings, why MI6 went after the TLS, and a new look at the Romantic poets’ intermingling.
What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen?
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel receives from the TLS only some small additions to the heaps of praise it has received from elsewhere. James Campbell notes the “rather obvious principle” of the book that “one person’s entitlement to freedom is apt to prefigure another’s curtailment.” In every nook lies “the truism that while America gives boundless freedom to be happy, you often have to trample on someone else’s happiness to accept the offer.” He notes the much weeping that accompanies this discovery.
The chief diversion from sorrow, it seems, is sex, “in the science of which the characters are infinitely inventive but equally hapless.” Most of it is based on the understanding that what makes you feel good must be good, or would be if it didn’t make others—intimate others, usually—feel bad. This happens when people insist on knowledge, whereas ignorance would have been blissful; or when they are left in a post-coital heap without having enjoyed the foreplay of exchanging names.
“Sex brings out the worst in Franzen, as eventually it brought out the worst in John Updike, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Philip Roth. But there were occasions when it inspired if not the best in those writers, then at least something that the times demanded.” Franzen, who was born in 1959, is not obliged to follow, but he insists on joining in, adding a touch of contemporary ironic slapstick. “Whereas sex in Updike’s fiction, for example, frequently aimed for the sublime, Franzen is self-consciously ridiculous. He resembles a stand-up comic who worries he’ll disappoint his followers if he doesn’t include the old squirm-making pneumatic-bliss routine.
Freedom contains many virtuoso passages, so many, indeed, that one is subject to the ungrateful suspicion that Franzen can weave the stuff by the yard. Conversations which ought to have concluded business with a snappy exchange are allowed to wander over three or four pages—another form of “American sprawl.”
The TLS and National Security
Britain now has an officially sanctioned history of its secret service activities in foreign parts. Our MI6 is delighted to be able to show now that it had no James Bonds with numbered “licenses to kill.” Critics, however, have complained that the most interesting material, that concerning the Soviet agents Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and friends, lies outside the 1949 cut-off date of Keith Jeffery’s book.
At the TLS, which will review the book in a later issue, there is a piece by Jeffery himself which shows our own small part in secret history. It has never been the policy of the TLS to concern ourselves too much with publishers’ deadlines, reckoning that sometimes we will be prompt, sometimes not, and that what we say matters more than when we say it. But in October 1932, our review of Compton Mackenzie’s Greek Memories, a book of First World War tales from the eastern Mediterranean, was exceptionally prompt, bringing down upon us, as Jeffery relates, the wrath of Britain’s secret service and an early discovery that the Official Secrets Act had wider implications for the press than the need to prosecute sinister agents of enemy powers.
Mackenzie’s carelessness in cutting and pasting whole passages from secret documents that had crossed his desk during his secret service led to his successful prosecution. It also became a warning about how the limits on free expression might be more successfully overcome in the future.
Complicated Lives of the Romantics
Previously undiscovered manuscript material from the New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle is central to Daisy Hay’s much praised multiple biography Young Romantics. Her most compelling archival discovery, writes Oliver Herford, is an undated autobiographical fragment by Byron’s young lover, Claire Clairmont, a furious retrospective attack on the critique of marriage articulated in Shelley’s notes to Queen Mab (1813) and haphazardly lived out—tested to destruction—by the young people of that group between 1814 and 1822. “Love is free”, the 19-year-old Shelley had written: “to promise for ever to love the same woman is not less absurd than to promise to believe the same creed: such a vow, in both cases, excludes us from all inquiry.” Clairmont writes as an indignant witness to the practical results of that “inquiry”: “how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge . . . how the worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves turning their existence into a perfect hell.”
She describes how: "Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England . . . become monsters of lying, meanness cruelty and treachery—under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women who under the influence of free love . . . loved him."
That is not quite right about Byron, Herford comments, who sought no ideological justification for accepting Clairmont’s advances in the spring of 1816 and making her pregnant; but it gives a poignant glimpse of Clairmont herself (only 17 when the affair began), who had acted just as much under philosophical influence as under Byron’s personal spell.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.