The Book Club

Identity and Authenticity

Hello again!

I suppose it’s the inevitable consequence of being cyber-pen-pals, but I’ve been speculating about who, exactly, this Anglophile/-mane, “Ealing Road”-dwelling Michael Hirschorn might be. As we reach the end of our cyber-colloquy, I thought you might be amused to know where this fantasy has got to so far. (My wife tells me I shouldn’t start this way, but I feel sure you’d be interested. And something tells me that you’ll forgive me if I’m off the mark.) Where, for example, did you acquire such a staggering, even bizarre, range of intellectual reference ? My guess is that you’re a summa cum laude graduate of an Ivy League school, who (through a youthful and quite uncharacteristic association with recreational drugs of the wittier sort) fell into crime, became through sheer force of intellect and personality the Mr. Big of a crime syndicate, was hideously betrayed to the DEA by an envious fellow gang member from a minor-league state university, and now serves a life sentence for an ingenious scam involving several squillion dollars and the governments of three Central American republics. (Why else, for example, would you refer so wistfully to your former holidays?) A soft-hearted prison governor has given you the run of the facility’s library, and since your involuntary “graduation,” you have been diligently improving an already formidable mind somewhere in the Midwest. A combination of the Internet and interlibrary loan has enabled you to explore some of the wilder shores of the English tradition. And now Slate, a supremely philanthropic liberal organization, administered by some of the fuzziest and most soulful individuals in the free world, is playing a crucial part in your rehab by allowing you to display the fruits of your prison reading in the “Book Club.” Recently, you’ve applied for parole, sponsored by Norman Mailer and Jason Epstein; rival gangs are freshening their aliases and alibis; friends and admirers hope you will be let out soon. Meanwhile, you’re making life in the tank (UK slang: “in the nick”) bearable by playing fantasy football, and dreaming of trips to FA Cup Finals … Say it’s not true, Michael !

So much for preamble. What’s not a fantasy, alas, is my astounding, and quite shocking, ignorance. So let me acknowledge, at the outset, my dreadful Jefferson slip. A big thank you to Rick Herzberg for identifying Madison as the chief architect of the U.S. constitution (and for providing a characteristically elegant and complete run-down of its turbulent beginnings).

Yes, we are prisoners of our past and, yes, history is a living presence in the lives of most English (and European) citizens. As Buruma says somewhere (probably in that Tory Party conference bit you’ve referred to) we are still the prisoners of a mad myth that Britain is the defender of liberty against European tyranny, in which some version of “Boney will get you” lurks only just below the surface of most discourse.

And yet, having said that, I’d observe from my occupancy of the newsroom of a fine, upscale “quality” broadsheet that most intelligent Britons of my generation and younger don’t associate Brussels with tyranny any more than they make the Federal Republic of Germany synonymous with the Third Reich. And, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out in this exchange, the smart money (here as elsewhere) is now on the European debate. If some intelligent, liberal-minded Tory can find the language, there’s no reason at all why the “wet” right should not appropriate this and turn it to electoral advantage with the new generation of voters. Ten out of ten to Buruma for that.

If Buruma is concerned with various representations of “national identity,” then Julian Barnes is deep down concerned to explore questions of “authenticity.” The questions he asks–what is real? Is history what we remember or what we get wrong ? Is (I’m quoting Barnes’ Martha now) “an individual’s loss of faith [the same as] a nation’s loss of faith”? How do we achieve authenticity in an increasingly unreal world?–are major questions, by any standards. If we disagree, it’s in our assessment of how “major” or otherwise, his treatment of them actually turns out to be.

Yes indeed, both Buruma and Barnes are wrestling with a new kind of Englishness, and if some English people have “conceded” the old international dimension (which I doubt), it’s because most intelligent English persons now recognize that Britain/England/the United Kingdom is, as the millennium approaches, essentially just an assortment of moderately prosperous islands to the northeast of the great European land mass. In other words, the England of 1999 is curiously positioned much as it was in 1599, when Shakespeare christened it “this sceptred isle.” Dash my wig, we’re back at the Armada.

Anyone for bowls?

See you in the Groucho, when you’re free.