Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Sex, Class and Socialism
Bookmarks £5.95 (£4.95 in Bookmarks Club)
Tory attacks on single parents are increasing. Not only is their situation made worse by cuts in benefit and harassment by the CSA, but they themselves are to blame, according to right wingers like Peter Lilley, for the the breakdown of civilisation as we know it. The arguments of leading feminists like Germaine Greer only seem to back the Tories up by insisting on women celebrating the traditional role of wives and mothers.
In such a climate, this book is like a breath of fresh air for anyone looking for a way of undermining and eradicating women's oppression today.
Unlike so many other writers on the subject, Lindsey German succeeds in explaining the changing reality of women's lives over the last 200 years, whilst at the same time locating the reason for women's oppression in the class society in which we live.
For many readers this explanation might seem to contradict the reality of their everyday experience. After all, isn't it men (regardless of class) who rape, get better pay and are sexist towards all women? What has class got to do with it?
German shows that although women of all classes face sexism, there have always been differences between working class and ruling class women. Far from all women suffering oppression in the same way, the lives of rich mill and landowners' wives were as different in the early days of industrial capitalism from those of working class women as is the life of Princess Diana from that of a single mum today.
For the rich, access to nannies, boarding schools and cleaners dramatically alleviates the effects of women's oppression. Working class women have to cope with the kids, shopping, housework and going out to work to supplement the family income.
These real class differences between women means there can be no such thing as sisterhood with women such as Princess Diana or Margaret Thatcher who would fight tooth and nail to preserve the system and their privileges. As German states, 'although these women may be oppressed within their own class, they can also act as the oppressors (and sometimes the exploiters) of others.'
The whole notion of seeing things in terms of gender rather than class leads many feminist writers to believe that avoiding oppressive relationships and paying someone to clean the house or cook meals is the way forward to liberation. Unfortunately, as German puts it, 'most women, of course are likely to be the ones doing the paid cleaning rather than employing the cleaner; even if such an option were desirable, which it is not, it is simply not available for most women workers. Role reversals do not begin to challenge the privatised family and its role in the reproduction of labour power'.
Only by analysing the role of women in the family can we understand why, in spite of the greater freedom and control women have today over our lives and sexuality, women's oppression still remains a major feature of society. In spite of the tendency of early industrial capitalism to undermine and almost destroy the family as it pulled men, women and children off the land and into the factories, it was the needs of capitalism--the pursuit of profit--which ultimately ensured it survived. It is within the family that workers are fed, clothed, refreshed and the next generation of workers brought up. It costs nothing to the bosses and the state. To provide all these services--free creches, communal laundries and food kitchens--would cost a fortune. It is much cheaper to place this burden on the individual family.
That is why the Tories and the bosses fight so hard to shore up the family--both ideologically and through increased intervention--by the state, social workers and health visitors. So although the lives of women have changed dramatically over the years--70 percent of women now work outside the home compared with 10 percent in 1911--the central role of women still remains that of wife and mother.
But because women make up a greater percentage of the workforce than ever before, the struggle for real liberation is possible. German argues that 'the history of working class women under capitalism has always found them organising as part of their class alongside men.'
The women's movements of the late 1960s and today do not look to this tradition. Their theory is one of 'patriarchy'--an unchanging structure of male domination acting independently of class. This has led women, German argues, up a blind alley: 'For although there have undoubtedley been major advances for women in the past decades, these have been nearly all advances for bourgeois feminism... in business, finance, journalism and higher education... This in turn has brought fewer real gains for working class women and indeed some major attacks on hard won rights.'
For working class women the fight is not with all men but with the system that maintains their oppression through the family. Although women physically bear children that does not mean we have to be solely responsible for their upbringing. We need a society where the whole community cares for the young, the sick and the old.
That doesn't mean we sit back and wait for the revolution. It means fighting in the here and now. But unless we understand the fundamental division in society is that of class, we will always end up merely tinkering with the system--making small gains for a few women while leaving the majority of us in the same position or worse off. That is why the fight for socialism and women's liberation must go hand in hand, and why this book is essential reading for an understanding of the way forward for women.
Street lives: an Oral History of Homeless Americans
New Society £11.99
The fact that, with 50,000 homeless in Detroit in 1991, the state of Michigan cut its welfare spending completely is an obscene indictment of the American dream.
In New York city there are an estimated 90,000 homeless people, a third of whom are HIV positive. On top of the 'official' homeless are those who live in 'welfare hotels' or who 'double up' with other families in overcrowded apartments (in 1986 there were 235,000 families doubling up in New York alone).
Steven Vanderstaay's Street Lives is a series of conversations with some of the people who make up the statistics.
Contrary to the myth that views all homeless people as an underclass, the people in Street Lives are ex-nurses, mechanics, masons, plumbers and other workers who could not earn enough to live on--faced with spiralling housing and utility costs. Some are mentally ill, some are veterans, some live in families. All are denied the basic need of a permanent roof over their heads.
Over 24 percent of the homeless work, many through labour pools--casual labour with no protection and barbaric conditions.
One man, a skilled mechanic for 17 years, tells horror stories of this kind of work: 'I was using a hydraulic blaster to clean railway tracks... it's got 7,900 pounds of pressure coming through it. The whole son of a bitch exploded: took out two teeth, broke my jaw, busted my glasses... they replaced my glasses and paid the hospital bill. That was it. Pitiful. And I couldn't work. I was laid up, penniless, for two months.'
But Street Lives is more than just tragic tales. It is clear on the economic nature of homelessness, it rejects the reactionary stance of Bush (who was president when the book was written, but all criticism applies equally if not more so for Clinton) on welfare. Far from 'welfare queens' living high on benefits, by 1987 over half of all children in female headed families lived below the poverty line. Vanderstaay talks to whole families living in shelters who ended up there despite both parents working full time.
He also dismisses the right wing idea that welfare increases irresponsibility and 'feckless' behaviour, citing several studies to say that welfare 'does not encourage out of wedlock births, family disintegration or unemployment.'
There is real anger in the book--at society and at politicians. An injured veteran of the Second World War who receives no assistance has been protesting outside the Capitol in Washington for 13 years and says, 'I want people to know what the United States thinks about you losin' your health helpin' to save a country like this. It ain't worth savin', and it wasn't worth savin' then. Like some of the guys said in Europe, maybe we're fightin' the wrong people.'
Unfortunately the solutions presented in the book are weak. It focuses on communities 'reaching out' to the homeless and puts the emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for the problem.
Street Lives is basically a sociology book with a difference. It is moving and the accounts pull no punches in their condemnation of American society, and it's full of useful statistics. It leaves you angry at the way people in the richest nation on earth are forced to live.
On the Line: Life on the US-Mexican Border
Latin America Bureau £8.99
They are called the Mallory Children. They live in the Mexican town of Matamoros, just south of the US border, and they have much in common. They are not all deaf but they do all have learning disorders, some very severe. Physically they have broad noses, thin lips, bushy eyebrows and webbed hands and feet. All their mothers, while pregnant, worked in the same factory, Mallory Capacitors, owned by Duracell Batteries.
Doctors think these unusual birth defects were caused by the pregnant women washing components in a solvent containing widely banned PCBs. But they can't prove it. There is no legal way to force Mallory Capacitors to disclose its methods or materials.
This lack of regulation is just one reason for the huge number of factories built by US companies just inside the Mexican border. The few factory laws are not enforced. Workers are both skilled and cheap. The unions are corrupt, the leaders loyal to the factory owners and Mexico's one party state.
The result has been a profits bonanza for big (mainly) US companies at the expense of the mass of the poor who live and work in and around these maquiladora factories.
By 1992 there were 2,129 such plants along the 2,000 mile border, employing 511,000 workers, earning wages typically around US$3-4 a day. Mexican developers and entrepreneurs have also got rich, while Mexican workers suffer dire poverty and widespread malnutrition.
The rapid growth of maquiladora industry in the last 20 years has fuelled a huge expansion of the Mexican border towns. Since the companies pay almost no taxes, the new towns have almost no amenities. Huge slums have sprung up. Open sewers run with a foul mix of untreated human waste and toxic industrial waste.
For many Mexicans the quickest route out of the misery is across the border into the US. The notorious border patrol deported 1.2 million people in 1992 alone, and officially estimate that for every person caught two get through.
There is a huge demand for Mexican labour in the southernmost US states--to do dirty jobs for little money, with no security or healthcare provision. Mexicans used to work mainly in agriculture, but today agriculture accounts for only 15 percent. Most Mexicans work in construction, residential care, hotels and restaurants, electronics and textiles.
Millions of Mexicans work illegally in the US. The police are used to keep the majority scared, quiet and cheap. Border patrol slang for a Mexican is 'tonk', from the noise made hitting one on the head with a large torch.
For most Mexican workers north of the border wages are below the legal minimum, long periods of unemployment are common and the cost of living is far higher than in Mexico.
Augusta Dwyer's detailed research pays off. She skilfully combines interviews and personal stories with facts and figures, to provide an unflinching account of some of the horrors of 1990s capitalism.
But what makes the book complete is that Dwyer never loses sight of the resistance of workers--even in the most desperate circumstances. It is this commitment to fighting for change that makes this book far more than a cold, academic study--it shows capitalism and its gravedigger.
More than 20 million school leavers in towns and cities across China were forcibly deported to the countryside between 1966 and 1974--probably the biggest mass deportation ever in history.
As the Cultural Revolution was being wound down China's rulers feared the explosive potential of massive numbers of unemployed youth, many of whom had been active in the Red Guards. They couldn't remove unemployment, so they removed the unemployed.
An entire generation was uprooted. Many would not see their families again for over ten years. The policy was applied from the biggest city to the smallest town. In one town of 30,000 people near Shanghai over 2,000 young people were deported in those years.
Anchee Min was one of the thousands deported from Shanghai. Her experience, though, was far from typical. After spending a short time on a nearby state farm, she was chosen to star in a propaganda film and returned to Shanghai to live in the film studio.
Her descriptions of the personal humiliations and petty bullying at the farm are by far the best bits of the book. She gives a vivid sense of the hopelessness and futility felt by those exiled to the countryside, all the more poignant when you realise that she suffered far less than the majority of exiled youth.
She was relatively fortunate both in being sent to a state farm (where regular food was guaranteed) and in being close enough to visit her family. The vast majority of exiled youth ended up hundreds of miles away from home, in poor villages where the local peasants desperately resented them as extra mouths to feed.
The descriptions of life in the film studios, by contrast, give a limited picture of the sterility of cultural life under Mao, but little more.
The book has been promoted primarily on the supposed insights it gives into forbidden love in China. Anchee Min first had a lesbian relationship with her boss at the farm, and then an affair with a supervisor at the studio.
This ought to be a fascinating subject. Under Mao all premarital sex was illegal--and people weren't supposed to marry until their mid-20s.
Gay sex wasn't even spoken about. Only a few years ago the Chinese government turned down an invitation to an Aids conference on the grounds that 'Aids is a homosexual problem, and there are no homosexuals in China'.
Yet during and after the Cultural Revolution many young people turned towards intimate relationships as the only sanctuary in a world gone mad. The tension between their need for security and the risks they ran created a highly charged emotional subculture which has been described brilliantly by some modern Chinese writers. Unfortunately Anchee Min isn't one of them. The emotional scenes in Red Azalea mostly read like Mills and Boon before they discovered sex. This may be because growing up in such a sexually repressive society robs you of a vocabulary for describing your emotional and sexual feelings, or it may just be her shortcomings as a writer.
But it makes what should be the emotional centre of her story fall curiously flat. It's impossible to read Red Azalea and not be moved by Anchee Min's plight, but if you're looking for the follow up to Wild Swans this definitely isn't it.
Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War
John R Macarthur
University of California £9.95
Midway through the 1991 Gulf War a colleague called me late one night at the office. He had been sent out to Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia, to cover the conflict. He told me about a new term in vogue among British press corps in Saudi Arabia--'fiskery'.
A 'fiskery', he explained, is when you make up a story, doctoring or even inventing quotes to make it fit your own preconceived ideas. Robert Fisk, the Independent's Middle Eastern correspondent, had clearly 'gone native'.
His book about the Lebanon was supposedly a case in point: he was too soft on the Arabs and too hard on the Israelis.
At the time I dismissed these comments as part of the professional rivalry of journalists. After reading John R Macarthur's book, I'm not so sure. I now believe Fisk was himself the victim of state 'fiskery'.
His colleagues were deliberately fed disinformation about one of the few journalists who tried to break through the fog of censorship over the Gulf War. Macarthur's book provides a mass of evidence showing just how the media was repeatedly 'fisked' from day one of the conflict.
It examines the gyrations of major United States news gathering organisations over that period. Key to the process was the supine attitude of the media itself. Shortly after the invasion representatives of several major US TV networks began to lobby for their journalists to be allowed into neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon had its own agenda. In a memo on how to manage the press, the chief PR man for General Schwarzkopf, head of the US military effort, said, 'News media representatives will be escorted at all times. Repeat, at all times.'
The escort system, known as 'pooling', meant that journalists were each assigned to teams. Each team was escorted by military 'minders', ostensibly there to help them. In practice they acted as mini-censors, preventing journalists from roaming about on their own, denying access to any sensitive material and handing out a selection of mindless statistical chaff.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the pool system became widely accepted by journalists in the Gulf. Indeed, when a few like Robert Fisk decided to break from the system, they were reviled by the others for doing so. The pool, meanwhile, reported uncritically what it was fed by the military. It was prepared to censor itself in the process.
For example, readers and viewers at home were fed stories about the incredible accuracy of the Allies' new 'smart' bombs. As Macarthur says, 'After the war, the Air Force announced that laser and radar-guided bombs and missiles made up just 7 percent of all US explosives dropped on Iraq and Kuwait.
'The other 93 percent were conventional "dumb" bombs, dropped primarily by highflying B-52s from the Vietnam War era. Ten percent of "smart bombs" missed their targets, while 75 percent of "dumb" bombs missed their targets.'
Or the story, shown repeatedly on our TV screens of birds poisoned by oil from refineries which the dastardly Iraqis had deliberately allowed to leak into the Persian Gulf. The oil leaks were later shown to be largely caused by Allied bombing.
Equally, there were the claims in September 1990 by US president George Bush that the Iraqis had up to 50,000 troops ready to invade Saudi Arabia. This justified the sending of the massive taskforce.
In fact, satellite pictures available to the press showed clearly that the Iraqi presence in Kuwait was a third of that alleged. Only a tiny Florida paper printed the pictures. Macarthur's book is one of a handful of accounts which knocks the pretensions about journalism as the defender of freedom. It also demolishes another myth--that of Vietnam correspondents who were opposed to the war effort there and single handedly succeeded in stopping it. In fact, they were as venal and 'patriotic' as later generations turned out to be in the Gulf.
The one difference lay in the contradiction between their role and how it showed back at home. They wanted the US to win the war but were angry about the way it was being waged. Meanwhile, every night television screens showed pictures of body bags and wounded soldiers being carried off transporter planes at US Air Force bases. It was the massive internal dissent, seen in the huge demonstrations against the war, that stopped the generals in their tracks.
Macarthur scores heavily when he rubbishes the media. But there is very little analysis of its overall role in society. It reflects ruling class ideas while at the same time being very occasionally forced to confront them. Despite its role it can--sometimes accidentally--have an impact. Few who saw it will forget the picture published in the Observer of the Iraqi soldier, roasted alive in his vehicle by Allied planes. Perhaps not surprisingly, that picture appeared only after the war was over. The impact was there but the potential to mobilise around it had gone.
Yet pictures like that might not have appeared at all had it not been for the determination of many British journalists and others who came together to form Media Workers Against the War. During its brief existence MWAW challenged some of the more extreme lies then being put across about the war.
Each time our rulers come back and try to 'fisk' us into supporting yet another military adventure, this book will play its part in reminding us of what happened before.
The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation
Ed: David Cesarani
The Nazi extermination of the Jews still presses at the limits of human imagination and understanding. Steven Spielberg's outstanding film Schindler's List has, among other things, served to give particularly powerful shape to the old question: how could human beings have carried out so appalling a crime?
The difficulty has always been that the Holocaust was not primarily the result of an uncontrollable outburst of hatred, like the pogroms suffered by Jews in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the century. There were episodes in the Holocaust that resembled these. For example, Dina Porat's essay in this collection shows that, of the 230,000 Jews living in Lithuania when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, perhaps 8,000 were still alive when the Russian army reoccupied the area three years later. The rest died in a series of massacres very soon after the invasion, in which Lithuanian anti-Semites seem to have played a larger part than the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads.
But most Jews died as a result of a deliberate bureaucratically organised process run by the SS. First came the mass shootings and gassings practised by the Einsatzgruppen in the wake of the German armies as they drove through the western and southern Soviet Union in 1941-42. Then followed the mounting of murder by assembly line in the gas chambers.
One major reason for the switch from mass shootings to gas chambers as the means of extermination was the psychological damage which SS leader Himmler feared the shootings could cause the executioners. In December 1941, Richard Breitman tells us, 'Himmler suggested social gatherings in the evening as a way of reinforcing camaraderie, but warned against the abuse of alcohol on such occasions. A good meal, good beverages and music would take the men "to the beautiful realm of German spirit and inner life".'
The Holocaust was, then, a carefully planned affair. One major controversy among historians of the Third Reich has concerned just how much planning was involved.
Some argue that the doings of the regime were the result of a long term strategy which could be traced back to the will of Hitler himself. Others see the National Socialist state as one of warring bureaucracies, in which Hitler was more the arbiter than the tyrant.
This debate spills over into another, about when the decision to exterminate the Jews was taken. Did it predate the invasion of Russia? Did it roughly coincide with the invasion, in the summer of 1941, as the Einsatzgruppen fanned out into the USSR?
Or did the Final Solution emerge later, less through deliberate decision than as a result of a piecemeal process, in which the initiative was taken less by Hitler than by empire building SS barons like Himmler and Heydrich, the secret police chief? The absence of any 'Führer order' in which Hitler explicitly commanded the Holocaust makes this a subject on which speculation can enjoy pretty free rein.
What light do the essays collected in this volume shed on our understanding of the Holocaust?
Some are very useful. Christopher Browning relates the Nazis' moves towards the Final Solution to the fortunes of war on the Eastern Front. He argues that in mid-July 1941, 'convinced that the military campaign was over and victory was at hand, an elated Hitler gave the signal to carry out accelerated pacification and "racial cleansing" of Germany's new "Garden of Eden".'
The Einsatzgruppen were expanded and given orders to extend their previously selective massacres of Jews into full scale genocide. Then in September/October 1941, another moment of German victories, Hitler authorised the deportation of the European Jews to the east, and construction of the killing centres.
This analysis is helpful because it dovetails in with the main theme of the essays by Jürgen Förster, Christian Streit and Omer Bartov. They all stress that Operation Barbarossa--the invasion of Russia--was, as Förster puts it, 'an ideological war of extermination', waged to win German imperialism 'living room' in the east by conquering and enslaving inferior Slav races.
For the Nazis the Stalin regime was the stronghold of 'Jewish Bolshevism', the embodiment of all they hated. Regular German troops as well as the SS were imbued by National Socialist ideology, and saw themselves waging a race war in which no quarter would be given.
It was in this frenzied atmosphere that the first massacres of Jews took place, and that the Holocaust could be seen as an acceptable 'solution'.
This conclusion is important. The extermination of the Jews arose from the imperatives of Nazi ideology. At the heart of this ideology lay a particular virulent form of racism. Racism is still with us. New holocausts are still possible. The fight against all that Hitler stood for goes on.
Against the Stranger: Lives in the Occupied Territories
Janine di Giovanni
Janine Di Giovanni writes quite simply about life under occupation for ordinary people, both Palestinian and Israeli. She has made a conscious decision not to write a history book or a political treatise. The result is a very interesting book--weaving together the experiences of Palestinians and Israelis since the Intifada began in 1987.
She describes the psychological, sociological and economic devastation of Gaza in graphic detail. The reader can feel the claustrophobia from the curfews, the frustration from the identity checks and unemployment, coupled with the depression that appears to permeate everything.
She interviews working class Palestinians who attempt to live with some dignity in an intolerable situation--Palestinians like the parents of an activist who committed suicide (an Islamic taboo), and 11 year old Nisrine, eldest of six, coming to terms with life after the murder of her parents.
Di Giovanni subtly changes the mood of her book with the changing direction of the Intifada, focusing on the Palestinian attitude to life and death and the growing frustration with 'leaders' who seem to be doing nothing to alleviate the situation.
She attempts a 'balanced' view by interviewing 'liberal' Jews keen to set up Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, a Jewish mother who has lost her (soldier) son in a bomb attack, left wing editors and lawyers. There are, additionally, many accounts of why individual Jews became Zionists and then, after examining the terrible reality behind the Zionist state, decided to actively campaign against it.
Perhaps some of the most powerful images are those concerning the fate of children under occupation. The graphic scenes from hospital, the inadequate equipment, the lack of staff coupled with the unhygienic conditions transport the reader into a situation of sheer hell where one can almost smell the filth and taste the desperation: 'Collar bones stamped upon, fingers pulled out of sockets and faces smashed in from clubs.'
This is a book written with real feeling. Di Giovanni's revulsion at the oppression and injustice inflicted on the Palestinians is skilfully told. She overestimates, however, the role of 'radical' Jews within Israel, by failing to point out that whilst living within a Zionist state they are themselves profiting from the exploitation of Palestinians.
But Against the Stranger is an intensely personal account of her many journeys to Palestine and the grim reality of over two decades of occupation and is clearly illustrated with photographs. A superb primer on life in Palestine.
Marx was so impressed by the fiction of Honoré de Balzac that he planned to write a study of Balzac's novel cycle, The Human Comedy. It was not just Balzac's ability to depict the social life of early 19th century France that impressed Marx. It was his ability to grasp capitalism's constant revolutionising of social life. Even more remarkable, in Marx's eyes, was the fact that Balzac was compelled to recognise the force of this new power, despite his reactionary belief in the old order.
This biography is the first in English since the 1930s and Robb's energetic account of Balzac's life is worthy of its subject. It also, despite its rather dismissive attitude, confirms the Marxist analysis of Balzac's work.
The novelist's life spanned the political, social and economic transformation of France in the years following the great French Revolution. He could be said to have lived it in more ways than one. Not only was he a witness to the period, he participated in its illusions.
Balzac was born in 1799 in the sleepy provincial city of Tours. His family three generations back had been peasants in the backward mountainous area of central France and his father had already risen socially by becoming a public servant and marrying into the local bourgeoisie.
This was the year in which Napoleon ended the turbulent years of the French Revolution by consolidating the rule of the new bourgeois order, though the old monarchical system was to stage a comeback in 1815. However, the Bourbon kings could not reverse the wheel of history and the last was to flee during the 1830 revolution. His replacement, who imagined he could do a deal with the new powerful financial oligarchy, suffered the same fate in the 1848 revolution.
The new century shook the social structure loose of its constraints, allowing the ambitious to do in private life what Napoleon had done in public--claw their way to the top. Paris was an irresistible magnet for young men from the provinces. Balzac was to rise higher than his father, adding the noble 'de' to his name, to which he was not entitled. Like his hero Napoleon he did it by force of individual achievement.
Though he became a supporter of throne and Church, he rose via the very forces that undermined these values. For all his aristocratic leanings he was the dynamic, thrusting bourgeois entrepreneur par excellence. And like these self made men he experienced both the ups and downs of capitalism's constant revolutionising of the means of production.
He was never out of debt his whole adult life. He borrowed massively to invest in his own printing and publishing works, only to go bust. He spent his life constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. The pressure of debt ensured that he had no let up from writing. Indeed, the more his dreams expanded, the more his debts increased.
Robb gives us an example of what this meant. Balzac wrote a short novel of some 40,000 words in a single night, when he discovered that a miscalculation over print size had left 80 blank pages. This speed of composition was by no means exceptional.
He had a boundless appetite for other things beside writing--for knowledge, for travel, for love, for food, for enterprise schemes. But at the same time there was the conviction that these were achieved at a price--as, for example, his feeling that a night of sex resulted in an 'expenditure' of energy that could otherwise have been 'invested' in writing novels.
He lived a kind of devil's pact with capitalism. It is a theme mirrored in much of his fiction. In return for the promise of boundless power, you sell your soul not so much to the old devil as to the new forces of capitalism.
Over and over again his novels are full of characters whose ambitions and obsessions are accomplished at the price of self destruction.
Balzac died in 1850, the year before the coup d'état in which Napoleon's nephew destroyed the second republic. Capitalism's turbulent energy had turned to ash. So too had Balzac's life, exhausted by the fires of creativity.
He left behind him a body of fiction whose restless energy, fearless curiosity and critical spirit show bourgeois culture at its greatest. Graham Robb's biography is an excellent introduction to some of the greatest novels ever written.
Hamish Hamilton £14.99
Throughout the 1980s there was an explosion of feminist detective novels with plots and politics bad enough to make you cringe. Many of them were painfully predictable. From child abuse to violence against women--men were always guilty!
This puts Sara Paretsky in a league of her own. She is a feminist detective novelist with a difference. Her books have fast, sophisticated plots with great class politics.
In the two years between her last book, Guardian Angel, and her new book, Tunnel Vision, there have been countless unsuccessful imitations. Tunnel Vision is long overdue, but worth waiting for.
As usual Sara Paretsky comes up with a compelling plot about class and corruption. It is anti-establishment and anti-police.
Vic, the detective, starts off a small fry investigation which quickly gets out of hand. A rich woman is murdered and Vic isn't too bothered. Vic's investigation is not motivated by concern for the rich dead woman or the bank which she is connected to, but by 'my old street fighter's resentment of the rich and powerful people who spin me around'.
On the trail she exposes corruption at the top of US society and her own distrust for the police and the legal system. When it comes to solving murder she proves to be a better detective than the US police force who have everything at their disposal. The difference between them and her is that she wants to root out corruption and they want to cover it up.
Although this is a very good novel, the fairy tale ending is disappointing. The plot is too easily resolved which means that some of the sharp class observation is lost. I was also surprised to find that Sara Paretsky's portrayal of a gay club bordered on the homophobic.
While you wait for Tunnel Vision to come out in paperback, why not try some of Sara Paretsky's other books--which include Guardian Angel, Burnmarks and Toxic Shock.