October 26th, 2009


A few pales beyonded

• Britain was convulsed last week by the appearance of Nick Griffin on the BBC's Question Time. The editor of the New Statesman, for instance, came to see the Brel show at the Barbican, but rushed off halfway through to watch Question Time live. While I obviously disagree completely with Griffin's views on immigration, I think the BBC was right to let him express them on TV. A robust democracy can and should allow all views to be aired, and the tolerance which tolerates only tolerable views is both intolerant and intolerable. I can still remember the days when Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein could only appear on TV if his words were voiced by an actor. So the BBC had this Gerry Adams soundalike who popped up to dub interviews. Ridiculous, and hardly a good reflection on the Thatcher government, who at the time were also trying to suppress any information saying that homosexuality was a valid sexual orientation. It's odd what's considered beyond the pale at any given point.

• I was talking with Paris friends about what you could and couldn't say on the internet -- as opposed to "real life" -- if you didn't want hundreds of irate commenters pummelling you. My friends instantly gave two examples. One (a woman) said "I wish I'd been raped by Polanski!" Then another (a man) said "If you look at the pictures of the thirteen year-old girl, she wasn't even that cute." I told them that these views would be considered completely beyond the pale if expressed on an Anglo-Saxon blog, and would trigger a catastrophic comment-cascade in which it would be established that rape is rape, the law the law, and the French terminally immoral.

• The Guardian review which appeared on Saturday is one of the few to end up panning my Book of Jokes as "unpalatable". The woman who wrote it is slightly more conservative than some of the other reviewers, and points out that, no matter how eruditely it's expressed, the book spouts filth. In the interests of balance, I quite welcome this moral caution. After all, the book is intended to venture beyond the pale, and to speak things that dare not be spoken, at least not out loud in public. A world in which no-one declared the book intolerable would be a world in which it was no longer possible to go beyond the pale.

• I'm trying to find -- so far without success -- a copy of Nabokov's first novel, Laughter in the Dark. Everywhere you go, bookshops, if they have any Nabokov at all (and they all have a ton of Naipaul next to him) have Lolita and nothing else. Could it be that Lolita has survived only because it went so boldly beyond the pale? I mean, isn't that what made it a bestseller, which Laughter in the Dark never was?

• I bought a copy of Samuel Beckett's letters. It's an incredibly interesting and impressive book: Beckett makes me feel like a mental pygmy. Wait, can you say that on the internetz? Doesn't it imply that there's something wrong with being a pygmy? I was reading somewhere recently about Roald Dahl's struggle with reviewers and librarians over the appearance of small black slaves in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He ended up rewriting the characters to make it clear that they weren't African slaves, so that children, presumably, wouldn't have to think about Africa or slavery. And didn't Sendak recently tell critics of Where The Wild Things Are to go to hell? More and more seems to be beyond the pale, especially where children are involved.

• Anyway, I was talking about Sam Beckett. There's an interesting bit where he's contemplating translating Sade's 120 Days of Sodom -- which he loves for its ability to show "the impossibility of outraging nature" -- into English. It's 1938, and the book is still untranslated. "I should like very much to do it," Beckett writes to George Reavey, "but don't know what effect it wd. have on my lit. situation in England or how it might prejudice future publications of my own there. The surface is of an unheard of obscenity & not 1 in 100 will find literature in the pornography, or beneath the pornography, let alone one of the capital works of the 18th century, which it is for me. I don't mind the obloquy, on the contrary it will get more of me into a certain room. But I don't want to be spiked as a writer, I mean as a publicist in the airiest sense." Despite these reservations, Beckett provisionally accepted to translate the 120 Days into English, but Jack Kahane, the man who'd asked him, dropped out of sight. So that particular pale was never beyonded.