Mata Hari, We Hardly Knew You

Mata Hari must be one of the very few women in history whose name has turned into common terminology, as the spy who seduces to gain knowledge. Though as usual, for every feminist cheer, there’s an eye roll for the patriarchy, as the story surrounding this woman who found transcendent fame remains inseparable from the usual fascination with female sexuality. That Mata Hari was a prostitute with a cause, doesn’t really strike much of a blow for women’s empowerment and emancipation. How then, to tell her story in a 21st century way that honors the complexity of the woman without resorting to the creation of a false archetype of strength and agency as so many historical novels do? How to show both the force of the myth that surrounds her and the genuine desperation that created her? Richard Skinner’s novel, The Red Dancer, offers an intriguing strategy by presenting the reader with a mosaic of fictional witness accounts that all have a perspective on Mata Hari without ever solving her enigma.

The novel begins with the placement of a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam paper, purporting to come from one MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army and a notorious womanizer, but really put there as a joke by his mate. The joke, typically, backfires. MacLeod finds himself taking the responses he receives seriously, especially one from a Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (whom he calls Gerda), a pretty, dark-haired woman of great charm and appeal. Macleod knows he’ll be sent out to Indonesia soon and that having a wife would be a good thing. And so they get engaged within six days of meeting, and marry within four months. Then things go horribly wrong. MacLeod is keen on drink and violence, Gerda is a flirt who wants to spend all his money on dresses. They have two children, move to the Dutch East Indies, and drive each other a little bit insane. On their return to Europe, MacLeod deserts Gerda, who heads to Paris and then to Pigalle, the red-light district, recommended to her as a woman with no money and no choices. She finds work as an artist’s model and then as an exotic dancer, a move that will make her name.

From this point on, Mata Hari – self-christened, meaning ‘Eye of the Dawn’ – is in this account as complicit in the myth-making as the journalists and writers who spread over-excited reports of her. Basically, Mata Hari made her name by dancing naked, but coupling it with the notion that her movements were sacred Brahman dances lent a veneer of, well, not respectability exactly, but something more poetic and pure. Colette (who had herself danced strip-teases of a kind on the Parisian stage) watched her with clear, cold eyes, and produced this account:

She hardly danced in the real sense at all. She arrived fairly naked at her recitals, and with graceful movements and downcast eyes shed her clothes, and would then disappear enveloped in her veils… Her skin amber by night, seemed mauve by daylight, but patchy from artificial dyeing. She moved her long, thin and proud body as Paris has never seen one moved before. Paris swallowed her, and raved about her chaste nudity, retelling anecdotes that Mata Hari had uttered about her hot Asiatic past. She was invited everywhere, men fought to pay her way.’

She claimed to have been born in India, to be related to royalty (both Indian and British), to have studied her dances by way of cults and sacred ritual, to have performed before rajahs, all of which was so much nonsense. But her position, both financially and within society, was a precarious one. Her dancing began to receive poor reviews and, as the First World War loomed, Mata Hari was taken on by the Berlin police intelligence services and used her talents the way she always had. It was, in short, another rackety career, with even less security than she had achieved before, and it ended the way these things inevitably will – in front of a firing squad for treason.

It’s a story that changes with the light. In one direction, you can read the masterful ascent of a woman out of poverty and into the annals of history. In another direction you can read the doomed descent of a woman used and abused by men who cared not a jot for her happiness, her health, or her safety. In the middle there’s Gerda herself, whose consciousness we rarely enter in this novel, and who accounts for her actions with only one justification: ‘once she had an impulse, she acted on it quickly.’ Was she a woman of loose morals who believed her own lies? Or a gutsy survivor using the only resource that society cared to place at her disposal – the uncontrollable lust of men? The beautifully written narrative passes through numerous viewpoints, including her bitter husband, the impresario who made her, the journalist who interviews her, her loyal maid, the Russian officer who fell in love with her, the prison doctor, the youngest member of the firing squad. Each account tantalises but cannot solve the mystery.

Interspersed with these fictional accounts are the most divisive feature of the narrative: brief non-fiction chapters that explain and describe an extraordinary hotch-potch of cultural artefacts, including the gamelan (a Javanese musical instrument), lithography, absinthe, the Orient Express and the start of the First World War. It’s an audacious strategy that I think is intended to remind the reader of the inescapable history behind the story, and to anchor the fictional accounts in the relics of the times. They add a real taste of the cultural era to the narrative, and accent the dizzying perspective that moves us rapidly between the carapace of Mata Hari’s myth and the reality of the Belle Epoque. But some readers are going to find themselves uncomfortably jarred out of the story when they appear.

Overall this is a fascinating account of a historical figure whom we all know without knowing about in the least. The Red Dancer refuses to resolve this problem, preferring to magnify it instead, which is perhaps the truest way of approaching the story of woman who worked myth for all it was worth, until it finally destroyed her.

 

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Each To Their Own

So I’m standing at the kitchen sink doing the washing up the other evening, when Mr Litlove looms out of the darkness coming up the garden path. He’s been out with his chums at Shed Club, which, yes, is totally a thing. It usually makes him happy and indeed he is looking very chuffed with himself.

‘Look what I made!’ he’s saying, before he’s even got close enough for me to see him clearly.

He appears to have a great wicker bow sprouting from the back of his head.

‘What is it?’ I ask.

He moves the pole he is carrying off his shoulder and waves it at me. ‘Look! It’s a willow dragon fly. For the garden.’

When he is finally indoors and in the light, we examine the dragon fly. It has a densely woven body and great looping wings and a faintly malevolent air. Mr Litlove is pleased as punch with it.

‘I thought you were wearing it in your hair,’ I confess. But he is not displeased with this idea.

‘It could be a fascinator,’ he says, balancing it above his head. ‘What do you think?’

It is quite fetching, his Hobbity fascinator.

‘And if I’d said, “Darling, will you come with me to macrame class,” would you have done it?’ I ask.

‘Probably not,’ he agrees cheerfully.

Once upon a time, several months ago, Mr Litlove went down to the woods at a nearby National Trust house and joined a green woodworking circle. It was just to have a go, just to see what it was that they did. He made what can only be described as a very Brothers Grimm stool, and was then invited to join a sort of spin-off group to weave the seat out of strips of bark. Then he kept going so he could whittle spoons, and then try making bowls with a pole lathe.

I said: ‘You whittled spoons?’

Only the other weekend, he was in the woods again, stripping the bark off of a tree. I watched him skip down the path to the car with some bafflement. It makes me think of those verbal reasoning questions you’re given in the eleven plus exam.

‘Stripping bark off a tree is to Litlove what…… reading poetry for fun is to Mr Litlove.’

It’s really only a question of taste. I’m just not into rustic, particularly. I’m sure it’s lovely! Really! In the right setting and all that. Or in the wake of Armageddon. I’m sure that, if we survive, I will be completely thrilled that Mr Litlove will be able to whittle us some more spoons and bowls. And weave us some seating.

Isn’t it a funny thing, taste? It’s so random and unaccountable and yet it means the world to us. We were having a different conversation about essentially the same thing last night, when we got talking about what the first records were that we ever bought. I swear hands down that you will not be able to beat Mr Litlove’s first record choices either in terms of eclecticism or unaccountability. You could never guess them in a thousand years. His first records were George Formby, The Smurfs and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Isn’t that joyful?

‘I really want to blog about that,’ I told Mr Litlove.

He shrugged. ‘Oh go ahead. No one will believe you.’

I didn’t buy many records when I was a child because I have a much older brother who was always, always into music, so I just listened to whatever he was playing. For those of you who were children in the 70s and may enjoy the nostalgia, I remember especially: Supertramp, Steely Dan, The Police, Ian Dury and the Blockheads (My given name is Dickie, I come from Billericay, and I’m doing very well…), Judie Tzuke (probably my favourite of the albums my brother played), Gerry Rafferty, Pink Floyd, ‘Afternoon Delight’ by Starland Vocal Band (which I always thought was about a 4th July picnic!) Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Simon and Garfunkel, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen (Baby we were born to run…) and probably my brother’s favourite: E.L.O. I remember also ‘Baby Don’t Fear The Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult and the one heavy metal band he liked, Hawkwind. Everyone else thought it was just a racket, which spurred my brother on to play ‘Silver Machine’ as loud as the volume would go.

I do remember buying ‘Take A Chance On Me’ by Abba, because there was no way my brother would be buying that. And I am also pretty sure my first ever record was ‘Forever Autumn’ by Justin Haywood, though I know he had the double album of War of the Worlds. I still have a strong visual memory of the cover art with those menacing stalk-legged tripods. But my great personal obsession when I was a child was with the score of West Side Story. I was given the album for my 8th? 9th? birthday, something like that, and I probably wore it out.

But you just can’t negotiate with what you love. And much as you can get an appreciation of something that doesn’t speak to your heart, it’s difficult to get further. I also thought I’d never heard any of The Smurf’s singles, but when Mr Litlove sang me a few, I did recall them!

Artful

 

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)

 

Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.

Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.

There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.

Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once,’ Ali Smith writes.

Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’

So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.

But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.

Snooping, Blinking and a Controversial Chair

As you may remember, while my eyes have been troublesome, Mr Litlove has been reading to me most days after lunch – a sort of bookish siesta. This has meant picking out books that we’re both interested in, which in reality has meant non-fiction, and mostly psychology studies. Earlier this year we read two related books that couldn’t have been more different.

Snoop by Sam Gosling had an intriguing premise. What Your Stuff Says About You, the subtitle reads, and essentially, it’s about decoding the objects people possess in order to gain psychological insight into them. It’s what most of us do when entering the room of a new acquaintance for the first time, casing the joint to see what kind of books, pictures, music the new friend owns; the fact that Gosling’s research students prove you can make a pretty swift and accurate personality assessment on this basis seems to show there’s more to it than meets the eye (see what I did there?). Gosling proposes that daily clutter can be categorized three ways, as an ‘identity claim’ (things we’re proud to have reflect on us), a ‘feeling regulator’ (things that arouse emotion or contain special memories) or a ‘behavioural residue’ (the overflowing laundry basket that says you’re a slob). Then he introduces the reader to the five big personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – and shows how objects can be character markers of these traits.

And that’s about as far as we got before we abandoned the book. There were a number of problems that stymied us (okay, mostly me) and that forced us to give it up in the end. The first is that, in the history of crossover non-fiction literature there are few academic authors who are quite as evidently pleased with themselves as Dr Gosling is. This is a bit off-putting. The book begins with him showing off his amazing skills to a television producer who has sent him a box of items from the room of a mystery person. From a small tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a scratched CD of dance music and a photo of a sink area, Dr Gosling deduces an Asian male in mid-to-late twenties who is probably gay. What seems important here is that all this is for the pilot episode of a new program about snooping that would have a role for an expert in such matters (guess who?).

But as we get more examples of Gosling’s prowess, I did begin to question it somewhat. Gosling gives us the example of a large seagull mobile hanging in the office of a research collaborator that catches his eye. What does this tell him about his colleague? What may he deduce from it? After much pontification via the strategies of Hercule Poirot, he decides that the seagull was probably linked to a fond memory or a meaningful event and that it helped his colleague stay calm and focused. When asked, the colleague said she’d bought it at a conference at Stockholm and used it ‘to stop tall people standing too close to her.’ Conclusive, no? No. Dr Gosling helpfully points out that you can’t ever expect one object to tell you everything about a person, and the chances are you’re going to be wrong more than you’re right. And this was the problem with all his argumentation that I heard; it was dilatory, digressive and far from clear. He just couldn’t nail his points.

It was about now that my life began to seem very short and precious to me.

So I had a snoop of my own in Dr Gosling’s acknowledgements and found a very long, fulsome expression of gratitude to his editor and the hours they spent side-by-side writing and rewriting, to the extent that he felt she was a ‘co-author’. Which told me that Dr Gosling had probably got his contract on the TV interest and the high concept and then struggled manfully to write the thing. Of course, in all fairness the problem with a DNF is that it might have become brilliant in its later stages and entirely fulfilled all its initial promise. I don’t know; I never got that far. But maybe that editor whipped him into shape by the end.

Anyhoo, we decided to swap to the book that had first drawn attention to the ‘science of snooping’ and given Gosling his break: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Blink is a book about snap judgements and the way they can be more accurate and helpful than second, third and fourth thoughts. Gladwell opens with a marble statue bought by the Getty Museum, supposedly dating from the sixth century BC. The purchase took place after a cautious 14-month investigation by art experts, and then the statue went on display to full fanfare. At that point the trouble started, as other experts and dealers and people from the art world came and looked and felt in their gut that something just wasn’t right. The Getty took the murmurs of uncertainty seriously and further investigations were made. And oh dear, it turned out that the kouros ‘didn’t come from ancient Greece. It came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980s.’

So, Blink is a book about the way that our cautious, thoughtful brain can be confused and our quick, grasping one can be clear-sighted. It’s sort of an easy version of Daniel Kaufman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, with extra jolly anecdotes. Because say what you like about Malcolm Gladwell (and I believe some people do), that man has a genius for exploiting the exemplary anecdote. His arguments throughout this book were beautifully made, utterly lucid and persuasive, and consistently interesting.

He moves from the frivolous to the serious and stops at various stations of the cross in between. Pausing at researchers working with five minute videos of couples from which they deduce the likelihood that the couple will stay together, through Warren Harding’s truly disastrous presidency (yes, there are precedents!) which he won almost entirely because he looked the part (exactly like the butler from Downton Abbey, in case you’re wondering), through the madness of market research. Take the rivalry between Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the television adverts Pepsi ran in the 1980s that showed people off the street taking a sip of each drink and declaring Pepsi the nicer of the two. Coca-Cola, rattled, ran its own blind tests and found that 57% of participants did indeed prefer Pepsi. Horrified, they altered the secret formula to make the drinks more similar – and released the product to consumer outrage. Their loyal customers hated the new drink and it was rapidly taken from the shelves never to be seen again. The thing is, what might be nicer on the basis of one sip (because it’s sweeter) is not necessarily nicer to drink at length. The sip test turns out to be misleading.

There are also more serious sides to the book, considering the use of snap judgements in combat situations and in the case of four white officers shooting a lone black man in the Bronx in February 1999. The man was entirely innocent of any crime, and the object he had withdrawn from his back pocket as the officers approached him turned out to be a wallet, not a gun as they had assumed. Gladwell looks at this incident from the perspective of a ‘mind-reading failure’. We have them all the time, instincts that arise and tell us someone is hostile or angry or something else altogether, drawn from another person’s facial expressions and body language. But police officers have to act regularly on those instincts in life or death situations, and sometimes they have terrible results. When you have so much adrenaline pumping through your system that you literally cannot tell the difference between a gun and a wallet, I think that’s a pretty good argument for not arming your average patrol cop, but what do I know?

So, all in all, this turns out to be a book that is just as cautious about snap judgements as it is congratulatory of them. Essentially, Gladwell is carving out a position in which thinking fast is a good idea, and shading in all the areas in which it gives misleading (sometimes disastrously so) results. Essentially, the issue boils down to experience and expertise. The more time you have spent studying something, and the more experience you’ve had in judging and then weighing the results of that judgement, the better your instincts will be.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren’t grounded in real understanding.’

Which, in an age that has become ‘fed up’ of experts, is something we should probably all hear.

Finally, then, a little blink test of my own. Below is a chair that Mr Litlove has recently finished after the style of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Do you like it or not? I do, but Mr Litlove doesn’t. What does that say about us, I wonder?