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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Hilary Mantel and Elizabeth Strout

There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?

Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.

Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.

Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.

When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.

Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.

Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.

Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.

What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.

There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.

It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.

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!

The Self-Sabotage of the West

I suppose the thing is, it’s hard to live a good life.

It’s energetically demanding to keep negative emotions at bay, to remain open and inclusive, to feel ready to tackle difficult problems that have no simple solutions, to refrain from judging . Whereas it is so easy to fall into catastrophising, into resentment and hostility, into a lingering sense of injustice, into the media’s relentless net of fears and terrors.

Mr Litlove thinks that Trump is Brexit to the power of ten, that the world he knows is changing irrevocably for the worse, and that forces he doesn’t understand are rising. I completely get this – I feel it too. But the world has always been a cruel and violent place. It’s the past 60 years of peace and prosperity that have been the aberration. The tragedy is that we haven’t been smart enough to safeguard them.

The image that keeps coming to my mind this morning is that of the patient in therapy, battling against the damage done and old terrors. That patient keeps on trying to live a good life, but the deep-rooted self-sabotage comes back and back. Each time it returns, it returns in ever more acute form. So the patient is more aware of it, and more troubled by it, more afraid of its power, but still helpless in some ways to make it go away forever. It probably won’t go away forever. Whatever form the darkness takes – bigotry, unreasonable aggression, a creeping, paralysing sense of inferiority, greed, it will always need to be fought actively and energetically.

The West is an old troubled soul, torn between belief in, and nostalgia for, a form of glory that came at a terrible cost, and a new, liberal way of being that seems like hard work and hasn’t managed to prevent the spoils going to a small band of robber barons. The West wants to give in to the old bad habits of aggression and self-aggrandizement in order to feel better about itself, not quite realising that those habits are based on unreasonable but potent fears.

Giving in to those fears, whilst a kind of relief in the short-term, is no way towards a happy or stable life. Wallowing in fear and resentment – the motivators behind Brexit and Trump – only make us more miserable. And the people who are truly suffering: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, are going to be no better off than before. The qualities that are required to deal with intransigent social issues – compassion, the willingness to understand others and an instinct to share rather than hoard – have just been voted out of office. Neither Brexit nor Trump will do anything to prevent the rich getting richer.

For me, the biggest problem in the immediate future is the rise of lying as a way of gaining the popular vote. After Brexit, after Trump, what reason does anyone in political authority have for telling the truth, when extremist and outlandishly fictive statements are so much more effective? I thought we were sick of politicians lying to us, so why have we voted for the biggest liars every time? Ah well, myself I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media, who have behaved, and continue to behave, with ghastly irresponsibility. They stoke fear and terror at every turn, report falsehoods and mendacious statements alongside more realistic ones as if there were no difference.  I am currently alarmed by the ridiculous urging of the papers for a fast Brexit. So not only will we be committing a kind of economic and political suicide, but we will fall on our sword without taking the time to judge the angle that might miss most of the vital organs. How can anyone who voted for Brexit think that doing it hastily, confusedly and in an ill-thought-out manner will do any good? And as for the press in this country hounding the judges who insisted correctly upon the law… well, there words really do fail me. I’m not sure how we can allow this behaviour to continue.

If we have to be in a period of self-sabotage, and it seems that we do, then let’s try and insist on all the checks and balances and active restraints that we can, so we do ourselves the least damage. Let’s only believe the words that are reasonable, pragmatic, realistic. Let’s refuse to countenance the war-mongering and the scare-mongering and the alarmist tactics. Let’s keep our heads.

The good life always takes hard work. Let’s just keep working hard towards it.