Magazine article The Spectator

Alpha or Gamma for Behaviour

Magazine article The Spectator

Alpha or Gamma for Behaviour

Article excerpt

OUT OF PLACE by Edward Said Granta, L25, pp. 400

Edward Said, once the dubbed 'the Professor of Terrorism'. has been among the most visible proponents of the Palestinian cause in the West. The Columbia Universitv literature teacher is also an icon of radical intellectuals far beyond the Arab world. The very titles of his major works, Culture and Imperialism (1993) and Orientalism (1978), send a resonance through writers like myself.

Yet Said has been one of the great disappointments of my reading life. There is nothing I would like more than to like Edward Said, but I don't. If the present is the zenith of the non-novel concocted by fakir's hands, then Said's work offers the prospect of literary criticism as a mirage. The outlines of something substantial or refreshing shimmer beyond the sterile sands and thorns of his prose but never come any nearer. Huge, abstract questions are posed, but answers, or even information, never materialise, as if stating the terms of a profound problem was profundity in itself. There is a lot of portentous throat-clearing but it stops there: e.g. 'We may speak of secular space and of humanly constructed and interdependent histories that are fundamentally knowable although not through grand theory or systematic totalisation' (Culture and Imperialism). Gawd.

At Oxford 30 years ago one of the gruff, pipe-smoking dons who took me for tutorials outside my own college had a disparaging expression for the useful but not exceptional intellect: 'Beta alpha man,' he would grunt. The rarest mark, half-insult, half-compliment, and, needless to say, coveted, was the alpha gamma (brilliant but incompetent). I hover between the two for Edward Said.

Out of Place, his memoir, mostly of his early years, is a new and tragically perhaps final departure for him (he is dying of leukaemia), but it suffers from many of the flaws of his academic work. He writes in his acknowledgments of his 'often overwritten and inchoate prose' and this is no more than the truth, although the style is considerably better than the banal turgidities of the academic books. Unfortunately it is still wooden and undistinctive. That many literary critics write inelegantly is a commonplace but it is still disconcerting to find one with no knowledge of construction basics, or of the need for variations in tone and pace over a long book, of how to shape through emphasis and elision and to instal a proper time-scheme and differentiate between locales. Quite often in the Middle Eastern chapters one has no idea where one is or even when, whether the Cairo of Said's early years or the Lebanon or Palestine of his teens. I happen to prefer autobiographies that are thematically rather than chronologically organised - Malraux's Anti-memoirs comes to mind - but the scrambling in Said's is not deliberate. We are, indeed, frequently 'out of place'.

Hordes of weakly realised minor characters come on stage with bewildering rapidity. It is no great feat of memory to remember the names of one's classmates but Said seems to think that just by reciting them he can instil the same nostalgia in his readers as he does in himself. What comes out plainly is that Said was not just a spoiled rich boy but a mother's boy as well. There is a regional over-wroughtness and Levantine lack of proportion from which the august professor is not immune. A politician friend of mine went many years ago to a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut. There he knocked over a cup of coffee on to a table obviously much prized by the PLO leader. Arafat's dwarf rushed over with a cloth, clucking away. All three spent the next five minutes dabbing and polishing. 'It was crazy,' said my friend. 'Outside it was a scene from hell: fires burning, heaps of rubble, bullet-pocks on walls, blocks of flats with rocket-holes in them, and there we were rescuing a distressed coffee table.'

Thus, Said talks of his brutal confrontations with British authority at his exclusive school in Egypt as if these classroom spats were the intifada. …

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