Sunday, 21 July 2019


Fintan O'Toole, whose essay about Boris Johnson, titled 'The Ham Of Fate' (in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, you can link to it here) goes full Gore Vidal in a literary exegesis of Johnson's only published novel, Seventy-Two Virgins (2004). O'Toole calls it, generously, a 'somewhat un-flattering self-portrait', but that is all part of the 'Boris' shtick, public schoolboy humour combined with the famed self-deprecation which, as any student of George Mikes would recognise, is actually a celebration of the innate superiority of the English, or at least the English upper-class, over those of lesser character who insist on speaking honestly, straightforwardly or worst of all, as O'Toole quotes Kate Fox reminding us, earnestly.

O'Toole's coup de grace is an analysis of Johnson's dropping in of the Greek word 'akratic' to describe his protagonist. Johnson uses it alongside describing a 'thanatos urge', or death-wish to those of us who didn't study Greek at Eton. But most educated readers would recognise 'thanatos', which makes 'akratic' worth O'Toole's analysis. He explains that 'akrasia', according to Aristotle, is the opposite of control, a  weakness of will, incontinence, a person who, O'Toole summarises, 'knows the right thing but cannot help doing the opposite'.

The 'studied careless' of those English upper-classes Johnson (from, as O'Toole notes, a rather bohemian bourgeois background) apes leaves messes for others to clean up. He is of course both 'genuinely clever' and 'quite self-aware', and in the familiar tracing of Johnson's indecision over his stance on Brexit (choosing the one with the clearer, but risky, path to leadership) or his mendaciousness as a Brussels journalist ('he understood a vivid lie is more memorable than the dull truth'). Read the article, because O'Toole is equally sharp tracing of Boris' efforts to re-invent himself as a bumbling, betraying Churchill is part and parcel of the worst, and the comparison to Trump and America (remember, Boris was born in the US and a dual national, until the Americans invited him to remember to pay the taxes US citizens owe).

But there was one small bit of literary criticism he missed, which I find irresistible in the lack of subtlety of its sub-conscious revelation, and not exclusively about Johnson's private life. His alter ego in Seventy-Two Virgins is named Roger Barlow. Roger is British slang, still used (especially by the upper classes) to mean penetrative sex or by extension, so to speak, being dominated to someone else's advantage, as in 'he was well and truly fucked by that'). Roger, then, with the Bar set very Low: does that not describe perfectly both the 'romantic' Johnson as well as the political one?

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