Boyd Tonkin: The snarl of an ageing lion

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How much slack should we cut for great writers who write or say – for public consumption, not in private exchanges – stupid or vacuous things? The essential reference here is WH Auden's great elegy "In Memory of WB Yeats", in which the poet magisterially tells his just-deceased colleague that "You were silly like us; your gift survived it all". It did. Who now knows or cares about Yeats's sympathy for the wacky Irish fascisti of Eoin O'Duffy's Blueshirt movement, or even the mystical flim-flam of his Celtic Twilight visions?

For Auden, genius will stand after all the nonsense and polemic dies: "Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views/ And will pardon Paul Claudel,/ Pardons him for writing well." Time did indeed pardon Paul Claudel, even if on this side of the Channel we too seldom remember the conservative Catholic poet and dramatist – the older TS Eliot's nearest French equivalent, perhaps – who in 1944 wrote a victory ode for De Gaulle. From Eliot himself deprecating "free-thinking Jews" (in After Strange Gods, 1933) to Shaw gung-ho for eugenics and Stalin, and HG Wells keen on an elite-run world government, the most innovative of authors have so often recoiled in disdain or disgust from humane liberal democracy of the sort that most of us vaguely approve. This is why progresives who also love modernist writing rightly have such a profound affection for James Joyce: the one example (in English at least) of a true literary revolutionary without a mad or mean political bone in his body.

As a general rule, as strong writers age their opinions grow more crotchety, even cantankerous. That certainly happened with José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate who died a week ago aged 87. Raised under Salazar's stifling Catholic dictatorship, Saramago – who finally moved from journalism to fiction only in his fifties – became and remained a stalwart Communist.

For someone of his age and background, that seems a rational course – even if he stuck with the old faith when many of his Mediterranean peers made their peace with various brands of market-based social democracy. Apart from its role in a shaping a critical perspective on the world as it is, and a skill in imagining the way that it might be, ideology seldom guides the course of Saramago's extraordinary fables - from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Stone Raft to the (recently filmed) Blindness. Many more readers here should enjoy them. The Elephant's Journey, perhaps the most mischievously delightful of his novels, will appear in English in August. Complete newcomers to his work might want to begin with the poor country childhood so tenderly recreated in Small Memories.

In his last years, Saramago took to blogging. The results, a year of cultural, personal and political reflections expertly translated by Daniel Hahn and Amanda Hopkinson, can be found in The Notebook (Verso, £12.99). Grumpy-old-guru snorts asbout world events combine, in readably provocative style, with offbeat riffs on his life and writing, on ideas and histories. For the most part, this is a bittersweet delight. Then, on 12 January 2009, this fervent opponent of Israeli policy – and friend of Palestine – lets off steam at the military assault on Gaza. He writes that "the Israeli army, which the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz accused in 1982 of having a Judeo-Nazi mentality... is faithfully following the genocidal doctrine of the people who tortured, gassed and burned their ancestors. It is even fair to say that in some respects the disciples have surpassed their masters."

There you have it: for Saramago, the Israeli forces are not the same as but worse than the Nazis. (And Yeshayahu Leibowitz, by the way, was no secular peacenik but an Orthodox scientist who preached total submission to God's commandments and detested the impious state.) A political animal from his youth, Saramago said and wrote what he believed. Some readers will find such a comparison "silly" in Auden's sense; others may bring in a much harsher verdict. One judgement at least seems inescapable. Aged and opinionated literary lions: blog at your peril.

Extra time for Slovenia's star

As a last-gasp goal from (of all outfits) the US forces Slovenia's exit from the World Cup, who better to reflect on the media circuses that mask the crisis of globalised capitalism than the sage of Ljubljana himself? Slavoj Zizek (right), the world-ranking striker of radical philosophy, will play up front in a team of authors gathered at the Southbank Centre for this year's London Literature Festival. The superstar Slovenian thinker, who speaks on 5 July, joins Bret Easton Ellis, Jeanette Winterson, Andrea Levy, Barbara Kingsolver and the rest of a squad with strength in depth for the festival, which runs from 1-18 July. More details at www.southbankcentre.co.uk

A tax hike on digital knowledge

For now, book-business folk can keep their rhetorical powder dry. Some unpleasant pre-Budget rumours about the possibility that VAT zero-rating for books would be scrapped came to naught. As the Chancellor outlined, current exemptions from the tax will remain in force through this parliament. Since the absence of VAT of books represents by far the single greatest item of state aid to literature and literacy, readers and writers should cheer. Yet, for all the trendy talk about digital futures, this government (like its predecessor) considers books in electronic form as a luxury item to which the arguments against a "tax on knowledge" do not apply. Already subject to VAT, e-books will carry the 20 per cent rate from January. Remember that the next time you hear a minister enthuse about digital media as the latest gateway to learning. The coalition seems to be flunking the joined-up policy test. Zero-rating for e-books would indeed need EU-wide ratification - tough, but not wholly unthinkable?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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