David Aaronovitch meets Feliks Zhukovski

The Breaking of Eggs was a complicated attempt to answer a simple question: why do we believe what we believe? When, at a February meeting of the Prospect Book Club, I heard David Aaronovitch use exactly the same phrase to describe the issue he was addressing in his new book Party Animals, I was intrigued. In fact, I was already intrigued, which is why I was there.  

Now, having read Party Animals with great admiration (and allowing for a bias towards finding the parallels), I see the two books as companion volumes. Even their jackets complement each other. Apart from asking the same philosophical question, they use the same issue (the Communist Party, and adherence to or deviation from its values) as a way of examining it. They also reach broadly the same conclusion.

But the route taken to get there could not be more different. The Breaking of Eggs is fiction, with the novelist attempting to invent, and then to understand, the psyche of an imagined character, and one holding views he has never held himself. Party Animals is a memoir, with the author describing the flesh and blood reality of growing up in a doctrinaire Communist family. For David Aaronovitch, understanding the psychology is not an intellectual abstraction, but urgent personal therapy.

Feliks Zhukovski, the protagonist of The Breaking of Eggs, is arguably a composite of both of David Aaronovitch’s parents: Lavender, from a broken home and in need of a compensating holism, however illusory, and Sam, the emotionally inaccessible intellectual. For both, the Party became a surrogate family, and the one solid element in a chaotic world.

The similarities between Communism and a religion have been stated so often they need no repetition. But here they are in all their sad, and sometimes hilarious, consequences. It is hard to see how being raised in a Communist household would have differed much from being raised as a member of a severe religious sect. In both cases, there is the insistence that there is only one truth, and only one way of approaching it. Whether in religious or secular form, there can surely be no other attitude that has inflicted so much misery on humanity.

So what effect did all this have on David Aaronovitch?

I started to read his journalism when he joined The Times. At first, I thought him rather less good than the established columnists. But I think that of all new columnists, and then either I stop reading them or they gradually join the list of ‘can’t possibly miss’ columnists. In David Aaronovitch’s case, it was the latter.

What has most intrigued me since is that he differs from the other Times columnists in that his opinions seem to be in a constant state of flux. With the others, you know what you are going to get. It is often stimulating, but it comes from the same fixed viewpoint. With David Aaronovitch, you never know exactly what you’re going to get, and the viewpoint is always shifting. I couldn’t now, in retrospect, quote concrete examples of this, but I have been aware for years of a columnist in transit.

Party Animals does a great deal to explain this sense, and to substantiate it. The worst of it was that the ideological gulag was only one part, and arguably the lesser part, of the straitjacket that was David Aaronovitch’s young life. The personal was as least as poisonous as the political. If each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, this one found an extraordinarily depressing way to be unhappy. The journey towards sanity from this introduction to life would never be short, never be easy. This columnist will always be in transit, and to what end he may never know. The triumph of David Aaronovitch is that he has had the courage to attempt the journey, and that he continues to make it.

It would be facile to make direct parallels between the personal and the political in this story, and the author does not do so. But it is impossible to disregard the parallels either. Both elements involved perceptions of truth and perceptions of lies, justifications of the unjustifiable, and the transference of conflict to external victims. Whether deliberately, whether even consciously, when David Aaaronovitch plunges into the depths of his feelings towards the end of the book, his prose plunges with him. The lucid and well-honed journalistic style suddenly becomes raw and atavistic. Even the sub-editing becomes sloppy. Far from being a criticism, this is entirely appropriate: the content and the form in harmony with each other.

From The Breaking of Eggs:
‘Truth is a highly subjective commodity, I find,’ said René.
‘That is an absurd statement,’ [said Feliks Zhukovski]. ‘That is the one thing it is not… For my part, I study the facts in a particular situation. I analyse them according to logic. I reach objective conclusions from them. That is how I arrive at the truth. The absolute truth.’
‘Bollocks… Feliks, it is a myth that we come to rational conclusions. The best we can do is to give ourselves reasons for what we feel. The whole world is based on emotion. The process of logic is to give us a justification for it.’

From Party Animals:
‘Our politics are an extension of our personalities. We like to think that they inhabit a different mental realm to that of our emotions, having been chosen by us rationally and as a consequence of argument and perception.’

I will now put Party Animals next to The Breaking of Eggs on my bookshelf, and let them talk to each other for as long as they like.