Books in brief: The School of Life, Jonathan Franzen and Yasushi Inoue

Three new books you might have missed.

Life Lessons
Various authors
Pan Macmillan, 128pp, £6.99 each
 
What can reading Henri Bergson teach us about gruelling departmental meetings? Can Friedrich Nietzsche, attuned to his inconsistencies, enable us to negotiate conflict and see the merits of a change of heart? A new series of books from Alain de Botton’s School of Life does for Hobbes, Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron and Bergson what de Botton’s books have done for classical philosophers and Proust. They are short, snappy reads, reminiscent of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog – aphoristic digests from history’s great minds.
 
The Kraus Project
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £18.99
 
Karl Kraus, who died in 1936, was a Viennese satirist and poet who used his self-published newspaper Die Fackel (“the torch”) to rage against the media, capitalism and the stilted patriotism of an empire in decline. A century on, he is an ideal counterpart for Jonathan Franzen, who has translated and annotated Kraus’s essays. In notes along the bottom of each page, Franzen identifies parallels between fin de siècle Vienna and the technology-glutted US, while offering an autobiographical account of his kinship with the writer known by his enemies as “the Great Hater”. Consumer technology, Franzen argues, distracts us with perpetual yakking, making us restless and ill at ease, while companies such as Amazon run roughshod over the verbal culture to which Kraus belonged.
 
Bullfight
Yasushi Inoue
Pushkin Press, 128pp, £12
 
In 1949, at the age of 42, after working for many years as a journalist and literary editor, Yasushi Inoue began to write novels and short stories. Bullfight was his first. This novella has been translated by Michael Emmerich, known for his work with Banana Yoshimoto. It tells the story of Tsugami, a newspaper editor in Osaka, who takes a great risk when he agrees to sponsor a bullfight, only to find that his life increasingly resembles that of the bull.
The fantasy library at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage