Books in brief: Robert Walser, Michael Ruse and Hans Küng

Three new books you may have missed.

A Schoolboy’s Diary
Robert Walser

“I am certainly a proponent of the slackard’s life, laziness, happiness and peace,” writes Robert Walser’s narrator in the short piece “In the Military”. Walser, born in Switzerland in 1878, served in the National Guard and lived a precarious existence before ill-health confined him to a sanatorium in 1933. His many “prose pieces” (50 of which are collected here) capture what Ben Lerner, in his introduction, calls “a strange mix of exuberance and submission”. It is a curious outlook that sees freedom in military service but also “a million-strong crowd of . . . individuals who dispense with . . . thinking”, just before the Great War. “Is this not a picture to instil horror?” Walser asks casually.

NYRB Classics, 208pp, £8.99

 

The Gaia Hypothesis
Michael Ruse

The Gaia hypothesis – the idea that the earth is alive – has been scorned for the same reasons that it has been embraced. It melds biological science with feeling, mysticism and religion. Although the theory was brought to public attention by the English scientist James Lovelock in the early 1970s, the Gaia story is much older. Michael Ruse’s new book connects it with Plato through a long history of holistic thinking in order to explain why so many reject it as pseudoscience. As Lovelock said recently, “It has always seemed that many would have faith in Gaia . . . I prefer to keep a trust in Gaia; it is more consistent with science.”

University of Chicago Press, 251pp, £18

 

Can We Save the Catholic Church?
Hans Küng

Hans Küng is a progressive priest best known for publicly rejecting the doctrine of papal infallibility in the 1960s and for having been among the two youngest advisers at Vatican II (the other was the arch-conservative Joseph Ratzinger). Can We Save the Catholic Church? is an impassioned critique of the centristabsolutist DNA of the Catholic Church, which prescribes strong medicine for its “diseased patients”. A copy rests on the current Pope’s nightstand.

William Collins, 350pp, £12.99

The library of the National Assembly in Paris, France. 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 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit