Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Hilary Mantel, Tom Watson and Toni Morrison.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 

 
High praise this week for Mantel’s sequel to the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, which tells a rapturous historical account of Thomas Cromwell’s power games and the demise of Anne Boleyn under Henry VIII’s tumultuous regime. Not often does well-trodden historical territory elicit such excitement among readers and critics alike, and this second instalment in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy seems to have done the trick again.  The New York Times's Janet Maslin calls the novel “beautifully constructed” and “gracefully” executed, noting that “the wonder of Ms Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again.” 
 
The New Yorker’s James Wood playfully credits Mantel’s novelist’s sensibilities with her success in a genre notorious for its rare successes, writing that “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” Wood recognises that it's the “universality” and “timelessness” of Mantel’s storytelling which lend the book its liveliness - that historical accuracy, though we trust Mantel to stick to the record, are in some sense joyfully irrelevant: “the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical… Mantel knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. In short, this novelist has the maddeningly unteachable gift of being interesting.”
 
Margaret Atwood, writing in the Guardian, similarly applauds Mantel’s vivid and sympathetic characterizations – most notably those of the easily vilified Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. “The ambiguous Cromwell is a character who fits Mantel's particular strengths. She's never gone for the sweet people, and is no stranger to dark purposes … But he [Henry VIII] also has corners of tenderness, and sees these in others: he's deep, not merely dark. And through him we experience the texture of how it feels to be sliding into a perilous dictatorship, where power is arbitrary, spies are everywhere, and one wrong word can mean your death." Atwood acknowledges the descriptive pitfalls of historical fiction and lauds Mantel’s tactics, though perhaps longing for a touch more restraint. “Mantel generally answers the same kinds of question that interest readers in court reports of murder trials or coverage of royal weddings. Who really went to bed with whom? Mantel sometimes overshares, but literary invention does not fail her: she's as deft and verbally adroit as ever.” High praise indeed. 
 
A review of Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel will appear in next week’s issue of the New Statesman
 

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

 
Peter Wilby was “gobsmacked” by this Hitchcockian account of last summer’s phone hacking scandal that shut down the 168-year-old News of the World. “Constructed like a thriller” and full of “vivid characters” and “cliffhanging chapter endings”, Wilby praises Labour MP Tom Watson and his journalist co-author for their efforts in bringing this “tale of stupidity, incompetence, fear, intimidation, lying, downright wickedness and corruption” to the public. “What stands out from this book is the lengths to which NI went to bury the hacking scandal,” writes Wilby in the Guardian, “and how, before the revelations in July 2011 that Millie Dowler’s phone was hacked, the company nearly got away with it.” More praise comes from the Telegraph's Jonathan Heawood, who calls it “an impressive piece of journalism” that  “weaves the events of the past decade into a compulsive narrative.” 
 
But a book tackling this (in many respects unresolved) issue is bound to elicit mixed responses. The Independent’s Joy Lo Dico calls the book a “well-written and, at turns, devastating” account, but she also identifies two problems. The first is Tom Watson – while his “dogged work with freedom of information requests” is amirable, it’s the level of personal details he peppers throughout his prose that bothers her: “it comes across as an authorial indulgence.” The second is an issue of redundancy; Lo Dico rightly highlights that retelling a tale which “is now a central part of the British news agenda” whose “every new detail is raked over” is bit like writing “a history that has already been written multiple times.” 
 
Neville Thurlbeck, the former chief news editor of News of the World and recipient of the “now infamous For Neville email” writes a slightly tetchy review for the New Statesman, asserting that “The incendiary claim that News International had ordered News of the World reporters to spy on MPs in order to dredge up unsavoury facts about their private lives is one of the few new revelations in this book.” He also claims the book is “littered with inaccuracies” including assertions about Thurlbeck’s alleged ménage-à-trois with a Dorset couple. And while such issues are perhaps too close to home, he does concede that “for the moment, Dial M for Murdoch is the only cogent book available on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a bestseller.”
 

Home by Toni Morrison

 
This is the Nobel-prize winning author’s tenth in a long line of novels exploring themes of race, love, redemption and the weight of history in black America. Home is a slender volume that tells the story of Frank Money, a traumatized and lackluster Korean War veteran who returns home to small-town Georgia to save his sister, the victim of eugenics experiments inflicted upon her by a white employer. The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani calls Morrison’s latest “a kind of tiny Rosetta Stone to Toni Morrison’s entire oeuvre,” noting that author “eschews the fierce Faulknerian prose and García Márquez-like flights of surrealism that animated some of her earlier novels, adopting a new, pared-down style that enables her to map the day-to-day lives of her characters with lyrical precision.”
 
Leslie McDowell, writing for the Independent, duly notes Morrison’s unarguable talent, asserting that “like the best writers, Morrison has politics underpinning her prose… Only Morrison can take the human soul down into its darkest parts, yet somehow let it flourish.” The Guardian's Sarah Curchwell, on the other hand, finds Morrison’s storytelling familiar if not slightly tired, pointing out that “after nearly half a century, denouncing brutality becomes a fairly circular enterprise.” She found Home got off to a “very promising” start but expressed disappointment with the end result. "If Morrison had finished writing the novel she so carefully began, it might have been one of her best in years. But at well under 200 pages with wide margins, Home barely begins before it ends; just when the reader expects the story to kick in to gear, as Frank arrives back in Georgia and finds Cee, Morrison seems to lose interest… Home should be relentless, unsparing, but Morrison relents halfway through, and spares everyone – most of all herself.”
 
Hilary Mantel with her Booker Prize-Winning novel Wolf Hall (photo: Getty Images)
Picture: IWM Art
Show Hide image

The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.


TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.


The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496