Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Rebecca Stott, Antony Beevor and Kathleen Riley.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott

“There may be no such thing as originality,” Richard Fortey writes in the Guardian in his review of Rebecca Stott’s latest book. It’s a work that examines just such an idea. What Stott calls "ghosts" are Darwin’s intellectual forebears – his predecessors and his contemporaries whose parallel researches gave rise, indirectly otherwise, to his own discoveries. The Origin of Species acknowledged a list of such  great minds; Stott’s book unearths and ever more intriguing list, revealing the way in which the strand of evolutionary thought has - like a living organism - refined, absorbed, and mutated over time.

Fortey finds Stott’s list “more interesting” than Darwin’s own. He’s fascinated by her exploration of an “extraordinary batch of free thinkers” such as French consul in Cairo Benoît de Maillet, Swiss naturalist Abraham Tremblay, and Renaissance ecologist al-Jahiz. “Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous.”

But Fortey des not see these character are any discredit to the great theorist, rather an enriching backdrop against which Darwin worked – a great thinker who looked at the phenomenon of natural selection with fresh eyes. “As so often before and after, he [Darwin] was starting afresh, open to past influences, but fuelled by his Beagle voyage….the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows…Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts”.

Ziauddin Sardar, writing in the Independent , also lauds Stott’s efforts to show that “Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants.” He reads the book as less forgiving of Darwin, stating at the outset that “Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time.” Equally impressed by Scott’s detective work, he calls her thorough and unusual catalogue of “unsung heroes” a “fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.”

Gillian Beer, writing in the Telgraph, points out that Darwin was known for his ceaseless interrogations of the natural world. Stott shows “some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions.” She calls the book “extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging”, and places particular emphasis on Stott’s novelistic accomplishment: “each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men”.

She picks up on Stott’s own awareness of evolutionary theory not as a linear, upward trajectory, but rather a sinuous, stop-start footpath. “Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost…. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.”

An essay by Rebecca Stott on Darwin's "ghosts" was published in the New Statesman on 16 May.

 

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

Former British army officer and acclaimed author of several histories, Beevor’s latest is a sweeping study of the Second World War, beginning from the unusual starting point of a Japanese victory at the Mongolian boarder in 1939. From there he turns his gaze across Europe and the Pacific, composing what Ian Thomson in the Spectator calls “a lucid and wide-ranging account of the most destructive war of all time”.

“Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history,” writes Roger Moorhouse in the Independent. He calls The Second World War “a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.”

Moorhouse praises Beevor’s “searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man” and his “eye-opening revelations” including sanctioned cannibalism in the Japanese army. He finds fault only with comparison to Beevor’s previous work: “In tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.”

Overall though, he finds the work well worth his time, calling it a “splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.”

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, admired Beevor’s accomplished narrative. “Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways…” he writes. “A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas. Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge.”

He notes especially Beevor's knowledge of “how to keep a good story rolling”, delighting in the details: “Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes”.

“The Second World War is not without flaws,” he notes. “It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants … Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal.”

But overall though it’s high praise for a mammoth undertaking of such dense and varied subject matter.  “Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.”

John Gray’s review of "The Second World" War by Antony Beevor will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow.

 

The Astairs: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley

“It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy,” wrote Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman last week, and it seems critics across the board are similarly eager for this account of the famous dancers. Ethan Morden, writing in the Wall Street Journal, delights at the arrival of an overdue biography.  “It's quite a saga,” he says of Fred Astaire’s life, “but we really only know its second half…thanks to his imperishable movies Fred is linked with Ginger Rogers; or with the most beautiful of his partners, Rita Hayworth; or with the most effervescent of his partners, Judy Garland; or with the most technically accomplished of his partners, Eleanor Powell…The most Astaire of his partners is forgotten… Kathleen Riley's book on Fred and Adele…is a welcome rehabilitation.”

He enjoys Riley rendering of the “crazy joy” and “guiltless worldview” that was theatre of the 1920s, calling The Astaires “a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.”

Churchwell points towards Riley’s successes, especially the way she “usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers.”

However, she finds fault with Riley’s apparently uncritical adoration of her subjects. “The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography.” She cites one example in particular: “Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as 'nigger music', Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: 'It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.' That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot.”

Despite finding the book “reluctant to be too plain-speaking” and “partial to “occasional fits of overwriting”, she calls the work “an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre”.

Former New York City ballet dancer Toni Bentley writes an engaging review for the New York Times. “Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails…In her fascinating new book, 'The Astaires,' the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail.”

She applauds Riley's illumination of a relationship that shaped the world's most celebrated partner-dancer: “It becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honour her and make her glow.”

“Riley’s book suffers, though not egregiously,” Bentley argues, “from the rather humour­less, linear reportage — the laundry-list narrative — and the slightly defensive tone of so much academic writing, in which being correct is clearly more valued than being interesting”.

But overall, “Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.”

In "Darwin's Ghosts", author Rebecca Stott invetigates the heritage of evolutionary thought (Photo: Getty Images)
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution