Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Siri Hustvedt, Patti Smith and 1930s history.

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Rachel Cooke in the Observer celebrates how Siri Hustvedt's account of her "medical mystery" -- sudden convulsions and emotional hypersensitivity -- eschews the "fetid claustrophobia of the misery memoir". Hustvedt remains coolly intellectual in her approach to an illness whose symptoms have been treated with scepticism: "She is, by trade, a storyteller but she knows that narratives, of the kind that Freud so seductively conjured, can mislead. She is open to science but experience tells her some things cannot, yet, be explained by reference only to neurotransmitters and hemispheres."

In the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds an insight into the craft of writing: "In part this book is an articulation of her inner process as a writer. When a writer is asked, how do you write, the temptation is to ask a question back: what order of explanation do you require? Mechanical? Mystical?"

Melanie McGrath in the Telegraph agrees that the book raises more questions than it answers: "Is the shaking epilepsy? Some neurological bedfellow to her migraines and earlier childhood febrile convulsions?" But McGrath is not wholly impressed: Hustvedt's "tales of medical appointments, lecture tours and vignettes from the past come over, on the one hand, as oddly detached and on the other as mildly irritating".

 

The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner

"Though Gardiner is too good a historian to draw glib parallels with the present," writes Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, "one of the achievements of this hugely impressive book is to remind us that behind the clichés about dole queues and hunger marches, the Thirties was the decade of the car, cinema and the suburban semi, an age of self-conscious modernity that laid the foundations for postwar affluence."

Sandbrook has reservations about the book's length: "at nearly 1,000 pages, it is very long. Some readers may find the feast rather too gargantuan, especially as she downplays the kind of political narrative that might keep them turning the pages". But he claims that it is "a quite outstanding work of social history".

For Richard Davenport-Hines in the Sunday Times, Gardiner "has mastered a vast number of written sources, and the resulting synthesis is also a work of graceful, eloquent historical imagination". He admires the book's anecdotal intimacy: "The cinematic clarity of Gardiner's descriptions of accidents and ceremonies tells more about the decade than a page of statistics."

Lara Feigel in the Observer, having deemed it "a book too big to read in bed", determines that "this is history as told through a carefully woven web of stories, relayed by a consummate storyteller. Through these small, juxtaposed tales, a wider economic and political history comes into view."

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The long-awaited memoir of Patti Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is, for Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, the perfect showcase for Smith's writing, which is "delicate, Gothic, laced with careful poetic references and metaphors . . . At times she is funny . . . At other times, the joke's probably on her."

She sees the book as a way for Smith to honour the luminaries of the day, particularly those who died prematurely: "her deeper theme of young lives needlessly lost, slowly developed through the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Joplin, is ultimately the most powerful". In the Telegraph, Michael Arditti proclaims it to be a "heartfelt, illuminating book".

"Just Kids" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.