Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Michael Burleigh, Chang-rae Lee and Jane Smiley.

Moral Combat by Michael Burleigh

"Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history," writes Andrew Roberts in the Sunday Telegraph, "and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career."

The book is "full of poignant nuggets of information", Roberts says, "but easily its greatest strength lies in the wise, civilised but unshakeable moral certainty of its author". Thus the 55,000 volunteers who died in Bomber Command operations are "heroes" -- "a refreshing value judgement to find in a serious work of history", Roberts argues.

In the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook writes: "Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burleigh's book is that, unlike so many historians, he has a refreshingly realistic, clear-eyed view of human nature. [Moral Combat] confronts us with the ethical questions millions of people faced in their daily lives, from the statesmen who devised the policy of appeasement to the soldiers for whom, 'at the combat coalface, killing became a job of work'."

But for David Herman, writing in the New Statesman, Burleigh's book, though impressive, "is a missed opportunity". The first section is, in Herman's view, a "not terribly original account of the Second World War . . . Burleigh's account of appeasement, for example, is one-dimensional." And although the historian "has devoured much of the scholarly literature in English and German", there are "surprising absences" from the source material, notably the "growing literature on southern and eastern Europe".

Herman concludes: "Burleigh could have produced the best single-volume history of the Second World War. This isn't it."

 

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

"The Korean-American author . . . has aimed high in The Surrendered, his fourth novel," writes Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times. "This is an exceptionally ambitious tale of war and violence and their ruinous impact on those who appear to have survived them." But the book's scope is also its downfall, Rennison opines: "It ends up hamstrung by Lee's overly obvious desire to produce fiction on an epic scale."

Oscillating between the bleak 1980s New York life of a terminal cancer victim, June, and her war-torn past in 1950s Korea, the novel is both "overwrought and overwritten", in Rennison's view -- "a big, fat narrative in which a thinner, sparer story is imprisoned, signalling to be let out".

Leo Robson, for the Observer, was disappointed with the book. "It is not even that Lee's story receives particularly patient unfolding, simply that he tells us everything several times. He uses two adjectives where one would do ('scraggly, patchy', 'matted, tangled') and repeats to no purpose: 'glide through the flak, slip past all disturbances'; 'beneath her skin, her flesh'."

For Alyssa McDonald in the New Statesman, however, "Lee is a quiet and restrained writer who uses language powerfully but without pyrotechnics; the horrors that befall his characters are intensified with dense visual detail." She continues: "At times the characters' misfortunes are so relentless that their power is lost." Even so, "The Surrendered is expertly crafted -- as you might expect from a novelist who is also director of Princeton's creative writing programme."

 

Private Life by Jane Smiley

"Jane Smiley has written a persuasive historical paean to the importance of divorce," writes Lionel Shriver for the Financial Times.

"Private Life dissects the kind of marriage that so many wives continued to tolerate through the first half of the 20th century, when divorce was legally possible yet remained scandalous."

Lorna Bradbury, for the Telegraph, explains: "Smiley, herself married three times, has long been a cheerful advocate of the attractions of divorce. Her 13th novel [examining the staid marriage of Margaret Mayfield in small-town Missouri in the late 1870s] might be seen as a meditation on this argument." The novel's problem, in Bradbury's view, "lies in Smiley's relationship with her heroine. One feels that she desperately wants to release Margaret from the constraints of her increasingly bleak marriage -- and that she only just manages to resist this urge."

Meanwhile, for Christian House, writing in the Independent, "problems . . . are drawn from [the book's] strict realism. The languorous pace, understandable considering the restraints of the pre-feminist era, can still frustrate, while Margaret's tight-lipped complicity in the events stifles sympathy for her." Nonetheless, House also writes, "The physical and psychological stress that [her husband] Andrew imposes on Margaret's life is conveyed with claustrophobic intensity."

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496