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."

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage