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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit