Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Blake Morrison, Christos Tsiolkas and Laura Bush.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

"Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel," writes Christian House in the Independent on Sunday. "All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. This is a suspenseful thriller," House declares, "but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies."

For John O'Connell, writing in the Times, "Ian [the narrator] is an authentic, copper-bottomed monster. But Morrison is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. The most fascinating aspect of The Last Weekend is its suggestion that Ian's bitterness and paranoia are explicable, if not justified."

In the Telegraph, David Robson opines that "the plot is touch artificial . . . [revolving] around a silly bet struck 20 years before. But the human basis for the story has the ring of truth. Meanwhile, the Guardian's Stephanie Merritt writes that "Morrison handles the elements of his novel with impeccable control", creating "the slow-burning feeling that nothing is as it should be".

 

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Stephen Amidon writes for the Times: "The destructive gesture that sets in motion Christos Tsiolkas's powerful new novel [first published in Australia in 2008 and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize] is an open hand briskly applied to the face of a spoilt three-year-old . . . The reverberations of the incident soon affect the lives of at least a dozen people."

"Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure," writes Jane Smiley for the Guardian, "but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well."

For Doug Johnstone, writing in the Independent, Tsiolkas's international success "is deserved . . . because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal".

"Perhaps inevitably," claims Johnstone, "not all the narrative [voices] work quite as well -- the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo." Even so, for him, "This is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living."

 

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

"Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt," writes Elaine Showalter in the Telegraph. Painting a picture of a woman who is "pretty, motherly, modestly dressed [and] conscientious about her duties", the memoir, in Showalter's view, demonstrates "[Bush's] knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground". A "calculated and highly controlled autobiography", she concludes, the book is (in spite of its title) "written from the head".

For Sarah Baxter in the Times, although Mrs Bush evinces "a sly way of getting her own back on her detractors" and "can be a gossip at times too" -- offering a revealing insight into Prince Charles and Camilla's drinking habits, for instance -- when it comes to her husband she "confines herself to loyal expressions of confidence".

"The worst parts of her book cover her years in the White House," Baxter elaborates. "Ever in her husband's shadow, she has . . . nothing of interest to say about an era that began with 9/11, led to two wars, and ended with the election of the first African-American president."

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr agrees that "the higher George Bush rises politically, the less interesting the book becomes", but writes, "[Laura Bush] is not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken from the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side." Rather, "what comes through is . . . that Laura Bush is a far more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess".

"Spoken from the Heart" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser