Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Adam Sisman, Michèle Roberts and Vasily Grossman.

Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography by Adam Sisman

"The subject of this biography may have had all the potential to be an academic idol," opines Anthony Howard in this week's New Statesman, "but at the base of the statue there were always feet of social-climbing clay. Beautifully written and admirably presented though it is," Howard avers, "there is nothing in Sisman's narrative to cause me to want to alter this view."

"We are in the midst of a Trevor-Roper revival," declares Tristram Hunt in the Telegraph. "Much of [the historian's] arsenal of unfinished essays and biographies has finally come into print . . . But what Adam Sisman's new biography, for all its scholarship and detail, fails to provide is the convincing answer for Trevor-Roper's claims as one of our greatest historians."

Not so for A N Wilson in the Observer: "This great book confirms my sense that Trevor-Roper was not merely a clever, but also rather a great man," he writes of the Christ Church don. "It is impossible to praise Sisman's book too highly . . . [It] will remind us all of why we value the life of the mind, and why style and intelligence are not superficial weapons against the forces of darkness."

Mud: Stories of Sex and Love by Michèle Roberts

"The importance of maternal love sits beneath the surface of [these] stories," writes Megan Walsh in the Times, "whether it's a prostitute finding strength in imagining herself as the smallest figure in a protective matryoshka doll or a mother trying to protect her daughter's innocence by tenderly twisting her unruly hair into plaits.

"While Roberts may, on occasion, overuse certain metaphors," continues Walsh, "her poetic instinct stands out: a skirt 'pinioning' knees, cabbages 'tight-waisted and frilly; about to bolt'."

For Elaine Feinstein, writing in the Independent, "Roberts understands the far from innocent attachments of childhood . . . She is at her poignant best as a [young] maid who fell in love with Emma Bovary", and "as a servant in the house of Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester . . . she can be cruelly funny at the expense of a male companion who refuses to learn French".

"The short story is an intimate, subtle and enigmatic form," argues Stevie Davies in the Guardian. "Michèle Roberts reminds us . . . that she is one of our foremost practitioners of the art."

 

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

"[Vasily Grossman] died in 1964 before finishing his revisions of Everything Flows," writes Lucy Popescu in the Independent. "His uncompromising chapters on Lenin and Stalin fell foul of the Soviet censors." A tale of Ivan Grigoryevich's release into Russia after 30 years of incarceration in the Gulag, Grossman's novel has, in Popescu's view, "the power to make you weep at man's inhumanity to man and, at the same time, rejoice that freedom does not die. Thanks to Robert Chandler and his co-translators, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan, the Russian voice positively sings."

According to the New Statesman fiction critic Leo Robson, the story is "digressional and diffuse, and cares little for the reader's conventional demands: a straight narrative backbone, thematically obedient characters, and so on. Then again, a reader's conventional demands are apt to be ignored when it comes to the portrayal of atrocity."

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition