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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Brexit… Leg-sit

A new poem by Jo-Ella Sarich. 

Forgot Brexit. An ostrich just walked into the room. Actually,
forget ostriches too. Armadillos also have legs, and shoulder plates
like a Kardashian.  Then I walked in, the other version of me, the one
with legs like wilding pines, when all of them

are the lumberjacks. Forget forests. Carbon sinks are down
this month; Switzerland is the neutral territory
that carved out an island for itself. My body
is the battleground you sketch. My body is
the greenfield development, and you
are the heavy earthmoving equipment. Forget
the artillery in the hills
and the rooftops opening up like nesting boxes. Forget about

the arms race. Cheekbones are the new upper arms
since Michelle lost out to Melania. My cheekbones
are the Horsehead Nebula and you are the Russians
at warp speed. Race you to the finish. North Korea

will go away if you stop thinking
about it. South Korea will, too. Stop thinking
about my sternum. Stop thinking about
the intricacy of my mitochondria. Thigh gaps
are the new wage gaps, and mine is like
the space between the redwood stand
and the plane headed for the mountains. Look,

I’ve pulled up a presentation
with seven different eschatologies
you might like to try. Forget that my arms
are the yellow tape around the heritage tree. Forget
about my exoskeleton. Forget
that the hermit crab
has no shell of its own. Forget that the crab ever
walked sideways into the room.
Pay attention, people.

Jo-Ella Sarich is a New Zealand-based lawyer and poet. Her poems have appeared in the Galway Review and the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear