Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on a new biography of Tolstoy, Saul Bellow's letters and Salley Vickers' short

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Last Saturday was the centenary of the great Russian novelist's death and has predictably been accompanied by a slew of new Tolstoy biographies and studies. Chief among these is Rosamund Bartlett's new biography.

Philip Heshner, writing in the Spectator, thinks Bartlett's life of Tolstoy is full of "knowledge, insight and aplomb", though is sceptical about her decision to look at the novels solely "within the context of historical trends." In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler is less than impressed with Bartlett's account of Tolstoy's life. Whilst he acknowledges that she does uncover new information on Tolstoy , he finds that "the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you're interested."

Conversely, AN Wilson, a previous biographer of Tolstoy, is all praise for Bartlett in the Financial Times, judging that her study of his life "conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."

Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Leon Wieseltier, Bellow's friend and sometime correspondent, writing in the New York Times, gives a slightly sycophantic review, in which he suggests that these letters constitute "one of Bellow's greatest books", whilst also finding the space to salute Benjamin Taylor's "elegantissimo" editing.

From the Guardian, John Banville is intrigued by Bellow's "prickliness" in the letters, though is disappointed to find that they are "not as exciting or stimulating as one would expect from this most incandescent and opinionated of writers", a fact perhaps due to Bellow's tendency "to relax the force of his personality" in his correspondence.

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson decides that "the existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail" and gives Taylor lukewarm praise for his "almost-great service" as editor. Robson does, however, admit that he read the letters with "an overpowering feeling of joy."

Aphrodite's Hat by Salley Vickers

Michele Roberts' review, from the Financial Times, gently chides Salley Vickers for her prosaic style in her first collection of art related short stories, describing them as being "marred by cliché" and overly "genteel", whilst, contrarily, Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian is overflowing with superlatives for Vickers, writing that "the emotional and technical range of this collection is both impressive and delightfully disorienting".

Michael Arditti, writing in the Telegraph, is more ambivalent about the stories, concluding that "although a couple of the stories are duds ... the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm."

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

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