Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Simon Sebag Montefiore and John Gray.

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Writing in the Guardian, Anthony Beevor has high praise for this account of the holy city's complex history: "Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality." Despite Montefiore's close links to Jewish Jerusalem, Beevor finds the narrative to be "remarkably objective". Though certain details could be quibbled over, it is a "reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points".

The Telegraph's Munro Price admires Montefiore's "compelling and thought-provoking" book, which eloquently investigates the city's "fascinating but ghastly past". Though it does not inspire optimism about Jerusalem's future, Montefiore illustrates one enduring lesson to be learnt from the past, that "attempts by any one religion to control the city are doomed".

Montefiore's book is delivered with "flair" and a "bracing pace", supplying "doses of salacious detail", says Rebecca Abrams in this week's New Statesman. It is "a gripping read that throws the city's present problems into sharp relief." Ultimately Montefiore's conclusions about the future are "muted but hopeful", urging each side to recognize the other's narratives of "tragedy and heroism."

The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Cave describes Gray's book as "an absorbing study" of humanity's post-Darwinian anxieties. Gray's polemical and anti-humanist instincts "bore through the book like a worm-hole through an apple" as he seeks to "expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress".

In the Guardian, John Banville heralds the author as "a connoisseur of human idiocy". His "brief, modest-seeming yet profound book" charts the neurotic "teleological wishfulness" of educated Victorians and the "mad dreams" of savants and scientists who planned to embalm and reanimate Lenin's body. Ultimately, he offers a "compelling plea for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality".

Marek Kohn of the Independent praises Gray's "engrossing style" and his readiness "to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically" as he discusses the strange mixtures of mysticism and rationalism that have strived to overcome mortality.

Gray's work "is on to something important regarding the delusion that science consists of indefinite progress" according to Michael Burleigh in the Telegraph. Yet the quality of the book "deteriorates" as Gray's "deep pessimism" develops and he eventually "ends up sounding like Hamlet."

"The Immortalisation Commission" will be reviewed in a forthcoming New Statesman

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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