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Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Orhan Pamuk, Henning Mankell and Rosa Luxemburg.

The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

Writing in the Observer, Adam Mars-Jones finds Orhan Pamuk's The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist unintelligent: "The Nobel prize-winner's book of reflections on art and life is the high-culture equivalent of the celebrity fragrance...Sometimes the book makes sense, sometimes the fragrance achieves a distinctive balance of notes, but this outcome is largely accidental". More directly: "There is plenty of academic mannerism here ("one might conclude", "I can now introduce", "let me be forthright"), nothing of intellectual substance".

Philip Hensher of the Telegraph, meanwhile, is "engrossed" by this latest in the trend of "writers, in their different ways" telling us "what they think about their own art form". Hensher admires Pamuk's rejection of dualities ("He has no time for the reader who assumes it's all true, nor for the sophisticated one who maintains everything is a constructed fiction. It is this sort of flexibility that makes him such a rich writer"), whilst recognising an unwitting divorce of theory and practice: "if he stuck to his declared principle, it would make a dull novel indeed." Even so, "every novelist will want to read this, and will learn from a master."

Leo Robson, in the New Statesman, finds Pamuk contradictory. Noting Pamuk's objection to dualities, he counters that "despite himself" the novelist "has a taste for the tidy." At his most damning, Robson asserts: "When Pamuk isn't confusing what is true for him with what is true for all novelists, he is stating the obvious, or treating the spurious as the obvious".

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell's The Troubled Man, his final novel to be graced by the detective-protagonist Kurt Wallander, has a plot that "is relatively simple", finds James Urquhart of the Independent. However, as murder and mystery unfold, "Wallander's drive to make sense of it all pushes The Troubled Man relentlessly on towards murky revelations of high-level treachery." Wallander is the key: his "personality" sees that the novel "operates as a good, gritty procedural rather than a spy thriller, but the historical context adds depth and texture to the investigation."

Ian Thomson writing in the Financial Times emphasizes the importance of Mankell's homeland as a shaping force of the novel: "morose cogitations on Sweden's social malaise" are accompanied by "ever-more despondent talk of his and humanity's demise", and "the landscape of southern Sweden, its fog-bound flatlands and grey seas." Thomson briefly notes a thematic seriousness ("Questions of responsibility and morality, of justice and democracy are explicitly raised"), before hoping that Mankell might just yet resurrect his hero: "He is far too good to lose". 

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

A new edition of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is "absorbing", finds Ian Thomson of the Observer. The volume reinforces the way in which Luxemburg "was inevitably shaped by Judaism and its fierce moral parables of deliverance and survival", whilst demonstrating her "self-ironical humour". Thomson speculates on the new relevance of Luxemburg's "insistence on social justice", which "seems more pertinent now with the world financial crisis", but also sees a curious display of a "middle-class fastidiousness at odds with her combative politics".

"We witness Luxemburg's attempts to draw supporters of a genuinely revolutionary stand around her" writes Mark Thomas in Socialist Review, "but we also see how weak this current proved with the test of the First World War in 1914". The letters "shine a light on her significant intervention in the work of revolutionaries in Poland and Russia", and although the personal aspect of many of her letters "at times ... feels like quite an invasion of her privacy (she wanted her letters burned)", Thomson concedes that such invasions serve ultimately to "give a sense of this extraordinary woman."