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."

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era