In the Critics this Week

A Spring Books special with William Cash on Graham Greene, an interview with Richard Mabey and poetr

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, William Cash reflects on the entanglement of art and reality in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, 20 years on from the author's death. Cash draws connections between Greene's real-life romance with an "American beauty" and the critically-acclaimed story.

John Gray reviews Richard Mabey's The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, which maps the complex relationship between science and Romanticism. "He shows in this short, wise and consistently delightful book, a 'Romantic' conception of human beings' place in the world may be one that even science supports". Gray concludes that "the human animal needs something beyond itself if it is not to go mad."

Andrew Adonis examines The Coalition and the Constitution, an "excellent study" by Vernon Bogdanor of the "implications of the coalition government", with a focus on electoral reform and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill. Lucasta Miller lends her opinion to championing the "unruly" essay -- a form which she believes is "entering a phase of renewed development". David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy is "erudite and eloquent", writes Tobias Jones. Gilmour offers up a plethora of "intriguing facts" from the country's rich history and argues that the Apennines were responsible for "slicing Italy in two and hindering any sense of social cohesion".

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is an "oddly exhilarating new novel," remarks Julie Myerson of James Frey's latest controversial offering, in which the messiah-like protagonist "drinks beer and smokes weed" and "goes around having sex with everyone, male or female". "The book overflows with biblical parallels and you detect a joyous relish in Frey as he unloads them," Myerson argues.

Bernie Ecclestone is a "gambler" who "discovered his talent in the postwar climate of austerity, with its spivs and hustlers" remarks Bryan Appelyard of Tom Bower's biography No Angel: the secret life of Bernie Ecclestone. "His rise to power in F1 is bewildering, but the story is told skilfully by Bower."

Clive James' poem "Procedure for Disposal" maps a mind in decline. "But now when I compose a single page/ Of double-spaced it takes me half a day". Will Self reflects on the changing face of university cuisine after he takes his daughter on a tour of the UK's higher education establishments. The presence of "at least six" Browns' restaurants "strategically located close to the Russell Group universities" is a sign, Self notes, of "an elite education in this country".

Further reviews and comment from: Dan Jones on Ian Botham: the Power and the Glory by Simon Wilde, Leo Robson on A Man of Parts: a Novel by David Lodge, Ryan Gilbey on How I Ended This Summer (15), directed by Alexei Popogrebsky, Alexandra Coghlan on OperaShots at the Royal Opera House, Tom Ravenscroft on "perfect songs to soundtrack a jog" and Rachel Cooke on Ben Fogle's BBC2 The Secret of Scott's Hut.

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Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks mental depth cameras can't see

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war