Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Owen Jones, Lila Azam Zanganeh and Ali Smith.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Writing in the Independent, Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, applauds Jones's exploration of prejudice towards the working class, saying: "The book is very easy to read; it moves in and out of postwar British history with great agility, weaving together complex questions of class, culture and identity with a lightness of touch. Jones torches the political class to great effect. Conservative class conflict masquerading as liberalism; New Labour's desiccated notion of aspiration; what we stylise as "Middle England"; the class composition of the commentariat and government: all are pretty easy targets, but the points are well made. Especially strong is his critique of liberal multiculturalism, whereby without the currency of class grievance we balkanise politics through identity and, sure enough, the BNP or English Defence League flourish."

In a similarly sympathetic review in the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley recognises Jones's ability "to reiterate the facts of increasing inequality, which has led British society to become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood. In such circumstances, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives' demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class."

"[An] uneven book", writes John Lloyd in the Financial Times. "Campaigns against sexism and racism have made denigration of ethnic minorities, gays and women impossible in polite society; the working class, in the guise of "chavs", remain a target. It is interesting and depressing to see all this - and though Jones bangs the nail in too hard, it's worth banging."

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh

"If the intention is to send the reader back to the works of Vladimir Nabokov with newly polished eyes and an eager appetite, it succeeds without question," writes Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman. "But it is more than a literary springboard from which to launch oneself back to the classics: it is a thing of beauty in its own right."

Nicholas Shakespeare in The Sunday Telegraph, however, is far less flattering: "One cannot help but feel that she is accidentally-on-purpose playing at being Lolita, a literary nymphet with a crush on Nabokov ... But where Lolita is a cliché who seduces ("at 6.15 in the morning, to be precise, at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel"), here the author's excess of self-consciousness is cloying."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana is also unenthusiastic, writing in the Financial Times that this is a "whimsical, intriguing and at times bewildering work," and that the author "omits explicit references to her own back-story, perhaps out of a reasonable desire to avoid comparisons with that other Nabokov-themed memoir by an Iranian expatriate, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Yet her reluctance to explore the connections makes her appear coy, even cagey."

There but for the by Ali Smith

"Before the pudding at a dinner party in Greenwich, a guest slips away upstairs, locks himself into a room and refuses to come out. For months. A clever set-up for a novel," writes Lionel Shriver in the Financial Times, "though it's difficult to imagine where the premise leads, since this slight, offbeat idea seems more intrinsically suited to a short story. In There But For The, Ali Smith spins out this narrow, potentially confining concept into a winsome, compelling read - that is, until the book's last third, at which point you wonder if maybe it should have been a short story after all."

Most other reviewers have been unequivocal in their praise. "Smith's prose is not just supple, it's acrobatic," asserts Lucy Beresford in the Daily Telegraph, " one minute providing crisp realism -- cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy -- the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today."

Agreeing with these positive sentiments, The Observer's Sarah Churchwell writes that this is "a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure." She concedes though, that "some of the set-pieces are less successful than others -- the novel's central dinner party descends from burlesque into caricature, as the guests became increasingly loathsome," but concludes that "there are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies."

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Enchanter:Nabokov and Happiness will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times