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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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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