Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on José Saramago, Jacek Hugo-Bader and William Rees-Mogg.

Cain by José Saramago

Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago's last novel, Cain, is published posthumously in English (Saramago died in June 2010). Ian Sansom in the Guardian notes that Cain is "a rewriting of the biblical story...Cain gets to enjoy his endless exile, ambling aimlessly through a number of other biblical episodes and scenes." Cain concludes from his travels that God must be mad. "[T]he only alternative explanation -one already mooted in Saramago's Gospel - is that God might be 'evil pure and simply'", writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the Financial Times.

Sansom praises the novel as a "fitting conclusion" to Saramago's career: "Cain's is the story of mankind, and Saramago was one of those authors much concerned with the plight of mankind". While Gurría-Quintana observes that, "Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament's God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name."

Allan Massie writes in the Scotsman that "Every page of this novella, translated with a fluent and light touch by Margaret Jill Costa, has its charm. Every page raises difficult questions. That over the centuries we have found no satisfying answer to these questions...doesn't make them less compelling."

White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Based upon a road trip across Siberia, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader's White Fever is about "a society in moral and social breakdown" reports Luke Harding in the Guardian. It also includes "plenty of unexpectedly joyous moments",

White Fever, Harding argues, shows that after Communism's fall, "Russia has failed to come up with a new national idea...While some Siberians have turned to mysticism in search of meaning, others cling to the old Soviet faith ... The strength of this book is that it dwells on human stories that lie outside the parameters of conventional newspaper reporting." Harding also praises the translation from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as "pitch perfect".

Carl Wilkinson writes in the Financial Times that White Fever is "a funny, enlightening and thoroughly engaging piece of reportage. Hugo-Bader eschews grand descriptions in favour of brilliant vignettes of his encounters with the people who live there." "

Memoirs by William Rees-Mogg

William Rees-Mogg has been editor of the Times, vice-chairman of the BBC and "has known every British Prime Minister since Anthony Eden...and most Popes and American Presidents," notes Allan Massie in the Scotsman. Peter Preston's review in the Guardian describes Mogg's memoirs as "thought-provoking...a voice from the recent past still resonant beyond the columns he writes for the Mail on Sunday and the Times."

"Most of the main political questions between the 1950s and the present are examined dispassionately and lenient judgments pronounced," finds Paul Johnson in the Spectator. "What distinguishes his memoirs is a lack of malice. There are no unpleasant stories". Mogg has a "distaste for sharp personal criticism. This gives his book magnanimity, to put it mildly, but it makes for dull reading." By contrast, Massie finds that "There are many amusing anecdotes and observations...The passages about his family background, education and home life are full of charm and interest."

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.