Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jeffrey Eugenides, Joseph Brodsky, Francine Stock and Stephen Hughes.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides has written his first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. "Jeffrey Eugenides' third novel begins in the early 1980s on a prestigious university campus," writes Katy Guest in the Independent. "Madeleine is loved by Mitchell Grammaticus, a spiritual-curious theologian, but she falls for the mercurial Leonard Bankhead ... The problem is (finds Madeleine), intellectually deconstructing love does not prevent her from falling head over heels with Leonard in the manner of an ingénue in an English novel."

In the New York Times, William Deresiewicz writes that The Marriage Plot is "about what Eugenides's books are always about, no matter how they differ: the drama of coming of age". It is especially great on "what happens after you graduate, when the whole scaffolding of classes and the college social scene you've been training your personality around is suddenly taken away, and you have to grope for a new way to be in the world."

Leo Robson writes in the New Statesman that "Eugenides, it appears, is out to charm ... The novel's language does not pretend to find things elusive or impregnable. Again and again, Eugenides picks up a subject ... or a process ... and sprints with it for an immaculate paragraph, flicking off a lively list of impressions." The novel "culminates in a gesture of completion that is in fact one of self-combustion, like the closing move of a Coen brothers film - the novel confirming its identity as divertissement, game or ruse."

Guest concludes that "Eugenides takes many risks. Writing humorously about literary theory is always hard to pull off. Likewise, focusing on characters as difficult to get on with as Madeleine and Leonard could easily go wrong ... [the novel is] a remarkable achievement."

Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky

Nicholas Lezard writes in the Guardian that "these essays, collected and published in 1986, won the National Book Critics' award for criticism; and a year later he became the then youngest ever Nobel literary laureate". Lesley McDowell observes in the Independent that "this collection begins with Brodsky's memories of growing up in the Soviet Union and progresses through his love of literature ... The loss of individuality is a loss prevented by art [and] by poetry."

According to the New York Times: "Admittedly, [Brodsky] is one of millions with such stories. Yet his story is unique because only he, among millions, chose to write it ... A person is, in Brodsky's title essay, less than one: He is never the sum of his experiences, since he is always in dialogue with, and beholden to, his past and future selves ... It is an allegory for the state of the writer, too, since language fails to communicate everything."

Lezard comments that "Brodsky wasn't even writing (or speaking) in his native language [which] makes this even better somehow. He certainly has a gift for the striking phrase ... Brodsky seems to write as if conscious that he is addressing an audience which needs to be brought up to speed from a standing start, yet without insulting their intelligence."

In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it Has Shaped Us by Francine Stock with Stephen Hughes

Philip French writes in the Observer that "Francine Stock, a former BBC TV current affairs reporter and now presenter of Radio 4's The Film Programme, has taken on the hugely ambitious project of a historical survey of the movies from ... the 1890s to this very year." Christopher Fowler asks in the Independent: "How and why do movies affect audiences, and what do they tell us about the times in which they're made? ... Stock's approach is to examine three key films from each decade, picking them apart to understand their influence, and adding examples along the way."

Fowler notes that "if the intention is to show that cinema's practitioners have manipulated us with ever-changing agendas, the chronology is far from exhaustive, so perhaps this is best approached as a personal history peppered with pleasurable asides." By contrast, French writes that "it is not a deeply personal book. The passing remarks on Stock's own life rarely get more revealing than watching Chinatown at the age of 16 in Guildford on the same day as the IRA pub bombings there in October 1974 ... and there is little that is idiosyncratic about her choice of films." Nonetheless, "there is much to enjoy in this book, and nuggets of information on recent cinematic developments to be mined".

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge