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".

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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