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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser