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".

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times