Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Madeline Miller, David Lammy and Lévy and Houellebecq.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

In the Telegraph, Stuart Evers writes that "in re-imagining Homer's Iliad, Madeline Miller treads the fine line between the invention of a new work and the desecration of the original with a sure foot, with only occasional missteps along the way." Miller depicts Achilles and his friend Patroclus as lovers. Evers comments: "Sometimes The Song of Achilles reads as part coming-of-age story, part coming-out story and part Hollywood blockbuster - Brokeback Mountain with centaurs and swords."

In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins writes that "although she is a respectful and clearly loving reader of Homer... where I lose her is when, instead of sticking to prequel, she forges on through the parts of the Trojan war described in the Iliad. Alas, the best of writers will stumble in comparison to the master."

According to Tom Holland in the New Statesman, the novel "demonstrates that it is not always necessary to play tricks with Homer, to recalibrate or reconfigure his epics, to bring him alive for a modern readership." Holland writes: "By fixing on Patroclus, lover of Achilles, Miller is able to bring to her narrative the same golden aura of youth, homoeroticism and aristocratic violence that made Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault's fictionalisation of the early years of Alexander the Great, such a crowd-pleaser."

Viv Groskop in the Independent calls the novel "original, clever and in a class of its own." She writes: "This novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work... It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres."

Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Tim Adams in the Guardian writes that in this exchange of letters between novelist Michel Houellebecq and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, they dwell "on the trait that seemed to have most united them in the public mind: 'We are,' as Houellebecq acknowledges in his opening letter, 'both rather contemptible individuals.'" Adams observes that "in an effort to explain the masochism of their media identities, they swap confession and scraps of autobiography [and] dwell in detail on the public scrutiny of their parentage".

In the New Statesman, George Walden opines: "Bernard-Henri Lévy and Houellebecq are highly distinct writers and personalities and the idea of an exchange of letters between them is brilliant... Much of the fun of these letters stems from their almost satirically contrasting characters: Lévy, the well-born playboy of the western mind and pocket Apollo, versus Houellebecq, the drunken, ill-favoured, lower-middle-class grouch." Walden writes: "However rich in irritations, this is a book that you don't stop reading... There is fascinating stuff on their childhoods... but it's the free-form rooting around by two un-stereotyped minds that is compelling."

Tim Adams concludes: "What keeps you reading, beyond the confessional drama, is the sheer one-upmanship in the range of reference and playfulness of expression."

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes: "Both men delight in being provocative, on the page and off, yet feign shock that anyone has ever been provoked... Theirs is a lonesome, literate, borderline-funny duet."

Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots by David Lammy

In the Guardian, Stafford Scott writes that Lammy "has not grasped the scale of the community's mistrust of the police and the judicial system in his analysis of the August riots." Although he "captures well the frustrations of those who became victims during the riots - those whose homes were burnt to the ground and whose businesses went up in flames... There is little sense that he has managed to grasp the scale of disaffection felt by those who participated in the riots."

Mick Brown in the Telegraph praises Out of the Ashes, calling it "an astonishingly thorough and finely nuanced analysis" of the riots. Brown writes that Lammy's book is "instructive and impassioned" and highlights that "government should rebuild a sense of reciprocity between a working class with a stake in capitalism and a middle class with a renewed faith in the welfare state."

According to David Goodhart in the Financial Times: "Instant books by politicians seldom provide intellectual nourishment. David Lammy's Out of the Ashes is a welcome exception." Goodhart calls the book "the first proper manifesto for the relatively new Blue Labour current within Lammy's party" and notes the "author's skill at storytelling". He concludes: "To date Blue Labour has been an intellectual curiosity without much of a political base, indeed with many enemies on the left. Lammy's book for the first time makes it sound like a credible political idea."

In the New Statesman, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford write that the book "is about more than the English riots, it's about the future of Labour in the country." They comment: "Labour faces the biggest crisis in its history and yet it has not yet begun asking itself these questions. Lammy's book offers a start." Lammy "offers thoughtful arguments about immigration, work, masculinity and crime and punishment. One doesn't have to agree with all his points of view to know that he is in the right place to ask the question of his fellow countrymen and women."

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How wine crosses national boundaries

With a glass of wine, and a bit of imagination, wine can take us anywhere.

Wine offers many pleasures, one of which is effortless movement. You can visit places that make the wines you love, but you can also sip yourself to where these grapes once grew, or use a mind-expanding mouthful to conjure somewhere unrelated but more appropriate to your mood. Chablis, say, need not transport you to damp and landlocked Burgundy, even if the vines flourish there, not when those stony white wines suit sun, sea and shellfish so well.

Still, I’d never been to Istria – a triangle of land across the Adriatic from the upper calf of Italy’s boot – either in vino or in veritas, until I tried a selection of wines from Pacta Connect, a Brighton-based, wine-importing couple obsessed with Central and Eastern Europe. 

The tapas restaurant Poco on Broadway Market in east London has fiercely ecological credentials – it uses lots of locally sourced and sustainably grown food and the space is a former bike shop – but this fierceness doesn’t extend to entirely virtuous wine-buying, thank goodness. I’m all for saving the planet: waggle the eco-spear too hard, however, and I’ll be forced to drink nothing but English wine. Trying each other’s wines, like learning each other’s customs, is vital to understanding: there’s no point improving the atmosphere if we all just sit around inhaling our own CO2 at home.

The world is full of wine and it is our duty to drink variously in the name of peace and co-operation – which are not gifts that have frequently been bestowed on Istria. I have sought enlightenment from Anna, the Culinary Anthropologist. A cookery teacher and part-time Istrian, she has a house on the peninsula and a PhD in progress on its gastronomy. So now, I know that Istria is a peninsula, even if its borders are debated – a result of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy all wanting a piece of its fertile red soil and Mediterranean climate.

From ancient Romans to independence-seeking Croatians in the early 1990s, all sorts of people have churned up the vineyards, which hasn’t stopped the Istrians making wine; political troubles may even have added to the impetus. A strawberry-ish, slightly sparkling Slovenian rosé got on splendidly with plump Greek olives and English bean hummus, topped with pickled tarragon and thyme-like za’atar herbs from the Syrian-Lebanese mountains. A perfumed white called Sivi Pinot by the same winemaker, Miha Batič, from Slovenian Istria’s Vipava Valley, was excellent with kale in lemon juice: an unlikely meeting of the Adriatic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sivi Pinot is another name for Pinot Grigio, which seems fair enough: as long as we can raise our glasses and agree to differ, names should be no problem.

But sometimes we can’t. The other Slovenian winemaker on the menu, Uroš Klabjan, lives three kilometres from the Italian city of Trieste, where his Malvazija Istarska would be called Malvasia Istriana. Either way, it is fresh and slightly apricot-like, and goes dangerously well with nothing at all: I see why this is Istria’s most popular white grape. His Refošk, an intense red, is also good but there is a complicated argument over when Refošk should be called Teran. Like battles over parts of the Balkans, these wrangles seem incomprehensible to many of us, but it’s sobering to think that wine can reflect the less pleasant aspects of cross-cultural contact. Intolerance and jingoism don’t taste any better than they sound.

We finish with Gerzinić’s Yellow Muskat and rhubarb parfait: Croatian dessert wine from an ancient grape found around the world, with an English plant transformed by a French name. There’s nothing sweeter than international co-operation. Except, perhaps, armchair travel.

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 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain