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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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