Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Geoff Dyer, Jodi Kantor and Roberto Bolaño

Zona by Geoff Dyer

In the Financial Times, Peter Aspden is initially sparing in his praise, noting that, although Dyer's celebration of Andrei Tarkovsky's fim Stalker is patient and straightforward, "it surely deserves more". Yet that expectation, too, is ultimately fulfilled, says Aspden: "[T]here is deft method in Dyer's fluent playfulness," he concedes, with "each scene in the film . . . scrupulously examined". Aspden is likewise taken with Dyer's intellectual integrity - he's an analyst who knows the limits of exegesis: "Describing a magical sequence . . . there is no interpretation offered, no larky digression". Dyer knows the difference between evaluative depth and metaphysical pretension, Aspden admiring him all the more for that intuition.

For Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph Dyer's musings are so enchanting that they excite in him unrestrained nostalgia: "Dyer retraces the cinematography faithfully and beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that I found it difficult not to start falling again for Tarkovsky." Toronyi-Lalic is as charmed by Dyer the Polymath as by Dyer the Interpreter: "no other writer can flex and stretch in digressive prose more congenially than Dyer," he says, adding: "The frame-by-frame minute-taking, then, becomes a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks. An investigation that is honest, irreverent, cranky and frequently hysterical." Even Toronyi-Lalic's criticisms of Dyer are tacit, saluting his brilliant rambling rather than aimless pontification: "For he is just as good gibbering on about nothing as he is in full analytical mode". Whatever the aesthetic density of Dyer's subject, Toronyi-Lalic sees in his work an analysis accessible to the layman as well as the informed reader: "Watch the film before you read the book if you like. But it's not compulsory, which says something of Dyer's style."

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor

Kate Figes in theTelegraph sees Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage, not as some charmed account of a Chicago couple's fulfilment of political ambition, but as a portrait of a husband-wife unit as challenged and tense as any other. "It was Michelle," writes Figes, "who worried most about him standing for the top job because of her cynicism about the true power of politics; and it was Michelle who considered not moving into the White House at all to protect their children." Moreover, popular idealising of the Obamas is likewise given short shrift in Kantor's portrayal, Figes notes: "As the recession hit, the First Couple made classic media mistakes, seemingly living the good life - think of the now infamous Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the White House - or using costly security to go home to Chicago or out on a date." Nor, though, says Figes, is Kantor sparing in the superlatives, especially about Mrs Obama: "Her idealism, exactitude, unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted," she writes, "were qualities on which her husband depended, especially when things were going badly." In charting the lives of two figures about whom so much is hopefully presumed rather than reliably asserted, Figes is impressed with Kantor's research: " [She] talked to some two hundred aides . . . and gives us the fullest picture of this presidency yet."

For Alec MacGillis in New Statesman, it is precisely the shortcomings of Kantor's diagnosis that illuminate the oddities of power: "Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorientating has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington". MacGillis locates in Kantor's analysis the political nuances of the President's role and the sometimes rumbustious quality of the First Lady's life behind the North Portico: "[There are] accounts of strife between Michelle and long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Nonetheless, MacGillis detects a certain contrivance in Kantor's emphasis on Michelle: "[Her] co-starring role, is occasionally strained."

In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell notes that Kantor's gratitude to her editor at the New York Times for "a four-year conversation about ambition, power, gender and public life" itself constitutes the broader theme and agenda of her book: "The Obamas is not quite a domestic biography, and not quite a political one. It's what might be called a biography of domestic politics: it's about the balance of power in a marriage between two exceptional people; the politics of living in the White House; and the Obamas' efforts to shape US domestic policies." Churchwell finds irony in the White House's keenness to downplay the alleged "contentiousness" of Kantor's account, noting that it is "neither particularly controversial, nor particularly dramatic". Cue further praise for Kantor's "judicious and perceptive book," the conclusion of which, she says, far from leaving important business unfinished, is legitimately breathless: "like this presidency . . . unfinished. That's because it is: we are all awaiting the ending, and the suspense is killing.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

For Giles Harvey in theGuardian the fact of Bolaño's mortality is an ideal criterion for our appreciation of his work: "That the anglophone world should experience Bolaño's oeuvre as a posthumous phenomenon is entirely appropriate, for his books are all about the obscure spell cast by the dead over the living." Adulation aside, Harvey notes that "the bottom of a drawer ... would seem to be the ideal place" for this novel. It represents one of the author's first attempts at fiction and "clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." Ultimately, says Harvey, paucity of circumstance and wealth of rhetoric pays off: "From here on in - and we are still not yet halfway through - the book rations incident almost to the point of starvation. As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with - what we are forced to get by on - is atmosphere, pages and pages of the stuff". Nevertheless, "in its second half that the book starts to repay our attention. With passages that anticipate the dark, chaotic splendour of By Night in Chile, Udo's diary becomes a record of moral and psychological disintegration, swarming with toxic hallucinations and poignant non sequiturs."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana writes in the Financial Times that the curiosities of Bolaño's prose are matched by the odd timing of the novel's publication: "It is worth asking why Bolaño, who finished writing The Third Reich in 1989, did not make any efforts to publish it in his lifetime." That aside, Gurría-Quintana revels in Bolano's love of language: "[The book] is rich in startling images and [is] unapologetically literary."

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution