Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Chad Harbach, Edmund White and Roger Scruton.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

In the Guardian, Theo Tait praises a book that took Chad Harbach ten years to write. "It's easy to see why The Art of Fielding has done so well: it is charming, warm-hearted, addictive, and very hard to dislike... [It] feels like a novel from another, more innocent age. It revels in themes that have been unfashionable in literary fiction for generations - team spirit, male friendship, making the best of one's talents. In its optimism and lack of cynicism, in its celebration of the wide open spaces of the Midwest and its confidence in the deep inner meaning of baseball, it is a big American novel of the old school."

The New York Times named The Art of Fielding one of the 10 best of 2011. Michiko Kakutani writes: "It is not only a wonderful baseball novel... but it's also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer." In addition to making the baseball allegory fresh, Harbach also "has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds." The novel "possesses all the pleasures that an aficionado cherishes in a great, classic game: odd and strangely satisfying symmetries, unforeseen swerves of fortune, and intimations of the delicate balance between individual will and destiny that play out on the field."

Elena Seymenliyska in the Telegraph also has praise for Harbach's novel, calling it "deliciously old-fashioned: it simply gets on with the business of creating vivid, layered characters and telling a good, engrossing story."

In this week's New Statesman Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the American author about his debut novel. Harbach says two of the principal influences on him when he was writing it were Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: "They are two of the only novelists who have really thought about the relation of sport to larger society" DeLillo's End Zone and Wallace's Infinite Jest were, he says, "models" for The Art of Fielding.

Jack Holmes and his Friend by Edmund White

In the Financial Times, Simon Schama writes that the novel, which explores gay-straight friendship, "doesn't really go anywhere. It won't change your life or introduce you to a higher state of consciousness but while you're in the thick of it, it couldn't be more fun."

David Annand in theTelegraph writes that Jack Holmes and his Friend falls short of White's seminal 1981 novel A Boy's Own Story. "Unfortunately, for admirers of White's style, it is the sentences that are diminished: they haven't the usual verve or ambition, and many are surprisingly literal, lacking the rich textures of his best work. Though it lacks the instant, indulgent sensuousness of A Boy's Own Story, this new novel achieves a greater clarity and a deeper empathy, and for these grown up virtues it should be justly celebrated."

In the Observer, Henry Hitchings takes a similar view, concluding: "White writes supple (albeit occasionally loose-limbed) prose about an age when gay love was often treated with either contempt or flippancy. The result is a book that is engaging and erotic, yet lacks the exuberance and sensuality of his best work - and a sense of urgency."

Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet by Roger Scruton

In the New Statesman, Richard Mabey argues: "Green Philosophy is a book about mindset, not praxis. In one sense, it is an attempt to give a green gloss to the Conservatives' 'big society.'" Mabey points out that the author "scarcely mentions those poor, ravaged regions of the planet - South America, Africa, south-east Asia - where the worst environmental crises are brewing" and notes that "his dogged ideological insistence on interpreting environmental history as a series of stand-offs between state bureaucracy and the free market results in a catalogue of errors."

Caroline Lucas in the Independent observes: "With the Tory leadership distancing itself from the environmental agenda it had courted so keenly before the last election, and the Coalition government dangerously divided over green policies, philosopher Roger Scruton's thoughtful study on environmentalism in the conservative tradition arrives at a timely moment." Lucas writes that although the book "is beautifully written and ambitious in its scope, it is also curiously old-fashioned, unashamedly tribal and deeply contradictory. Scruton himself admits that his approach is 'more philosophical than practical' - and many of his lines of inquiry simply take the reader around in circles."

In the Telegraph, Louise Gray writes: "Disappointingly, Scruton fails to take on the more strident sceptics such as Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, Nigel Lawson et al who question the science and who, in the eyes of many, have held back the Right from being taken seriously on this issue." Lucas criticises Scruton's "attacks on the 'loony Left,'" writing that "at times Scruton sounds more unhinged than the most ridiculous Daily Mail headlines. Does he really believe that children will no longer be allowed to play on swings because of 'elf and safety' gone mad? And if he thinks Greens are all sandal-wearing killjoys, well, he just needs to get out more."

The New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire recently sat down with Roger Scruton to discuss Green Philosophy and conservative environmentalism. Read the full interview here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

0800 7318496