Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Alain de Botton, Joseph Roth and Nathan Englander.

Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

In the current New Statesman, John Gray acknowledges Alain de Botton's view that religion and atheism could enjoy a more positive dialogue, but says he ought to paint religion more as a broad, overarching institution than as a hinge for individual belief: "Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don't believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous."

Terry Eagleton, in the Guardian, bemoans de Botton's liberal aesthetic, conceding its benignity but questioning its social utility: "Like Comte, De Botton believes in the need for a host of 'consoling, subtle or just charming rituals' to restore a sense of community in a fractured society. He even envisages a new kind of restaurant in which strangers would be forced to sit together and open up their hearts to one another. There would be a Book of Agape on hand, which would instruct diners to speak to each other for prescribed lengths of time on prescribed topics. Quite how this will prevent looting and rioting is not entirely clear."

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited by Michael Hofmann

In the Telegraph, Julian Evans wonders if Roth the neurotic may emerge from these letters more vividly than Roth the literary figure. But he acknowledges that, for Roth, only artistry gave him a coherent view of reality: "Some readers might be disappointed that Roth writes so much about his personal problems, so little about his books or the process of writing. But what is on offer here is not a suave biography: it is instead an all-inclusive picture of what it was like to be a writer who, as he said, only understood the world when he was writing - and wrote magically beautiful books when he did. Michael Hofmann's translation is superb."

David Herman, in the Jewish Chronicle, says it is precisely the savagery of Hitler's rise to power and its aftermath that affords this volume its stark resonance: "Roth died of alcoholism in 1940, his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis in 1940 and [his friend] Zweig committed suicide in 1942. But his papers were rescued in Paris and later brought to New York. Now, brilliantly put together, full of illuminating editorial material, Joseph Roth's letters give us great insight into one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century and to the terrible times he lived through".

* Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

In the latest New Statesman, Sophie Elmhirst is struck by Englander's capacity for deft, subtle changes of pace and theme: "He switches voice with uncanny agility, swerving from the casual, easy first-person of 'Anne Frank to 'Sister Hills', a dark, historical fable of Israeli settler history told through the lives of two women. The tonal contrast is not mere ventriloquism: Englander has the confidence and versatility to embody multiple voices, to create a complete and complex world within a story, each one distinct from the last."

Anthony Cummins, in the Telegraph, admires Englander's employment of the short story form solely on its generic terms, rather than as a nefarious through route to realising a perennial literary objective: "...short stories in their own right...gems worth polishing to perfection, rather than mere stepping stones to the traditional big game of the Great American Novel ."

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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