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 ."

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit