Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Colm Tóibín, John Lanchester and Stefan Collini

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín

In the Financial Times, NS editor Jason Cowley advises caution, lest a brutally honest memoirist be one of our own: "Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses ... those closest to them invariably suffer most". Cowley observes how Tóibín's anthology is semi-autobiographical rather than purely a commentary on the lives of others: "In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence." Cowley acknowledges Tóibín's "understandable interest" in other Irish writers, but wonders if his essay on Beckett carries either sufficient insight or the scholarly appreciation exhibited by others: "But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett's relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America)." Cowley notes certain of the book's continuities, but feels the project could have been more tightly executed: "As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts."

John Preston, in the Telegraph, detects a Freudian inevitability in child-maternal acrimony, citing how many writers commit literary matricide: "It comes as no surprise to learn that writers should often have had troubled relationships with their mothers, but as Colm Tóibín points out, the real interest lies in seeing how they exact their revenge. They do so in a lot of cases by murdering them - not in cold blood, but metaphorically, on the page." Citing Tóibín's perceptive solitary essay on a female author, Preston notes Jane Austen's exclusion of a mother figure in the name of a protagonist's burgeoning independence: "There is a long and surprisingly distinguished history of matricide in fiction - especially in the 19th-century novel. Jane Austen's last three novels all have motherless heroines and they do so, Tóibín believes, for a very good reason. "Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can be better filled by ... the slow growth of a personality." Without mothers, Austen's heroines are free to grow outside of the family's arena of influence - and to become themselves." For Preston, Tóibín is as able a historian as he is a storyteller: "Delicacy is one of Tóibín's great strengths as a novelist, and it's here in abundance, too."

* Colm Tóibín's New Ways to Kill Your Mother will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

Capital by John Lanchester

In the Guardian, Theo Tait sees in London-based epic Capital the aspirations of multiculturalism and the cruder reality of financial meltdown: "Roger Yount, an investment banker; Zbiegniew, a Polish builder; Matya, a Hungarian nanny; Freddy Kano, a young Senegalese professional footballer; the Kamals, a British Pakistani family who run the corner shop; Quentina, a Zimbabwean traffic warden; and Petunia, an elderly working-class woman - the last of the aborigines. The story begins just before Roger's bonus is revealed to him in December 2007; it ends in November 2008, with the world economy grinding to a halt." Whilst pointing out that sharp cultural insight is sometimes lacking in a text as sweeping and broad as Capital, Tait acknowldges Lanchester's spirited efforts to achieve a sharper focus: "a decent stab at describing what it must be like to run a corner shop, or to be detained under terrorism laws, or to leave a shack in Senegal to play alongside world-famous footballers". Tait, with cautious praise, notes that Lanchester's slightly flat conclusion is no anti-climax: "All in all, Capital is a diverting read. It holds your attention all the way to its strangely inconsequential ending, and will probably sell well".

For Keith Miller, in the Telegraph, Lanchester heeds William James's advice that we must intuit what to leave out: "Capital attempts an allegorical portrait of the Smoke during those turbulent times. Squeezing a bafflingly diverse city of more than seven million inhabitants into even quite a thick book without letting a good portion of the diversity slide is a tall order: to pluck a few examples out of the air, there are no Brazilians, intellectuals, charity muggers, public-sector employees, gangsters, media workers or entertainers in these pages. But the book is a more or less unimpeachably plausible portrait of one (fictional) street in Clapham, a popular south London 'village' where a spacious but fairly hideous Victorian house can command a price approaching a hundred times the UK's median annual income." To the purported truth that deft characterisations are key to a sound narrative, Lanchester, says Miller, was long ago converted: "Gently and slowly, Lanchester tightens the screws, alternating hope and despair, flitting between protagonists neatly and dexterously. New characters are introduced: a successful, terrible street artist (all street artists are terrible, though not all, significantly, are successful) called Smitty, the newsagent's brothers Usman and the hapless jihadi-turned-web designer Shahid." Though the scope of Lanchester's ambition here is daunting, Miller identifies an attractively costive, nuanced style: "There is a reticence, an austerity - to use a modish term - about the book that I very much liked."

* John Lanchester's Capital will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini

In the New Statesman, Alan Ryan sees two disciplines fusing in Stefan Collini's timely primer on the current state of higher education: "It is really two books, the second half more polemical and the first half an essay in cultural criticism", merging Collini's contribution to an ongoing dialogue with a series of pieces he has published in different journals. Not, says Ryan, that the two styles don't fit together: "The two halves of the book hang together because Collini has a very definite vision of what universities can contribute to the welfare of societies that shelter them and pay for them, and an equally definite vision of the ways in which the higher education policies of successive UK governments since 1980 have made it hard for them to do it." Whilst echoing Collini's advocacy of learning for its own sake, Ryan worries the liberal ideal will be entirely subservient to corporate dogma: "Not that I imagine that the new breed of CEO vice-chancellor, let alone a government that parks universities under the umbrella of "business, innovation and science", will understand the point of even take any notice of it."

Sir Howard Newby, in the Independent, wonders whether this volume's inclusion of Collini's articles from the London Review of Books and elsewhere, supposedly to make them more widely accessible, is entirely valid: "Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on." Yet, these fragments are not without their value, observes Newby: "It does, though, focus on some easy targets - the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards." Ultimately, then, Newby, like Collini, condemns the bureaucracy to which higher education is increasingly vulnerable, and says that, if nothing else, the book does what it says on the tin: "Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for."

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