Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Shalom Auslander, Jonathan Lethem and Richard Holloway.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

In The Independent, Doug Johnstone makes plain that Shalom Auslander has done the unthinkable - made light of surely the darkest era of 20th-century history. Moreover, he has done so in a manner that would humble even the imagination of one of Hollywood's most celebrated names: "We all know that the Holocaust is a great source of comedy, right? OK, maybe not, but in the hands of the brilliant US writer Shalom Auslander, it becomes so ... In the strong tradition of Jewish humour, his writing is incredibly sharp, hugely self-deprecating, riddled with insecurities and hang-ups, and often stupendously funny. At times, Hope: A Tragedy, his first novel, reads a little like the kind of film Woody Allen wouldn't dare make anymore - or never had the balls to make in the first place."

In Johnstone's digest of the story, its absurdities become clear: "He finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. A very old and decrepit Anne Frank. It turns out that she didn't die in Belsen but was smuggled out of Europe by guilt-stricken Germans, and has spent the past 65 years cooped up in various lofts, working on a novel ... Of course, having sold 32 million copies of her diary, she's suffering from writers' block. On top of which, her publishers don't particularly want her alive, as her non-death could affect diary sales." Auslander's sheer originality, though, says Johnstone, more than compensates for the uniquely dubious virtue of meddling with the brute facts of Nazi atrocities, the author's jesting as central to his polemic as his integrity: "Auslander previously wrote a fantastic story collection, Beware of God, and a jaw-dropping memoir entitled Foreskin's Lament, but the form of the novel seems to have focused his anger and humour into truly fearsome weapons."

Naomi Alderman, in the Guardian, sees pathos as well as brilliance in Auslander's characterisations, hypocrisy and purported infertility justifying and impeding their rhetoric and objectives: "Kugel's mother - who's lived in the United States all her life - transfers her anger at the husband who left her ('that son of a bitch') effortlessly to the Nazis ('those sons of bitches'), and excuses all her bad behaviour with the sigh "ever since the war". Kugel's sister and her husband come to stay, constantly having noisy sex in their "dogged, relentless" attempts to conceive." It is, says Alderman, as much through the techniques and form of Auslander's writing as through his descriptions that the moral import of the Holocaust is illustrated: "It's in the soliloquies and reflections that this book really shines. This is a novel about what happens when you realise that the Holocaust is right there. That it never went away and it's hovering, right now, just above your head."

In the Telegraph, Gerald Jacobs finds both an autobiographical element and the classic trappings of cultural humour pervading Auslander's latest offering: "Auslander has continued his iconoclastic rebellion against his upbringing by writing a novel, Hope: A Tragedy. Its narrative voice is that of the witty pessimist - a classic, Jewish comic stance..." Noting that Auslander's prose will deter as many readers as it attracts, he observes the creative miracle through which virtuosity supplants perversity: "Many will find the theme too serious - and the attic-dweller too revered a person - for humour. But the disarming enormity of the laughter that Auslander creates compels attention to the shocking enormity of his subject matter. Humour can be a serious business. Thank God."

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem

Stuart Kelly writes in the Guardian that Jonathan Lethem's book is no haphazard collation of disparate pieces, but a series of essays that, for all their diversity, evince genuine coherence: "This is not, thankfully, one of those ragbag anthologies of non-fiction that fiction writers throw together when their cuttings drawer becomes full. Rather, like Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind or Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, it is a curated selection of essays which thematically add up to more than the sum of its parts." The dual pleasure of this volume, for Kelly, is the enjoyment of reading about varied subjects that reveal something of how Lethem selects his themes: "The pleasure for readers is twofold: on one hand, there is the intrinsic interest in the subjects (as various as Shirley Jackson and nude life models, hitch-hiking in Utah and the top five depressed superheroes). On the other, there's the fact that this is Lethem telling us these things, and how it gives an insight into his own creative practice."

In the Independent, Joy Lo Dico recalls Lethem's 2007 essay on a Bob Dylan album and asks whether it borrows too heavily from canonical western texts: "Consider ...T S Eliot's The Wasteland and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, each works that revel in cultural plunder. Then consider Disney, which has cartoonised the fairy tale Cinderella and J M Barrie's Peter Pan but guards its own intellectual property fiercely." As Lo Dico relates, that essay is included in Lethem's new book. There is a tension, she says, between Lethem's coveting membership of the literary canon and his later estrangement from certain of its key players: "You ...come away with an impression that this volume is about Lethem's anxiety about his own standing in the intellectual pantheon"/"....elbows himself into the proximity of great people, ideas and events, then angles himself away."

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, remarkss Lethem's thoroughgoing adulation of those he admires most: "Like almost everything Mr. Lethem has written, The Ecstasy of Influence is a reflection of, and a pixelated homage to, those whose work he fetishises. If this book has a thesis, it's this: For an artist, influence is everything. 'Wasn't the whole 20th century,' he writes, 'a victory lap of collage, quotation, appropriation, from Picasso to Dada to Pop?'" Garner lists the remarks Lethem makes about his literary contemporaries, and how his frustration at Bret Easton Ellis's seamless graduation from affluence to notoriety was tempered only by his regard for him: "About Mr. Ellis, he writes: 'Bret stood perfectly for what outraged me at that school, and terrified me, too, the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame. It was inconvenient that I liked him.'" For Garner, the book is "fat, hip and garrulous" - not necessarily virtues one would have thought.

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

In the Financial Times, John Lloyd emphasises the moments of doubt and pure bafflement in Richard Holloway's memoir: "Leaving Alexandria, is a long wrestle with a lifetime in which knowing oneself is a matter of peeling away layer after layer of limitation, conservatism, unexamined belief, inherited instinct and incomprehension." Holloway wonders, says Lloyd, whether even the Bede-like capacities of Rowan Williams will be sufficient to mend divisions within the Church: "He believes the Anglican community will unravel, and that there is nothing that the 'saintly scholar', the present archbishop, Rowan Williams, can do about it."

Andrew Motion, in the Guardian, notes that although Holloway's doubts were sometimes a source of frustration, there was also something curiously seductive for him about that involuntary distance from belief: "Filled with self-arguing: he accused himself more or less continually of lacking faith and obedience ... but the sceptical Holloway felt the force of his doubts was irresistible. Although he did some wonderful work as bishop, especially in the cause of women priests, as well as gay priests, by his own admission, he was 'deficient in the carefulness gene'". What Holloway offers, says Motion, are tantalising speculations as to whether religion and God himself are human concoctions: "'The mistake,' he says, 'was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was.' This is simply put, but with the whole weight of a very thoughtful and courageous book behind it, it summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling."

In the Telegraph, David Robson wonders if Holloway perhaps steals his own show: "The human content is sketchy. Holloway marries and has three children, but none of his family are more than ciphers - one would have liked to know them better." That said, Holloway covers the many loyalties of his professional life with notable clarity: "As a curate in the Gorbals, Holloway focuses on the poor. In a wealthy parish in Boston, he is confronted with a growing clamour for women to be ordained as priests. Religious fashions come and go." Believers are entitled to their faith, says Robson, but would do well not to wear it on their sleeve: "Holloway certainly throws down the gauntlet - with a quiet, elegiac passion - to Christians who arm themselves in certainty... They should read this wise, erudite book as a matter of urgency, and with an open mind."

Each of the three books discussed above will be reviewed in forthcoming editions of the New Statesman.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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