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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

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