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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism