In the critics this week

A brief look at the Spring Books Special

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is a Spring Books special that sees our critic at large, Sarah Churchwell looking back at the “annus mirabilis” that was 1922. Noting the significance of literary works (T S Eliot’s, The Waste Land), inventions (sound for film) and discoveries (the tomb of King Tutenkhamen) that emerged during that time she states, “So much of what would come after is suggested embryonically in a catalogue of that remarkable year.”

Australian heritage is the focus of the Spring Books interview, when Nina Caplan talks to the prolific Peter Carey. His new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, briefly touches on their mutual heritage, and this is a revealing portrait of a writer who consistently tries to “deflect my attention from his roots”.

John Gray reviews The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy, in which Ferdinand Mount discusses “why Britain tolerates the rule of the super-rich”. Drawing analogies with Communism, Mount promotes “an inspiring message that politicians of all parties would do well to study and digest.” However, in a country that is “less radically flawed”, Gray raises the question: “Do politicians and the public really want to alter Britain’s course?”

Talking about his new novel, and “straightforward farce”, Skios, Michael Frayn is interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire about the challenges surrounding farce in fiction. Frayn points to the constraints of a staged production compared with the freedom of the novel surmising that, “In a novel, it’s harder because it’s easier.”

In the film review, Ryan Gilbey discusses Whit Stillman’s “idiosynchratic”, Damsels in Distress, which follows “a trio of female undergraduates who have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of their fellow students”. Although Stillman has “a fair stab at rescuing quirkiness”, Gilbey is concerned that “some of the scenes seem to be a re-write or two away from achieving their potential”. Then, in an enlightening interview, Stillman reflects on the 14 year gap between his last two films: “I failed as a film entrepreneur,” he tells Jonathan Derbyshire.

Rachel Cooke is gripped by a documentary on Channel 4 recalling the liquid bomb plot of 2006, when a group of British Muslims attempted to bring down seven planes over the Atlantic. “The gravity of the plot” and “the expansive ignorance” of the terror cell meant Cooke “could hardly breathe”.

Elsewhere in the critics: Helen Lewis on The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong; Leo Robson reviews Scenes From Early Life; Lindsey Hilsum’s review of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution; Ziauddin Sardar on In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World; Veron Bogdanor on Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-79. Plus: Will Self’s, Madness of Crowds.

Whit Stillman Photo: Getty Images
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred