In the Critics this week

Linda Grant on British Jewish writers, Naomi Alderman's exlusive short story and Jemima Khan intervi

In keeping with this week’s overarching theme for the magazine – Who speaks for British Jews? – our critic at large, Linda Grant, writes about the disparity of critical acclaim afforded American Jewish and British Jewish writers. “The US [Jewish experience] dazzles and obliterates, whereas the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice.”

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst speaks to Tim Parks about his new novel The Server, the story of a woman seeking silence and self-examination on a meditative retreat. “I’m intrigued by the idea of setting a novel in a place where most people are silent,” he says. “Also, I wanted to explore a bit more the whole questions of whether these people are not, in fact, involved in something that is causing an awful lot of pain for them.”

Elsewhere in Books: Sarah Churchwell reviews The Astaires: Fred and Adele; Jane Shilling reviews Pico Iyer’s “counterbiography” The Man within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me; and Naomi Alderman contributes an exclusive piece of short fiction, All the sorrow that came after, which flits between the doomed 13th century romance of a Christian man and a Jewish woman, and contemporary recollection of the author’s own study of Jewish history.

Elsewhere, Jemima Khan interview Eva Schloss, holocaust survivor, author, and stepsister of Anne Frank.  “I didn’t have any inkling that she might write a diary with such meaning,” says Schloss of the 13-year-old Frank. “She was a child, interested in clothes and fashion, in hairstyles, in boyfriends.” Schloss is the author of two books, Eva’s Story and The Promise. Hers is a life of trauma and loss of faith, later of strength and sharing her story. Of her Auschwitz tattoo she says, “I’m glad to have it because schoolchildren always want to see it. I say to them it’s very important for you to remember because when we are not around in 20 or 30 years, a new generation of youngsters will have to keep the story alive and say, yes I’ve seen somebody, I’ve seen their tattoo.”

Also in the Critics: Rachel Lichtenstein recalls a childhood spend in the jewellery world of Hatton Garden, the subject of her new book Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden; Ryan Gilbey reviews Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom; Rachel Cooke finds Sky’s new drama Hit and Miss a bit of a miss; and Will Self discusses his (half) Jewish identity in “Madness of Crowds”.

A photograph of diarist Anne Frank, whose stepsister Eva Schloss survived Auschwitz and later wrote two memoirs.
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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