Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Mario Vargas Llosa, Rachel Lichtenstein and the letters of T S Eliot.

The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Vargas Llosa’s novel about Roger Casement, the Irish Protestant rebel who exposed abuses in the Congo and Peru before being hanged for treason by the British, is both “sympathetic” to the man as an “almost forgotten campaigner for human rights,” writes Maurice Walsh in this week’s New Statesman, and “drawn to the drama of his double life.” The “most vivid scenes in the book are set in the Congo or the Amazon”; Llosa “skilfully evokes the torpor of nights under a starry sky, conversations in semi-darkness… raucous street life in the background and the consolations of oil lamps, a tin roof and a glass of brandy.” The novel “captures well” Casement’s “secret life” (he was a homosexual) and the “anguish and fear that went with it.” But the rest “rarely matches the animation of these scenes,” writes Walsh. Flashback scenes are “weighed down by a punctilious, dutiful chronology,” so that “Casement’s voice and the tension between his aspirations and political reality disappear.”

The “interesting take on the diaries is that they are indeed part fictional, but that the fabrication was by Casement himself,” writes Giles Foden in the Guardian; “he documented fantasy encounters he had not dared to actualise.” Like Walsh, Foden notes the “fair number of undramatised biographical passages, which make for bumpy reading.” A “tighter temporal focus might have made for a novel that more easily assimilates such a bulk of material,” he writes; “Parts struggle to contain a proliferation of expository detail and qualifying reference.” But “this epic and often poetic novel delivers powerfully, giving a more rounded and authentic sense of one person's inner life and complexities than many biographies.”

 

The Letters of T S Eliot: Vol III, 1926-1927 edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden

One must “read around the margins of the letters and often in the footnotes” of this volume for the most “interesting” story, writes Adam Kirsch in this week’s New Statesman. We witness Eliot’s evolution from “iconoclastic American poet” to “devout English man of letters”, but it is in “loving and unguarded moments” such as a letter to his ill mother that Eliot’s “spiritual evolution” comes through, as the Christianity that marks the “austere spirit” of these years becomes a source of consolation to the poet. Eliot published little poetry in the period covered, Kirsch notes, devoting much of his time to his position as editor of the Criterion. “Readers who come to the letters for insights into Eliot the man or poet will surely be frustrated to find that about three-quarters of them are devoted to routine editorial business,” he writes.

In the Sunday Times John Carey notes how Eliot’s “new-found Christian faith unblocked his creativity, producing one of his best-loved poems, Journey of the Magi.” But we see it “narrow him as a critic,” says Carey. Eliot is “testy” with “free-thinkers of every stripe,” and “these glimpses of a less buttoned-up Eliot come like splashes of colour amid the general austerity of the letters.” There are “intimate revelations,” such as when Eliot “tells the critic John Hayward that he feels the desire for children acutely, but is resigned to being childless.” Carey agrees with Kirsch that “much of this material comes not in the letters, but in the superbly capacious and informative notes.” The volume is “a wonderfully illuminating chapter of biography rather than a collection of letters,” he says; “The editing is a marvel from start to finish and Eliot, even at his most critical, would surely have applauded it.”

 

Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden by Rachel Lichtenstein

Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery and diamond quarter, is “a secret, private world that operates according to a set of unspoken internal laws,” writes Rachel Lichtenstein, author of Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden. Writing in the New Statesman, Lichtenstein, whose father and relatives all worked in the quarter, recalls the “intriguing Jewish characters” in the place through which “every pearl that ended up in a British jewellery shop, every precious stone, every diamond, rough or cut” would pass. Now the majority is “either cast or imported,” she writes; “a few master craftsmen remain but when they die, their knowledge will be lost.” Lichtenstein recalls Mitzy, a denizen of the quarter, who would come dressed as a tramp into her parents’ shop telling stories of his time as a flight engineer in World War Two. Lichtenstein bumped into him again in 2004: “He began to talk about Hatton Garden,” she writes; “He told me that the area floats above a labyrinthine network of subterranean spaces… He told me stories about chain gangs marching from Hatton Garden to an underground river near Fleet Street… “Did you know,” he said, grabbing my arm tightly, “that Hatton Garden was once the site of a medieval palace, surrounded by vast gardens, with fountains, vineyards and orchards?””

As a writer, Lichtenstein is “something of a rough diamond,” says Jonathan Sale in the Telegraph; “her editors ought to have chipped away at the often lacklustre material on the periphery of her tape-recorded encounters with interviewees.” Once her “experts and veterans got into their stride,” however, “they sparkled as they demonstrated how the wealth of the area lay in its people as well as its products.”

Writing in the Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu agrees: Lichtenstein relishes “chronicling the craftsmanship of generations of polishers, setters and cutters,” he writes, and “a poetry of production emerges from the long inventories of tools and equipment they wielded.” The “longer Diamond Street goes on,” he suggests, “the greater the tension between Lichtenstein's preferred mode of writing – polite, research recounted in the tone of extended journal entry – and more experimental approaches that include getting American artist Mary Flanagan to use Google Street View.” At one point Lichtenstein realises she has “only just begun to scratch the surface” of her subject. But “when it comes to writing about London, or any place really,” writes Sandhu, that is perhaps “all one can hope for.”

Jewellers examine precious stones in London's Hatton Garden, 1929 (Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.