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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear