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)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era