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Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Victor Serge, Harry Mount and Robert Caro.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson with his cabinet in 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge

Victor Serge stood out amongst the revolutionaries in the early years of the Soviet Union because of his rejection of the violent methods employed by its leaders. He wrote his memoirs in 1942 and died in 1947. This first full edition of the book in English was a long time coming, but has been welcomed with enthusiasm. John Gray, writing in the New Statesman this week, describes Serge’s tale as an “extraordinary story”, carefully depicting the changing nature of politics in the USSR. Whilst not centering the book on his own story, “the strand that links everything together is Serge himself - a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history”.

Nicholas Lezard, writing in the Guardian, agreed. He wrote of Serge: “This is a man of great courage, then, and utter decency. If there is a note in those words which reminds one of Orwell, bear in mind that Orwell didn't have to labour under the constant fear of the state murdering him, or his wife, or his child.” As well as a huge personal respect for the author, Lezard also has huge amounts of respect for the book itself as “essential, above all, as a denouncement of oppression, an eye-witness account, written in heat and at speed, but with the talent of the true writer, of what it was like to be at the heart of the machine – and to stand up to it”. Gray identified weaknesses in Serge’s understanding, where he was “consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop”, and unable to accept that “Mass terror was a condition of [the Soviet Union’s]survival”. Taking that into account, Lorna Scott Fox in the London Review of Books still described Memoirs of a Revolutionary as a “classic” account, showing a “heroism” in his stance. In Lezard’s words, “anyone who cares about justice and freedom of speech should have a copy”.

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount

Harry Mount took on a formidable task in attempting to explain how exactly English society has come to be. Looking at the impact of geographical location, foliage and even soil type, he takes the reader through a comprehensive attempt to understand why exactly England looks as it does and the English act as they do. Alexandra Harris, writing in the Guardian, argues that even if Mount doesn't completely succeed in that task, his book does at least make the reader think: “If more people look around them in England this summer and notice what the kerbstones and window-frames are made of, then that can be no bad thing.” However, the cost of this new light on the mundane has been the crippling focus on fact and figures. Peter Wilby, writing for the New Statesman, argued that the tone is “discursive, understated and oddly flat; at times, as the author details soils and the genesis of place names, one has the sense of reading a GCSE textbook.” Harris agrees, lamenting Mount’s narrowly empirical focus on such an otherwise interesting subject: “why reduce it all to a relentless list of facts and figures?”

Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, offers Mount little solace. Aslet welcomes Mount's defence of England’s “particularity”, which, he claims, has been eroded in recent years. It’s a conservative slant which Wilby claims may well be one of the most interesting parts of the book, leaving the reader “wiser and better informed on a range of other topics, not least the mood of One Nation Tories.” The cost of focus on this particularity is a recurrent theme: it falls into stereotypes, claims Aslet, an issue which Harris agues adds to the blandness of the book.

In conclusion, Harris asked: “Does all this get us any closer to understanding Englishness? Not really, though that's a lot to ask”. Wilby wrote:“I wasn’t sure that, beyond banalities about the weather, I was much clearer about how England made the English – How the English Made England might have been just as good a title”.

 

The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume IV: the Passage of Power by Robert A Caro.

Almost 40 years ago, when Robert Caro agreed to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson, it was expected that the series would be made up of three books covering all of Johnson’s time in office. Two and a half million words later, this fourth volume is expected to be the penultimate. It has become a series which, Tom Carson argues in GQ, has a Harry Potter-like following amongst an audience of “people deformed by Washingtonitis”.

It is a following which Lord Andrew Adonis, writing in the New Statesman this week, believes was hard-won. This most recent volume contains “one central insight: that Johnson’s legacy, good and bad, was determined by both moves and decisions made within a matter of days of John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.” Caro’s latest volume moves beyond a simple biography to an analysis of not just Johnson’s time in office but the nature of office. Adonis argued that “in telling the tale [of Johnson], Caro not only re-creates one of the giants of modern politics, he tells a giant tale about power and about life itself”. Thispraise is echoed by the Economist, identifying not only Caro’s ability to look at the structure of politics but also the judgments made by individuals: “Mr Caro’s strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations”. Caro manages to guide the reader through Johnson’s leadership skills, his civil rights successes and the reasons for his poorer choices.

The final volume of this series will deal with Johnson’s eventual downfall, Vietnam and the emergence of what the Economist refers to as the President’s “darker side”. It argues  that “Mr Caro’s many fans eagerly await” the final volume. This series may have prompted a Harry Potter-style frenzy, but this has been justified on all counts.