Reviews Round-Up

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

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.

Lyndon Johnson with his cabinet in 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)
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The Met Gala 2016: the dull, the terrifying and the brilliantly odd

The Met Ball is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it.

For those unfamiliar with the Met Gala, it’s basically a cross between a glossy red carpet affair and a fancy dress party: the themed prom of your dreams. Hosted by Vogue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is, to paraphrase Mean Girls, the one night a year when celebs can dress like total freaks and no one can say anything about it. Each year there is a theme to match the The Costume Institute’s spring exhibition – the only rules are stick with it, be bizarre, outlandish and remember that there’s no such thing as over the top.

This year’s theme was Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology. A man-meets-machine theme surely offers a world of endless possibilities: suits that move by themselves! Colour-changing gowns! Holographic ties! Levitating shoes! Floppy disk trains!

Or everybody could just come in silver, I guess.

The cardinal offence of the Met Ball is to be boring, and this year, almost nobody was free from sin. As Miranda Priestly would say: “Metallics for a technology theme? Groundbreaking.” Cindy Crawford, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian (both in Balmain, like always), Rita Ora and Taylor Momsen (wait, I mean Swift) all need to take along hard look at themselves.

The only thing worse than “I’ll just shove something shiny on” is “Mmmmm guess I’ll ignore the theme altogether and make sure I look nice”. Flagrant disobedience never looked so miserably bland. In this category: Amber Heard, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Uma Thurman, everyone in Topshop, and literally ALL THE MEN. I mean, Tom Hiddleston could be any human male at a posh event from 1858-now.

In contrast, plus points for arbitrary weirdness go to Sarah Jessica Parker for coming as some sort of virginial pirate, Lorde for her directional arm cast, Zayn for his directional arm plates, Katy Perry for her noble ensemble reminding us all of the importance of tech security (keep it under lock and key, folks!), Lady Gaga for coming as a sexy microchip, and will.i.am for… whatever that is.

The best theme interpretations in my mind go to Allison Williams for her actually beautiful 3D-printed gown, Emma Watson for her outfit made entirely out of recycled bottles, Claire Danes for coming as a Disney light-up princess doll, FKA Twigs for dressing as a dystopian leader from the future, and Orlando Bloom for coming in a boring normal suit and just pinning an actual tamagotchi on his lapel. Baller move.

The  best outfits of all were even weirder. Beyoncé couldn’t be outdone in this dress, seemingly made out of the skin of her husband’s mistress: as she warned us she would do on Lemonade, with the lyric “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine.” Of course this peach PVC number is also studded with pearls reportedly worth around $8,000 each.

Solange shone like the sun in this bright yellow structural creature (paired with some slick yellow leggings that nod to her sister’s outfit) proving yet again that she is the only woman on earth who can pull off looking like a cubist painting.

Kanye was possibly the only person to have ever worn ripped jeans to a fashion event hosted by Anna Wintour and the Met, studding a jean jacket to oblivion, and wearing pale blue contacts to boot - he and FKA Twigs could lead the dystopian future together. When asked about his icy eyes, Kanye simply replied, “Vibes.”

But my personal favourite of the night has to be Lupita Nyong’o, who, radiant as ever, wins points for being on theme in her afrofuturistic look and the technology behind her outfit (her dress is sustainably made by Calvin Klein for The Green Carpet Challenge). She looks absolutely stunning, and is as far from boring as it’s possible to be with two-foot-tall hair. Perfection.

All photos via Getty.

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