In the Critics this week

Alwyn W Turner on Daleks, Fiona Sampson on British poetry and poems by John Burnside and Samuel Beckett.

“Running through every fascist movement is a thread of comic absurdity, providing a counter-point to the violence and hatred that predominate,” writes David Shariatmadari in his review of Daniel Pick’s The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts. “Hess’s treatment by British doctors after an extraordinary solo flight from Germany in 1941 forms the kernel of Daniel Pick’s study of attempts to apply psychoanalytic theory to the phenomenon of Nazism.” “Here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria” who offered “the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement.” Yet these attempts to “analyse the German people as a whole did little further the Allies’ understanding of their enemy and less to affect the course of conflict. They contributed far more to intellectual debates about the limits of psychoanalysis and its proper applications.” “The question of whether psychoanalysis at a distance can ever be meaningful is a fascinating one” and Shariatmadari finds “Pick’s description of this reckoning the most interesting part of the book after the sections on Hess.” He concludes that this is “a meticulous work of history and an impressive achievement”, though it’s “hard not to feel disappointment that, for the layperson at least, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind makes for a rather desiccated read.”

The comic absurdity of fascism can also be detected in Doctor Who baddies the Daleks. In his "Critic at large" essay, Alwyn W Turner traces the roots of the Daleks to the Cardiff air raids of 1941m during which a young Terry Nation spent many nights “sheltering from the Luffwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories.” Twenty-three years later he was commissioned to write a script for the nascent Doctor Who. “Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears,” Turner writes, and to create in the Daleks “a science-fiction incarnation of the Nazis”. By 1964 “Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania”, and “as Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.” By Doctor Who’s revival in 2005,  “the Daleks fed a new nostalgia”; “in 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the swinging Sixties”. Stripped of the “doom-laden associations” of the Nazis and neutron bombs, the “Daleks have fallen out of favour . . . seen by some as limited and simplistic . . .  they’re also a bit embarrassing.” Yet “still they can’t be written out of Dr Who, because children continue to fall for them.”

The curious absence of the Nazis also figure in the life of Miriam Gross, whose memoir, An Almost English Life, John Sutherland finds to be a “short book” that “has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman.” As a child, Gross's family “barely escaped the clutches of Hitler”. Yet “her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a ‘German’” and “was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened.” She grew up anglicised by her education at Dartington, “a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom” and graduated “a sophisticated adolescent, adept at French kissing (and French)” and “formidably well read”. After studying at Oxford she “drifted into the London literary world”, which “was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent”. Sutherland finds “Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer.” “These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is.”

The examination of life stories is continued in Daniel Swift's review of D T Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which he finds to be “a model biography, traditionally conceived.” “Wallace is almost as entertaining and moving to read about as he is to read. Yet it is precisely because this biography is so good at what it narrowly does that it is also an oddly misguided project, missing the point of the writer it so diligently tracks.” “Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life. He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life.” Now that Wallace is dead, “what remains – and what remains most moving – is the spectacle of care. 'It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies,' he told an interviewer, 'in be[ing] willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow.'" “In the end, he arranged the pages of his final novel into neat piles in his office, so that his wife would find them and so that others might be able to make sense of them, and he hanged himself.”

The suicide of another influential literary figure, in this case Slyvia Plath, is subject of Last Letter by Ted Hughes which the New Statesman published “to immense international interest” in 2010. In her introduction to our poetry special, Sophie Elmhirst shows how, since its earliest days, the New Statesman has been a staunch supporter of poetry, leading Edward Hyams, editor of a 1963 anthology of writing in the NS, to claim that its pages has been the home to “the early work of almost every poet to make a name since 1913”.

In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson explains how her book Beyond the Lyric was driven by her dismay that “even arts journalists scarcely seemed aware that today’s British poetry is world-class.” “Poetry is flowering and expanding . . . yet it receives strangely little attention.” “So what is it that comes between today’s British poetry and its readers? One reason our verse is such a well-kept secret is that we lack robust, engaged critical practise.” So Sampson wrote Beyond the Lyric, in which she “set out to map the main poem-making strategies available to poets today. I found 13 fundamental visions of what a poem is and how it works. These range from using strict metre as a poetic motor to building verse on myth, from dandified re-workings of realism to postmodernity’s exploded lyricism.” “This way of mapping suggests how wide-ranging British poetry is.”

Sampson's piece is followed by poems by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachael Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Laugh if you like, but in 1963 Daleks channelled subconscious fears as SF incarnations of the Nazis (Image: Getty)
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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide