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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit