Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Will Self, Nicholson Baker and Javier Marias.

There was an undeniably modernist edge to many of the books covered in the past week's reviews. Not least Javier Marias's A Heart So White, which, the New Statesman's Jonathan Coe asserts, is doing nothing less than "trying to rebuild the novel form." "After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before but a handful of writers have since applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things" and Marias's book, first published in 1992 and reissued this year by Penguin, is a "deadly-serious attempt to keep the novel, as a form alive and evolving." From the very first line "any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered". "For, "like Laurence Sterne, Marias is prey to profound scepticism about the novel's capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way." Though his "lithe, unreliable sentences" make it "a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor", All Souls, Coe is adamant that A Heart So White is "a novel to treasure."

Boyd Tonkin must have been in similar mind when he exclaimed in the Independent that “sentence by glorious sentence, is there a better novelist alive in Europe now than Javier Marias?” “Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, this novel starts from a suicide to explore the secrets of two marriages with all the hypnotic, even sinister, beauty of his style.” GQ calls it a “haunting portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.”

Carrying on the modernist baton is Will Self's latest and Man Booker long-listed novel, Umbrella, the radical structure of which Self claims to have modelled on its titular object. Thus the three main narrative "spokes" configure around Audrey, a pacifist arms factory worker in 1918, Zack, a 1970s psychiatrist, who is trying to cure Audrey, who has been trapped in a catatonic state for decades by Encephalitis lethargica, and Zack as a retired divorcee in 2010.

Following the controversy of last year’s Man Booker, Mark Lawson notes in the Guardian that Umbrella “is widely seen as a deliberate correction to the controversial plea from last year's judges for "readability", and some may conclude that Self's book represents the opposite quality.” “The book is, in effect, a single paragraph of 397 pages and around 120,000 words”. Its challenging structure is vindicated by being “clearly encouraged by the subject-matter: Encephalitis lethargica represents a paradox of consciousness, in which the patient, though in medico-legal terms still here, is predominantly somewhere else.” And “though hard work is certainly demanded from the reader, it is always rewarded.”

This, no doubt, is one prong of Self’s modernist desideratum. Matt Thorne, writing for the Independent, is interested in the claim in the blurb that “not only suggests 'he is taking up the challenge of Modernism', but states that only Modernism alone 'can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world'. It's a bold claim, but Self has never lacked ambition.” Yet he believes that Self does “something different than the Modernist writer: not so much following Ezra Pound's instruction to 'make it new', but instead making the old new.” “The style may be new (for Self, at least), but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty.” Self’s trademark luxuriating in language is also present: “here he has great fun snuffling out forgotten words, which increases the verisimilitude of his period writing and gives the prose a dense texture absent from much historical fiction.” Thorne echoes Lawson when he admits that, though this abets Umbrella’s nature as “a somewhat remorseless read”, “its challenges seem, for the most part, worthwhile.”

Yet it’s unsurprising that Self's experimental style repels some reviewers. Metro’s Anthony Cummins assaults it alliteratively as “a bamboozling breezeblock of a book” with “little by way of an anchor for those who feel adrift in what isn’t so much a stream of consciousness as a tidal wave.” He concedes that if you “stick with it . . . the novel’s politics begin to bite in a surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state,” yet he fears that “if Umbrella bags the Booker, it may be a novel more bought than read.”

(To read the New Statesman's take on Umbrella, pick up the next issue, out on Thursday.)

Similarly, the inventive, yet sometimes intractable, prose of Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works seems to both beguile reviewers and make them despair, sometimes all at once. “There is a lulling quality to Nicholson Baker’s writing,” George Pendle writes in the Financial Times, “a tweedy sincerity and good humour that makes it easy to forget what a fundamentally radical author he is.” “Simply sitting down in a chair is for Baker what casting off from shore was for Melville . . . This is a world of tiny sensation enlarged into giant stepping stones of experience.” Little wonder then that the “intensity of detail can seem almost hallucinogenic” or “induce vertigo in his descriptions of the fathomless depths that our most mundane surrounds hold within them.” “His obsessive curiosity is “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world. But if anything, this curiosity takes us to places that are much wilder and more disorientating.”

The New York Times’s reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, is left with a less favourable after taste. She calls it a “hodge-podgy collection”, though titled The Way the World Works, she argues "it’s anything but a wide-angled take on the human condition". It is, rather, "just another random anthology”, the component pieces of which “vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption” and even the “more substantive essays also fluctuate wildly in their persuasiveness.” However, Kakutani does soften these criticisms by acknowledging that Baker is “adept at coming up with evocative analogies” and is a “remarkably observant witness” in the essays on technology.

David L Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times disagrees: “[T]his is a random collection, Baker is telling us, that turns out not to be so random, in much the same way as the world it seeks to explain.” “Here we see Baker's aesthetic in a nutshell: whimsical, self-reflective, always looking at the line between imagination and reality; it's an aesthetic of connection, of possibility.” He calls it a “literary cartography: Baker mapping his own mind”, that offers an insight into “how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are.” “Yet, despite the acuity of these connections, there is something about The Way the World Works that feels a little scattershot. This is in the nature of collections, but if Baker mitigates that to an extent, some of the pieces here feel repetitious, negligible.” “Baker is not out to cover new ground. Rather, he is looking back, trying to find the common territory of his obsessions, the landscape where it all connects.” Like many modernist works, “it is not, perhaps, a volume for the uninitiated. But it is a testament to indirection.”

Author Javier Marias (Photograph: Getty Images)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle