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)
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Poldark is the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers insist it is.

So Poldark has become the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene to spice things up. We’ve sat through them in outrage-courting Game of Thrones, in cosy Sunday night drama Downton Abbey, and even at the opera. Now, they’ve come to BBC period adaptations, too.

This is how the scene plays out (a detailed description of the events leading up to the rape follow):

Poldark (Aidan Tuner) turns up at his friend Elizabeth’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, in a rage. She suggests he come back tomorrow morning. He refuses. She suggests they relocate downstairs. He refuses. She suggests he should not be in her bedroom. He refuses to leave, and shuts the door behind him.

They argue about Elizabeth’s plan to marry an enemy of Poldark’s, a decision that disgusts him. She asks him to leave, again. “I’m sorry you feel like this, but I cannot help it,” she tells him. “Oh, you’ve never been able to help anything, have you?” he says, mockingly, adding, “well, perhaps you can’t help this either,” kissing her forcefully before she pushes him off her.

Poldark threatens her, approaching her again as he insists, “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth. I’d be glad of your assurance that you will not go through with it.” She says again that she will be married. Poldark kisses her again against her will. She tells him she hates him. “You would not dare,” she pleads, looking at the bed. “I would, and so would you,” he says. He pushes her onto the bed. You can guess the rest.

Of course, this is a rape scene. Some say it isn’t – because Elizabeth shows signs of enjoying the sex, and she’s nice to Poldark the next morning, because she has (or has had) feelings for him. None of these things are relevant. Poldark verbally pressured and physically forced a woman who was refusing to have sex with him. That’s rape.

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers and cast insist it is. Andrew Graham, the son of Poldark novelist Winston Graham, who was a consultant on the BBC's current screen adaptation, said:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth's immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”

His opinion was supported by Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield as well as Turner – who said the scene “seems consensual”.

This is not how consent works. Consent is not something you can assume based on “earlier scenes”. And it’s certainly not something you can retrospectively achieve based on the “immediate reactions” or “later mixed emotions” of someone you forced to have sex with you. That’s just you attempting to justify the fact that you raped someone.

The idea that Poldark knows Elizabeth so well that he knows what she truly wants (sex with me, the man of her dreams, duh!!) might seem romantic. But no love is so great that it imbues the lover with the ability to read minds. Implying that Poldark knew best peddles the dangerous myth that when women say no, they mean yes. Beliefs like this create rapists. The only way to know what someone wants is to ask them, and to listen to what they say. Elizabeth said no.

Adapting period material can be tricky – not least in its presentation of women, gender dynamics, and sex. The Poldark books are from the Fourties, and set in the eighteenth century. It’s a miserable state of affairs when the understanding of consent presented on primetime television, in 2016, is as dated.

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