In the Critics this week

Laura Miller on "Girls", Leo Robson on Zadie Smith and Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan.

In the critic’s section of the New Statesman this week, Leo Robson reviews Zadie Smith’s NW and finds, unsurprisingly, that the very specific setting dominates the novel. “The setting of the novel is a microclimate, not a microcosm or metaphor, and a place that defines itself in wilfully parochial terms,” explains Robson, though “not everyone who lives in north west London can lay claim to this tag… the area seems to comprise Kilburn and Willesden – Kensal Rise at a push”.  He goes on to explain how, because of its limited definition, the setting takes on a symbolic aspect. Towards the end of the novel a character finds herself at a funeral and notices “Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period.” From this, Robson picks out the idea of people representing periods and the movement of time as a key theme in the book, noting that “to achieve her desired effects, Smith draws on conventions from all over and the use she makes of them is, if not necessarily counter-intuitive, then counter-traditional – successful in the face of precedent.” Robson declares that “NW is less a patchwork panorama than a refusal of panorama; at times, its title seems to be freighted with irony, or fringed with shadows, suggesting all the disparity and distance that can exist within a 'community', the elusiveness of what we think we know.”

In this week’s Critic at large essay, Salon’s Laura Miller offers an appraisal of Girls. The television series, which follows the lives and relationships of four young women in New York, has been stirring up controversy in the US and Miller opens her review with the claim that the first season is “the most argued-about five hours of American scripted television in recent memory.” Written, directed and starred-in by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, it was originally lauded for being fresh and exciting; when it first appeared it generated glowing reviews. However, it has subsequently come under fire for presenting an unrealistic depiction of the lives of young women, with complaints that the characters are too privileged and unlikeable. “Girls will arrive in the UK trailing clouds of these debates,” predicts Miller, “this sort of show can’t be meaningfully separated from the highly digitised conversation about it.” But she brushes aside the dismissals of the show as a hipster iteration of Sex and the City, insisting that, despite the fact that the focus of the series is on the bonds between the young women, “nobody is likely to covet this foursome’s lifestyle, copy their outfits or, when visiting Manhattan, make a pilgrimage to their favourite cupcake shop. Girls isn’t aspirational. Not, that is, unless you aspire to average wardrobes, exploitative starter jobs, cramped and grubby apartments, exasperated parents and marginally unemployed boyfriends. Authenticity, not glamour is the calling card of Girls.” It is this authenticity that Miller admires and feels makes the series worth watching.

Elsewhere in the Critics section George Eaton reviews Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published Mortality, a collection of the pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair throughout his battle with oesophageal cancer, supplemented with a closing chapter  consisting of the fragmentary jottings made in his last few days. “Hitchens’s strengths – his mastery of irony, his range of reference, his contempt for euphemism – are all in evidence here but there is a timeless, aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings on politics and literature,” he observes. “Wit, irony, the consolations of philosophy . . . are the reserves we draw on when medicine can do no more,” says Eaton “and rarely were they more formidably deployed than by Hitchens.”

Also in Books, Helen Lewis finds Naomi Wolf’s latest offering Vagina: a New Biography a disappointing read, filled with psychobabble and bizarre, unsubstantiated mysticism. “Despite the repeated invocations of cutting-edge scientific research, the smell of patchouli pervades throughout,” she says. “Brace yourself,” is her warning to potential readers. Lewis concludes that “the science was not engagingly presented, the transcendentalism left me cold, and the remedial advice – that men should pay more attention to their female partners’ pleasure and maybe give them a nice surprise once in a while – is banal in the extreme.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan's new album Tempest, Ollie Brock on translated fiction, Anthony Seldon on Andrew Adonis and Antonia Quirke on the idea of "the other woman".

The cast of HBO's Girls, with Lena Dunham second from the right (Photograph: Getty Images)
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism