Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Tony Fletcher, Kevin Powers and D T Max.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by DT Max

A new biography of David Foster Wallace offers an insight into the cult author’s life and writing process.  D T Max thoroughly discusses and dissects every part of Wallace’s life from his birth to his suicide in 2008, leaving no stone unturned. He also includes intriguing descriptions of Wallace’s idiosyncrasies, such as how he always used to put a teabag into his cup of coffee or how he liked to floss and brush his teeth for forty-five minutes at a stretch.  “This is a model biography,” writes Daniel Swift in the New Statesman. “Max has interviewed Wallace’s friends, ground through the archives, hunted down odd anecdotes.” The result is an intimate new portrait of the writer, as well as the man.

“Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life,” explains Swift. “He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life; his fiction concerns the ways in which words distort or never quite fulfill the hopes we have for them. This sounds abstract and ambitious, and it was.” When Max recounts an argument that Wallace had with an editor about the use of the serial comma, Swift posits that “[Wallace] cared about grammar because he cared about writing and he cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch… what Wallace was trying to do – and in this he is perhaps most like Virginia Woolf – was capture life in the living, the flow of reconsideration and memory that constitutes each day.”

Ned Beauman, writing in the Guardian, observes that “it is absolutely no derogation of Max's own abilities to say that for any given sentence he writes in this book, one would prefer to have another sentence of Wallace's . . . In this sense, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is more tantalising than it is satisfying. But that would be the case with any book about this complex and extraordinary man.” He concludes that “whatever you think of his personal life, you can't finish this book without feeling tremendous respect for Wallace's dedication and integrity as a writer.”

A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher

This short book by music journalist Tony Fletcher, which comes 25 years after the band's separation, attempts to detail the "saga" of the Smiths: the frequent fallings-out that came to define them as a group, the trajectory of their success and their enduring legacy.  

John Harris in the Guardian feels that in detailing the history of the band, Fletcher is perhaps overly-reliant on cliché. “The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher's book doesn't manage the trick,” he muses. “He's too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by 'fans and critics alike, and music leans towards 'the jazz arena' rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat.”

Steve Jelbert of the Independent thinks that “[the Smiths’] enduring appeal and influence deserves investigation. A Light That Never Goes Out, though, is just the story of a band, heavy on music business machinations and thin on illumination. A diligent editor could have trimmed it simply by excising the author's speculations on the importance of everything from the vagaries of council housing policies to the career path an unsplit Smiths might have followed. Tony Fletche . . . is certainly informed, but humour is not his strength.”

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers was 17 when he joined the army. He served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and it is these experiences that have helped him write The Yellow Birds, a first novel that is attracting a lot of praise and being lauded (in the New York Times) as a “classic of contemporary war fiction”.

John Burnside writes in the Guardian that “The Yellow Birds is a must-read book, not only because it bears witness to this particular war, but also because it ekes out some scant but vital vision of humanity from its shame and incomprehensible violence.” Burnside observes that “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.”

Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, is similarly impressed: “The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory,” she says. Later in the review, she explains how “in conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to “return to ordinary.” He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them… with enormous emotional precision. The recruits quickly learn the art of detachment as a survival mechanism in the face of constant violence and loss.”

James Kidd of the Independent takes a slightly different view. “[Powers] can certainly write, specialising in incantatory rhythms and poetic touches that, despite frequent avowals to the contrary, loads The Yellow Birds with almost absurd significance. “The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed." This gravely alliterative opening made me worry that The Yellow Birds was suffering a Napoleon complex: a small novel with delusions of grandeur, perhaps?”

Kidd is soon won over though: “fortunately, things quickly settle down. Although he never quite sheds his portentous tone, our narrator… proves a perceptive, eloquent and philosophical guide through the bombs, brutality and blood.” Kidd concludes with the observation that “The Yellow Birds may not be the masterpiece some have cracked it up to be, but it is a wonderful, powerful novel that moves and terrifies.”

The Smiths are the subject of a new book by Tony Fletcher. Photograph: Getty Images
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Russian pools, despatches from the Pole, and disagreeing with my son Boris on Brexit

My week, from Moscow to Westminster Hour.

With the weather in Moscow last week warm, if not balmy, I thought about taking a dip in the vast heated open-air swimming pool that I remembered from a previous visit. My Russian host shook his head. “That would have been the great Moskva Pool. Stalin actually tore down the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for it. But, after perestroika, they filled in the pool and rebuilt the church!” So I didn’t have my open-air swim, though I did visit the cathedral instead.

In the evening, spiritually if not physically refreshed, I addressed a gathering of Russian businessmen and bankers who were keen to learn what impact Brexit might have on the London property and investment scene, the UK being a prime destination for their money. We met in the old Ukraina Hotel, now splendidly refurbished and relaunched as the Radisson Royal, Moscow. A Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith was parked in the foyer, a snip at £150,000. “There is a great democratic debate going on in Britain at the moment,” I told my audience. “The issues are finely balanced. I’m for staying in. But on 23 June, the British people, not the politicians, not the tycoons, nor the lobbyists, will decide.”

I noted some uneasy laughter at this point. Russia’s fledgling democracy probably still has some way to go before matters of such moment are left to the people.

 

Culture club

I spent the next afternoon in the Tretyakov Gallery. A rich businessman, Pavel Tretyakov, collected thousands of items of Russian art (mainly icons and paintings) and donated both them and his magnificent house to the state in 1892. Over time, the state has added many more artefacts, including some from the vast storerooms of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

My guide, Tatiana Gubanova, a senior curator, had recently organised the loan of several items from the Tretyakov to London’s National Portrait Gallery, where they are currently still on display in the splendid “Russia and the Arts” exhibition. She said that she was looking forward to returning to London next year: “The Royal Academy is planning a special exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.” Whatever happens at the political level, it is good to know that our cultural links with Russia are still flourishing.

 

Heading south

Just before I left for Moscow, I attended ­Adrian Camrose’s funeral in St Bride’s Church, off Fleet Street. The scion of a great newspaper family, Adrian made his mark as the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent.

In early 1984, I went to Antarctica with him. We shared a cabin on a British Antarctic Survey ship while it visited research ­stations “down south”. I was writing a book on Antarctica, subtitled “the Last Great Wilderness”, while Adrian sent a series of crisp despatches to the Telegraph via the ship’s radio-telex. Adrian’s dateline was “On board the John Biscoe, Antarctica”. Distant galaxies were Adrian’s consuming passion. I am sure he is filing stories from the spaceship Spacey McSpaceFace even as I write.

 

Green surge

As co-chairman with Baroness (Barbara) Young of Environmentalists for Europe, my life has been fairly hectic recently. I am sure it will get more so as the referendum day approaches. I know perfectly well that one of the reasons the invitations to speak or write articles ping into my inbox is the titillation factor. Are Families Divided on the Referendum? Is “Boris’s Dad” (that’s me!) going to Disagree with Boris?

Notwithstanding the family relationship, which I deeply treasure, the answer is “yes”. I am going to disagree. Boris and Michael Gove and other key members of the Brexit team have injected a wonderful level of vigour and energy into the referendum debate. They have raised issues, besides the economy, which needed to be discussed, particularly sovereignty, immigration and the EU’s general direction of travel. For this, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude. That said, I am convinced that this is not the moment to call time on the UK’s membership of the EU. As I see it, the best way to address the obvious problems is not to leave the EU but to “Remain” and to fight for change from within. In the end, this will benefit not just the UK but Europe as a whole.

 

Quiet no more

Last Sunday evening, I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Westminster Hour. My fellow panellists were the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Baroness Smith of Basildon, formerly Angela Smith MP, now the shadow leader of the House of Lords.

We had a very lively and sometimes rowdy discussion. IDS is the “quiet man” who, since his resignation from the cabinet a couple of months ago, has regained his voice in no uncertain terms. Baroness Smith, a delightfully unpushy lady, sometimes found it difficult to get a word in edgeways. I don’t think I did so well myself.

But I did, I hope, make it clear that, from my point of view, there was still time to build on all that was good in the EU (such as its environmental record), while seeking common rather than unilateral solutions for the problems that persist.

On 24 June, if the Remain side wins, the government should go into action in Europe with all cylinders firing and with our politicians and diplomats working overtime, to get the arrangements that we need and deserve. On the way out, IDS said to me, “It won’t work. They won’t have it.”

He may be right. But I still think we should give it a go. You don’t file for divorce as a result of a single tiff, not after more than 40 years of marriage.

On the issues of immigration, for example, and possible changes to the EU’s freedom of movement rules, we may find more allies in Europe than we think.

Stanley Johnson is co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe: environmentalistsforeurope.org

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad