In the Critics this week

Gessen on Amis pere, Gray on Ballard, Drabble on Rowling and Robson on the Booker.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. Ballard’s political views often inspired perplexity, Gray notes, though “why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear”. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books: novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy (“Though Rowling claims there is comedy here, there is not much to laugh about”); Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (“Ben Goldacre is angry, and by the time you put Bad Pharma down, you should be too”); Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt (“the tragedy of Hebron lies not in its mythic history but in entrenched ideologies that make the possibility of coexistence increasingly remote”); Hans Kundnani reviews Günter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany (“Grass [was] hopelessly out of step with the mood in Germany”); Oliver Bullough on The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski (“Poland’s war was so terrible as to almost defy summary”); Daniel Tyler reviews Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City (“Flanders captures the variety and colour of 19th-century London, stirring admiration and indignation by turns”). PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize. The chair of the judges, Sir Peter Stothard, has, Robson avers, “been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.”

Our Critic at large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954. “Amis began Lucky Jim as a book about Larkin,” Gessen notes. “Jim Dixon in the end is an Amis-Larkin hybrid who manages to be sweeter and more engaging than either of the men on their own. They were both Lucky Jim.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke praises Best Possible Taste, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic; Antonia Quirke is beguiled by the World Service’s Boston Calling; Alexandra Coghlan vists the Beethovenfest in Bonn; and Ryan Gilbey reviews Taken 2, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero. PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals.

Kingsley Amis in 1967 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror