Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Carey, George Dyson, and Judith R Walkowitz.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Writing in the Telegraph, Lucy Daniels is impressed by Paul Carey's deft treatment of the Victorian era. His 12th novel takes its inspiration from Jacques de Vaucanson's fraudulent invention of the mechanical duck and follows a modern-day conservator of London's Swinburne museum who becomes obsessed with recreating the duck from the original drawings, an allegory, says Daniels, for the author's craft as a historical novelist: "Carey is drawn to the age of invention; his stories are filled with them and exquisite forgeries. Storytellers and inventors have a natural bond: one character here is a collector of vicious fairy tales who has invented a washing machine. The novel itself, after all, is something mechanically produced." She praises the expert way in which Carey blends historical truths with myths, but notes that the book is more "subdued" in tone than the novelist's previous high-energy works.

Richard Davenport-Hines is less enthusiastic about the novel in the Spectator, questioning Carey's consistency: "There are first-rate scenes and characters from both narrations, but not invariably". Whilst some scenes delight, others are "drearier", he says. He too notices the "subdued" nature of the book in comparison to Carey's back-catalogue, but for him (unlike Daniels), this detracts from the overall narrative: "There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey's spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who revelled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive".

"The Chemistry of Tears" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson

George Dyson's attempt to throw light on the invention of the first computer is well received by Evgeny Morozov in the Observer. In 1945, polymath named John von Neumann helped set up the Electronic Computer Project at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, already a hotbed of scientific talent. Indeed, Morozov recommends that "Dyson's book is worth reading for its treatment of the institute's early history alone". A comprehensive account of the conditions under which von Neumann was working is provided, says Morozov, as Dyson gives "ample social and cultural context". Yet despite this, Morozov criticises the book for being weighed down with painstaking theoretical detail: according to Morozov, "Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale" and sometimes "makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse".

Writing in the Telegraph, Manjit Kumar also suggests that Dyson's work is swamped by technicality: "Faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader." Nevertheless, Kumar is generally satisfied with the book: "Turing, Von Neumann and their colleagues may have let the genie out of the bottle, but Dyson has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe them and how far we have come in such a short time".

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London by Judith R Walkowitz

In the Independent, DJ Taylor tempers his praise of Walkowitz's attempt to present a diverse array of Soho stories that typify the area's history, highlighting the significant case studies that have been missed out: "There is very little about the sex trade ... not a great deal about organised crime, and nothing at all about the area's long-term function as a kind of sub-branch of the literary world's ground-down Bohemian end". Although he concedes that "Walkowitz's forte ... is the case study and the Soho recreation that reflects some wider trend", Taylor is put off by Walkowitz's tendency to stray into "academic cipher": "Where she stops being informative and becomes unintentionally hilarious, on the other hand, is in her use of jargon".

In this week's New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell also picks holes in the book, noting that Walkowitz spends little time examining the area's queer history: "she by no means ignores the gay experience, but surely such a definitive aspect of the district's history should not be elbowing for space". She is, however, less critical of Walkowitz's language, claiming that her "scholarly lily-gilding is, happily, infrequent".

Peter Carey. Photo: Getty Images
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism