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
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era