Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Joseph Stiglitz, Sheila Hale and John Banville.

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

“Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other”, writes guest-editor David Miliband in his leader for the New Statesman this week. In this context, the publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality is timely. Stiglitz has been “a notable crusader against austerity economics and in favour of tighter controls on financial capital”, writes Robert Kuttner in the NS. Kuttner praises Stiglitz’s “rare combination of virtuoso technical economist, witty polemicist and public intellectual”, as well as the economist’s “refusal to pull his punches” – a characteristic that has left him marginalised in Barack Obama’s Washington. “That is a huge loss for sensible policy,” warns Kuttner. The Price of Inequality moves beyond the social effects of rising inequality, to examine its negative economic consequences in producing a macroeconomic drag. Furthermore the economist demonstrates a hardening of class lines, with the top 1 per cent transforming into a hereditary elite. Stiglitz considers how a more egalitarian society is better suited to maintain macroeconomic balance. Significantly, Stiglitz argues that severe economic inequality is accompanied by a significantly uneven influence on the setting of economic rules. “This puts at risk not just decent capitalism but democracy, too,” Kuttner concludes.
Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Observer, praises Stiglitz for his passionate description of how “unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream”. Stiglitz does so not according to a revolutionary creed, “but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few”. In this sense, Stiglitz joins a band of economists including Paul Krugman and Michael J Sandel “who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism”. But Stiglitz’s remedies to curb the wealth of the top 1 per cent are too extreme for Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times. “For most of my writing career”, Brittan writes, “I have been unmoved by the 'equality' brigade”. Brittan finds a reflection of the state of US politics in “the shrillness and bitterness” of The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz’s unsurprising advocation of managed capitalism - top tax rates above 70 per cent, restoration of union powers and curbs on globalisation, leaves Brittan with waning sympathy. 

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale

In a new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale attempts to plug the gaps in our knowledge of the Venetian painter, following the last full biography in English published in 1877. Mark Hudson, writing in the Telegraph, deems that the celebrated “richness and complexity” of his paintings is not reflected in details of his life. Hale may be “full of arcane and intriguing facts about the city”, but Hudson feels that “the book doesn’t get us much closer to Titian as a human being”. Hudson forgives this - “devastating revelations about such distant events can’t be summoned out of thin air”. Despite crediting to Hale an “evident, sometimes wide-eyed, awe of the artist”, Hudson observes that “Venice itself is Hale’s first love” and “rather than try to minutely integrate the art and the life, she provides great wodges of socio-cultural context then tries to weave Titian into it.” Hudson questions the complex “artistic personality” that must lie beneath, but concedes that “where there’s a good story to be told, Hale retells it efficiently” and seems happy to finally see shadows of contemporary characters “step into the light for the first time.”
The Independent's Fisun Güner laments a shy portrayal of Titian's character, saying “the artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.” Güner finds that the biography makes for an enchanting journey through Venice, and while Titian himself is more difficult to explore, “it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima”. Güner stops to note Titian as the “hard-headed businessman” in Hale's account, and though heaped under her “devotional praise”, “Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius”; what Hale shows instead is a compelling but strategic account of what few facts we know about Titian and his city. Michael Prodger makes a similar judgement in the Guardian, adding that Hale's biography is “an example of measured scholarship, judicious opinion, and telling framing detail”, emphasising Titian as Hale portrays him: the great and humble genius we know him as today. 

Ancient Light by John Banville

“Prose stylists share a tendency to ripen and then rot”, observes Claire Kilroy in her review of John Banville’s Ancient Light for the Financial Times. While Banville’s The Sea won him the 2005 Man Booker Prize, The Infinities (2009) “proved a perplexing read”. Left at a crossroads, Ancient Light – the third instalment in Banville’s Cleave trilogy, finds the author electing “to have a moment”. Banville revisits Alexander Cleave, an actor whose only child Cass lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. 10 years later finds the retired Alexander still lost in the difficulty of his daughter’s death, narrating a tale that is “illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating”.  The strands of Alexander’s life blend “into a single meditation of breath-taking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears”.
A “sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things of “fragments and disjointure” persists throughout” as Alexander looks back at a love affair with his best friend’s mother from his teenage years, writes John Preston in the Telegraph . “We’re in a world where the past is more vivid than the present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living”, observes Preston, noting that while Banville’s use of language “dips into self-consciousness at times, it can also be startlingly brilliant”. But Preston considers the two halves of the book – the idyllic account of Alexander’s affair and the more “forced” contemporary narrative, and finds a combination that ultimately makes for “an uneasy pairing”. Leyla Sanai in the Independent  agrees that Banville “perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion” and is “astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood”. Like Kilroy, Sanai finds that Banville’s rich, startling imagery makes for a reading experience “akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline”, his Nabokovian prose “a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured”.
Prophet warning: Joseph Stiglitz (Photo:Getty)
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.