Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Beinart, Tom Service and Dana Spiotta.

The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart

 
The leading article in this week’s New Statesman warns that opportunities for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are increasingly endangered. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the New Statesman, considers Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, in which the former New Republic editor charts his increasing disenchantment with Israel. It is a typical narrative of the problematic relationship held between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft observes that Beinart remains a Zionist, sends his children to an Orthodox school and believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land”. All of which “makes him an unlikely dissident”. But Beinart’s book is indicative of the gulf that has opened “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official 'Jewish establishment'”. Wheatcroft does examine what he believes is a major flaw in Beinart’s line of thinking, “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.
 
Jonathan Rosen, writing in the New York Times, considers how The Crisis of Zionism, in a spirit of evangelical zeal, “sets out to save the country by labelling many of its leaders racist, denouncing many of its American supporters as Holocaust-obsessed enablers and advocating a boycott of people and products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border”. Beinart compresses complexity, writes Rosen: “he minimises the cataclysmic impact of the second Intafada; describes Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza not as a gut-wrenching act of desperation but as a cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means; belittles those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews the world over”. In doing so he runs the risk of rendering his book politically impractical, playing down the “magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return – not to a future Palestine but to Israel itself, which would destroy the Jewish state”.
 
Alana Newhouse, writing in the Washington Post, observes that The Crisis of Zionism “is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews”. Newhouse cannot subscribe to an argument that is “largely a restatement of Zionist dovishness”. “From this book”, Newhouse writes, “you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict”.
 

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras by Tom Service

 
The qualities of the practice of conducting, and the musical magic it continues to wield, are examined in this first book from classical music journalist Tom Service. It is an account “brimming with enthusiasm”, writes Suzy Klein in the New Statesman.  “Service’s passion is evident from the opening page” - moving from his first orchestral experience aged six to exploring several contemporary conductor-orchestra pairings. Service examines how orchestras can serve as “barometers of social and political change” – the ruthless maestro brand exemplified by Herbert von Karajan was nothing less than a product of the Nazi era. Since then, “a maestro must earn respect, not demand it”. Despite Service’s efforts, none of his subjects “elucidates the fundamental question of what makes an exceptional, alchemical conductor”, but otherwise the blend of analysis and VIP rehearsal access makes for an excellent exploration of “why orchestral music has such power and how a group of musicians can harness it”.
 
Sameer Rahim, writing in the Telegraph, has similar praise for Service’s exploration of the relationship between conductors and the musicians they lead. Conducting delivers technical information, but for the best, “there is no strict line between technique and feeling”. A prime example is Valery Gergiev, the risk-taking principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose explosive, batonless gestures “allows his powerful instinct to trump the technicalities”. The maestro as dictator may be in the past, but “no matter how brilliant each individual musician, you need a conductor to shape a performance”.
 
The Economist's reviewer highlights Service’s insights gained by the many hours spent “not just in concerts given by the six conductor-orchestra pairs taken as his subject, but in observing them in the rehearsals beforehand and quizzing members of the orchestra about their side of the experience”. Interviews with the conductors themselves may not be inherently revealing, but rather it is Music as Alchemy’s blend of perspectives which convey something of “the murky process by which orchestras and conductors build a bond of mutual trust”. This kind of trust relies above all on listening, and the reviewer finds that “one of the most interesting pictures to emerge from the book is that of the conductor as a kind of chief listener”.
 

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

 
Dana Spiotta’s third novel, a finalist at the National Book Critics Circle awards in the United States, has as its central theme the relationship between authenticity and fabrication. The portrayal of the relationship between Denise, an office manager in her late forties, with her older brother Nik, a reclusive post-punk musician, uses "conventional strategies of selection and emphasis, with a period of crux taking place against a backdrop of events both recent and long past,” writes Leo Robson in the New Statesman. The novel is potentially Denise’s reply to her brother’s “Chronicles” – Nik’s fantasy project in which he has recorded an alternate version of his life, “the reviews, positive and negative, that his barely distributed experimental music will never receive”. Denise’s memoir confronts her mother’s mortality, her own ageing and reflections on history and memory. “Postmodern anxiety about such humanist illusions as origins and endings and epiphanies, though no more than cursory, does the novel a fair amount of damage”, Robson writes. “Spiotta wants to incorporate scepticism about the stories we tell ourselves but doesn’t go as far as insisting that we give them up and the novel is incapable of offering cleverness without a sense of shame, candour without an air of apology”.
 
Jenny Turner, writing in the Guardian, finds in Stone Arabia a “”rancid America” story of beauty and talent, failure and disappointment”. Stone Arabia makes for a hazy combination – “the random-looking title, a cathartic road-trip, the brilliant brother who seems to have gone wrong” – elements that are similar in structure to Spiotta’s 2001 novel Lightning Field. There may be artistic reasoning behind this. “Does artistic work have to meet an audience, the marketplace, before it can be said to have punched its ticket?” Turner writes, “Can it ever be allowed, in “rancid America”, not to care about the market, but to strive and long for something bigger and beyond?”
 
Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, considers how Stone Arabia’s thread is “Identity – and the very American belief that individuals can invent or reinvent themselves anew here”. Spiotta “lavishes on Nik all her eclectic, deeply felt knowledge of music and pop culture”, Kakutani writes. “While her sceptical, appraising eye lends a satiric edge to her portrait of this wilful narcicssist, her understanding of his inner life also fuel-injects it with genuine emotion”. But beyond this is something deeper – “not just alienation, but a hard won awareness of mortality and passing time”.
 
Herbert von Karajan: the maestro as dictator (Photo: Getty)
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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times