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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit