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)
Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear