Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Lois Banner, Tom Williams and Nell Freudenberger.

 

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

With last Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death many papers chose to feature a review of the latest Marilyn biography by Lois Banner. The text joins another, estimated, 700 books published on Monroe, numbers that would normally suggest a market long since over-saturated. Yet the icon's variable persona, married with her irresistible aurora of sex, intrigue and powerful associates, still invites a limitless and febrile litany of personality hermeneutics. Since her death, authors have tried to paint Marilyn as everything from a dumb blonde, to an intellectual, to a monster, and her death as anything and everything from an accident, to murder, to suicide. Perhaps Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, can be excused in her attempt to re-empower Marilyn’s legacy by identifying Monroe as a proto-feminist through Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.

Zoe Slutzy, writing in the New York Times, identifies the essential problem of Monroe’s confused character. “Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner’s new biography, 'Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,' which behaves a little like its subject.” She praises the result, writing that, “by the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being — an almost-friend — and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.” Yet it’s not lost on her that feminist writer, Gloria Steinem, has already covered familiar ground and similarly came “to see, in the star’s own sadness, in her winking innocence and complex sexuality, a woman straddling the puritanism of postwar America and its dissolution in the ’60s.”

Joan Smith, whose review was published in the Independent, was also reminded of Steinem’s biography, but remains unconvinced that Monroe's tumultuous and haunted life, “has a positive message for women”. Whilst she admits that Banner's account “dispels some myths”, she argues that “the sheer quantity of detail is daunting, and her prose is sometimes excruciating.”

Susie Boyt’s write up in the Financial Times agrees with this verdict, calling the factual content both a “wealth” and “overwhelming”. She also questions whether Banner is suited to write a text for public consumption, criticising Banner’s prose as both over-reliant on academic discourse and at times patronising to the reader's intelligence. However, she concludes that the project is somewhat vindicated by “Banner’s admiration of, and belief in, her subject", which, "really animate the text".

A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, a Life by Tom Williams

Banner’s biography wasn’t the only book that last week’s critics claimed shared qualities with its subject. There is a double echo in Williams’ biography of Raymond Chandler, with some reviewers arguing that Chandler perceived qualities of his most famous character, Philip Marlowe, in himself and others criticising Williams' text as sharing some of the unfortunate flaws of Chandler’s own writing.

Jake Kerridge writes in the Telegraph that “one of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Williams’s new biography is that it shows how frequently throughout his life Chandler cast himself as the Marlowe-esque hero-knight.” Indeed, this reflection was so vital to Chandler that he was known to lie about his past. Williams uncovers “evidence that contradicts assertions swallowed by previous biographers,” to Kerridge’s praise. “For example, although he certainly fought bravely in the trenches in France during the First World War, Williams has found documentary evidence disproving his claim that he was concussed in a German shell attack that left all his friends dead.” Despite this discovery, Kerridge concludes that Williams has “unearthed little new material.” He further damns the prose “as pedestrian,” but leavens the criticism by acknowledging that William “knows the value of letting Chandler speak for himself".

Though Chandler fantasised of similarities between his protagonist and himself, Craig Brown in the Daily Mail is struck by the fact that “authors are seldom like their creations, but few are quite so different as Raymond Chandler.” Like Kerridge, he sees the book as somewhat lacking in elegance, though he does recommend it as “a good starting point for those who can’t resist a peek past the glittering stage-set of an author’s work to the tawdry mess that so often lies beyond". He perceives the said "mess" of Chandler’s life to also be present in his corpus, arguing that Chandler’s “plots are all over the place … More often than not, he would end up buried in a hopeless tangle of conflicting plot-lines, with the murderer still not caught for the simple reason that the author had no idea which one he was".

This weakness in story-telling is one that Christopher Bray, of the Financial Times, believes to also be apparent in Williams’ writing, whilst several ugly turns of phrase provoke outright disgust. “'The plan he had outlined in 1939 had not unfolded as planned’ ... How many seconds with a thesaurus would it take to lose that ugly repetition?” Yet Bray’s final hammer blow to the coffin nail is a remark on the inconsistency in the portrait that Williams paints. “A slapdash plotter he might have been, but Chandler would never have dared dream up such a contradictory character."

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Moving on from biographies, is Nell Freudenberger’s third novel, The Newlyweds, a fictional account inspired by a real Deshi "email bride" that Freudenberger met on a plane. It follows a fictional young Bangladedishian woman, Amina Mazid, from her home country to New York to marry a man she met online, George Stillman. For Amina the marriage offers new opportunities and for George a chance at a meaningful relationship, yet “both conceal more romantic yearnings, in Amina’s case for Nasir, son of her father’s oldest friend; George’s lie closer to home. They have, in a manner at once modern and old-fashioned, relinquished these attachments – for now,” writes Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph. “In the third section, Amina, her marriage suffering its first real crisis, returns to Bangladesh to accompany her parents to the US; immediately the novel deepens in insight and drama.” Taylor is largely admiring of the result. “Freudenberger’s depiction of Bangladesh, the interlocking of country and society, is uncanny." “While lacking the effortless prose style of Jhumpa Lahiri, or the political engagement of Tahmima Anam, the richness and restraint displayed here recall Vikram Seth’s epic of pragmatism, A Suitable Boy.”

Kunal Dutta, meanwhile, is interested in how the differences in their agenda for matrimony lead “George and Amina [to] inhabit different mental spaces, and the author reveals the shades of loneliness and isolation that can colour an outwardly perfect union.” Her review in the Independent is largely glowing. “The chapters zip along with purpose and the novel flits effortlessly between the false intimacy of suburban America and the closely knit gossipy communities of Dhaka where Amina returns in the second half.” Yet the distances covered in the novel are not just geographical and cultural, The Newlyweds is a love story woven around the heterotopias of our technocratic world. “What this book does so well is articulate the challenges of mixed marriages in the digital age.” Though Dutta cannot help but notice that “the homage to Starbucks, intended as a US reference point, reads more like a state-sponsored advertorial".

Dutta’s unease is perhaps a seed of Philip Hensher's, who is more overtly troubled by the sterotypically American perspective of the novel. “Too much relies on the questions of who loves whom, and who finds sexual fulfilment most easily", he writes in the Financial Times. He admits that it is “the work of a writer with strong interests in the non-western world,” but sees it as "limited in its analysis" due to its unconvincing preoccupation with American questions. “Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism 34 years ago, western writers have become much more wary of treating Asian subjects…. feeling that there are too many ways in which the culture can be mistaken and traduced; knowing, too, that Asia has produced many great novelists of its own.” There is a note of melancholy in his words when he writes that “nearly a century after Forster in A Passage to India regretted that no friendship could exist between east and west – "No, not yet" – it seems as large a challenge as ever for a writer to conceive of a Bengali woman’s thoughts when they are not concerned with western preoccupations.”

Women pose beneath the 'Forever Marilyn' statue in Palm Springs. (Photo: Getty)
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser