Reviews Round-up: Badinter, Moran, Dikötter and de la Pava

The critics' verdicts on new book about TV viewing habits and the Chinese Revolution, as well as the reception of Sergio de la Pava's self-published debut "A Naked Singularity".

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elizabeth Badinter

First published in 2010 by French historian and philosopher Elizabeth Badinter, The Conflict describes the author’s issues with contemporary maternal culture. Badinter not only disputes the ‘nature-is-best’ attitude at the core of modern parenting advice, but holds that this approach actually has a significantly negative impact on the women who are affected by its fundamental tenets.

Claudia Casper, for The Globe and Mail, gives a good overview of the ‘new maternalism’ that Badinter is so opposed to. Studies from biology, psychology and anthropology converged on the view that mothers should: “breastfeed on demand, be responsive to the child's feelings and every need, and put their own need to succeed, to socialize and have passionate sex lives a distant second to the needs of their children”. Casper draws attention to Badinter’s conclusion that it is “the overwhelmingly intensive demands of this new mothering” that is the “reason women are delaying having children, having fewer, or choosing to have none”.

According to Rachel Hewitt of The Guardian, the book “shows that naturalism is a philosophy, not an objective truth”. Hewitt highlights the domination of the modern maternal culture by naturalism; specifically, the impact that this has on mothers through the mechanism of guilt. This situation “can generate extreme guilt in those who do not, or cannot, live up to its high standards”. The danger is that this “encourages women to equate the extent of their self-sacrifice to their success as mothers”.

Diane Johnson, for the New York Review of Books, notes that part of the naturalism advocated involves: making women feel guilty for choosing work over motherhood; for returning to work post-birth; for using child-care; and for choosing to not breastfeed. These ‘attendant strictures’ have “the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to their lack of independence and worldly influence, binding them to their place (the home), keeping them economically disadvantaged (out of the workplace), and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions”.

Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, by Joe Moran

Armchair Nation is a small encyclopaedia of television. It covers a vast range of material and milestones in limited depth, but maintains the reader’s attention. The author, Joe Moran, is a newspaper journalist and professor of English and Cultural History. The depth of research brought from his academic background shows through, but without being overbearing.

Dominic Sandbrook of The Sunday Times, highlights the effort made by Moran to give a balanced view of the impact that television has had on society. Everyone is familiar with the accusations against television. One of the most common of these is it stupefying effect. “Almost from the very first broadcast, high-minded types rushed to dismiss it as the opium of the masses, dulling the senses and debasing the intellect”. However, Sandbrook also notes the positive societal effects of television, such as cultural enrichment. “In rural Worcestershire, one writer overheard farm labourers chatting about Margot Fonteyn and Shakespeare, having come across them by accident after switching on for the boxing”.

Phil Hogan from The Guardian, summarises a variety of anecdotes from the first audibly transmitted airing of the word ‘fuck’ to the reinvention of snooker “with black tie and absurd new rituals”. The rebirth of snooker displays, according to Hogan, the power of television in “its repetition and reach, in its restless urge to replace one novelty with the next – to normalise the unusual and reshape a nation's conventions and tolerances”.

John Van der Kiste, writing for thebookbag.com, applauds Moran’s selection skills: “the author has done a sterling job in paring it down to the essentials”. Kiste highlights the section in which reality television is “castigated”, refering particularly to The X Factor: “a programme which claimed to be empowering but was actually infantilising, and one which flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while getting them to pay to provide free product testing on new artists”.

The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikötter

After winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for his 2011 book Mao’s Great Famine, a study of the Great Leap Forward, Frank Dikötter tackles the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in his new work The Tragedy of Liberation. Contrary to many historians, Dikötter argues that the foundations of the society were just as disturbing as the subsequent decades, in a system characterised by unrelenting violence and state force.

Rana Mitter, writing for the Guardian, is impressed by this “angry” book, detailing the “violence and used coercion, both psychological and physical” employed by the state during its foundation. He is pleased by the emphasis placed on the rural population, commenting that “the history of China’s urban population has attracted more attention over the years, but Dikötter forces the gaze back to China's peasants, who were promised much from the revolution and often betrayed.” Despite his slight disappointment that “his analysis does leave space for a continuing debate on the reasons for the new regime's stability”, Mitter concludes that “this excellent book is horrific but essential reading for all who want to understand the darkness that lies at the heart of one of the world's most important revolutions.”

TH Barrett of the Independent, however, laments the source difficulties inherent in any research on this period, as “after most foreigners had been removed from China following Liberation, the only English-language commentators left were the handful of "foreign friends" nurtured by the new regime, whose knowledge of events was at best limited.” As such, Barrett notes that “not every detail in this book seems spot-on” and “time and again the footnotes lead back to official Chinese archives, often not readily accessible to foreign historians. The picture is therefore technically only ‘partial’”.

For Michael Sheridan in the Sunday Times, the work is “groundbreaking”, “exhaustive” and “revelatory” as he deems it “unsparing in its detail, relentless in its research, unforgiving in its judgements”. Although the sheer wealth of detail “sometimes becomes overwhelming”, Sheridan concludes that “mainstream academic scholarship must be revised in the light of Dikötter’s work”

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio de la Pava

Sergio de la Pava originally self-published his debut novel A Naked Singularity in 2008, but has only just come to mainstream attention, winning the PEN prize for debut fiction this month. The ambitious novel follows the nervous breakdown of an overworked 24-year-old public defender, Casi, rendered predominantly in dialogue and characterised by long digressions.

The Guardian’s Stuart Kelly gave the debut a positive review, saying he had “yearned for this kind of exuberant, precise fiction”. He calls it a “compelling” but doesn’t by any means claim that it is without fault. But although de la Pava’s “ambition might outweigh execution” and “the shifts in tone between appear awkward”, in the end, Kelly would “rather have the raggedy brilliance of A Naked Singularity over the pursed and smirking lips of much contemporary British fiction any day of the week.” He concludes “A Naked Singularity poses moral questions far more thorny and vexing than most.” Nevertheless, he wished de la Pava “had an editor”.

The Wall Street Journal was similarly taken in by this debut’s raw appeal. Not put off by the lack imperfections, the reviewer declares that “The weird, restless, ungainly structure is the book's greatest asset ... Whatever the book loses in polish it amply repays in its uncompromising originality.” To sum up, the reviewer quotes a line from the book itself, to declare it “beautiful and ugly simultaneously.”

In Slate Magazine, Paul Ford echoes comments about ambition and is also charmed by de la Pava’s humour. He comments that “even while the lives it describes are often bleak, the book is funny, consistently so”. All in all, Ford deems it to be “an explication on the quality of perfection, and more broadly, on the nature of talent.”

Frank Dikötter sheds light on the early years of Maoist China. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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