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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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