Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Hook, Ali Smith and Sylvie Simmons.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

This new Joy Division biography by the band’s bassist “isn’t just Peter Hook collecting some already exhausted stories for a quick pay out,” Michelle Kambasha writes in Clash. “It provides a kind of personal insight that most of us haven’t been privy to until now.” The Joy Division story is steeped in layer upon layer of myth. “Hook’s mission,” writes Dorian Lynskey in the Observer, “is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.” This is accomplished, according to Lynskey, through the author’s characteristic straightforwardness and lack of pretension: “The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner.” What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its simple laying of facts on the line,” notes Tony Clayton-Lea in the Irish Times, admiring Hook’s unaffected style. The book emphasises the band’s focus on music, fun and friendship – famously at the expense of even a semblance of business-mindedness: it was only in 2008 that Hook “discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names.” But hanging over every youthful anecdote is Hook’s knowledge, shared with the reader, of Ian Curtis’ impending suicide. As Lynskey writes: “So the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs.”

 

Artful by Ali Smith

“It's true, I think I am love with Ali Smith,” admits the Independent’s David Hahn halfway through his review of Artful. The inherent bias of the lovestruck reviewer aside, there’s no disputing his boundless enthusiasm for Smith’s latest book: “Inspired, inspiring, exhausting” is how he summarises the work; a genre mish-mash which weaves in and out of fiction as it takes on “the big questions about art”. Although the book consists of “a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes”, Hahn is emphatic that Smith manages to invest the notoriously dry shores of acedemia with readability through her “smart, allusive, informal, playful” voice; “dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace.” Publisher’s Weekly similarly falls over itself in the quest for a higher hyperbole, praising Smith’s “contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book.” Her dexterity as a writer to navigate seamlessly between the academic and the poetic is praised, as are her “riveting reflections” which successfully transform a series of lecture notes into a rich, rewarding testament to the “immutable necessity for art”.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Whilst conceding that Sylvia Simmons’s new biography on Leonard Cohen is let down by the “inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller”, A M Homes, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in this "exhaustive" biography. Homes is most approving of Simmons’s ability to direct her writing to creating an enriching experience of Cohen’s music, successful enough to make even seasoned fans fall think different about Cohen’s famed poetics: “Crucially, her book helps you add more detail and understanding to his lyrics”. Despite noting a slight lack of “historical context or counterpoint” in Cohen’s early life, Holmes avers that “as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way”. Fiona Sturges, writing in the Independent, is equally approving of the even-handed manner in which Simmons takes on this “serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment”. She praises her extensive research, original interviews with Cohen himself, which “she elegantly splices … into the narrative”, as well as her uncovering of “delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising”. And – crucially – Simmons has succeeded in investing a biography with a high level of readability. Tackling the book is like reading a “beautifully plotted piece of fiction”.

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Olympia, Paris. Photo: Getty Images
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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war