Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alex Danchev and Richard Bradford.

Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don't Understand by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb hit the bestsellers list when his 2007 book Black Swan appeared to predict the financial crisis. His latest offering, Antifragile, has had reviewers almost invariably applauding its philosophical breadth ("an ambitious and thought-provoking read") whilst lamenting its author’s "trademark arrogance, indiscipline and sheer chutzpah".

Boyd Tonkin, writing in the Independent, is one of several critics who cite Taleb’s theories as a "colourful variations on Nietzsche". Whilst conceding that the book is undermined by its scatter-shot structure and the author's propensity to be "vulgar, silly, slapdash and infuriating", he concludes that the basic principles make the read worth it. "Time and again I returned to two questions about his core ideas: Is he right, and does it matter? My verdict? Yes, and yes."

The Economist review similarly agrees that Antifragile "is an interesting idea, but as a book it is not without flaws". These are mainly that Taleb "overstretches the argument and is not as iconoclastic as he likes to think".

Gillian Tett, writing in the Financial Times, approves of Taleb’s polymathic approach: The book develops the theme on multiple levels. Some of his arguments are highly technical: he uses mathematical techniques to prove how the antifragile concept can be measured, and to demonstrate why popular statistical measures of probability are wrong." Nonetheless, she acknowledges discrepancies of style which detract from the book’s philosophical merits: "Taleb at times almost slips into the tone of the popular self-help guides that he professes to loathe."

The most damning review comes from David Runciman, writing in the Guardian, who finds fault in everything from the gratuitously complicated structure - "Antifragile jumps around from aphorism to anecdote to technical analysis, interspersed with a certain amount of hectoring encouragement to the reader to keep up. The aim, apparently, is to show how much more interesting an argument can be if it resists being pinned down" - to the inherent hypocrisy of the writer - "Taleb despises mere 'theorists' but still aspires to produce a theory of everything." The life advice offered by Taleb is deemed to be "a mixture of the pretentious and the banal" and ultimately, "The result is both solipsistic and ultimately dispiriting. Reading this book is the intellectual equivalent of having to sit patiently while someone shows you their holiday snaps."

Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

Biographies exploring Cézanne’s life and art are not in limited supply but Alex Danchev’s latest one, Cézanne: A Life, is an “original biography” showing readers “a great artist from a new angle, and in extra depth”, according to Frances Spalding in the Independent.

The critics seem unanimous in their admiration of Danchev’s text of the post-Impressionist, and in the Guardian and Telegraph the reviewers praise Danchev’s exploration of Cézanne’s life through those “relations with a world he shaped”. Hilary Spurling in the Telegraph also adds: “Its cultural references range from Socrates to Wallace Stevens, Kafka to Beckett, Chaplin to Woody Allen. The tradesmen of Aix-en-Provence among whom the painter spent his life barely get a look in.”

The glowing review in the Daily Mail by Michael Prodger describes the biography as “imaginative…enlightening…accomplished and subtle”. However, one review across the pond, in The Dallas Morning News by Kathryn Lang, believes the book’s 200 pages of endnotes and bibliography means “it is unlikely to appeal to the general reader”.

Lang’s review is pragmatic about the text’s appeal to the general reader: “If this is your introduction to Paul Cézanne, you might well become lost in the thicket of literary context into which Alex Danchev places his subject... Danchev presumes a good deal of prior knowledge, not only of Cézanne but of his milieu.”

The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford

The private letters of two great literary figures are always going to be interesting but in Richard Bradford’s collection of letters between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, there is more than just wit. The Odd Couple is, Christopher Hart writes in the Sunday Times, an exploration of their friendship “based on a shared love of jazz, poetry and sexual confession”. Hart praises the collection as “a lively, readable and often scandalous portrait of that friendship”.

DJ Taylor writes in the Independent on Sunday that the biographer is able to tease out Amis’s and Larkin’s private lives “with considerable artfulness and great sympathy”. Taylor’s highest praise comes in his penultimate line: “[F]or a practising academic Bradford has a cheeringly anti-academic style and rarely respects any of the reputations he runs up against.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile, attends the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Burda Media)
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis