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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit