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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage