In the Critics this week

Simon Kuper on Raymond Domenech, Chris Mullin on Simon Hoggart, Val McDermid interviewed and Kate Mossman on Scott Walker.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of former French coach Raymond Domenech. This is, Kuper writes, “a story of modern France and modern football” – as well as a “business book in reverse: a study in how not to manage people”. In his account of his years at the helm of the French team (2004-2010), Domenech “constantly breaks footballing taboos by revealing intimate moments behind closed doors”. None of the stars of the French game – Zinedine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name only four – emerge unscathed. As for Domenech, he appears not to have understood the young men in his charge. “Domenech seems to have regarded many of his players with contempt,” Kuper notes. What’s more, “Tout seul never mentions the issue of ethnicity but these players overwhelmingly grew up in black and brown ghettos far from the French mainstream.”

Also in Books: David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller (“one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years”); Lesley Chamberlain on Benoit Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida (“He buried philosophy and left a unique philosophical example in his wake”); Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace (“It is … a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings"); Chris Mullin on Simon Hoggart’s collection of parliamentary sketches, House of Fun (“Simon Hoggart is a very wicked man”); and Amanda Craig recommends children’s books for Christmas.

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to crime writer Val McDermid, who tells him that “crime is a good vehicle for looking at society in general, because the nature of the crime novel means that you draw on a wide group of social possibilities”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: architect Amanda Levete writes the second in a series of pieces charting the progress of her firm AL_A’s scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary Inside Claridge’s; Dannie Abse offers a poem for the run-up to Christmas, “Pre-Xmas at L’Artista”; the NS’s pop critic Kate Mossman wonders how Scott Walker’s reputation has survived so long; Ryan Gilbey finds much to admire in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey; and Antonia Quirke enjoys a Radio 4 series on Grimm’s fairy tales. PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Raymond Domenech despairs at his team during the 2010 World Cup (Photo: Getty Images)
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror