Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Monisha Rajesh, Chris Anderson and Diana Souhami.

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

In Andrew Duff’s review in the Telegraph, he praises Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh for its “witty and insightful traveller’s-eye view of the country from inside its railway network”. Rajesh appears to have avoided falling into the trap of boring the reader with a tedious travel memoir by exploring India geographically as well as culturally: Rajesh criss-crosses Induan Rail’s “geographical diamond”, experiencing all its freedoms and frustrations while enduring endless inquiries as to her marital status.”

Time Out Mumbai, while praising, is also more critical of the book. Their reviewer Karishma Attar begins with the damning claim that India’s image as “exotic and dangerous” hasn’t changed with this new travelogue. “The novelty and satiric richness run out quickly for the experienced Indian traveller. Dry humour doesn’t quite take the sting out of travel Indian-isms, which Rajesh lists with unerring steadfastness...” Attar does point out the text’s “witty, dry, first-person account” but adds: “This is a journey rife with 'shocks' that comes as no surprise.”

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution may be optimistic but the Guardian’s Steven Poole is not convinced. He criticises the American editor-in-chief of Wired’s “techno-economic utopia [which] looks curiously scrambled”. Poole goes on to add that “[f]ew techno-utopias are as confusing as this one. In Anderson's brave new world, everyone is a creative-geek tinkerer but no one does the boring stuff”.

In contrast, Michael Roth’s review on the Huffington Post and in the Washington Post is more complimentary. “Anderson is an excellent guide to companies that make niche products for an international market ... [and] a good storyteller,” according to Roth. According to Roth, Anderson is “an indefatigable cheerleader for the unlimited potential of the digital economy”. Likewise, Oliver Franklin in GQ enjoys the “fascinating characters” featured in the book from “Will Chapman, a Washington-based designer 3D printing Lego kits, to Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT professor”.

Murder at Wrotham Hill by Diana Souhami

Diana Souham’s previous book, Edith Cavell, told the story of the eponymous nurse who was shot for smuggling allied soldiers out of Belgium during the First World War. In her latest offering, Murder at Wrotham Hill, we are transported to post-war Kent and the murder of “gentle eccentric spinster” Dagmar Petrzywalski.

Critics are unanimous in their view that Souhami’s book evokes a detailed picture of postwar austerity Britain. The Guardian’s Blake Morrison writes “both the murderer and murderee were classic products of the age”. He observes the author’s use of “zeitgeisty minutiae”, which is not always effective: “[It] is enriching, at worst distracting.”

But whilst Morrison “isn’t entirely clear” as to why Souhami chooses to write about the “model citizen of austerity Britain”, Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books admires the “great clairity and attention” with which Souhami evokes the postwar period.

Sinclair McKay of the Telegraph, whilst also reading the work historically, praises it for transcending cultural emphera: “Both killer and victim stood at an angle to society, and the strangeness of their stories resonates deeply in another way, leading one to meditate on ideas of malevolent fate and evil.” He is full of praise for Souhami’s writing which he describes as “too clever to allow any neatness”, evoking the “cruel and bewildering randomness” of the murder in question.

Indian passengers wait on a train at railway staion during a power outage in New Delhi in July 2012. (Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/GettyImages
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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder