Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Foster Wallace, Roberto Calasso's Baudelaire and Nick Barratt's history of London's suburbs.

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest who ended his own life in 2008, claimed that nonfiction is harder to write than fiction “because nonfiction is based in reality – and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." This posthumous collection of essays on what Wallace described as the “total noise” of contemporary life has been met with mixed reactions. Whilst critics are united in praising Wallace's idiosyncratic talent, opinions differ on whether this collection should have been published this way, if at all.

In a review that raises the issue of what rightly constitutes an author’s oeuvre, Leo Robson writes in this week’s New Statesman: “it is […] a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings”. He considers the collection to be unrepresentative both of the author’s talent, and what he would have wished: “Wallace had shown how he wanted his non-fiction to be treated and it didn’t involve the conversion of emphera in to filler. In other words, if Wallace had survived long enough to preside over a further collection, it is unlikely that he would have looked like this.”

In contrast, Nat Segnit of The Independent, praises a work that, for him, “brims with jewels of insight and expression.” Whilst Robson objects to a prose which, at times, seems to contradict what we know of Wallace’s actual life, Segnit is appreciative of his “digressions and feedback loops of obsessive self-correction”.

David Annand writing in The Telegraph concedes that only some of the collected pieces “belong firmly in Wallace’s first rank” and that, at worst, “there’s something a little desperate about including a throwaway one-pager on Zbigniew Herbert” in this collection. However,  he concluldes that the “the spirit which animates Wallace’s essays" provides ample examples of what Annand calls “David Foster Wallace moments”- “when you get halfway through a sentence and gasp involuntarily, and for a second you feel lucky that there was, at least for a time, someone who could make sense like no other of what it is to be a human in our era.”

La Folie Bauedelaire by Roberto Calasso

The phrase “la folie Baudelaire” has its origin in an article written by Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire’s contemporary and nemesis, which decried the poet as a drug-addled rascal, unsuitable for admission to the Académie Française. Whilst critics agree that Alastair McEwan's translation of Calasso's extended essay is succesful in evoking some of the idiosyncrasy of the "monstre sacré", they are divided on the effectiveness of the Italian's "ornate" writing style.

Keith Miller of The Telegraph warns that this work is less useful than Baudelaire’s Wikipedia page in communicating the “salient facts” of the 19th- century poet’s life, he writes “this is in no sense a biography”. However, for Miller, what the book lacks in factual detail, it makes up for in its evocation of Baudelaire’s otherness: “This book, sublimely untouched by 20th-century thought […], and imperiously indifferent to any revisionist impulse is essentially content to leave him [...] magnificently marooned on his Asiatic isthmus, the king across the water. “

John Simon in the New York Times finds himself frustrated by the obscurity of Calasso’s prose, he writes: “ the book fluctuates between criticism and biography, which is fine; what is lacking, however, is a clearly conveyed thread that unites all this material.” Though he says that Calsso’s writing can be “quite impressive”, he concludes: “the translation into English seems correct enough”, but that the “obscurantism” could do with translation into “perspicuity”.

Emma Hogan, writing in the Financial Timesagrees that Calasso “sometimes [...] strays too far into the realms of whimsy”. She judges that the author manages to “capture the shifting, overlapping world [of 19th-century Paris]” without getting “overwhelmed by his own material”. The “stories of supporting characters” are celebrated by Hogan, who writes that “such details, combined with [Calasso's] ear for a lyrical phrase, make La Folie Baudelaire a joy to read.”

Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs by Nick Barratt

Nick Barratt’s Greater London charts the development of London’s surrounding land, and the role it has played in the creation of the inner city. Its scale is ambitious, spanning a period from the first century AD up to the present day. John Carey in the Sunday Times confirms that Barratt is successful in “[collecting] facts on a prodigious scale”, managing to capture “London’s spectacular growth.” For Carey, however, Greater London, fails to fulfill its self-professed aim “to celebrate the suburbs”. He argues that Barratt fails to properly represent the human element of the development it charts: "What is missing […] is a sense of how people feel about their suburbs, and what they treasure in suburban life.”

Rebecca Armstrong, writing in the Independent, is more convinced of the breadth of Barratt’s work, which she says performs an “excellent impression of a far-reaching, in-depth yet broadly-based history of London.” Though she concedes that there are parts of the book which would require one to be “enamored of local politics” in order to best appreciate them, in general she findsit to be both informative and entertaining: “You don’t have to be a Londoner to enjoy this heroic tale of people – of bricks and train-tracks – triumphing to the detriment of green space.”

David Foster Wallace pictured in 1997 (Photograph: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

I don't even believe in God – so I was surprised to find myself caring so much about The Young Pope

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter me whether or not the character believes.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

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 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage