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)
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.