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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge