In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Manet, Alexandra Harris on Britten, Toby Litt on Tracey Thorn, Cheryl Strayed interviewed and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet, novelist and critic Craig Raine visits “Manet: Portraying Life” at the Royal Academy in London. Raine declares the exhibition “absorbing”. And comparing Manet with Rembrandt, Raine concludes that “Manet’s best portraits are conspicuous refinements, subtly understated, less dramatic, more realistic [than Rembrandt’s]”.

Our lead book reviewer this week is the writer and critic Alexandra Harris, who reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. “Britten’s journey to the centre of British public life was amazingly rapid,” Harris notes, “and does not seem to have been much hampered by the chattering prejudice that followed wherever he went.” As befits a practising conductor, Kildea is particularly good on Britten’s music itself. “[His] verbal explorations of the music are done with level-headed sensitivity leavened by a quirky lightness of touch …”

Also in Books: Tim Bale, one of our leading historians of the Conservative Party, reviews Tory Modernisation 2.0, edited by Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg (“The Tories are in far more trouble than they – particularly those on the Thatcherite and populist right – realise”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth (“The Scientists is not just an intellectual memoir, a memoir of reading … it is also a memoir of Roth’s father”); novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen (“It’s no surprise that Bedsit Disco Queen is an immensely likeable book. Everything But the Girl are (were?) an immensely likeable band”; Nina Caplan reviews Lawrence Osborne’s alcoholic travelogue The Wet and the Dry: a Drinker’s Journey (“[Osborne] is not interested in cultures that exist without alcohol but in people who drink where drinking is forbidden”); and Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business with the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein (“This is one of the funniest rock books I’ve read …”).

In his “Notes in the margin” column, Jonathan Derbyshire celebrates the New Statesman’s association with the Goldsmiths Prize, a new prize that will reward fiction that is “genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention”. And in the Books interview, Derbyshire talks to American author Cheryl Strayed about her memoir, Wild. “I couldn’t have written this book at 26,” Strayed, who is now in her early forties, tells him. “I wasn’t yet the writer who wrote Wild. It takes years to become a writer.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: our classical music critic Alexandra Coghlan enjoys the opening week of the Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre; Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight; Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s BBC4 documentary The Joy of Essex; Andrew Billen reviews Polly Stenham’s No Quarter at the Royal Court and the Almeida’s stage adaptation of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”; Antonia Quirke enjoys a BBC World Service documentary about chickens.

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals.

A visitor at the Royal Academy's Manet exhibition (Photograph: Getty Images)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era