Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Les Misérables, released 11 January

After its extreme success on the stage – having been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries, and in 21 languages across the globe - Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables finally hits our cinema screens this Friday.

With an impressive cast list including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter, the film will deliver the epic story of ex-prisoner Jean Valijean in 19th century Paris, as he meets factory worker Fantine and agrees to care for her daughter whilst being tracked down by policeman Javert for breaking his parole. The film is released in cinemas on January 11th.

Circus

Kooza, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, Jan 5 - Feb 10 2013

Cirque du Soleil brings their show Kooza to the UK for the first time this week at the Royal Albert Hall. The spectacle taps into their origins, combining a mix of the traditional acrobatics and clowning. The visuals have been described as ‘electrifying’ and ‘exotic’, while the show itself is to depict the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner who strives to belong. All culminating in a spectacular display of contortionism, high wire and a rather ominous-sounding ‘Wheel of Death’.

Theatre

Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street SW1Y 4DN, Jan 12 – 6April 2013

This is the first Pinter play to be performed in the freshly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, previously known as the old Comedy Theatre. Actress Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson join forces in the “seductive and compelling” drama, Old Times. The pair had previously collaborated in Betrayal, also written by the late playwrite.

Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell complete the minimal cast, with the two female actresses swapping between the roles of Anna and Kate from show to show. The play tells the story of three friends reminiscing over past times, which results in conflicting recollections and the reawakening of sexual tensions.

Opera

La Bohème, Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD, 5 Jan – 12March 2013

The Royal Opera House opens its doors for John Copley’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The tear-jerker set in Paris in the 19th century sees Rodolfo, a meagre poet, meet Mimì, a seamstress, and fall passionately in love. Their happiness, however, is threatened when Rodolfo learns that Mimì is gravely ill. Reviews have deemed the Opera as “fresh and natural", and describe the singing as “beautifully shaped”.

Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4ES , 9-19 January 

The English National Ballet begin their tour of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty in London this week; with choreography from Kenneth Macmillan alongside Tchaikovsky’s best-loved ballet music, including the Rose Adagio, and the music that was used as the melody for Once Upon a Dream as featured in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Extravagant costumes and detailed set design help to tell the legendary fairytale of Princess Aurora who must endure the curse of sleeping for a hundred years, after pricking her finger on a needle on her sixteenth birthday. The ballet has been described as a “triumph” that would “inspire not one but two generations”.

A previous performance of opera La Bohème. Photograph: Getty Images
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

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