Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jared Diamond, Lara Feigel and Marco Roth.

The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel’s reinvention of biographical writing breathes danger, excitement and passion into wartime London. Interweaving letters, diaries, fiction and civil defence records, The Love Charm of Bombs traces the restless, crossing paths of five writers – Graham Green, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel – as their proximity to death brings with it an aphrodisiacal consciousness of being alive.

Much like the shattering effects of the Blitz, Feigel’s work has divided critics. Nicholas Shakespeare’s review for the Telegraph praises The Love Charm of Bombs as “intelligently written, seamlessly presented and with something of the quality of a tapestry.” Yet he laments its wandering conclusion: “it might have packed more punch had it broken off with the all-clear siren and not followed her disparate group into the slow, grey post-war years.”

Craig Brown applauds the book’s ability to capture the “strange euphoria of war”. Like Shakespeare, however, he criticises its “bitty”, sprawling nature. Writing in the Daily Mail, Brown said that the five writers rarely come together and remain distanced from the public “almost as if they were members of a different race”. Feigel’s diligent provision of lengthy synopses are also “unnecessary to those who have read them and meaningless to those who have not.”

The New Statesman’s John Sutherland welcomes Feigel’s innovative remoulding of biography into “life writing”. The author, a lecturer in English and Medical Humanities at King’s College, London, “has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer.” Sutherland’s review focuses on the “metropolitan orgasm” in literary London and the way in which war stimulated culture, as seen among Feigel’s chosen writers. “Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post coital years.” Remarking on the dawn of “new biography” he adds: “Let’s hope they are as good as this one.”

 
The Scientists by Marco Roth

This memoir by Marco Roth details his adolescence, growing up in New York as the only child of members of the "liberal Jewish elite". But his father, a hematologist, had AIDS; the book charts Roth’s discovery of the real reason for the existence of his "microscopic sibling HIV". The Scientists will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, notes that “The Scientists seems an odd title for such a literary quest”; with connotations of order and process, this book “departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life”. The author’s prose, he says, is “effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully.” However, this “compulsive memoir” is in Adams’s opinion also tinged with a hint of desperation; perhaps the pressure of success from his social standing, or the urgency with which Roth was “born, or doomed” to write this book.

Publisher’s Weekly also admires Marco Roth for documenting the “silence and shame” he grew up with, having such a socially respected father who suffered from AIDS. The sense of this memoir being a necessary eruption for the author is also captured in this review, with its description as “powerfully forlorn”, it is deemed “a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.”

Jessica Winter’s review of The Scientists, in The New York Times, delves into the journey of self-discovery Roth endured whilst writing his memoir. Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, had previously written a book which strongly suggested that Marco’s father has been homosexual, and that he may have contracted AIDS “in the more usual way”. “This quasi revelation," Winter writes, "required a recasting of his own identity - if his aunt’s assumption was correct, he writes, ‘then my own existence was like a prop, a decoy to throw off nosy people like Anne’”. It may be because of this that Winter finds the tone of the book “intensely private” in the sense that Roth does not venture into any of the social, political or cultural debates surrounding the topic of AIDS. Winter notes Roth’s “almost paralytic analysis . . . a compulsion to perform an autopsy on the smallest event, exchange or artefact”. But it might be this, she suggests, that gives The Scientists its peculiar power.


The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Variously described as a biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist, Jared Diamond bridges the gulf between primitive society and modernity in The World Until Yesterday. Picking up from the theory of environmental determinism he introduced in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author argues that traditional societies still have something to teach us.

Soon to be reviewed by the New Statesman, the book has been both praised and condemned.

The Telegraph’s Tom Payne was “riveted by the thought-provoking study”, though remained unconvinced by the some of its central arguments. “I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life,” he said. “But it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, [commenting on the New Guinean’s child-rearing practices] a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.”

In an exhaustive review that surveys anthropological ideas, Wade Davis endorsed the spirit but not the execution and conclusion of The World Until Yesterday. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Davis argues that Diamond’s narrow focus on environmental determinism overlooks the importance of ideas. The author’s observations are “original” and “wise”, but his conclusions are “uninspired and self-evident”: “One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” Diamond is praised for his New Guinean studies. However, his “limited” experience and research elsewhere means that “a book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.”

By contrast, Peter Forbes's review in The Independent praises Diamond’s recalibration of primitive history: “Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history.... he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.” Forbes, too, remarks Diamond’s bias towards New Guinea, “the region and the people he loves”.

17 August 1939: Members of the 3rd Women's Territorial Service, leaving Croydon station for their fortnight's training under canvas, kiss their husbands and boyfriends goodbye. (Getty Images)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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