Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Carl Watkins and Cheryl Strayed.

The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

This biography of the contentious Gabriele d’Annunzio is not the first to be written. D'Annunzio, who still sparks widespread controversy despite his death occurring over 80 years ago, is recognised as a ‘literary superstar’, remembered as "a kind of 'John the Baptist' to Benito Mussolini", and a "soft pornographer", or "at best a dilettante of sensation". Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of "the Italian novelist, poet, politician, warmonger and womaniser" divides the critics.

Writing in the Financial Times, Ian Thomson is impressed with the memoir which occupies an “already crowded field”. But this, Thomson claims, does not deter her success in creating a “hugely enjoyable” read. She does not glorify her subject; although handing him his necessary due, she effectively reduces the poet to “normal, weak human, and puts him, in some way, back in his box”. Thomson notes that the book has an air of eccentricity about it; failing to read chronologically with the diction described as “unusual, combining esoteric terms for which I had to resort to the dictionary with a smattering of f- and c-words”. The reviewer compliments Hughes-Hallett’s ability to encapsulate an era or attitude “with an arresting one-liner”; “For the belligerent d’Annunzio, ‘writing was a martial art’. In his life ‘the cult of beauty took the place of morality’”. A captivating read, Thomson concludes that the speed with which he “flew” through the book indicates just “how pleasurable, and readable, those pages were”.

Tobias Jones in the Sunday Times was not so enamoured. Jones sees in the nonsequential order of The Pike evidence of “narrative disarray”, with a subtext of exasperation at the chronology “leaping backwards and forwards”. What were "arresting one-liners" for Thomson are unfortunate clichés for Jones, who claims that the author was excessively influenced by her notorious subject, writing the biography with an artificial “desire to shock”. Perhaps Jones’s quandary is that d’Annunzio’s life, which he describes himself as “a spectacle: he wrote prolifically, and promoted himself fanatically, even once faking his death to increase publicity”, speaks for itself. Hughes-Hallett has, in Jones’s opinion, created “a serviceable biography” – and not much more.

The Telegraph’s review, by Jonathan Keates, falls somewhere in the middle. He commends the author for the “courage” it took to write a biography such as this, and insists that the book “ranges wider than the cradle-to-grave chronicle”. He certainly feels this book has impact – “its subject is so emphatically and relentlessly unimproving that several readers…might fancy a cold bath or a jog around the park” – but whether this is down to Hughes-Hallett’s writing or the strength of d’Annunzio’s character and story, Keates does not hint.

The Pike will be reviewed in the New Statesman's forthcoming history books special.

 

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by Carl Watkins

To Guardian reviewer Iain Sinclair, there is no better time than the New Year to examine our relationship with the afterlife and “kick free of the embrace of our inconvenient predecessors.” The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by historian Carl Watkins records Britain’s attitudes to death from the Middle Ages up to the present day, from ghosts and folklore to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

Sinclair praises the book as a “voyage through time, by way of legends, brief biographies, and character sketches” led by “one of those rare guides who never overstays his welcome.” He praises Watkins for wearing “his research lightly as he journeys around the British landscape, teasing out themes and cultural shifts from the particulars of individual lives.”

To Peter Stanford in the Telegraph, the book’s “eye for detail provides a feast of illuminating stories to resurrect the religious mindset of those in the pews 500 years ago.” He lauds the book’s “tip-top”, “bottom up” approach for exposing the“yawning gap between the theory and the practice of institutional religion.” According to Stanford, “Watkins takes one story and then explores its wider ramifications in national, theological, cultural and political contexts.” This means that at times “his range is so wide that you risk losing sight of his main argument” Watkins brings the book to a sound conclusion, “a final reckoning where he can set out his stall.” Stanford agrees with Watkins that attitudes to death have suffered from the decline of religion, “without some sort of faith context, we don’t quite know how to discuss the subject.”

For Roger Clarke, writing in the Independent, Watkins is “at its best with his medieval specialisation.” “Better on aesthetics than social change,” argues Clarke, “Watkins is least comfortable when venturing into the more modern world of the séance or discussing proto-socialists such as Robert Owen and David Richmond.”

“For the medieval mind, death was something that haunted every moment of life,” writes Clarke. “By contrast, our modern sensibility is to go on for as long as possible as if we are immortal, leaving any thought of death and what (if anything) lies beyond until our very last breath.”

 

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

After losing her mother prematurely to lung cancer, and having been deserted by her estranged father years before, Cheryl Strayed found herself burying her grief with a reliance on heroin and casual sex, eventually destroying her marriage. This book, written almost 20 years after the events it describes, sees Strayed reliving the journey that released her from despair. For three months she hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail, across nine mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada. She did it, in her words, “in order to save myself". 

Daneet Steffens, reviewing Wild for the Independent, describes this memoir as “a funny and fierce tale”. Her “in-your-face narration is completely immersive; a dynamic reading sensation that belies the fact that these events are two decades old”. Strayed’s courage is continuously admired, “she banishes any fear of potential dangers: ‘nothing bad could happen to me…The worst thing already had.’” Steffens finds  the book’s narrative pace  “pleasurably urgent”, matching the author's journey. 

The Guardian's review is similarly favourable. Sara Wheeler calls labels this a “hugely entertaining book”, but one that shows itself to surpass the clichés of the genre it finds itself in, “Cheryl Strayed takes the redemptive nature of travel – a theme as old as literature itself – and makes it her own”. Wheeler praises this “unusual” author for the way she tackles sex, “one of the last taboos in women's travel writing”. It is a theme the author  addresses unabashedly: “men are sized up as soon as they walk into the campsite and on to the page”. 

Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, completes a trio of approving reviews. She deems the book “both touching and instructive”, because “[Strayed's] take is utterly sincere”. 

A monument marking the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, which Cheryl Strayed documents in her book. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution