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.
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism