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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

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