Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Otto Dov Kulka, Tracey Thorn and Henry Hitchings.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination by Otto Dov Kulka

Otto Dov Kulka, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attracts widespread praise for his memoir of his childhood incarceration in Auschwitz.

Linda Grant, writing in the New Statesman, describes the book as a “short memoir of inquiry [which] consists of ten chapters that are transcripts of tape recordings he made in the 1990s, followed by three extracts from his diaries. It is almost unclassifiable.” Grant praises the way the book “tries to penetrate the maze of established fact and personal experience in order to arrive at what seems unreachable.” She concludes, “nothing else I have read comes close to the profound examination of what the Holocaust means. ...The journey strikes me as a quest similar to the attempt to describe the face of God or the structure of the universe. They are too vast and mysterious, not that it stops us, or this author, from trying.”

Arifa Akbar, in the Independent, describes the book as composed of “philosophical inquiries into the relationship between memory and forgetfulness - what a boy remembers of such traumatic events and how memory re-processes the trauma.” Made up of “descriptions, reflections and dreams, emotionally restrained but so intense that they read like nuggets of interiority ... Kulka's reflections have an unsettling rawness.” Kulka describes a world in which death is ever present: “it is the dark stains left by blood in the snow during the evacuation of the camp. It is there in the ritualised violence of public beatings and the magnetic force that surrounds inmates." Yet, “there are also moments of protest, black humour and beauty.” Akbar finds a “grave, poetic and horrifying account of the Holocaust which does not so much revisit the Auschwitz of the past, but the Auschwitz of Kulka's inner world.”

Simon Schama in the Financial Times begins by setting out the pitfalls of writing about the Holocaust: "language, especially the wrought language of literature, struggles to register atrocities unrecognisable as the acts of sentient humans. Yet however unequal to the task, writers persist in their efforts to give form to smoke; to match words to madness...chroniclers of what Otto Dov Kulka calls ‘the Great Death’ continue to be torn between redundancy and futility.” In Landscapes, Schama finds “not so much a book about Auschwitz as one about coming to terms with the shock of survival ... the writing hovers around the incineration, as he puts it, ‘like a moth circles a flame.’” In “Kulka’s patient but exacting self-interrogations; his postwar circumlocutions and confrontations” Schama finds something “bony and austere, with scarcely a note of literary striving in the hundred-odd pages.” For Schama “what, ultimately, makes Kulka’s book unlike any other first-hand account written about the camps is the authenticity of its vision of an 11-year-old boy .. .All this is unimaginably horrifying, yet through the eyes of little Otto we can, again, apprehend it.”

 

Sorry! The English And Their Manners by Henry Hitchings

George Pendle, writing in the Financial Times, describes how “tripping from medieval documents to contemporary popular culture, Hitchings traces the role manners have played in the history of England, not to mention the considerable role the English have played in the history of manners.” “Hitchings ranges widely, ducking into psychiatry – ‘in the absence of good manners, the rawness of our primal urges burst forth’ – and physiology – ‘feelings of affiliation and attachment cause the hormone oxytocin to be released’ – to explain our use of manners.”  "As befits the author of The Secret Life of Words (2008) and The Language Wars (2011)," Pendle writes, "it is the English language that he sees as shedding the most light on his subject. ‘Good manners are like the principles of grammar,’ he writes, ‘we make use of them all the time but also violate them frequently.’”

Robert McCrum in the Observer says Hitchings “has been suffering from a mild case of anglophilia for some years ... Now, he has succumbed to a full-blown case of anglomania, a study of English social behaviour through the ages whose title – Sorry! – suggests that he knows his affliction is both contagious and untreatable.” McCrum sees this as part of “the agonies of the ‘British’ question. The catalogue of commentarians who have been driven to the edge of insanity by this topic is long and distinguished ... The English have never ceased to find themselves, and the complexities of their island inheritance, fascinating.” For McCrum, “the best parts of Sorry! are when Hitchings re-examines the English ‘manners’ of, for example, Samuel Pepys, Lord Chesterfield, who invented ‘etiquette’, Edmund Burke, or Fanny Trollope (Anthony's mother) and her entertaining strictures about the vulgarity and self-belief of Americans.” However, “as his exposition of English manners, and why we behave the way we do, approaches the present day, the rigour of Hitchings's absorbing analysis starts to break down as he becomes distracted by myriad contemporary issues and concerns ... His research becomes impressionistic and personal.” It is concluded that “Hitchings has made a bold, entertaining, and often imaginative, assault on a fundamentally impossible subject. Perhaps in writing Sorry! he will have found a cure for his affliction.”

Simon Heffer in the New Statesman finds Sorry! “an undisciplined book.” It “lapses into social history or rudimentary sociology , not exploring manners as such as asking why communities are less cohesive than they used to be.” Heffer criticises the way in which “Hitchings introduces little chats with passers by... And there is a lot about the US, which as far as I remember is not in England at all and not even in many cases a useful point of comparison.” Heffer comments “there are some interesting observations and facts in this book...But - if its not rude to say so – it should have been better edited and about half as long.”

 

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn

Judging by the usual content of musicians autobiographies, you’d expect this memoir to be an all round celebration of alcohol, drugs, and the joys of casual sex on tour. Bedsit Disco Queen is, in fact, quite the opposite: for a start, Thorn met her husband (and other half of Everything But The Girl) Ben Watt on her first day at university in 1981. She also barely mentions any use of narcotics, apart from one vague brush with barbiturates.

Not that we should focus on what this book is not – as Zoe Williams points out in the Guardian, “the gift of an interesting protagonist allows its author to be somewhat reticent about the aspects that other musicians would have to go large on”.

Whilst talking about her teenage years and various musical projects, Thorn manages to show a side of the 1980s that is often forgotten – a world of “John Peel on BBC Radio 1 every night; a world of bands, including EBTG, who played benefit gigs for striking miners”, writes Isabel Berwick in the Financial Times. She is also a refreshingly honest narrator, making it clear that she was always ““awkward” woman who just happened to become a pop star”.

And this is essentially why Bedsit Disco Queen works: as Williams explains, it manages to be a “critical but sensitive portrait of an idiosyncratic but intensely appealing character” as well as a story music lovers will enjoy. The anecdotes about Paul Weller, George Michael and others are sweet and funny, and the reflections on her relationship with Watts, professional and personal, will satisfy EBTG fans, as it is the first time either of them has talked openly about their private lives.

All in all, Thorn’s memoir touches on a lot of things – music, politics, intimate memories – except maybe what we might have been expected of her. It's about, as Berwick puts it, "everything but the glitz".

"Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Good manners: Roger Moore opening the door of his Volvo for Isabelle McMillan [Photo: Len Trievnor/Getty Images]
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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