In the Critics this Week

Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf, Rachel Cooke on House of Cards, Richard Holloway on John Gray and much more.

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is lead by Jeanette Winterson’s article on the “joyous transgressions” of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In her essay, Winterson discusses how Woolf “did away with the usual co-ordinates of biography and set off through time as though it were an element, not a dimension”. Woolf composed the novel as a “savage satire on sexism”, spurred by the Victorian gender roles among which she grew up. Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the model for Orlando, “often dressed as a man and often had affairs with other women in her disguise as ‘Julian’”, and Woolf responded to this, Winterson argues, in part because of her love for the “scope and the certainty of the Renaissance mind”. Shakespeare could understand the “manliness of a soldier, the intensity of a nun”, and Woolf’s novel enacts a similar full-mindedness. Winterson argues that Woolf wrote a novel which refuses constraints, where “Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant”.

In her review of House of Cards, Rachel Cooke is sceptical of the soothsayers who insist Netflix will revolutionise the way we watch television. Will House of Cards really initiate a culture of binge-watching? Though Cooke doubts it, she admits that if anything were to seduce her, it could very well be House of Cards, whose writing and production she praises, alongside Kevin Spacey’s lead performance. Ryan Gilbey thinks far less of the week’s big cinema release, This is 40, directed by Judd Apatow. Gilbey deems it “not so much cinema as four episdoes of Outnumbered set to a coffee-shop playlist”, and ultimately “40 percent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film”.

In Books, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, in which the philosopher argues that “our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence”, yet “humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease”. George Eaton finds the prose of Richard Seymour in his book Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens “tediously inflated”, and his message undermined from the outset “by deploying ‘left’ as a synonym for ‘things I like’ and ‘right’ as a synonym for ‘things I don’t’”.

Elsewhere, Sarah Churchwell reviews A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (“the ethos of this novel is about the value of making things”); Alex Massie reviews On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford (“Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends...”); Peter Wilby reviews Calon: a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby by Owen Sheers (“modern rugby involves more than stirring men’s blood against ancient wrongs”); and James Harkin reviews Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (“as mainstream institutions crumble, it’s easy to have a go at cultish organisations”).

 

Plus:

Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Tracey Thorn, whose book Bedsit Disco Queen chews over an essential question for the author: “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” Thorn discusses the mild careerism of her generation in comparison to today’s “terribly organised and ambitious” youth.

 

Elsewhere in The Critics:

Will Self on the elusiveness of raclette in Basel (“I liked the idea of shepherd’s slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence”); Alexandra Coghlan on the Sensing Memory festival at University of Plymouth (which “teems with compositional creativity”); Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s latest series, Lyrical Journey which travels to the geographical setting of a famous song with its songwriter; and a poem by Maurice Riordan on the “drawn-out scream” of childhood, entitled "The Lull".

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf, 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism