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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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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