Reviews Round-up

The critics's verdicts on William Dalrymple, Sheila Heti and Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

Barnaby Rogerson of the Independent praises the vivid writing of Darlymple’s account of the first Anglo-Afghan war. The historical characters are full of “passion, vivacity and animation ... you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all”. However, Rogerson finds that “the parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the US and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.” Rogerson deems this a book rich with insights into how this war shaped modern Afghanistan. “The destruction of a British Army of the Indus ... gave Afghanistan its national identity and self-esteem,” he writes. The war also “forged the very concept of Afghanistan as a separate, Islamic nation dominated by an alliance of Pathan tribes ruling from Kabul”. In addition, “the bizarre political frontiers of our modern age were directly created in this period.”

Rupert Edis, in the Daily Telegraphpraises Dalrymple’s use of “remarkable new Afghan and Indian sources”. However, he takes issue with the book’s “unwonted contemporary or didactic relevance”. Edis argues the “Britain’s First Afghan War does not have the ‘clear and relevant parallels’ claimed for it ‘with the current deepening crisis’ of the latest invasion of Afghanistan”. He adds: "It is strongly arguable that the situation in Afghanistan is improving, not worsening, and writing that Afghanistan may end up as in 1842 ‘ruled by the same [Taliban] government which the war was originally fought to overthrow’ is plain wrong. The West’s justified war aims in 2001 of toppling the Taliban and destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been achieved. “ Nevertheless, Edis concedes that, “overwrought comparisons with the present aside, this book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research.”

For Anatol Lieven in the Financial Times, there is much to be learned from this book. He praises Dalrymple for his “unflinching look at British imperial atrocities”. For Lieven, “it is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book”. It shows us the dangers of “civilisational hubris,” and how “every intervention in Afghanistan has turned out to be far more expensive than was foreseen by its planners". Finally, Dalrymple reminds us of "the need to understand Afghanistan on its own terms, and not fit it into simplistic international frameworks". Lieven concludes: “In view of this past record, it would not surprise me in the slightest if in the years to come the west finds itself relying on the Taliban to create order in large parts of Afghanistan. Certainly, the British survivors of 1842 would have found nothing unexpected in such an outcome. But then, one of the most depressing aspects of Dalrymple’s account is that most British officials only really tried to learn about Afghanistan when they were on the verge of abandoning the place.”

Return of a King will be reviewed by Sherard Cowper-Coles, formerly Britain's special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the next edition of the New Statesman.

 

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Holly Williams, writing in the Independentgives an indication of her opinion of this book in the opening line of her review: “My, what a beautiful navel I have.” “Is it fiction? Memoir? A half-arsed play?” Williams asks. It is not clear how much of this "supremely self-indulgent" book is taken from real life. The "fragmentary first-person story of recently divorced twenty-something Sheila – trying to write a play; failing" is "written by [that] fateful label 'voice of a generation'". Williams adds:"British readers may find that it speaks to them less." There is "vague philosophical musing about how to live, how to be a beautiful person, and how to create art, but there's little plot." Williams finds "reading How Should a Person Be? [to be] like listening in to someone gossip on public transport. You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don't often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling."

For Claudia Yusef in the Daily Telegraph, “Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical novel is a humorous, quixotic quest for selfhood in a generation that sometimes seems defined by celebrity, triviality and Paris Hilton’s sex tapes.” “Heti makes great comic mileage of her generation’s narcissistic, prolonged adolescence.”  “[It is]hard to know, she goes on, "when, if ever, Sheila wants us to take her seriously... the jokes about weeding out all the ‘ugly people’ from their lives feel less self-satirising and more a probable statement of affairs. And, suddenly, the whole enterprise feels less self-aware and less insightful than an episode of Sex and the City." Emily Stokes of the FT comments: “Heti’s book has stirred controversy, being called both sloppily written and formally inventive, radically feminist and worryingly self-conscious.” Comparing the book to Girls, the HBO comedy about “smart girls making stupid decisions,” Stokes says this book is a case of “smart girls making no decisions.” Sheila is “a puer aeternus, Peter Pan-like, constantly seeking purpose in new things.”

According to Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, “the novel is constructed from multiple materials, including snippets of emails and long sections of dialogue. In its self-referential intertextuality and its offbeat wit, it recalls Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, as well as Warhol’s bizarre novel a (1968), in which he taped and had badly transcribed 24 hours of amphetamine-fuelled conver - sation between various logorrheic Factory members.” She finds How Should a Person Be? to be "a profoundly ironic production – or, perhaps more accurately, it is a production profoundly concerned with how to live authentically in a world saturated by irony.”

Sheila Heti was interviewed in the New Statesman here.

 

The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

He inspired Mussolini, was once Italy’s most famous poet, and created and led an independent state during the First World War, so how come no one really knows about Gabriele D’Annunzio?  He might have died nearly 80 years ago, but his life, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett proves with this biography, is worth remembering. She recounts the exploits and horror stories of a man who was as much of a genius as he was morally corrupt and repulsive.

In his review for the Telegraph, Jonathan Keates warns his readers that they will probably want to “give up in disgust after a few chapters”, or have a “cold bath or a jog around the park” if they decide to finish it. He is, however, quick in adding that “there is much to be learnt from the rise and fall of […] an  Italian poet, novelist and dramatist who blagged, blustered, fantasised and fornicated his way to international notoriety”.

After all, he was admired by Proust, and seen as one of the most talented writers of the 19th century – along with Tolstoy and Kipling – by James Joyce. He also wrote 48 books and poetry (including three before the age of 18), had several dozen lovers from all around Europe, and presided over the temporarily independent state of Fiume for over a year, before trying – and failing – to start a war with his own country.

As Ian Birrell points out in the Guardian, D'Annuinzio’s greatest work of art was himself: in many ways, he was the ultimate "pioneer of modern celebrity culture"; he "understood the fantastic soft power of fame". When still a teenager, he managed to trigger nationwide publicity for his first published book by writing to newspapers saying that the author of the poems had died before publication.

The trick, then, would seemingly to be that of recounting the life of such a compelling yet morally compromised character without falling into either accidental praise or predictable contempt. And according to both critics, Hughes-Hallet manages to avoid both extremes: as Birrell writes, she “dances her way through this extraordinary life in a style that is playful, punchy and generally pleasing”. By attempting to “separate the man from his myths, […] she allows the poet to hang himself”. After all, this is a man who famously wanted "the world [to] be convinced that [he was] capable of anything”, which, in a dark, twisted way, is precisely what he achieved.

"The Pike" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Gabriele d'Annunzio and Benito Mussolini in 1935. [Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getyy Images]
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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