Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Paul Kildea, James Wood and Dave Eggers.

 

Benjamin Britten: a Life in the Twentieth Century by Paul Kildea

Philip Hensher, writing in the Guardian, praises Paul Kildea's sure-footed assesment of Benjamin Britten's financial situation, arguing that the composer's enormous income during the early 1960s is significant in understanding his "commanding position" in British culture, and the figure of "great, wilful power" which he became while running the  Aldeburgh festival. However, Hensher rues the "bad start" from which Kildea's biography suffered upon promising "startling new revelations" about Britten's death. Kildea argues that Britten's death was hastened by a case of syphillis transmitted to him by Peter Pears. Within four days of publication a doctor who cared for Britten in his final illness rapidly pooh-poohed the claims in no uncertain terms (he deemed them "rubbish"). Hensher, not without sympathy, admits that the cardiologist is hard to dismiss, and chastises a "school of posthumos diagnosis of the great, more biographical than medical in expertise" as  "rancorous in tone" and "subject to abrupt reversals", of which Kildea's book is an unfortunate member. Hensher reminds us that the music ought to be at the centre of such a work, not speculation about sexually transmitted diseases. Hensher also finds the biographer's taste slightly suspect ("notably preferring that dull and mechanical Nocturne to the great Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings"), but acknowledges the merits of a biographer who exhibits "restriction in taste". Hensher finds the book ultimately compelling in its fleshing out of an "elusive, not very attractive and rather problematic character". It is, nonetheless, "faintly misguided".

Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph praises the fresh musical insights which this thoroughly-researched tome achieves: "[N]ew light is shone on the masterpieces. New cases are made for the neglected. Everywhere are subtle reconfigurations: Paul Bunyan as a 'magic lantern show' and the Nocturnes as full of 'the short-breathed panic of sleep'". He wishes, however, that Kildea had stopped at musicology. Although he embarks upon the "valiant endeavour" of writing a history of 20th-century Britain in order to contextualise the composer, this is where Kildea's "judgment fails him".  The biographer's loyalty trumps felicity. His "overprotective defence of Britten's behaviour" leads to unclear and flimsy assessments of Britten's meanness, his paedophilia and his political opinions. "It's surprising," Toronyi-Lalic writes, "that someone who got it so right musically...could get it so wrong politically". Despite prasing Kildea's prose as "engaging and erudite", he deems the thesis that "Britten’s coldness was a defensive mechanism against a society that loathed him for his pacifism and homosexuality" to be "laughable".
 
Andrew Clark in the Financial Times delivers a much more positive assessment. He considers the book a "superb" biography; indeed, one which "must now rank as the standard work of reference". For Clark, Kildea "scores handsomely" when assessing Britten's psychological complexity. Where Toronyi-Lalic finds Kildea's scepticism of the schoolday rape allegations a petty avoidance, Clark praises his "due care". He does not set much importance by the speculations of "Britten's syphilitic heart", however; he writes that "artists are ultimately judged by their creative legacy, next to which personal quirks fade into significance".
 
In the New Statesman, Alexandra Harris praises the "level-headed sensitivity" of Kildea's musicology, and side-stepping the "unanswerable" questions surrounding Britten's potential syphilis and the impact it may or may not have had on his work.
 

The Fun Stuff and Other Essays by James Wood

Andrew Anthony, writing in the Observer, has nothing but praise for this collection of essays.  "Wood's prose is seldom ever wrong. Instead it tends to be dense but painstakingly constructed, bedecked in extensive reading, layered argument and piercing observation". The erudition and moral seriousness of these reviews come into their own in book form, Anthony writes, for it allows references to accumulate in a way that doesn't occur when the pieces are read singly, in magazines. The "relentless intelligence" Wood applies to Yates results in a "finely argued and culturally rich" reassessment of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road as a rewrite of Madame Bovary. For Anthony, Wood is able to explain complex problems clearly without patronising the reader. This, he concludes, is a book to be both enjoyed and admired.
 
Seamus Perry is similarly positive in the Literary Review, and does Wood the honour of locating him within the critical canon. "He is a very fine reader of fiction indeed...a writer of conceptual dexterity, information and wit, and, above all, a wonderfully vivid communicator of literary pleasure," writes Perry, before proceeding to note that the implicit morality in his work, as well as his aesthetic preferences (very much for vital imagination and very much the enemy of didacticism, sermonising and the pressure to philosophise), identify Wood as a Romantic.
 
In the Times Literary Supplement, Ben Masters compares Wood with Vladimir Nabokov and F R Leavis. There is both praise and concern. In his sensitive assessment, Masters worries that an "endemic knowingness" upsets the tone, "as if the critic always knows and understands better than the novelist (or at least insists he does)". Nonetheless, Masters finds that much in this collection of "entertaining" and "impressive" essays belongs among the author's best work.
 

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

Stephen Abell’s review for the Daily Telegraph describes A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers’s novel about an ageing American salesman’s attempts to pitch for a contract at King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, as “a straightforward, rather brilliant novel”. He praises Eggers for a “more substantial” work than he has produced in the past. “Instead of worrying about the zeitgeist, he has shown that the modern world, with all its frustrations and otiose adornments, can best be conveyed with clarity and calm.” Abell also lauds the writing style. “The prose is smooth and restrained, and avoids glibness through its occasional spasm into unsettling metaphor (“she was now soaping his knee, softly, as if polishing a banister”) and hard-won elegy (“a million dead in that water, billions living under that sun, that sun a hard white light among billions more like it”).”

Arifa Akbar, writing in The Independent, agrees that this is a very strong novel. “Eggers experiments with simplicity of form. This story is unlittered, the characters few, and the style lean to the point of being stripped to its elements. The result is impressive – controlled, crystal-clear prose that resounds with painful and profound psychological truths... Flashes of comedy and poetry are occasional and startling. Everything about this novel is spare, compelling, and proves how staggering a genius Eggers can be.”

GQ’s Oliver Franklin doesn't buck this favourable trend in his review. While “the American version - ornately embossed and inlaid with gold by Detroit printer Thomson-Shore - is one of the most beautifully printed novels you'll ever see”, this is not the limit of the novel’s attractions: “craftmanship continues onto the page”. Franklin sums up A Hologram for the King as beingEggers' most polished work yet, and a searing indictment of modern capitalism. As Clay laments the decline of "selling actual objects to actual people," you can't help but run your hands over the hardback cover and feel that Eggers has a point.”

Sam Leith, writing in The Financial Times, likens Eggers's salesma's situationto that of Willy Loman’s. “America doesn’t make anything. Alan doesn’t make anything. And the whole collapsing idea on which his life is built is not just his own, but a distinctly American idea. This is Death of a Salesman for the international age, and it’s wonderfully well done.” He adds that, “A Hologram for the King is never boring: it is deeply involving and atmospheric, very poignant and very funny.”

"A Hologram for the King" will be reviewed in the next edition of the New Statesman.

Benjamin Britten in 1965 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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