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)
GETTY
Show Hide image

Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue