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)
Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

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

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