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)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle