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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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017.

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 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage