Reviews Round-up

The critics's verdicts on William Dalrymple, Sheila Heti and Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

Barnaby Rogerson of the Independent praises the vivid writing of Darlymple’s account of the first Anglo-Afghan war. The historical characters are full of “passion, vivacity and animation ... you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all”. However, Rogerson finds that “the parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the US and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.” Rogerson deems this a book rich with insights into how this war shaped modern Afghanistan. “The destruction of a British Army of the Indus ... gave Afghanistan its national identity and self-esteem,” he writes. The war also “forged the very concept of Afghanistan as a separate, Islamic nation dominated by an alliance of Pathan tribes ruling from Kabul”. In addition, “the bizarre political frontiers of our modern age were directly created in this period.”

Rupert Edis, in the Daily Telegraphpraises Dalrymple’s use of “remarkable new Afghan and Indian sources”. However, he takes issue with the book’s “unwonted contemporary or didactic relevance”. Edis argues the “Britain’s First Afghan War does not have the ‘clear and relevant parallels’ claimed for it ‘with the current deepening crisis’ of the latest invasion of Afghanistan”. He adds: "It is strongly arguable that the situation in Afghanistan is improving, not worsening, and writing that Afghanistan may end up as in 1842 ‘ruled by the same [Taliban] government which the war was originally fought to overthrow’ is plain wrong. The West’s justified war aims in 2001 of toppling the Taliban and destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been achieved. “ Nevertheless, Edis concedes that, “overwrought comparisons with the present aside, this book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research.”

For Anatol Lieven in the Financial Times, there is much to be learned from this book. He praises Dalrymple for his “unflinching look at British imperial atrocities”. For Lieven, “it is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book”. It shows us the dangers of “civilisational hubris,” and how “every intervention in Afghanistan has turned out to be far more expensive than was foreseen by its planners". Finally, Dalrymple reminds us of "the need to understand Afghanistan on its own terms, and not fit it into simplistic international frameworks". Lieven concludes: “In view of this past record, it would not surprise me in the slightest if in the years to come the west finds itself relying on the Taliban to create order in large parts of Afghanistan. Certainly, the British survivors of 1842 would have found nothing unexpected in such an outcome. But then, one of the most depressing aspects of Dalrymple’s account is that most British officials only really tried to learn about Afghanistan when they were on the verge of abandoning the place.”

Return of a King will be reviewed by Sherard Cowper-Coles, formerly Britain's special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the next edition of the New Statesman.

 

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Holly Williams, writing in the Independentgives an indication of her opinion of this book in the opening line of her review: “My, what a beautiful navel I have.” “Is it fiction? Memoir? A half-arsed play?” Williams asks. It is not clear how much of this "supremely self-indulgent" book is taken from real life. The "fragmentary first-person story of recently divorced twenty-something Sheila – trying to write a play; failing" is "written by [that] fateful label 'voice of a generation'". Williams adds:"British readers may find that it speaks to them less." There is "vague philosophical musing about how to live, how to be a beautiful person, and how to create art, but there's little plot." Williams finds "reading How Should a Person Be? [to be] like listening in to someone gossip on public transport. You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don't often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling."

For Claudia Yusef in the Daily Telegraph, “Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical novel is a humorous, quixotic quest for selfhood in a generation that sometimes seems defined by celebrity, triviality and Paris Hilton’s sex tapes.” “Heti makes great comic mileage of her generation’s narcissistic, prolonged adolescence.”  “[It is]hard to know, she goes on, "when, if ever, Sheila wants us to take her seriously... the jokes about weeding out all the ‘ugly people’ from their lives feel less self-satirising and more a probable statement of affairs. And, suddenly, the whole enterprise feels less self-aware and less insightful than an episode of Sex and the City." Emily Stokes of the FT comments: “Heti’s book has stirred controversy, being called both sloppily written and formally inventive, radically feminist and worryingly self-conscious.” Comparing the book to Girls, the HBO comedy about “smart girls making stupid decisions,” Stokes says this book is a case of “smart girls making no decisions.” Sheila is “a puer aeternus, Peter Pan-like, constantly seeking purpose in new things.”

According to Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, “the novel is constructed from multiple materials, including snippets of emails and long sections of dialogue. In its self-referential intertextuality and its offbeat wit, it recalls Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, as well as Warhol’s bizarre novel a (1968), in which he taped and had badly transcribed 24 hours of amphetamine-fuelled conver - sation between various logorrheic Factory members.” She finds How Should a Person Be? to be "a profoundly ironic production – or, perhaps more accurately, it is a production profoundly concerned with how to live authentically in a world saturated by irony.”

Sheila Heti was interviewed in the New Statesman here.

 

The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

He inspired Mussolini, was once Italy’s most famous poet, and created and led an independent state during the First World War, so how come no one really knows about Gabriele D’Annunzio?  He might have died nearly 80 years ago, but his life, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett proves with this biography, is worth remembering. She recounts the exploits and horror stories of a man who was as much of a genius as he was morally corrupt and repulsive.

In his review for the Telegraph, Jonathan Keates warns his readers that they will probably want to “give up in disgust after a few chapters”, or have a “cold bath or a jog around the park” if they decide to finish it. He is, however, quick in adding that “there is much to be learnt from the rise and fall of […] an  Italian poet, novelist and dramatist who blagged, blustered, fantasised and fornicated his way to international notoriety”.

After all, he was admired by Proust, and seen as one of the most talented writers of the 19th century – along with Tolstoy and Kipling – by James Joyce. He also wrote 48 books and poetry (including three before the age of 18), had several dozen lovers from all around Europe, and presided over the temporarily independent state of Fiume for over a year, before trying – and failing – to start a war with his own country.

As Ian Birrell points out in the Guardian, D'Annuinzio’s greatest work of art was himself: in many ways, he was the ultimate "pioneer of modern celebrity culture"; he "understood the fantastic soft power of fame". When still a teenager, he managed to trigger nationwide publicity for his first published book by writing to newspapers saying that the author of the poems had died before publication.

The trick, then, would seemingly to be that of recounting the life of such a compelling yet morally compromised character without falling into either accidental praise or predictable contempt. And according to both critics, Hughes-Hallet manages to avoid both extremes: as Birrell writes, she “dances her way through this extraordinary life in a style that is playful, punchy and generally pleasing”. By attempting to “separate the man from his myths, […] she allows the poet to hang himself”. After all, this is a man who famously wanted "the world [to] be convinced that [he was] capable of anything”, which, in a dark, twisted way, is precisely what he achieved.

"The Pike" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Gabriele d'Annunzio and Benito Mussolini in 1935. [Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getyy Images]
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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