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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear