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]
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