Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kate Atkinson, Shereen El Feki and Aleksandar Hemon.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Set in wartime Britain, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel explores themes of new beginnings, fate and family life through the inventive manipulation of temporality in her narration of the story of Ursula Todd. The Guardian’s Alex Clark describes Atkinson’s novel as “a marvel… one that invites the reader to take part in the deception”. Clark remarks that “every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops.” Atkinson narrates several instances showcasing the protagonist, Ursula, in a different situation whilst simultaneously narrating shifts in British society.

The Independent’s Rachel Hore writes that the reader is compelled “to hold onto his hat” due to the shuffling from one temporal event to another. She notes the tangible narrative tension derived from “seeing how long Ursula will last each time.” Clark notes Atkinson’s skill in cutting “from one war to the next” as an effective means to combine historical events and the twists in Ursula’s life. Hore notes Atkinson’s vivid portrayal of the London Blitz: “Again and again, Ursula experiences one particularly traumatic event: a direct hit on a dozen people sheltering in a cellar in Argyll Road in November 1940. ” The use of repetition in her narrative structure, for Hore, reinforces a salient point in Atkinson’s novel: “the war should not have been allowed to happen.” Clark rightly concludes that Atkinson’s treatment of the protagonist is exceptionally executed, “Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us. 

Life after Life will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Sex and The Citadel by Shereen El Feki

Sex and the Citadel reveals diverse attitudes to sexuality in Arab countries through a combination of interviews, polls, statistics and personal accounts. The Independent’s Rachel Halliburton describes Shereen El Feki’s book as “a witty encapsulation of the central difficulty that El Feki has faced in chronicling aspects of sex in the Arab world … yielding an extraordinary collection of opinions on everything from online flirting to female genital mutilation.” She adds that it “provides crucial oxygen for discussions that will need more airing in the long, conflicted years ahead.” El Feki’s re-evaluation of Islamic culture compares 11th-century Islamic sex manuals with the opinions of famous TV sex therapists such as Heba Kotb who advises women not to give their men “a reason to choose between [themselves] and hellfire.”

In the Guardian, Faramherz Dabhoiwala notes how El Feki “makes clear how far most Arab women share the sexist presumptions of their culture, even as they suffer its effects.” He reveals El Feki’s omission of the fact that “as long as the words of the Qur'an and its prophet are treated as infallible, and their exegesis by male clerics remains the ultimate authority in sexual affairs, there can be no proper individual sexual freedom“, adding that this is symptomatic of all fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

Along with statistics detailing the proportion of Egyptian women subjected to genital mutilation (a staggering 80 per cent), El Feki’s accounts of these instances are, as the Telegraph's Richard Davenport Hines describes “too revolting to discuss in a review.” Although he highlights how the book “is full of dismal and upsetting stories of inhumanity and ignorance. It will appal, sadden, and anger Western readers”, he praises the book as a “cogent account of sexual liberty in the Arab world.” He describes El Feki as “a cautious optimist who believes that fairness will yet triumph.” The consensus is that El Feki’s book opens up a much needed debate over sensitive topics.

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Leo Robson provides a critical review in the Guardian of The Book of My Lives, noting that author Aleksandar Hemonhas settled for “compiling a memoir rather than composing one.” Robson focuses on the structural problems of the non-fiction successor to the novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, explaining that the chapters were not conceived so as to go together and in fact have previously been published elsewhere, without receiving “much retooling”. This causally assembled memoir of Hemon’s journey from Sarajevo to Chicago “is inscrutable and chaotic.” Robson adds that if you, “imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces but no pattern, you begin to understand this book's awesome powers of frustration.” A casual approach means that there is a notable dearth of the kind of basic information that you would typically expect in a memoir – the first mention of his first wife is on page 171. Robson explains that in Hemon’s account, “ordinary human suffering is next to nonexistent: the threat posed by the birth of a younger sister is told as comedy (‘Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself’); life in the Yugoslav People's Army was tough because of the ‘fantastically limited’ menu.” The impact of Hemon’s grief at the death of his younger daughter Isabel is blunted by context. Robson explains that the raw emotion and pain expressed in the original essay, published in the New Yorker in 2011, is “utterly ill-suited to round off a collection of journalism so full of emotional deflection”..  

In contrast, Max Liu doesn’t think that this book is devoid of emotion. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he argues that it is “wrenching but often very funny and self-deprecating too”. Liu focuses on the way Hemon deals with living in different communities and his interest of using narrative and language to negotiate trauma. Liu explains how the reader “of this extraordinary book” will be rooting for his daughter Isobel as the doctors try to save her. According to Liu, Hermon “invokes W H Auden on pain and indifference, as the rest of humanity continues to move ‘dully along’.”

In the Independent, Mark Thompson gushes that Hermon’s “stories seem to tell themselves, unreeling in verbal felicities that kiss the ear”. Furthermore, he expresses how “contagious energy flows from language that seems to be discovered in the act of composition.” Thompson explores the theme of identity, and writes that Hermon, “bolts semi-academic terms skilfully onto childhood memories and the observation of his parents displaced in Canada”. The key chapter in The Book of my Lives “relates the puppyish avant-garde exploits of Hemon and friends in the 1980s. When they organise a Nazi-themed cocktail party, parodying the jackbooted decadence portrayed in Yugoslav movies, hysterical denunciation follows.” Thompson asks: where does he hail from, as a writer? He answers that the influences are from “all sorts of places, new and old”, and that although Hermon adores Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kiš, his vernacular isn’t wrought with density like their prose, but instead manages “lightness along with word-perfection”.

The Book of My Lives will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Kate Atkinson's novel narrates the life of a woman, Ursula Todd, during British Wartime (Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images)
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser