Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Weight, Sheryl Sandberg and Rory Carroll.

Mod: A Very British Style by Richard Weight

In Mod: A Very British Style, Richard Weight tells the story of Britain’s first and most influential youth cult, charting its origins in the Soho jazz scene in the 1950s. Writing in the Guardian, John Harris says that reading Mod conjured Proustian flashbacks for him and that as an adolescent growing up in the 1970s, “I was consumed by my first taste of what Mod had left behind, and it changed me forever: the initial rites included a poleaxed listen to the Who's My Generation.” Written by an academic, the book attempts to establish that Mod was not only the first distinctively British youth culture but a popular form of modernism – “an avant garde reaction to mainstream aesthetics, morality and politics.” However, Harris explains that uncertainty clouds Mod’s origins and its legacy: "Perhaps … we are all modernists now". Harris provides a critical analysis of the style: “Weight opts for a scattershot narrative, brimming with second-hand quotations, a bit like an undergraduate dissertation.” The main criticism is that the although the Mod ideal boils down to an emphasis on sharpness and an attention to detail, the book in contrast is rambling and so “it ends up missing its target, by miles.”

In contrast, Walter Ellis writes in the Spectator that Richard Weight has crafted an “elegant and thoughtful compendium” showing that there was more to the youthful revolt than Beatlemania and the Who. Ellis describes Mod as a social movement wrapped up in a fashion statement, and that Weight’s thesis can be summarised as showing that the Mods were a “populist version of the Enlightenment”. He concludes by saying “what matters is that he has done his job well” and is sceptical of what future cultural historians will make of the youth of today.  

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, gave a motivational Ted talk in 2010 about women in the boardroom, and Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian that her book Lean In is an “elongation” of this speech. Williams explains that this “is not a book about how women can become more equal: this is a book about how women can become more like Sheryl Sandberg”. It is a “goal-driven, ideology-free approach has some fascinating insights into the world of business itself”, and Sandberg’s thought processes leading her to Google and interview process for Facebook are “magnetic.” Sandberg’s approach is “emollient and inoffensive” and brings in relevant experiences of her own, “describing the "damned if you do, doomed if you don't" bind that women find themselves in if they boast about their achievements. Williams points out that despite winning a Henry Ford scholarship for her attainments in her first year at business school, jointly with six men, Sandberg didn't consider telling anyone, and that it is disappointing that a woman in the 1980s didn’t have the “spine to admit she was clever”.

On the other hand, Anne-Marie Slaughter in the New York Times writes that Sandberg is a “feminist champion” and that Lean In is “full of many such gems, slogans that ambitious women would do well to pin up on their wall”. For example, the phrase “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder” describes the many different paths careers can take, sideways and even downward on their way up. At the same time, she concedes that the advice to young women to be more ambitious “can sound like a finger-wagging admonishment when taken out of context”. Slaughter explains that “Sandberg is not just tough, however. She also comes across as compassionate, funny, honest and likable.” Sandberg’s point in a nutshell is that “notwithstanding the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere. Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all.”

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll

The Telegraph’s David Blair humourously writes “To survive in the court of King Chávez, you had to 'mould' your face into a mask and 'arrange features into appropriate expressions when on camera,'" writes [rory] Carroll. 'This,' he adds, 'was tricky when the comandante did something foolish or bizarre.’”

Rory Carroll’s latest book, Comandante has received much praise for the nuanced profile it offers of the “Bolivarian Revolutionary”, Hugo Chavez. Carroll, who has experience in reporting from regions, such as Iraq, with hostile political conditions, spent his next assignment in Venezuela. He reported from 2006-12 from a country where corruption, bureaucracy and crime rates were quotidian fare. Blair praises Carroll’s book as “beautifully written and acutely perceptive book … on the nature of power, in all its corruption and absurdity.” He later adds: “Now that the comandante has passed on, Carroll will have to update his account. When he does, this book will deserve to be the definitive work on Chávez in the English language.” The Financial Times’s Julia Sweig also praises Comandante as “a compellingly written, keenly reported portrait of Venezuela…He writes with tremendous pathos in explaining Chavez’s appeal to the millions of poor Venezuelans who, for decades felt, and largely were, invisible to the ruling elite.” She highlights how the book explains the Venezuelan public’s changing opinion of Chavez; having seen him as the face of change, they came to realise that he differed little from those who came before him.

The Independent’s Oliver Balch adds that the book “excels in showing what happens when a self believing ideologue grasps the reins of government and determines not to let go. It’s military politics, without the guns: outflanking opponents, consolidating power, barking orders, reprimanding ministers.” Balch observes how Carroll’s observations grow increasingly critical and animated towards the end of the book, yet he states this “criticism is built on an earnest attempt to understand a fascinating politician.”

Balch, Blair and Sweig all applaud Carroll’s favourable position to provide an insightful portrait of Chavez; which as Balch rightly observes, reveals “a more intimate image of Chavez than his own propaganda allows”.

A policeman escorts a teenager in 1964 after violence between Mods and Rockers in Margate, Getty Images, photographer Ronald Dumont, Hulton Archive
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism