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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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