Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jaron Lanier, Michael Axworthy and Jane Dunn.

Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s latest book has received critical acclaim for its unique inquiry into the information economy. He writes about economic imbalances on account of online corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook dubbed “Siren Servers” which have hoarded valuable data from its customers in exchange for the use of their services, denying them remuneration for this information.

James Harkin of the Financial Times observes Lanier’s scepticism over the power of the internet to spur widespread economic growth. He states Lanier “complains that the latest waves of high-tech innovation have not created jobs like the old ones did” adding that the conventional “'levees' that protected us from economic devastation are being swept away by this digital free-for-all.”

The Observer’s John Kampfner states Lanier’s book has pointed out the presence of an internet “ruling class” as a factor of serious consideration by “policymakers and technologists.”Kampfner adds that "our insatiable demand for information and entertainment and for access to instant communication has come at a heavy price. Most people don't know they're paying it.” 

Lanier’s book proposes a method to balance what the Guardian’s Laurence Scott describes as “capitalism…gone digital.” Lanier suggests that a small royalty sum should be paid to each customer when they part with information used by the company in a similar method to focus groups used by market research firms.  Scott commends the book for producing an "inspiring portrait of the kind of people [in a] democratic information economy.” He adds Lanier’s hypothesis implies that “if we are allowed to lead absorbing, properly remunerated lives, we will likewise outgrow our addiction to consumerism and technology.”

The Telegraph’s Matt Warman highlights Lanier’s doubts that this system of remuneration could result in us “reclining in the lap of luxury” but commends Lanier’s hypothesis for the future as “persuasive” and one which cannot be disputed “until we get there.”

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

 

The Independent’s Helen Taylor praises Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier for its inclusive study of the three du Maurier sisters - Angela, Daphne and Jeanne during “a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters' response to social change.” She notes how biographies of artists “often ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds” and adds the strength of the book lies in accounting for tense relations between the three sisters of on account of their mother Muriel’s favouritism towards Jeanne.

Nicholas Shakespeare relishes Jane Dunn’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters in the Telegraph and gushes how “Dunn, one of six sisters herself, has written before of sisterhoods”. He states she understands that “it is sisters who weave the most complex web of love and loyalty, resentment and hurt.” Shakespeare concedes that her portrayal does “sag in places” but it is a feat of organisation – flamboyantly explaining that Dunn succeeds in keeping, “each du Maurier sister separate and yet still bubbling at the same intensity, like three temperature charts.” Thus the overall effect of “her triptych is sensitive and sympathetic.” It is described as a compelling biography, with Shakespeare highlighting psychoanalytical themes including the du Maurier girls’ relationship with their father, their "forbidden" sexual experiences and dreams of child rebellion.

In contrast, Rachel Cooke in the Guardian  provides a damning and sparky review of this latest installment that tries to establish the lives of the du Maurier sisters. She writes matter of factly that, “Dunn has nothing much that is new to say about Daphne. This version of the writer is just as introverted and as selfish as the last.” Cooke points out that Dunn's most surprising discovery is the fact that the sisters were not rivals in adulthood, especially considering the fact that they grew up in a household where "histrionics were a way of life". The longueurs in the biography, as Cooke puts it, are mostly down to the problematic organisation of the book. Cooke criticises the way all three women are dealt with at once, and chronologically, rather than in separate sections, which gives Dunn’s narrative “a fatal blow”. She concludes how, “Bing, that great mistress of narrative pace, would have rolled her eyes at this book, and set about its more laboured passages with a sharp, red pencil.”

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

James Buchan praises Michael Axworthy in the Guardian  for his “calm and literate portrait of the Islamic Republic,”and explains how the central thesis in Revolutionary Iran is that, “certain long-lived chickens are coming home to roost.” The Persian nezam or system is under threat, and for Axworthy the turning point in Iran was the 2009 Presidential election – in which Khomeini's policy of balance between the factions in favour of "naked force" alienated the ruling clique, which served to weaken the republic. Buchan describes Axworthy as, “an academic historian, and sometime British diplomat” who “avoids the grand schemes and theories that have so clouded the study of Iran.” Buchan notes that Axworthy’s theory of the 1979 revolution has parallels with Tancredi in Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopold: "If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change."

The Economist writes that Axworthy mined newly opened archives effectively, balancing “scholarly precision with narrative flair”, exposing the failure of Western governments to keep abreast of fast-changing events, including the episode whereby the Iranian hostage-takers were astounded to find that none of the four CIA officers in the American embassy in Tehran could speak Persian. Axworthy is lauded for his description of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he draws on first-hand accounts of key military personnel, and challenges the contention that the Iranian air force was inept. The Economist’s analysis is that Axworthy breaks from James Buchan’s thesis that Khomeini was bent on exporting Islamic government to Iraq, “arguing instead that he saw the conflict as a just war to fend off a real threat.” Overall, the verdict is that Axworthy’s “analytical approach helps demystify a revolutionary regime that has needed to feed off myths.”

According to David Shariatmadari in this week’s issue of New Statesman, Axworthy has confirmed “his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment” and is good at putting Iran into context. A narrative with “plenty of historical echoes” is formed and Axworthy makes modern parallels, which is “important as [Iran] is too often seen as exceptional.” Sameer Rahim reiterates this sentiment for the Daily Telegraph, endorsing it as a book packed with gobbets of information and policy advice on how to deal with Iran, and that it “feels like a book designed for William Hague’s bedside table.”

Photo: Karen Bleier, Getty Images
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era