Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Barnes, Greg Bellow and David Goodhart.

 

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The three stages of love - euphoria, passion and grief - between two 19th-century balloonists sets the tone for the first two parts of Levels of Life. Barnes lost his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, to brain cancer in 2008. The third part of the book is an exploration of Barnes’s despair.

Leyla Sanai in the Independent writes that this is “a book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power”. She sees the metaphors of flight and open skies standing in for the freedom and love that book details between the two balloonists, but also notices the personal feeling Barnes lets in: “there is no disguising the raw pain that pulses throughout; the solitary heartbeat of the one left behind”.

According to Sam Leith in the Spectator the raw emotion makes it a hard book to read: “There’s a trace of the hesitancy a reviewer feels towards such obviously personal material, but it also seems to reflect something in the book itself. Levels of Life is much more hermetic than it at first appears. You find yourself hazarding guesses at things because — again, to hazard a guess — not all the material you need to decode this book is available to the reader.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison, who knew Kavanagh personally for over 30 years describes the themes that run throughout the book: “The themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure. We've work to do – not grief‑work such as the author's, but work all the same.”

They come together in the end in a personal outpouring: “Where the first two sections portray life in the air and on the ground, the searing 50-page essay that concludes the book describes descent – no upper air, no perspective, just darkness and despair.”

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow

Reviewing your own father’s life is not an easy task, but for retired psychotherapist Greg Bellow describing Saul Bellow, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, the stakes are higher still. According to the Observer’s Adam Mars-Jones, Greg Bellow doesn't meet the challenge. He criticises the book for “lacking literary weight”, having a “suspect tone from the first paragraph” and showing an “unacknowledged hostility”.

Jeremy Treglown in the Spectator is barely less pessimistic: “It isn’t the son’s fault that his powers of insight and articulation are less than Saul Bellow’s: whose aren’t? And of course if writing this narrative has proved helpful to him, fine. But publishing it wasn’t necessary, and reading it is frankly a struggle.”

In the centenary issue of the New Statesman, Leo Robson takes a less critical stance: “Greg Bellow has quite a monument on his hands and to his credit he refrains from slinging mud or poking warts ... If Greg Bellow conforms to a character type, it isn’t the father-killer but the spurned first-born.”

The British Dream by David Goodhart

Immigration is a touchy subject in British politics. But it's a subject David Goodhart, previously editor of Prospect magazine has tackled full on in his new book The British Dream, reviewed at length by Labour MP Jon Cruddas in the centenary edition of the New Statesman.

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph calls it an “exceptionally important” book in which Goodhart “has helped Britain end our long unhealthy period of silence about a great issue.”

Ian Birrell in the Observer, by contrast, found the book “disappointing” and was surprised to find one of his own articles used as a foundation for one of the its arguments. Birrell says Goodhart “twisted [his] words absurdly".

The work of mourning: Julian Barnes (Photograph: Getty Images)
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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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