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)
DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit