Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on John le Carré, Alister McGrath and Granta 123.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

A Delicate Truth moves us away from John Le Carré’s previous focus on the post-Soviet capitalist oligarchy to a tale of financial corruption and high-level intrigue on the island of Gibraltar.

Ian Thomson of the Independent is liberal in his praise: "Throughout A Delicate Truth, the tension ratchets up superbly as revelation follows on revelation. Much of what passes these days for literary fiction is mere creative writing; le Carré is one of the great analysts of the contemporary scene, who has a talent to provoke as well as unsettle."

Similarly, to the Observer’s Robert McRum the novel represents a "remarkable return to mid-season form ... he remains as deeply English in nuance, observation and message as ever, and more perceptive about post-'war on terror' Britain than many lesser writers." He also praises the "brilliant climax" and the novel's ability to "pick over the cynicism of the secret state with cold fury".

This view is also shared by Geoffrey Wansell of the Daily Mail: "the bewitching nuances of Le Carré are all there, for this is writing of such quality that – as Robert Harris puts it – it will be read in one hundred years. Le Carré was never a spy- turned-writer; he was a writer who found his canvas in espionage, as Dickens did in other worlds. The two men deserve comparison."

C.S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath, King's College theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion, returns with a comprehensive portrait of CS Lewis. For Peter Stanford of the Guardian, McGrath’s work is both "more and less" than a biography ... more in that it weaves in a thoughtful, erudite lit-crit appraisal of the writings, plus an unabashed serenade for Lewis's theology. Less in that, though he covers key episodes familiar from other biographies, McGrath picks and chooses the details that suit his purpose of painting Lewis as a modern prophet. Indeed he seems on occasion to lack a biographer's basic curiosity about the minutiae. That, though, is a minor irritant in what is otherwise a very readable study."

Paul Johnson in the Spectator is quick to acknowledge the "genius" of Lewis. A former pupil of his, Johnson was clearly inspired by the man. However, despite acknowledging the "painstaking" lengths McGrath has gone to, he suggests that the book "lacks charm" and "does not make us warm to the subject". Nevertheless, he concludes that McGrath gives us "much food for thought in this dutiful, sound and worthy book".

Despite minor frustration at McGrath’s lack of exploration of Lewis’s time in the trenches, the Telegraph’s Phillip Womack is extremely positive: "This is a finely balanced book, which allows Lewis’s works to speak for themselves without drawing crude parallels with his life, something that Lewis himself would have admired. And it leaves the reader marvelling at the joy and wonder that inhabit the Narnia books: that enchanted glimpse into something beautiful and eternal."

Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4, edited by John Freeman

Phillip Hensher, writing in the Spectator, laments the absence from the latest Granta list of best of young British novelists of a number of established authors such as Jon McGregor. Moreover, he notes the failure to provide a "flavour of a generation - the sort of thing that the previous lists possessed in spades".

Writing in the Telegraph, Anthony Cummins is similarly critical: "Freeman’s arguments for these and other choices lack the clarity with which he recalls where and what the panel ate as they judged." Nevertheless he praises the ability of the various writers to find "fresh combinations of characters and situations, or [to] cast a torch into worlds that lie hidden in plain sight; more 19th century than 21st".

For the Observer’s Tim Adams, the collection represents key trends in contemporary fiction: "the dominant tone is of poignant uprootedness, anxious displacement".

John Le Carré's latest work is a "return to mid-season form" (Photo by Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle