In the Critics this week

David Owen remembers the Iron Lady and Stuart Maconie feels short-changed by Damian Barr.

In this week's magazine, out tomorrow, former foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party David Owen reviews Charles Moore’s new and, in Owen’s view, “exceptionally good” biography of Margaret Thatcher. In personal memories of encounters with Thatcher, Owen describes her as being:

conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

He also cites the Falklands War as the turning point in Thatcher’s career as Prime Minister:

The Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

Elswhere in Books Michael Wood looks through Italo Calvino’s letters, pointing out that Calvino pre-empted Roland Barthes in the idea of the “the death of the author”:

Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. ‘For the critic, the author does not exist,’ he writes, ‘only a certain number of writings exist.

Stuart Maconie has reviewed Maggie & Me - Damian Barr's coming-of-age memoir - which he feels “manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously”. David Herman discusses Michael Burleigh’s Small Wars, Far Away Places: the Genesis of the Modern World, 1945 – 1965, while in fiction Leo Robson reviews two books about ballooning: Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air and Julian Barnes’s multi-genre work, Levels of Life. Barnes’s essay on the loss of his wife, says Robson, “combines the weakest elements of his personality and thought”.

John Lloyd has reviewed Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. “To understand the Grillo phenomenon,” says Lloyd of the emerging Five Star Movement in Italy, “is to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going”.

Elsewhere in the Critics Ryan Gilbey reviews Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited, and Kate Mossman reviews Van Dyke Parks’s new album, Songs Cycled. “’Dreaming of Paris’ is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée,” she writes. Finally, Matt Trueman reviews Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre and Forest Fringe at the Gate Theatre.

The magazine will be on the news stands tomorrow morning.

Leo Robson has reviewed Julian Barnes's "Levels of Life". Photograph: Getty Images.
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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism