Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Amos Oz, Charles Emmerson and Michael Burleigh.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

 

In a collection of eight stories, Amos Oz uses his own experience of living on an Israeli kibbutz to explore the difficulties in striving for equality in communal living.

For Lucy Popescu of the Independent, “Oz brilliantly conveys the harsher side of kibbutz life”. Whilst Oz suggests no easy answers to the questions he raises, “he builds an evocative portrait of a 1950s kibbutz, the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants, and the successes and failures of communal living, using beautiful, spare prose”.

Similarly, for Alberto Manguel in the Guardian, the novel is a “lucid and heartbreaking chronicle of [a] well-intentioned and hard-working community of lonely souls”. Manguel argues that the novel makes salient points about the "Middle East conundrum”, as well as “the impossibility of utopia [as] ongoing proof of our determination to keep on trying.”

Although acknowledging that Oz “may have written more dazzling books”, Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph praises this "deeply affecting chamber piece”, suggesting it “draws on… the contradictory urges that lie at the heart of Israel’s psyche”.

All three reviewers praise Sondra Silverstein’s “deft” translation. 

 

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

 

Charles Emmerson’s account paints a strikingly different picture of 1913 to more conventional tales of extravagant social endeavours undertaken in anticipation of looming destruction.

According to Kathryn Hughes writing in  the Guardian, Emmerson wants readers to experience what it felt like to be alive in 1913, “unaware of the coming rip in history”. She sees his work as an “ambitious, subtle account," noting that "Emmerson tries hard not to play the hindsight game. Still, he's honest enough to acknowledge the cheap pleasure that comes from knowing what happens next”.

David Crane, in the Spectator, is even more forthcoming in praise: “this is an immensely impressive book”. Emmerson turns 1913’s lack of headline events into a strength and “gives us a masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history when Europe was incontrovertibly ‘the centre of the universe’ and, within it, London ‘the centre of the world’”.

In contrast, Mark Damazer, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, feels Emmerson’s attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture is “a bit half-hearted”. For Damazer, there are too many long quotations and too many important events that go untouched, although “occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

 

The historian Michael Burleigh's Small Wars, Far Away Places, is a document of the national liberation movements which sprang up in the two decades after the Second World War.

Although praising Burleigh’s ability to compose “pungent and pithy prose” and “bring history to life”, David Herman in the New Statesman is critical of some “puzzling absences” in the book, such as the Portugese colonial project. The reliance on Anglophone sources is also criticised, rendering the book “out of date and parochial”.

Historian John Lewis-Stempel, writing in the Express, sees Burleigh as “the don of elegant, historical writing and every vignette in this book is arresting”. However Lewis-Stempel similarly laments the gaps in knowledge and occasional errors, to him a product of Burleigh’s inability to remain a “dispassionate” historian.

Ben Shepard in the Guardian is more positive, arguing that the historical narratives Burleigh composes are “small masterpieces of lucidity and concision with complex political backcloths effortlessly painted in”. Nevertheless, Shepard argues that the “book never quite hangs together and the serial narrative method it uses gradually exhausts both writer and reader”.

The new work by Amos Oz has been praised as "a lucid and heartbreaking chronicle."
Getty
Show Hide image

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, Sheila Rowbotham’s Rebel Crossings brings hidden stories into detailed, sympathetic view.

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.

But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
 the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.

As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.

Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.

Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.

But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge