In the Critics this Week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, Laurie Penny interviews Neil Gaiman, Jude Rogers plugs in to Lorde and Ian Sansom is fascinated by Georges Simenon's Maigret.

This week’s critic at large is Laurie Penny, who interviews the ever-popular Neil Gaiman. Gaiman says that the real problem with such a degree of popularity is the inability to write it produces: he cannot find time to be a “writer”, rather he is a “traveler, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.” Nevertheless, he has found the time to write not only one but two books: Fortunately, the Milk… a children’s book about the wild tales a father tells to his children to explain why he is late from the shops and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult horror story about a bookish, lonely child who meets ancient monsters at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden.

Ultimately, Penny seeks to discover why Gaiman appeals so much to the lost and alone. She concludes: “More than anything else, Gaiman’s work is about escapism and he appeals to those who long to leave their lives. Which, at some point or another, is almost everyone.” Gaiman recognises this escapism in his work but for him “there’s nothing wrong with escape”.

This is a fascinating interview that, among other things, touches upon the self-reflexive nature of Gaiman’s work, his “personal brand” image that is now being emulated by younger authors - his past with the Church of Scientology and being in a punk band.

Jude Rogers reviews the debut album Pure Heroine by teen sensation Lorde. Her number one single “Royals” was used to herald the arrival of Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, onto the victory platform on 5 November. Rogers is aware that:

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

It is this self-awareness that has Roger’s hooked. Lorde sings about the rich-poor divide, she satirises the pop-star world and is “acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.” All in all, Lorde is a refreshingly new voice: a clever female pop star aware of how she can “access and shape the world.”

Never heard of Georges Simenon? Well, you probably will soon, because over the course of the next seven years, Penguin are going to be releasing a new translation of each of his 75 – yes, 75 – Inspector Maigret novels every month. The first one – Pietr the Latvian – has been translated by David Bellos, and author Ian Sansom is a fan. He appreciates the novel for its paradoxical, liminal tone, most particularly that of its “beautiful-ugly”, “exceptional unexceptional”, “delightfully dull” detective protagonist. However, more so than the novel itself, it seems Sansom is fascinated by its author. “If Simenon were the analysand,” he writes, “then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist.” Over half the review, in fact, deals with how hedonistic and prolific Simenon was – “a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements”.

 

Also this week, Adrian Smith lauds the new C J Sansom: Dominion - a 650-page counterfactual historical novel which posits a rather big What If. What if, instead of Churchill, Lord Halifax had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and France's surrender in 1940 led to Britain signing a peace treaty with Hitler? Smith and Sansom both hold PhDs in history, and Smith's qualms with the novel's comprehensive research are relatively minor (“Etonians play football not rugby”). The rest of Sansom's alternate timeline is praised as realistic while remaining compelling reading: the Gestapo operate out of the University of London library, Senate House (a building Hitler famously coveted), and blackshirted Fascist Oswald Mosley has become home secretary. Most extreme of all, Hitler assists Enoch Powell fight to retain India for the Empire instead of allowing it independence. However, Smith does note the contentious choice Sansom has made in his speculative portrayal of the Scottish National Party, whose nationalism leads them to collaborate with the Nazis. In the year before Scottish independence goes to the polls, apparently even things that never happened can cause controversy.

This week’s Critics section also features:

  • The Goldsmiths Prize
  • Ryan Gilbey's film critique of The Counselor and Don Jon
  • Downton Abbey and Poiriot according to Rachel Cooke
  • Antonia Quirke on BBC radio 3's Discovering Music
  • An analysis of Rahul Sagar's book Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemnas of State Secrets by Katrina Forrester
  • Neel Mukherjee's review of Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
  • Frances Wilson assessment of John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature and John Freeman's How to Read a Novelist
  • Olivia Laing's examination of White Girls by Hilton Als 
Lorde performs at the VEVO Halloween party in London on 31 October, 2013. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage