Reviews round-up | 14 January

The best of the critics this week on Helen Dunmore's war novel The Lie, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes and Jack El-Hai's foray into criminal minds in The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

"While The Lie may be the first literary reimagining of the First World War in this centenary year, it will undoubtedly prove one of the most subtle and enduring," writes an enchanted Stephanie Merritt in the Observer. Written with a "poet's feeling for language", Helen Dunmore's latest novel is a "quiet tragedy". It depicts the troubled return home of a shell-shocked young soldier, Daniel, to "a village full of absences and the news his mother is dead."  Merritt praises the author for offering "glimpses of hope and redemption, even as the inevitable consequences of Daniel's life begin to close in on him."

"Dunmore's is a very good novel. 2014 is a very good year to read it", writes John Sutherland in the Times as the political row over the memory of the war escalates. The author's "imagination and research" shines through, particularly in its "vivid", first-person flashbacks to the "horrors of the trenches".  She teases out the tensions of class and sexuality, with Daniel and a soon-to-die officer realising "in the mud, blood and filth of the trenches, that they're not just pals." Sutherland's only criticism is that Dunmore was not there - "The best novels about the conflict are by those who spilt blood."

Boyd Tonkin at the Independent disagrees, congratulating Dunmore as one of an "admirable group of modern women writers who have kept faith with the scarred victims". This "hallucinatory novel of survivor-guilt, delayed trauma and the loving cross-class friendships war made and broke" is a must-read for the young, Tonkin writes. The war's horrors may be "familiar", but there is nothing formulaic in Dunmore's powerful renditions of the "hellish texture of the trench mud, 'thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chlorite of lime'". Essential reading for new generations to "learn these truths again".

 

Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

We are programmed to be moral only towards our own tribes, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene argues in his new book. For the Guardian's Salley Vickers, "Greene's radical contention is that the world will only be saved if we transcend our intuitive responses in favour of ... utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number." Vickers is persuaded our group biases are at the root of "racism, sexism, class war ... and countless conflicts and atrocities", but finds Greene's solutions "inoperable". Utilitarianism fails as a basis for agreement between groups  because "it leaves unanswered the problem of who decides the general 'good'". 

Sceptics about utilitarianism "will not be persuaded", Natalie Gold agrees in the Times Higher Education Supplement, but Harvard professor Greene still has "something new to bring to the debate". Drawing on thought experiments carried out by the author, the work is "particularly strong on the psychology of moral judgment". Gold takes issue with Greene's treatment of "manual" versus "automatic" responses, however, unconvinced that our "manual" reasoning is always utilitarian and always better than following your gut.

Utilitarian decision-making demands an "absolutely impartial perspective" that even the author lacks in dedicating the book to his wife, Julian Baggini observes in the Financial Times.  But moral philosophy must "put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as "species-typical moral limitations to be overcome", Baggini argues. He nonetheless hails Green's achievements in a valuable "synthesising work that nails what is centrally important, such as the observation that 'We've been looking for universal moral principles that feel right, and there may be no such thing'".

 

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

"Were the Nazis mad, or bad? That question still hangs over the history of the Second World War, and perhaps explains our enduring cultural fascination with the meaning of Nazism," Ben Macintyre writes in the Times. American army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley had the chance to find out for himself after the war when he was selected to analyse the captive criminals at Nuremberg. El-Hai recounts Kelley's forensic probing into their brains, revealing "narcissism, self-delusion, and indifference" - but not madness. Sadly the "markedly less enthralling" personal life of the psychiatrist dominates the book's second half, but its central thrust is an important one. Finding Nazis "perfectly sane" may be medically frustrating, but it is "morally satisfying to leave the perpetrators of the worst crime in history entirely responsible for their own actions".

Leyla Sanai in the Independent is more disturbed by the book's conclusions. "The finding that relatively normal men could enact such crimes led Kelley to fear that similar barbaric atrocities could arise elsewhere," Sanai writes. She highlights Kelley's prediction that "workaholics with strong convictions might elsewhere show similar disregard for the lives of others". The insights into Hitler's leading henchmen are fascinating, revealing the "ruthless" Goering as a "sociable, loving family man who had adored animals" and Streicher as owner of "the largest pornography collection ever seen." A "detailed, meticulously-researched book" , exploring the minds of these "relatively" normal men.

Peter Lewis in the Daily Mail is more reluctant to accept "current majority opinion that the Nazi mind was a myth", in a review entitled "A joke-cracking, hymn-singing, wife-loving psycho". The reviewer finds Kelley's bizarre behaviour almost as enthralling as Goering's, arguing the psychiatrist  "had in some ways a similar personality" to his subject. Both were  "ambitious, go-getting, workaholics", and both used cyanide to take their own lives. According to Lewis, "psychiatrists have continued to debate the 'Nazi mind'". Kelley's fellow interrogator "published his own book saying all the Nazis had been psychopaths." On the evidence of Goering's extraordinary comments on Auschwitz - "Well, it was good propaganda" - Lewis concludes Kelley's work was "hardly an exact science". 

 

Helen Dunmore paints the horrors of the trenches in The Lie. Photograph: Getty Images
GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser