In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on John le Carré's and Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare's pretenders.

Our lead reviewer John Gray opens our Spring Books special this week. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

“Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.”

Elsewhere in Books Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth. “[T]he plot proves to be as underdeveloped as the characters, the conspiracy so gestural, that it is hard to remember that the author is the man who gave us the intricate, internecine plots of Smiley’s world.” Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. “These days I can rarely be bothered to attend cricket matches but can happily spend hours browsing Wisden scorecards, re-creating matches I have never seen in my mind’s eye.”

Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name. “This book helpfully pulls together irrefutable evidence . . . that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.” Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston. “Blake undermined much of what Britain was trying to do in the field of anti-Soviet espionage in the late 1950s.”

Claire Lowdon reviews Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, Clever Girl. “Muriel Spark without the spark: what Hadley lacks is stage presence.” Andrew Adonis reads Michael Waterhouse’s biography of Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary at the outbreak of the First World War. “[I]t was a month of political and diplomatic levity by Grey and Asquith that . . . led to the war and Britain’s fateful participation.”

Plus, in the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. “[My grandchildren] don’t know very much about Chile,” Allende says. “They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it . . . I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.”

Elsewhere in the Critics our film critic Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan; Rachel Cooke watches BBC2’s The Politician’s Husband; Antonia Quirke listens to The Food Programme on Radio 4 and its take on truckers; Alexandra Coghlan on an operatic collaboration between the novelist David Mitchell and the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa; an American tour diary from the singer-songwriter Barb Jungr; and “Fires”, a poem by John Greening.

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds columns this is on - because someone should really mention it - ceremonial funerals.
 

A still from Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous". Image: Columbia Pictures.
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era