Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Elias Khoury, Lorna Gibb and Michael Burleigh.

West's World: The Extraordinary Life Of Dame Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb

Cicely Fairfield was born in 1892. As a young woman, she changed her name to Rebecca West and went on to become both a writer and journalist.  She led a tumultuous life, however, and is now remembered more for her dramatic relationships than her writing. But, as John Carey writes in the The Sunday Times, she was a prolific journalist: “In 1946 West was the only woman reporter from Britain to cover the trial and execution of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.” Although, according to Carey, Lorna Gibb acknowledges West’s achievements as a journalist, she fails to adequately consider her efforts as a writer, which “matters because West did, in fact, produce a literary masterpiece”. Discussing West’s travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Carey adds, “Gibb warns that it is long and rambling — which is true. But that is all the more reason to quote tempting chunks of it to lure readers, which she does not.”

The Spectator’s Philip Hensher also criticises Gibb’s “treatment of the context”. Citing an example, where she makes reference to West’s lover Max Beaverbrook, Hensher asserts, “If you know who Max Beaverbrook was, and what he meant, fine; if not, he is just a man who lives in Fulham, and it might come as rather a surprise to discover, later on, that he owned some newspapers.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian's Robert McCrum writes a scathing review of Gibb’s treatment of West’s life, asserting that “West's World is really what Auden called ‘a shilling life’, the retelling of a career we love to read about, lazily written and sloppily edited. Anthony West did not write HG Wells in Love. The editor of the TLS in 1970 was Arthur Crook, not Cook. For a fuller understanding of this fascinating woman, we're better off returning to another biography, published as recently as 1987, by Victoria Glendinning.”

 

White Masks by Elias Khoury

White Masks is set against the backdrop of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. A journalist embarks on an investigation into the murder of a middle-aged civil servant named Khalil Ahmad Jaber, who is found in a mound of rubbish. Interweaving several other stories including those of a local tradesman, residents and a young militiaman, it underlines the horrors of Lebanon’s bloody civil war. Writing in The Telegraph, Nicholas Blincoe praises Khoury’s “elliptical storytelling”, which he asserts is also evident in Khoury’s 1998 masterpiece Gate of the Sun. “What is even more remarkable,” he adds, “is that White Masks was first published in 1981, making it a contemporary account of one of the most tangled moments in Beirut, a city that is a byword for bewildering complexity.”

The Guardian’s Wayne Gooderham disagrees, however, stating that due to Khoury’s meandering narrative structure, “the overriding impression is of a collection of interconnected short stories being forced into the shape of a rather unsatisfying novel”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World by Michael Burleigh

Small Wars, Far Away Places, reveals how the problems we face today may be due to the legacy left by recent wars. Historian Michael Burleigh provides an account of the struggles faced by society in the post-war era, taking the reader on a historical journey through Palestine, Pakistan, Cuba and Indo-China. Writing in The Times, Ben Macintyre praises Burleigh’s examination of history, stating that in focusing on individuals and individual confrontations, he creates a “brilliant, complex, contradictory story, replete with character and incident, pungent and pithy and refreshingly free of preaching”.

George Walden also praises Burleigh's book. Writing in The Telegraph, he calls it both “vividly written” and “stimulating”. Expressing relief that the book is not “suffused with infantile Leftism, patrician liberalism or romantic patriotism”, Walden asserts, “we get the raw truth, conveyed in scintillating language by a master of historical irony”.

Dame Rebecca West speaks to Eric Linklater and Arthur Koestler at a party, 1953. (Photo: Getty/Evening Standard)
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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war