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)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle