In the Critics this week

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke and Brian Eno interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman. Burke, Gray argues, is:

“the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism”. The principal contradiction in Burke’s conservatism is between, on the one hand, his hostility to “political rationalism”, the notion that society can be remade in the image of abstract ideals, and, on the other, his commitment to a species of providentialism according to which the steady advance of liberty is evidence of a divine author at work. Margaret Thatcher, Gray goes on, saw the political settlement she achieved “as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed.”

Also in Books:

Sarah Churchwell is decidedly unimpressed by Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F Scott Fitzegerald (“Writers of historical novels owe a debt to the facts that have inspired their fictions: Fowler wants to capitalise on the facts but feels no obligation to them”); former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont reviews A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison (“Iran has not been blameless in the nuclear negotiations … but the west will have to deal with Iran, just as it has had to deal with China”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews John Crace’s biography of Harry Redknapp, Harry’s Games (“[Redknapp] just wants to be liked and yet has shown remarkable disloyalty to both colleagues and players over the years”); Nick Spencer, research director at the thinktank Theos, reviews The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones (“[Jones] protests that he wishes to avoid New Atheist vituperation, but when he does write about Christianity his attitudes are clear”); Daniel Swift reviews an edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield (“Vonnegut is loved and celebrated because in the face of the darkest moments of human history he sounds attractively adolescent”).

In her Critics Interview, NS pop critic Kate Mossman talks to musician, producer and all-round renaissance man Brian Eno. “The art world bothers Eno,” Mossman writes. Eno tells her: “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance.” Eno himself has sometimes been on the receiving end of the kind of snobbery that reigns in the art world, mostly for his production work with mega-selling bands such as Coldplay and U2. “People don’t think my production is cool,” he says. “ [But] I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of … Snobbery is an English disease.”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews the new film by director Joachim Lafosse, Our Children (“Those of us who are forever citing Nicole Kidman’s tear-stained close-up in Birth as the ultimate example of wordless acting will now have to update our reference points”); Antonia Quirke listens to Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day (“Sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic: pure radio”); Rachel Cooke praises Hayley Atwell’s performance as a South London copper in ITV’s Life of Crime (“It’s great to see another tough woman copper hijack prime time”); Alexandra Coghlan returns to the Southbank Centre’s ongoing “The Rest is Noise” programme (“[The] festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany”); architect Amanda Levete explains why “resistance is the fuel in the process of design” and why “cities are never perfect”.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Artist and music producer Brian Eno poses in front of his light illustration at the Sydney Opera House (Photo: Getty)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

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