Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Salter, George Monbiot and David Goodhart.

All that is by James Salter

All That Is offers an intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive. The critics are divided over whether this is one of James Salter’s (87) best novels yet.

Leo Robson, writing in The New Statesman provides a balanced critique of Salter’s latest tale: “At times you recoil […] from the hard-boiled worldliness and the straitened conception of women and the lordly indifference to movements in the public sphere. But mostly, Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to be helpless.”

Geoff Dyer of The Independent resolves that Salter has created “a strange masterpiece”. Whilst his writing style can at first seem “a tad awkward”, this awkwardness is to be enjoyed once the reader gives themselves over to his “distinctive rhythms. Mastery, eventually, is an indifference to how things are meant to be done.”

The Guardian’s James Lasdun, on the other hand, believes Salter cannot yet be hailed a “great” writer. “He's a little too loftily impassive and perhaps a little too interested in creating crystalline verbal beauty, to compel the word "great", at least without strong reservations.” Nevertheless he concedes that Salter is “amazingly good.”

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

Feral is George Monbiot’s call for us to “rewild” our planet, to “love not man the less, but Nature more.” He passionately explains what environmentalists stand for as oppose to against.

For Sam Leith of The Spectator this peculiar and involving book — three-quarters exhilarating environmental manifesto, one quarter midlife crisis — has an enormous amount to recommend it.” Whilst there is much to digest and reflect upon, there is also “much to be excited by, and the odd bit to giggle at.”

Philip Hoare, writing in The Telegraph, has high praise for Monbiot’s continued displays of wit and irony. “As a passionate polemic, it could not be more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely.” The book’s “what ifs” are verging on “eccentric” but “we need such big thinking for our own sakes and those of our children.”

Frances Stonor Saunders of The Guardian is more witholding of admiration. Monbiot writes in a “gloomy mood, mourning the loss of the improbable bestiary that lies under Nelson's Column, and with it a world that was once rugged and wild and big.” He also fails to address questions on how to “calibrate human demands with the ideology of the wilderness.”

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration by David Goodhart

According to David Edgar’s Guardian review Goodheart “seeks to challenge what he sees as leftwing myths about immigration.” Whereas Goodhart argues that the rise of the National Front and other examples of British racism have been widely over-emphasized, Edgar points out the sheer numbers of racially-motivated violence, which beggars Goodhart’s notion of an overly-liberal attitude to immigration.

Jon Cruddas’ New Statesman review supports Goodhart, writing that “by closing down the argument” via knee-jerk accusations of racism “the left allowed the right to shape the tone and language of the immigration debate, particularly in England.”

Ian Thomson appears to split the difference in a review for The Telegraph. He concurs with Edgar about the problematics of Goodhart’s tone and self-identification, but like Cruddas, acknowledges British Dream’s usefulness as a “a useful guide to the vagaries of our mixed-up, mixed-race nation.” And by recounting the story of his immigrant mother, Thomson reifies diversity and adaptation, and attests to a kind of British hybrid vigor.

James Salter has published his sixth novel, aged 87. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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