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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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