Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Rachel Kushner, Iain Banks and Sylvain Tesson.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s second novel, mines the rich territories of the New York art world of the 1970s, Brazilian colonial history, Italian activist politics, and motorcycle racing as a dense web of plot entangles unusual characters. “Reno,” for example, a daredevil artist nicknamed after her U.S. hometown, participates in a desert motorcycle race in Utah in order to photograph the resulting cycle-track-on-sand “earth art,” and through her lover Sandro becomes embroiled in Italian radicalism.

Amber Pearson, writing for the Mail Online, calls Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers “not an easy one to pigeonhole.” In a wide-ranging story with multiple threads, “covering the New York art scene of the Seventies, Italian protest movements and the masculine world of the biking community,” Pearson concludes, “Sparky and inventive, this feels like a riot of a novel - although not necessarily one with a particularly focused agenda.”

At The Express, Jake Kerridge singles out Kushner’s inventiveness and audacity: “Short of donning leathers herself and tracing her opening chapter in the sands of the Utah desert with her motorbike, Kushner could hardly have been more daring and ambitious.” Kerridge embraces the book’s sprawling scope as well as its carefully-drawn particulars, noting “Kushner can make each member of her large cast of oddballs come alive in a sentence.”

New Statesman’s own Leo Robson, however, finds the unstructured tale wanting in focus: “Kushner’s taste for trivia, and the lack of a conventional causal plot, put a limit on the novel’s forward movement,” and cites Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift and Don DeLillo as similarly non-linear authors who nevertheless “find it useful to drop the odd clue, as a way of generating suspense.” The Flamethrowers, Robson concludes, is “a paradoxical kind of failure, a blast of talent and ingenuity that makes for heavy reading.”

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry is a black comedy which follows the character of Guy, a man dying of cancer, as he plays host to old friends in his house which is threatened by an expanding quarry. The bleak novel is narrated by Kit – Guy’s 18-year-old autistic son – who endeavors to find out the identity of his mother before his father’s fast-approaching death. Banks himself died of cancer early this month, giving the novel a genuine, poignant touch which critics agree provides for a powerful last novel, but perhaps not one that matches the quality of his previous works.

Ion Trewin, writing in The Express, tells potential readers not to be “put off by the plethora of characters in the opening chapter” which poses an initial risk of confusion. Although “The Quarry hasn't quite the polished storytelling quality one had become accustomed to in his writing…persevere and you will be rewarded.”

Doug Johnstone of The Independent believes that Banks’ last novel is worthy of his previous works. Banks’ poignant connection to the book has a “profound effect on the content and mood of the novel, which is a quietly incendiary piece of writing, at times heartbreaking, at other times really wonderfully funny”. Overall, it is a “brilliant, piercing depiction of just how funny, stupid, pointless, infuriating, glorious, mind-bending and inane life can be.”

In The Guardian, Alex Preston finds The Quarry to be “a difficult, often distressing read”. It is “a very different novel from those upon which Banks's fame lies. There is barely a plot, little character development, the action almost all takes place in one location”. However, The Quarry’s success is in its “recognition of the power of fiction to fundamentally alter the reader's consciousness”.

Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson

Consolations of the Forest is a written account of the six months that Tesson – a French adventurer – spent living in an isolated log cabin in Siberia. The book strays between politics, philosophy and nature-worship. Although some describe his writing as “pretentious”, the consensus suggests that the book provides an insightful and thought-provoking portrayal of the life of a modern day hermit.

“For anyone who secretly dreams of a life that's both simpler and more physically demanding... Tesson's descriptions of bruised-looking Siberian sunsets and Baikal in the rain ("a coal-black flannel pricked by a deluge of needles") are a draft of cool air,” states Jessica Holland in her review for The Observer. And while the tales of the Parisian adventurer in the Taiga might teeter towards the arrogant, Holland assures us that Tesson is “so unabashed about his soul-searching is what sets the book apart from the typical 21st-century memoir. He seems to belong to an earlier era of swashbuckling adventurers and public intellectuals who were out to change the world.”

William Leith of The Spectator dubs Sylvain Tesson “a modern-day Whitman with the soul of a speculator.” Leith acknowledges the potential in Consolations of the Forest for pretentiousness and self indulgence, nas well as tedium. He observes of Tessain, “He goes for a long walk, in the ice and snow. He’s always going for long walks in the ice and snow.” However, Leith is won over by the book’s elemental meditations, reflecting that Tesson in the wilderness, wrestling with survival as well as with identity, gets down to something important. “What are you, anyway, when you become a hermit? In one way, you’re disengaging from life. But in another, you’re pressing your face deeper into the stuff of life — you become feral, brutal, direct.”

Financial Times Justin Marozzi adds to the praise for Consolations of the Forest, saying of it “No one could accuse Tesson either of leading an impoverished existence or of suffering from an inability to convey life’s joys and wonders. Rich in poetry, charged with intensity, Consolations is magnificent, pretentious, thoroughly French, a hermit’s vodka-tossed paean to retreat and solitude.”

Rachel Kushner's second novel takes us for a ride. Photograph: Getty.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution