Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Hurd and Young, Higashida and McCleen.

Disraeli: Or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young

Douglas Hurd and Edward Young offer an insight into the paradoxical life of Victorian Prime Minister and parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli in their biography Disraeli: Or the Two Lives. Hurd and Young’s written account depicts the life of an outsider who became the leading representative of the aristocracy despite having been born without either wealth or connections.

According to Richard Davenport-Hines at The Guardian, “their book is far from a hagiography of their party's idol” and “proves a fascinating character study”.

Leo McKinstry at The Express argues that the biography lacks “any startling revelations”, but concedes that Hurd and Young succeed in “the beautiful style of their writing, the pace of their narrative and their ability to condense complex political problems”. Matthew Parris from The Times has said “so judicious is their presentation of the evidence and so carefully do they strive to find something to praise”, agreeing with McKinstry that the biography “lay out with clarity the essentials of a story often and variously told” instead of making a pretence of assembling mountains of new material. The New Statesman’s Michael Prodger is of the opinion that “the aim of the book is to “separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives” and both Hurd and Young “track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat”.

The Reason I Jump By Naoki Higashida

Author David Mitchell and his wife K A Yoshida have translated this book written by Naoki Higashida at the age of thirteen. The book includes short stories, elements of memoir and FAQs providing a very personal insight into the mind of a thirteen year old autistic child.

Luisa Metcalfe, writing in the Express that The Reason I Jump “brings the fascinating quirks of the autistic mind to life” an opinion that she believes defies the opinions that “people on the autistic spectrum are seen as being cold, socially awkward, better with maths or computers than society”. She continues to discuss the liberation that Higashida feels in the book of the joys of “lining up his toys” and “memorising numbers on timetables”. Yet despite these activities being primarily mathematical or logical, she describes the narrative as “highly perceptive and deeply emotional”

Arifa Akbar from The Independent similarly writes that The Reason I Jump “offers sometimes tormented, sometimes joyous, insights into autism's locked-in universe” giving readers an “eloquent access into an almost entirely unknown world”. Akbar goes on to discuss  how the “child's-eye view of autism is as much a winsome work of the imagination as it is a user's manual for parents, carers and teachers” agreeing with David Mitchell and KA Yoshida whose purpose of translating their son’s novel which was primarily for “helping others dealing with autism”.

The Daily Mail’s Marcus Berkmann agrees with both Akbar and Metcalfe, agreeing that the book offers new insights into life with autism, “an entry into another world” and provides a counterbalance to “the world’s ignorance of [the] condition” by offering the “most astonishing glimpses of autism's exhilaration”.

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

The Professor of Poetry is Grace McCleen’s second novel. It tells the story of a Professor named Elizabeth Stone, who turns to investigate some papers by T S Eliot on a poem which was once given to her by an elusive Professor Hunt. As a respected academic, she is haunted by her lack of confidence in her writing, searching out for unknown papers on the work of T S Eliot with plans to write the ‘best essay’ in order to impress Hunt.

Beth Jones from The Telegraph suggests that “the novel promises to be an intriguing exploration of a woman seeking meaning in the face of mortality” but emerges as “a shallow love story” that becomes “predictable”. Despite this, Jones believes that the novel has its “rare moments that the novel manages to come alive with a tight, unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia and regret” and ultimately describes it as an “enjoyable” novel.

Furthermore, reviewers from The Sunday Times and The Telegraph hint that The Professor of Poetry is tainted by the same writing style of both of Grace McCleen’s novels. As Jones describes the “continuities with her debut novel”, Kate Clanchy from The Guardian expands on the opinion that “both her first books were cut from the same 'unworkable' original novel”, as though they both “have been an autobiographical text”. The Professor of Poetry is about "time and stillness and music", Clanchy writes, yet she believes the plot “lacks urgency”.

 

English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the arm of his private secretary Montagu William Corry (right). Image: Vanity Fair/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times