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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit