Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Di Cintio, Laing and Pagden.

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio is an exploration of walls which divide people around the world, including the West Bank Wall, Belfast barriers and The Indo-Bangladesh ‘fence’, amongst many others. Di Cintio argues that these walls do not serve their intended purpose. Rather than providing security, they often prove more harmful to the people living in the areas around them.

Roger Boyes from the Times praises Di Cintio’s thoughts when suggesting that Di Cintio “uses his explorations as a way of thinking about unresolved conflicts” and is “at his best when he makes the trip into an adventure”. Boyes however, also states that “Di Cintio sometimes over-writes” and takes sides, saying he is “plainly laying out his preferences for the Palestinians over Jewish settlers.” Despite this, Boyes ultimately describes the book as something “that always follows its thread, that charmingly and unpompously accepts the haplessness of being an outsider.”

Raja Shehadeh from the Financial Times agrees with Boyes, writing that Di Cintio “realises the limit of what he, as an outsider, can experience.” He goes on to praise Di Cintio stating that he “writes with passion and empathy for the victims of those monstrous walls”, something which gives the reader “a sense of what it is like to live on one side of a wall and to experience the fragmentation and destruction”. In addition, Shehadeh points out that Di Cintio identifies “symptoms of a prevailing sickness afflicting many countries, causing them to resort to building expensive but useless walls” which ultimately proves to be “harmful to the people living next to them.”

Writing in the New Statesman, Owen Hatherley describes Di Cintio as “very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid” but argues that it is easy to be “distracted” when questions are raised by Di Cintio, such as: "How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert?" Hatherley agrees with Boyes when stating that Di Cintio’s “sympathies are with the oppressed”, showing him to be taking sides. The idea of Walls, “the constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people”, are described as “not only enduring but thriving.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing focuses on six writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Laing visits the places in America where these writers had variously lived and drank, to find an answer to the question: why do so many great writers become alcoholics? Laing is influenced by her own childhood being surrounded by alcoholism.

Gordon Bowker of The Independent gives this book the thumbs up, describing Laing as a “fine and stylish travel writer, with a sharp eye for passing detail”, as she includes precise detail by looking at “the techniques alcoholics adopt to obscure their addiction – denial, displacement, and self-deception”. Laing uses a “rich array of images, and literary allusions” which allows her to make “intriguing links” to a “wider literary landscape”, something Bowker describes as ultimately providing the “beauty of Laing’s book”.

The New Statesman’s Talitha Stevenson explains how “Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition” provides the “greatest force” for the book. Stevenson continues and recognises the importance of Laing’s childhood in her being able to write in a psychoanalytical style: “Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is ‘my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life’.” Laing’s own experience with alcohol “makes her a good match for her muddled subjects”, in writing about fellow writers. Stevenson describes Laing as not having produced an answer to the question, but rather “a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.”

John Sutherland of the Times agrees with Stevenson and reflects that “Laing’s childhood was blighted by the violent drunkenness of her mother’s lesbian partner”, which prompted her to write the book. Sutherland praises Laing's analysis of alcohol addiction in writers, noting that “Laing’s analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd.” Sutherland shares the sentiments of Bowker, and describes The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink as “truly worthwhile” because Laing “is a terrific writer.”

The Enlightenment: And why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

Anthony Pagden‘s The Enlightenment: And why it still matters tells the story of how the modern world was created. Anthony Pagden argues that the ideal of a global and cosmopolitan society became a central part of the western imagination in the tumult of the Enlightenment, and how those ideas have done battle against the more traditionally-orientated ideas of the world.

Stuart Kelly of the Guardian describes Pagden as being part of “the camp that believes an enlightenment, across several countries and with broad similarities of purpose and method, did indeed occur.” Kelly continues and states that “Pagden's selections from writers of the period are markedly partial” because of a lack of a “counterargument” provided by Pagden for the views of Edmund Burke in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Kelly further complains at the lack of mention by Pagden of Karl Marx,without referencing Marx is to write the history of ideas without ideas or history.” Finally, Kelly describes this book as “strident, partisan and always willing to overlook a fact in favour of a thesis.”

The Independent’s Kenan Malik writes “Pagden's retelling of the Enlightenment story, and his defence of cosmopolitanism, are cogent and important” as Pagden is writing about something which “has significance well beyond the history books”. Malik identifies that Pagden pursues an important argument, that the Enlightenment “developed through a struggle with the ghosts of two Thomases: Aquinas and Hobbes.”

Noel Malcolm of the Daily Telegraph agrees with Stuart Kelly and states: “Pagden’s new book is firmly on the pro-Enlightenment side.” Malcolm questions Pagden’s assertion that had the “preconditions of the Enlightenment not occurred ... we would now be living in an ossified society, with little original thinking”, questioning this “an implausible scenario”. In addition, Malcolm describes aspects of Pagden’s version of the Enlightenment as having “its radical moments”. He finally describes Pagden as having the same notion of enlightenment as “put forward by that movement’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant: the point was to stop taking things on trust, and start thinking for yourself.”

West Bank wall being climbed by Palestinians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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