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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

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