Books in Brief: Svetlana Alpers, Paul Danahar and Meg Wolitzer

Three new books you may have missed.

Roof Life
Svetlana Alpers

“Confession is not to my taste,” writes the art historian Svetlana Alpers in the opening pages of Roof Life. After retiring from her job in California, she peers out of the windows of her new loft apartment in Lower Manhattan, recording what she sees. Alpers writes against the memoir form, creating a meditative self-portrait that pulls in family, literature, geography and a lifetime of looking at art. She aims for a kind of omniscience – to fix our attention and focus our responses, as we do when taking in landscapes from a great height. “The immediacy of distance” is her goal.
Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99

The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring
Paul Danahar

Paul Danahar ran the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013 and is one of a small number of journalists who have worked across the “axis of evil”. He takes his epigraph from Tacitus – “The best day after a bad emperor is the first one” – reminding us that anything written on the Arab spring is necessarily a work in progress. The unifying theme of the book is the movement from stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships across the Arab world – many of them sanctioned by the west – to the birth of democratic nations that must reckon with complex histories, re-examine their identities and answer difficult questions of statehood, secularism and religion.
Bloomsbury, 468pp, £25

The Interestings
Meg Wolitzer

At a summer camp in upstate New York, six teenagers smoke weed and drink vodka and Tang from paper cups. They call themselves “the Interestings” because, well, they “clearly are the most interesting people who ever fucking lived”. Decades pass and the dreams that sustained them give way to dreary day jobs. Disappointment and envy become the norm. Wolitzer places her drama in a historical context, contrasting the private and the public and questioning the influence of big events on small lives.
Chatto & Windus, 480pp, £16.99 

Readers getting stuck in at the National Library in Beijing, China. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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