Reviews Round-up: Atwood, Wolitzer and Danahar

The critics' verdict on Atwood, Wolitzer, Danahar and Ripley

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

With MaddAddam Margaret Atwood concludes her “speculative fiction” trilogy, which began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. In the final instalment, the focus shifts to Toby, who plays a more minor role in the first two books, and sees the subplots and loose ends rounded off and tied up as Attwood’s satirical dystopia reaches its climax.

Sarah Churchwell, writing in the New Statesman magazine, found the conclusion to be a little too neat for the tone of the trilogy noting that “One might expect a dystopia to be rather messier and more entropic: the plague wipes out the entire human race, except for all Atwood’s protagonists, who endure in order to come together in MaddAddam and tie up her storylines rather too neatly”.  While not unimpressed by the finale, she still rates the opener as the “tour de force of the trilogy”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair, however, was spellbound by the finale, suggesting that Attwood’s witchlike ability to charm her reader would have had her burnt at the stake in times gone by. Her cutting prose is “diamond edged and perfectly pitched” and while Churchwell might think it is unnatural that the subplots of the previous two works are brought together so conveniently, Adair feels that “MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories”. He concludes that, in this case, three is better than one or two as “Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in a way that could not have been foreseen in the first two books”.

James Kidd of the Independent was also impressed by final work, commending both Atwood’s reflective side (“It ends with a bravura meditation on the power, consolations and endurance of literature itself”) and her subtle humour (“Atwood is not always praised as a comic writer, but MaddAddam reveals a fondness for bad puns, off-beat one liners and some inventive running gags”). He judges Atwood to have given an almost distressingly accurate reflection on humanity in all its depravity concluding that “It is not always a pretty picture, but it is true for all that.”

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s tenth book The Interestings follows a group of otherwise unremarkable American teenagers, who meet at a summer camp in New York, as the unquenchable excitement of youth gives way to the inevitable dreariness of middle age in a tale that has received a positive response from critics.

For the Telegraph’s Alison Pearson, it is a breakthrough novel, worthy of five stars and a gleaming review. She is charmed by Wolitzer’s wit “which can even make clinical depression entertaining” and impressed her “fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend’s new walk-in refrigerator”. Above all, Pearson hails The Interestings as “a great feminist novel” concluding that “Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys’ League, it’s her.”

Rachel Cusk, writing for the Guardian, acknowledges that the plot-line might be considered somewhat “old-fashioned” but thoroughly enjoyed the novel, calling it “essentially a cheerful enterprise with a guaranteed entertainment value” and attributing to Wolitzer a “knack for comic-satirical perceptions of character and culture”. Whilst she laments the occasional excess of “narrative bulk” she ultimately concludes that the reader is constantly “waiting to see what happens next”.

In the Independent, Holly Williams gives the novel another positive reception, hailing in particular Wolitzer’s brilliance in writing about “normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous.” She finds it refreshing that the heroine “isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous”. Williams also points out the success of Wolitzer’s socio-historical contextualisation and concludes that although the prose is sometimes forced, and she thinks that Wolitzer occasionally and unhelpfully indulges her “urge to run down every available narrative track”, ultimately “this novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed."

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

In The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring Paul Danahar reveals his own insights on the Arab Spring, having worked on the "axis of evil" during the revolution. In vivid prose, Danahar narrates the events that removed the "stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships" from the Arab Continent and have yet to reform: he notes that the end product is still an unknown entity.

Christopher de Bellaigue, writing for the Guardian, considers that the book is somewhat out of its depth; despite "a smattering of horror" and "exotic frisson" he concludes that there is "little to surprise an even moderately attentive reader of the foreign news." Indeed, the paper mocks Danahar’s willingness to embrace the obvious when stating that "in war, seconds and inches are the difference between life and death." There are also criticisms of the content itself: Danahar seems to have neglected the ever-changing nature of the situation when writing that the Arab Spring has left "a stronger Sunni, and a weaker Shia, Islam." In fact, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party has been toppled in Egypt and Assad’s Shia regime continues to remain in power. De Bellaigue also appears to be mildly amused by the author’s naivety; to the statement, "God has returned to the Middle East," de Bellaigue responds "did he ever leave?"

However, the New Statesman’s Philip Maughan offers a more sympathetic view. He reminds us of Danahar’s expertise, running "the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013," before describing how the book leads us to some important questions concerning these newborn democratic states, nominally difficult matters of "statehood, secularism and religion."

Colin Freeman, writing for the Telegraph, also shares some of the Guardian’s concerns; he criticises the scapegoat Danahar places on "the shortcomings of American intervention" whilst ignoring Al-Qaeda’s nihilistic resistance. Freeman feels that this is completely paradoxical to the Arab Spring itself, for it adopts "that old mentality that still dogs the Arab world – namely, that whatever goes wrong, someone elsewhere is always to blame." This mantra appears contrary to the progressive mindset that typifies the Arab Spring.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Amanda Ripley condemns the grim state of American education, reiterating the view that is rife contemporary politics. She answers the pressing question "What exactly is happening in classrooms in foreign countries that are out-performing the U.S.A?" by spending time at the heart of the action: she follows three American teenagers choosing to take a year out as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. She presents the startling effects this has on their academic performance and attempts to discover what other countries are doing right and the U.S. is doing wrong.

Emma Keller, writing for the Guardian, tells potential readers Ripley’s book will "amaze you" and agrees that she drives home some very accurate points on America’s failing schools: "kids are bored, mentally unchallenged and could do so much more with their time."

The Huffington Post’s Jonathon Edelman shares Keller’s view that Ripley’s book is "gripping" and admires her "fascinating characters" and "fresh observations." He admires that, "Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around," and is adamant that Ripley’s suggested improvements to America’s educational system – "parent involvement, heightened levels of expectation and well respected teachers" – ought to be at the core of the organisation and inculcated into its pupils.  

The Economist agrees that Ripley’s "wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading" and praises the "startling amount of insight" the book offers. The reviewer connects with Ripley’s frustration at America’s focus on "tracking students at different cognitive levels" where "low expectations are often duly rewarded" and, like Ripley, laments "the perverse sort of compassion that prevents American teachers from failing bad students."   

The consensus suggests that this book successfully crystallises why America’s schools are declining; the reviewers all hope that the contempt for the American education system this book breeds will spark a desperately needed overhaul.

Joe Iles and Irfan Allana

Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Getty Images
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution