Will Hodgkinson's memoir features a mid-life conversion from journalist to yogi. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 10 July

The critics’ verdicts on Linda Grant, Will Hodgkinson and Helen McCarthy.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant

Linda Grant’s second novel Upstairs at the Party is a retrospective grounded in the memories of protagonist Adele, studying at the University of York, which captures the life of a student in the 1970s when university grants meant that students were “suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings” and radicalism was rife.

The events of a 20th birthday party are the catalyst for Adele’s reminisces, yet the Independent’s Lucy Scholes wishes that the novel had stayed at uni a little longer, writing that “once we leave them behind the narrative flounders. Evie’s story is rambling and Adele’s pursuit of it a matter of unconvincingly tying up loose ends.” Similarly, according to the Financial Times’ Peter Aspden it is hard to believe that the events narrated in the first part of the book have such lingering effect ... The answer to the riddle of what-really-happened-on-that-fateful-night is anticlimactic too. It is hardly the stuff of a lifetime of pondering.” However the ambiguities of the narrative, in part due to the hazy nature of Adele’s memory as she pieces together the past, is seen by the Telegraph as a virtue. Lucy Daniel writes, With its hindsight about tragic events and paths not taken, the novel has similarities to Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker winnerThe Sense of an Ending, has a similar insistence on reshaping the past, how information that wasn’t available first time round could have changed the entire story.”

The connection to Barnes’ best seller is trumped by comparisons to Brideshead Revisited. Scholes states that “Grant’s vision is clearly that of a Brideshead for a different generation ... but it lacks the sincere sense of loss that haunts Waugh’s classic.” Moreover, Aspden describes the androgynous Stevie and Evie as “two Sebastian Flytes in Ziggy Stardust apparel” but adds that unlike the reader’s sympathetic response to Brideshead Revisited, “we don’t actually fall under the spell of Evie and Stevie early in the novel, so it is hard to believe that they continue to play such a central role in so many lives.” Despite mixed feelings on the narrative structure, Grant’s cynical yet funny Upstairs at the Party cloaks the campus novel with melancholy; a theme that is undeniably worthy of Charles Ryder.

The House is Full of Yogis by Will Hodgkinson

In this memoir the Times’ rock and pop critic Will Hodgkinson recounts his parents’ mid-life transformation from south-west London medical correspondent and tabloid journalist to a meditative yogi and TV feminist. While the elder brother Tom survives the transition relatively unphased, Will’s childhood, as the book’s subtitle implies, is “Turned Upside Down” by the social and emotional difficulties of having a father dressed in white pyjamas and his parents’ sex lives discussed on TV.

The Sunday Times’ Helen Davies praises Hodgkinson as “a gifted storyteller” who turns his already colourful core material into a “howlingly entertaining memoir that is raw, affectionate and, unbelievably, true.” Through Hodgkinson’s father’s near death experience, his mother’s book, Sex Is Not Compulsory, and declarations of his own young mediocrity, Davies maintains that “Underneath the dysfunction ... there is a real tenderness.” Equally enthusiastically, the Telegraph’s Mick Brown’s praises Hodgkinson’s “touching account” as a “sweet, quirkish gem of a memoir.” Despite the ample possibility for easy laughs, “Hodgkinson paints a deeply loving portrait of his father.” For both Brown and Davies, the comedy is affectionate rather than disdainful. 

However, where some see tenderness, others see tragedy. While Brown feels “a particular twinge of sympathy for Hodgkinson”, The Times’ Melanie Reid sees “a deep ambivalence at the heart of this charming, entertaining book”, where “what emerges is often more sad than funny”. Despite acknowledging the book to be “charming, entertaining”, Reid suspects the “contrived” cartoonish comedy to be “a defense mechanism” to the point of questioning the very motives of the memoir: “Isn’t every memoir, to some extent, either a conscious or unconscious act of revenge on one’s parents?” For Ben East of the Observer, the fault lies in the structure: “The book ends up being little more than a series of well-told family anecdotes and snapshots of awkward encounters with girls.”

Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat by Helen McCarthy

Until 1946 women were not allowed to represent their country as diplomats. Only in 1973 was a woman allowed to have both a diplomatic position and a husband. To this day, a female head of mission has never existed in Tokyo, Beijing or Paris. Only a few years ago, the future UK ambassador at the Vatican was assumed by male officials to be their secretary. Through these appalling facts, old and new, McCarthy in Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat explores the professional lives of women in an overwhelmingly male field, chipping in her own personal stories.

Susan Pedersen, writing for the Guardian, praises McCarthy for her “verve and nicely restrained outrage”, adding that “this is not simply a history of slow institutional change. It is also a work of recovery.” According to Pederson, struggling women are recovered through McCarthy’s “vivid and engaging portraits”, an idea echoed by the Independent’s Kate Williams, who praises “this important book full of brilliant vignettes.” Despite concluding that “the complexities come out beautifully in the lives recovered in this book”, Pederson is sceptical of the “largely biographical approach and breezy style” which “leave[s] foundational issues underanalysed.”

Roger Morgan of the Times Higher Education also criticises stylistics, particularly the transition from maiden names to married names, claiming that “Readers interested in tracing individual careers will sometimes be confused by the discriminatory convention that women, unlike men, are expected to change their surnames on marriage.” He also critiques the “shortage of space” which “prevents McCarthy from going into full detail on many aspects of her wide-ranging subject.” However, like Pederson and Williams, Morgan concludes positively that this work is a “pioneering study” which supplies “a penetrating, readable and most welcome introduction to a neglected set of issues.” Despite following 150 years of progress, McCarthy’s searching analysis shows there is still a long way to go.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage