Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Niall Ferguson, Sue Miller’s 9/11 fiction and the life of Caravaggio.

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Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

"This is an exciting biography, punctuated with fights and feuds," writes Michael Prodger in the Sunday Telegraph; "Where Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio differs from that of previous writers is that he thoroughly scoured the criminal archives as well as the more usual repositories . . . he appears time and again in court records as either the aggressor in assorted brawls or as being mysteriously nearby when they happened."

For Peter Conrad in the Observer, "This is less a biography than a critical study that searches for traces of Caravaggio in the milieux, both churchy and raunchy, which he frequented. Graham Dixon's high-minded interpretations of the pictures don't always convince, but he describes paint with a rare poetic finesse."

Cristopher Bray, writing in the Independent, is also impressed: "Though the lineaments of this story -- from Caravaggio's brutish strutting through counter-Reformation Rome . . . to his impoverished, malarial death on the beach at Porto Ercole -- are well known, there is much that is new here . . . And though some of [Graham-Dixon's] iconographic hermeneutics are a little far-flung, there's no gainsaying the depth of research behind them."

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

In April, Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post, delivered the following assessment of this tale of love-loss and false grieving in post-9/11 New York: "The Lake Shore Limited may be the closest thing we'll get to a [Henry] James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all -- just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy."

But British critics have baulked at this assessment. "It is unlikely that [James] would ever have described, as Miller does, a person's shoulders as 'sheeny knobs'," writes Beth Jones in the Sunday Telegraph, "or used the expression 'soft structural whumps' to describe the sound of a couple having sex." Nor, writes Lisa O'Kelly in the Observer, "would he have been likely to invent a character who moaned aloud due to the proximity of a woman's 'warm dampness' ".

"Yet while her language can sometimes be pedestrian and there is too much filler detail," continues O'Kelly, "she remains an often sharply observant and perceptive writer, adept at revealing painful emotional truths about love and loss, regret and betrayal."

High Financier: the Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg by Niall Ferguson

Frank Partnoy, writing in the Financial Times, calls this an "illuminating and important new biography . . . of the man who built and defined S G Warburg". Its main lesson, Partnoy explains, is that "if Warburg's conservative approach had survived, his bank and others would have shunned consolidation during the 1990s, avoided excess risk and might even have dodged the recent crisis".

"There is little here of the blood and guts sustaining many popular biographies," Partnoy acknowledges, but "Ferguson's higher purpose is to introduce not the man, but his ideas . . . Warburg's bank preserved by sustaining its morals and reputation."

For Bryan Appleyard, writing in last week's New Statesman, "this is Ferguson at his finest . . . beautifully paced, dramatically subtle and psychologically shrewd". "He had access to 10,000 letters and a mass of previously unpublished material," Appleyard writes, "and has turned it all into a testament to what the world lost when it embraced a colder, harder globalisation than any imagined by Siegmund."

But for T J Stiles, writing in the Washington Post, "the very mass of Ferguson's expertise and research weighs upon his writing. I was surprised by his confidence in readers' historical and financial knowledge . . . [and] the bounty of manuscripts [available to Ferguson] occasionally leads to overindulgence, with a narrow focus on Warburg's views, not their impact."

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