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19 July 2010

Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Adam Sisman, Michèle Roberts and Vasily Grossman.

By Staff Blogger

Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography by Adam Sisman

“The subject of this biography may have had all the potential to be an academic idol,” opines Anthony Howard in this week’s New Statesman, “but at the base of the statue there were always feet of social-climbing clay. Beautifully written and admirably presented though it is,” Howard avers, “there is nothing in Sisman’s narrative to cause me to want to alter this view.”

“We are in the midst of a Trevor-Roper revival,” declares Tristram Hunt in the Telegraph. “Much of [the historian’s] arsenal of unfinished essays and biographies has finally come into print . . . But what Adam Sisman’s new biography, for all its scholarship and detail, fails to provide is the convincing answer for Trevor-Roper’s claims as one of our greatest historians.”

Not so for A N Wilson in the Observer: “This great book confirms my sense that Trevor-Roper was not merely a clever, but also rather a great man,” he writes of the Christ Church don. “It is impossible to praise Sisman’s book too highly . . . [It] will remind us all of why we value the life of the mind, and why style and intelligence are not superficial weapons against the forces of darkness.”

Mud: Stories of Sex and Love by Michèle Roberts

“The importance of maternal love sits beneath the surface of [these] stories,” writes Megan Walsh in the Times, “whether it’s a prostitute finding strength in imagining herself as the smallest figure in a protective matryoshka doll or a mother trying to protect her daughter’s innocence by tenderly twisting her unruly hair into plaits.

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“While Roberts may, on occasion, overuse certain metaphors,” continues Walsh, “her poetic instinct stands out: a skirt ‘pinioning’ knees, cabbages ‘tight-waisted and frilly; about to bolt’.”

For Elaine Feinstein, writing in the Independent, “Roberts understands the far from innocent attachments of childhood . . . She is at her poignant best as a [young] maid who fell in love with Emma Bovary”, and “as a servant in the house of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester . . . she can be cruelly funny at the expense of a male companion who refuses to learn French”.

“The short story is an intimate, subtle and enigmatic form,” argues Stevie Davies in the Guardian. “Michèle Roberts reminds us . . . that she is one of our foremost practitioners of the art.”

 

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

“[Vasily Grossman] died in 1964 before finishing his revisions of Everything Flows,” writes Lucy Popescu in the Independent. “His uncompromising chapters on Lenin and Stalin fell foul of the Soviet censors.” A tale of Ivan Grigoryevich’s release into Russia after 30 years of incarceration in the Gulag, Grossman’s novel has, in Popescu’s view, “the power to make you weep at man’s inhumanity to man and, at the same time, rejoice that freedom does not die. Thanks to Robert Chandler and his co-translators, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan, the Russian voice positively sings.”

According to the New Statesman fiction critic Leo Robson, the story is “digressional and diffuse, and cares little for the reader’s conventional demands: a straight narrative backbone, thematically obedient characters, and so on. Then again, a reader’s conventional demands are apt to be ignored when it comes to the portrayal of atrocity.”