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12 October 2022

From Vigdis Hjorth to The Waste Land: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring essays by Mia Mercado and After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Emily Bootle and Ellys Woodhouse

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris Between the Wars by Helen Rappaport
Scribe, 336pp, £20

Helen Rappaport’s evocative account of Russians in Paris was finished long before a new generation of émigrés fled their homeland to avoid Vladimir Putin’s conscription edict. The fate of many of those who a century earlier escaped the Bolsheviks makes for salutary reading. Perhaps 50,000 of them headed for Paris in adversity where they might have previously gone for pleasure. While some Russians – Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky – were a vital part of Paris’s artistic flowering, the fate of most of their peers was less shiny.

Rappaport mirrors tales of glamour, such as the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka, a former lover of Tsar Nicholas II who set up her own successful dance studio, and the aristocrats who established fashion houses, with the stories of refugees who scrambled for a living – the taxi drivers, railway porters and Renault car workers. There’s also the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who returned home only to end her own life. Ernest Hemingway described finding the Russian outcasts in the city pining for the old order, and marked by “a childish sort of hopefulness that things will somehow be all right”. But, as Rappaport shows, it rarely was.
By Michael Prodger

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis
Faber & Faber, 544pp, £25

That TS Eliot retained his beard “deep” into the September of 1919 might not be a fact you thought you’d ever care to learn. But Matthew Hollis’s biography of “The Waste Land”, Eliot’s seminal modernist poem that has its centenary this month, makes these details engrossing. On Armistice Day in 1918, Ezra Pound would “repeatedly tap his Adam’s apple” as he despaired at the state of Britain. Vivien Eliot – the poet’s first wife – wrote “wonderful” three times in the margin beside an early draft of the second part of “The Waste Land”.

Like the 434-line poem, this book immerses the reader in the political, social and cultural themes of the day – but what came before is important too. Hollis, a biographer of the poet Edward Thomas, weaves a rich body of research into a fast-paced narrative. “The Waste Land” spoke so well to the fractured, postwar world because it employed images – from Ovid, Shakespeare – that were already rooted in the public consciousness. As a culture, we reward writers for moving away from tradition. But, Hollis argues, “the most individuating moments of our poets are those in which they are in communication with the past”.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth Translated by Charlotte Barslund
Verso, 352pp, £14.99

The Norwegian novelist Vigdis Hjorth is practised at writing about tense family dynamics. Her 2016 novel Will and Testament – translated into English in 2019 – caused uproar in her own family: it has strongly autobiographical elements, yet also concerns a protagonist who claims she was sexually abused by her father. In response, Hjorth’s mother threatened legal action against a theatrical adaptation and her sister wrote her own autobiographical novel, titled Free Will.

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Is Mother Dead continues Hjorth’s preoccupation with the family. Johanna, an artist, has been estranged from her mother since she produced paintings that unfavourably depicted motherhood. Now, having returned to Oslo after decades living in the US, she is obssessed with restoring contact. In an uneasy stream of consciousness, Hjorth captures the mind’s inner dialogue – “Does Mum have a hearing aid? Why do I want to know that?” – with almost nauseating precision. But the fixation on a single topic is as exhausting for the reader as it is for Johanna. As the novel develops, reality and Johanna’s imagination merge. At times, we lose interest in finding out the difference.
By Emily Bootle

She’s Nice Though: Essays on Being Bad at Being Good by Mia Mercado
HarperOne, 224pp, £20

What does it mean to be nice? Who benefits when we are polite? Are you truly kind if a part of the motivation is for others to see you as such? In this collection of essays Mia Mercado examines what drives her need to perform such pleasantries. Written with the wit and extensive pop culture references that will be familiar to readers of her column in The Cut, Mercado draws on her personal experience as an Asian-American woman in the Midwest to offer light-hearted commentary on identity politics.

Mercado’s people-pleasing tendencies are clear in her writing. The humour goes from trying too hard to seeming almost sycophantic, and it is easy to dismiss her attempts at sincere self-reflection when they are interspersed with listicles, self-answered questionnaires and a short story featuring “Little Miss Shit Head”. Her attempts to approach difficult subjects – such as the sources of racial or sexist attitudes – are shallow. “So much of kindness comes down to the ability to absorb the thoughtlessness of others,” Mercado writes. The reader finishes the book none the wiser about the topics she promises to distil.
By Ellys Woodhouse

[See also: Why Annie Ernaux deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature]

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?