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6 September 2023

From Yiyun Li to Wolfram Eilenberger: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Kenneth W Harl’s history of nomadic tribes and Redstone Press’s Seeing Things.

By Barney Horner, Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger and Tom Gatti

The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Salvation of Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger
Allen Lane, £25, 400pp

The 1930s always felt doomed. For Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil, that sense of impending turmoil prompted not just disillusion but the stimulus for intellectual jouissance and the opportunity to practise what they prescribed. Here Wolfram Eilenberger entwines the development of their philosophies with their private lives in the period 1933-43 – a sequel of sorts to Time of the Magicians (2020), his study of four male scholars in the 1920s.

Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand and Weil’s perspectives are distinct from each other, often clashing – especially the latter two – but Eilenberger just about manages to hold their divergences together with an idea that runs through all their work: the contours of individuality in a decade of collectivist projects – fascism, communism, even capitalism. The oppositional forces against which these four thinkers array themselves are too conveniently drawn; there are substantive differences between the totalitarian psychology of Nazism and what Rand calls the “far too many” democratic masses in her adopted American home. But Eilenberger’s goal is to show that continental disorder and the threat of violence can inspire originality of thought, and he does so compellingly in this ambitious intellectual history.
By Barney Horner

Wednesday’s Child by Yiyun Li
4th Estate, 256pp, £16.99

The Chinese-born, US-based author Yiyun Li, who won the PEN/Faulkner award for her most recent novel, The Book of Goose (2022), is a master of the short story. Though none of the tales in this collection share a setting or characters, they have a common sensibility and tone that draws them into a cohesive whole. Many of the stories deal with death: in the titular “Wednesday’s Child”, a woman flips through her notebooks while waiting for a delayed train and remembers the suicide of her teenage daughter; “Alone” follows Suchen, the sole survivor of a teenage suicide pact, who has left her husband; in another, a bereaved mother makes a spreadsheet of all the people she has known who have died.

Elsewhere, Li’s characters experience failed marriages, estrangement, alienation and postnatal depression. Though her plots are dark, and her themes serious and philosophical – grief, memory, ageing, loneliness – pleasingly, these stories never feel heavy or overwrought.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: Anne Enright’s damaged lives]

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Empires of the Steppes: The Nomadic Tribes Who Shaped Civilisation by Kenneth W Harl
Bloomsbury, 576pp, £30

For centuries, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane were seen in the West as bogeymen and harbingers of the apocalypse. They were marauding barbarians who appeared from nowhere to menace Europe and whose horseback archers left towers of skulls in their wake. According to the historian Kenneth W Harl, however, these men were not agents of destruction but charismatic leaders of “the nomadic tribes who shaped civilisation”.

The Eurasian steppes may have had few major cities, limited natural resources and little material culture but the Huns, Mongols, Scythians, Goths, Turks, Tatars and others who emerged from the region had a profound effect on lives in both the West and in China. The range of the nomads was enormous: Atilla reached Orleans in 451; Genghis ruled the largest land empire in history; Tamerlane captured both Delhi in 1398 and Baghdad three years later. In the wake of the conquests came goods and trade, religious ideas and technological advances (stirrups, spoked-wheel vehicles, papermaking, gunpowder), all of which flowed along the Silk Road that ran through the nomads’ homelands. Europe, says Harl, indeed had every reason to fear the tribes but also to trade and collaborate with them.
By Michael Prodger

Seeing Things: The Small Wonders of the World According to Writers, Artists and Others edited by Julian Rothenstein
Redstone Press, 144pp, £19.95

For some, Instagram may be a hellsite of cynical influencers and toxic beauty standards. But for others – as this charming anthology shows – it is a living scrapbook that records the world in all its glorious oddity. The Redstone Press founder Julian Rothenstein has combed the accounts of writers and artists including Hari Kunzru, Cornelia Parker and Jarvis Cocker, and assembled a series of images that remind us – as Richard Wentworth says of his own photographs – “that humans read the world every time they look”.

Divided into five themed chapters, the book juxtaposes intriguing still lifes – a mannequin’s head peeking out from a rental apartment cupboard; a “male” fire hydrant and its “female shadow” – with found snippets – a page from an 1890s Hindustani phrasebook (“the cook is drunk again”); a snap of Dorothy Parker with poodle and cigarette – and eyebrow-raising signs. Full of wit and rich in possible meanings, these are images that deserve a life beyond social media.
By Tom Gatti

[See also: The cruelty of cricket]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain