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Signifying something

21 May 2015 - 10:45am

WILLIAM FAULKNER called the book “a real son of a bitch”. Readers can empathise. “The Sound and the Fury”, published in 1929 when the then 32-year-old author was poor and unknown, uses a kaleidoscope of narrators to chronicle the decline of a genteel Mississippi family. The novel starts from the perspective of Benjy Compson, the youngest son, whose view of events is a mess of memories, jumbled without order or insight. A young man with the “idiot” mind of a child, his stream-of-consciousness account bounces between the decades as it drops from one sentence to the next. The effect is disorienting. Performing it on stage seems like an act of hubris.

“The novel is a complete train wreck,” says John Collins, the artistic director of Elevator Repair Service (ERS), a theatre group. But turning unwieldy prose into living, breathing works of theatre is the kind of problem that has animated ERS for nearly 25 years. The company is best known for “Gatz”, an audacious, eight-hour production of the entire text of “The Great Gatsby”, which became a surprise hit in theatres around the world. Now armed with a broader audience, the company is resuscitating its 2008...

A near-run thing

21 May 2015 - 10:45am

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. By Bernard Cornwell. Harper Collins; 352 pages; $35. William Collins; £25.

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny. By Tim Clayton. Little, Brown; 588 pages; £25.

Waterloo: The Aftermath. By Paul O’Keefe. Overlook; 392 pages; $37.50. Bodley Head; £25.

WITH the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo fast approaching, the publishing industry has already fired volley after volley of weighty ordnance at what is indeed one of the defining events of European history. About that, there can be no argument. Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6m people. It also redrew the map of Europe and was the climax of what has become known as the second Hundred Years War, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France that had begun during the reign of Louis XIV. Through its dogged resistance to France’s hegemonic ambitions in the...

Transcendental meditation

21 May 2015 - 10:45am

Seiobo There Below. By Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Translated by Ottilie Mulzet. New Directions; 451 pages; $17.95. Tuskar Rock; £16.99.

BACK in 2007 Colm Toibin, a prizewinning Irish author, told a press conference that the most interesting writer he had come across in two years of reading contemporary fiction as a judge of that year’s Man Booker International prize was Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a reclusive Hungarian with a reputation for sentences so long and convoluted that some of them went on for an entire chapter.

So impressed was Mr Toibin by the Hungarian’s fabulist confections that he founded a small publishing imprint, Tuskar Rock Press, to bring just such fiction to a wider audience. Eight years on, Mr Toibin’s faith in Mr Krasznahorkai’s talent has been vindicated. Just after Tuskar brought out his latest book, “Seiobo There Below”, in Britain, the Hungarian novelist was named the winner of the Man Booker International prize for 2015 on May 19th. Now ten years old, the award differs from the annual Man Booker prize for fiction in that it is presented every two years, and for a body of...

You are not special

21 May 2015 - 10:45am

The Road to Character. By David Brooks. Random House; 300 pages; $28. Allen Lane; £17.99. Buy from

PEOPLE are too full of themselves, says David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times. Joe Namath, a star quarterback of the 1960s, once shouted to his bathroom mirror: “Joe! Joe! You’re the most beautiful thing in the world!”—with a reporter watching. But it is not just celebrities who puff themselves up, and the evidence is not just anecdotal. The proportion of American teenagers who believe themselves to be “very important” jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as “I like to look at my body” and “Somebody should write a biography about me”, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago.

With the rise in self-regard has come an unprecedented yearning for fame. In a survey in 1976, people ranked being famous 15th out of 16 possible life goals. By 2007, 51% of young people said it was one of their principal ambitions. On a recent multiple-...

Coasts and coalitions

21 May 2015 - 10:45am

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Late Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. By Noel Malcolm. Allen Lane; 604 pages; £30.

IN THE 1990s, when the Balkans were at war, Noel Malcolm was best known as a journalist and polemicist, though he was already a promising academic. As a sharp critic of Serb nationalism, he published histories of Bosnia and Kosovo that won praise for deconstructing Serb national myths, even if some critics found him too sparing of the myths told by other nations, such as the Albanians.

That makes it all the more welcome that Sir Noel (now an eminent British scholar who was knighted last year) has written a book that will serve as an antidote to all crude nationalism, and to many historical stereotypes. It brings the reader back to an era long before the nation-state, when personal loyalties and religious coalitions were perpetually shifting.

“Agents of Empire” traces the fortunes in the final decades of the 16th century of one extended family whose members struggled to survive at the interface between two empires, Venetian and Ottoman. They bore the surnames of Bruni and Bruti, and their roots were in a small Albanian-speaking port on the Adriatic, Ulcinj, now part of Montenegro.

The book ingeniously reconstructs the changing balance of forces in the eastern...

Blindly over the brink

14 May 2015 - 11:17am

Tsar struck

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia. By Dominic Lieven. Allen Lane; 429 pages; £25. To be published in America by Viking in August.

THE first world war brought many afflictions to Europe: revolution, civil war, two famines, collectivisation, dictatorship and terror. The botched peace of Versailles stoked revanchism and brought further catastrophe in 1939. So the decisions which took Russia into a needless war in 1914 can be blamed for the death of at least 50m subjects of the tsarist and Soviet empires, plus countless others.

The origins, course and effects of the war have been minutely researched by Western historians, but not, until Dominic Lieven’s masterly new book, from a Russian point of view. The result is a gripping, poignant and in some respects revolutionary contribution to European history. The author—a distinguished British scholar descended from several of the protagonists he describes—has had unprecedented, and possibly unique, access to the Russian state archives. Shortly after he finished his research, the library fell into a...

Chronicles of the years of fire

14 May 2015 - 11:17am

Girls in hoods, not veils

TWENTY years ago, a raw angry film burst on to the big screen and into the French mind. “La Haine” (Hatred), written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz when he was just 26, was a stylised black-and-white drama about youth, guns and police brutality that opened French eyes to the rage on the housing estates of the country’s banlieues. Although nothing since has quite matched its dramatic power, “La Haine” opened the way for a generation of French film-makers, who have turned their backs on the elegant salons and leafy boulevards of Paris for the tense, angular vibrant world of the banlieue.

Even today, “La Haine” is worth watching again. Its haunting opening voice-over, relating a story about a man who falls from a skyscraper and tells himself as he plunges to the ground, “So far, so good; so far, so good,” sets the movie up for its shocking end. It also acts as the film’s central metaphor. The simmering rage of Saïd (of Arab origin), Vinz (a Jew) and Hubert (an African), three young drifters whose friend, Abdel, dies after being detained by the...

The great bobachee-connah

14 May 2015 - 11:17am

Flood of Fire. By Amitav Ghosh. John Murray; 616 pages; £20. To be published in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August.

THIS is the last volume in a rich and sweeping trilogy set across the vastness of maritime Asia. The historical backdrop is England’s looming first opium war with China (1839-42). But the magic of these novels—along with much of the narrative propulsion—comes from the way Amitav Ghosh weaves together and then apart and then together again the fates of those aboard a former slave ship, the Ibis,carrying convicts and indentured workers from Calcutta bound for Mauritius.

The first volume, “Sea of Poppies”, launched the Ibis out into a great ocean of words—away from the hot, dusty north Indian plain and the godowns and opium factories on the silt-laden Hooghly river to the sapphire waters of the Bay of Bengal. There is nothing like a ship for overturning the established order—unless it is a good storm, and in “River of Smoke” (2011), the sequel, a powerful one combines and scatters the characters in bewitching ways. In a brilliant feat of...

Tyrant and truant

14 May 2015 - 11:17am

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom. By Blaine Harden. Viking; 290 pages; $27.95. Pan Macmillan; £16.99.

THE vain feats of Kim Il Sung, the Korean guerrilla leader who fought the Japanese occupiers from Manchuria, were irresistible to the destitute North Koreans who, by the 1940s, had suffered nearly four decades of brutal colonisation. They did not know the truth: that Kim lost his war, fled east and later slinked home in a Soviet uniform, kowtowing to Stalin until his death. Nor did they see that Kim’s monstrous regime, which would last another 41 years until he died in 1994, was built on fiction.

In 1945 No Kum Sok was one of those who thought that young Kim, the Soviet poodle, was a sham. In the boy’s hometown, Russian soldiers ransacked and raped, and his family fell on hard times. Mr No longed to escape to America. Posing as a false communist, spying and snitching to prove his fervour, he became the youngest pilot in the North Korean air force. In 1950 the Soviet-backed North invaded the South, prompting a UN-backed American-led force to step in. The Chinese, in turn, supported the North. Just after the conflict ended, Mr No flew a Soviet MiG-15 jet over the border and defected to the South.

Both men’s...

The grammar of hard facts

14 May 2015 - 11:17am

Made up in Manhattan

Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker. By Thomas Kunkel. Random House; 366 pages; $30.

“AT ANY hour of the day or night,” wrote Joseph Mitchell, “I can shut my eyes and visualise in a swarm of detail what is happening on scores of streets.” That, for Mitchell, was New York, where he worked as a reporter—starting in 1929, when he arrived as a college dropout from a small town in North Carolina, until 1964, when he submitted his last piece to the New Yorker.

Researching a story, Mitchell could spend whole days on the bus, taking notes on what he saw out of the window, or wandering around a cemetery to identify the weeds that grew there. Mitchell, wrote one critic, could “achieve the same effects with the grammar of hard facts that Dickens achieved with the rhetoric of imagination.” He came to be widely imitated. Calvin Trillin dedicated one of his books “to the New Yorker reporter who set the standard—Joseph Mitchell.”

Meticulousness, however, had its price. Once a newspaperman filing many...

Moral of the story

7 May 2015 - 11:07am

Creation myth

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. By Joseph Ellis. Knopf; 320 pages; $27.95.

JOSEPH ELLIS begins his latest book, “The Quartet”, with the observation that Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech was a fine bit of eloquence but a bad piece of history. Delivering his eulogy on November 19th 1863, over the freshly dug graves at Gettysburg, the president began: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation.” To which Mr Ellis responds, a bit cheekily: “No, not really.”

What follows is a clever framing of a familiar topic. Mr Ellis, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian, points out that the real work of nation-building began later, in the years between the successful conclusion of the revolution in 1781 and the final adoption of the constitution in 1789, and that this epochal achievement was largely the work of four men of genius who stemmed the centrifugal forces set in motion by the rebellion and forged a new nation out of an inchoate mass.

Not only did this quartet—George Washington,...

A man for all seasons

7 May 2015 - 11:07am

Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes. By Richard Davenport-Hines. Basic Books; 416 pages; $28.99. William Collins; £18.99.

A BIOGRAPHY of John Maynard Keynes without the economics may seem like “Hamlet” without the prince. But Richard Davenport-Hines has set out to write such a book, and the result is utterly absorbing. His argument is that Keynes deserves to be remembered for much else besides his economic works: in addition to being an economist, the great man was also a boy genius, a civil servant, a national opinion-shaper, a lover, a connoisseur and aesthete, and a statesman. Indeed Keynes himself wrote: “The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts…He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree.”

Keynes saved Britain from financial ruin at least twice, the author argues: first by preventing calamity at the outbreak of war in 1914 when the City of London’s debt markets ground to a halt, and second by hectoring America to reduce Britain’s second-world-war debts. Partial success allowed the post-war Labour government to fund its welfare state and National Health Service. Keynes’s sagacity and wit shifted public opinion. In magazine articles and on campaign stumps he savaged the Versailles treaty as vindictive and the gold standard as a “barbarous relic”. He backed the...

The green, green grass of home

7 May 2015 - 11:07am

The Green Road. By Anne Enright. Norton; 320 pages; $26.95. Jonathan Cape; £16.99.

FIRST she wrote magical realism like Angela Carter’s, then she veered into non-fiction. But it was only when she focused on her native Ireland, investigating “the wound of family”, first with “The Gathering”, which won the Man Booker prize in 2007, then with “The Forgotten Waltz” in 2011, that Anne Enright really found her voice. She returns to it in her new novel, “The Green Road”.

Intending to sell the family home, a widowed mother, Rosaleen Madigan, summons her children to County Clare for one final Christmas. The early part of the book ranges in time and place, from a New York beset by AIDS to rural Mali in west Africa and the flush of the Irish economic boom, allotting chapters to each family member. In the second half the Madigans gather: martyred, empathetic Constance; Dan, a gay failed priest; younger brother Emmet, hollowed out by aid work in Africa; and Hanna, an alcoholic first-time mother. Imperfect and ordinary, the siblings are overseen by their querulous mother, who feels that “every child she reared was ready...

Onwards and upwards

7 May 2015 - 11:07am

RUNNING an American museum ain’t what it used to be. To see how much the job has changed you need only look at the differences between Glenn Lowry, head of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and Alfred Barr, its first boss. Since he started in 1995, Mr Lowry has doubled the museum’s footprint and quadrupled its endowment to nearly $1 billion. Barr, a former academic who became director in 1929, was a leading figure in the modern-art movement in America, but he lived at a far slower pace. Once, while reading out a passage by Lenin in a speech, he fell silent. After a long pause, he looked up and apologised to his audience: “I’m sorry. I got interested.”

Over the years American museum directors have become responsible not only for questions of aesthetics but, increasingly, for the business side of their institutions too. They are both artistic director and CEO. Given the relatively meagre public funding for the arts in America, the CEO element is no small part of the job and helps explain why, in many cases, the identity of a museum is so closely tied to its leader—le musée, c’est moi, if you will.


The great storyteller’s story

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

Reagan: The Life. By H.W. Brands. Doubleday; 805 pages; $35.

MORE than a decade after his death, Ronald Reagan still divides people. American conservatives revere him as practically a demigod. He shrank the state, rescued the economy and won the cold war; all Republican candidates must pay homage. The left dismisses him as malign and moronic—a B-movie actor who floated into the White House on an updraft of phoney charm, a man who snoozed during meetings, blew up the deficit and propped up unsavoury third-world despots from Argentina to Zaire.

The truth is more interesting than the caricature, and H.W. Brands’s new biography tells the story as well as you could ask for in a single volume. A lucid and witty writer, Mr Brands lays out the facts in short chapters that bounce along like one of the “bare-fisted walloping action” films that Reagan once starred in. He has a talent for letting his sources speak for themselves. They include not only politicians and Reagan himself, but also his children, who were as neglected as those of any famous parent. Invited to speak at his adopted son Michael’s boarding school,...

Aux armes, historiens!

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

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Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. By Janet Polasky. Yale University Press; 371 pages; $35 and £25.

REVOLUTIONARIES want to tear down walls. Between 1776, when America declared independence, and 1804, when Haiti at last threw off the yoke of French rule, the compartments and divisions of established power became everyone’s target. This book assiduously describes how, just as the doctrine of the universal rights of man seized the Western world, so too did an irrepressible iconoclasm.

But what sets “Revolutions Without Borders” apart as a work of history is that Janet Polasky tears down walls, too: scholarly ones. Instead of telling the usual heroic national story, she ranges wherever her wayfaring revolutionaries take her—to Paris and Washington, but also to Poland, Sierra Leone and the Caribbean. Instead of confining herself to the deeds of valiant men, she also gives the stage to women and slaves. The result is a...

A singular voice

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

When the Doves Disappeared. By Sofi Oksanen. Translated by Lola Rogers. ...

The other modernism

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

Gaining a foothold

IN AVANT-GARDE art, as in polar exploration, it’s getting there first that counts. The history of modernism is often viewed as a series of discoveries with the glory going to whomever made the next conceptual breakthrough. As that story is usually told, for the first half of the 20th century the innovative centre was Europe, before the old world was overtaken in the aftermath of the second world war by America.

In recent years that comfortable narrative has been disrupted. In the 1950s and 1960s some of the most daring work began to come not from cities like Paris or New York but from near Osaka, a second-tier city in a nation already considered marginal to the modernist project. The source of this innovation was a movement known as Gutai (meaning something like concreteness). It was founded in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara, a Japanese painter who encouraged his followers to challenge the conformity that had contributed to the authoritarianism of the preceding decades. In place of the wartime slogan, “one hundred million hearts beating as one”, Yoshihara championed an art of radical individualism summed up by...

Heart of the matter

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is? By Nick Lane. Profile; 360 pages; £25.

“THERE is a black hole at the heart of biology.” Grandiose openings like this are often a warning sign in popular science books, a signal that the author is trying to gussy up a collection of unremarkable observations. Not in this case. Nick Lane, a biochemist at University College London, knows whereof he speaks. His latest book is a persuasive, demanding attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions in biology.

Science offers a broad overview of how life works, but many intriguing details remain unclear. Mr Lane tackles some of them, including the origins of life, the connections between sex and death and what, if anything, Earth can tell us about the possibility of life elsewhere.

The book’s overarching argument is that life is a natural, chemical process, and therefore faces constraints imposed by the iron laws of physics or chemistry. Despite its spectacular surface diversity, those constraints restrict its chemical underpinnings, and that affects how life develops. Such considerations, says Mr Lane, can shed light on some of biology’s most profound questions.

The most accessible of those is how life got started in the first place. Most people learn some version of the “primordial soup” theory, which posits that...

Nose-to-tail eating

30 April 2015 - 11:13am

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig. By Mark Essig. Basic Books; 310 pages; $27.50.

“IF YOU are going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing,” says Fergus Henderson of London’s beloved piggy restaurant, St John. Mark Essig, a historian residing in the hoglands of North Carolina, would agree. Mr Essig’s “Lesser Beasts” concludes by outlining “the dilemma of modern pork”: big agricultural companies sell a lot of bacon to consumers for a pittance, whereas struggling smallholders offer small quantities of high-quality pork at organic markets for four times as much. These farmers can turn a profit only by selling every inch of their animals to adventurous chefs and gourmets.

Mr Essig’s broad, well-researched book highlights that this is merely the latest stage in man’s on-off-and-on-again relationship with pigs. The curly-tailed animals have proven extraordinarily useful to human development and have been present from the earliest permanent dwellings to modern metropolises. The porcine ability to turn waste of almost any description into protein—thanks to “a simple...