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Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the March 2014 issue:
Martin Arnold re-evaluates the age of the Vikings
COMING TO AMERICA
The image of the Viking warrior has long been a source of (sometimes guilty) fascination. Victorian intellectuals were eager to see in the Vikings a specifically northern inspiration for British industrial, scientific and imperial advances. In the 20th century, however, despite continuing enthusiasm for Viking machismo in popular culture, many scholars, drawing on early medieval Christian commentaries, have tended to take a dimmer view. The bad press the Vikings received was not helped by the claims of the Nazis to be the herrenvolk inheritors of Old Northern values and mettle. A more balanced view, one that found deeper historical forces at work behind the sudden surge of violence from Scandinavia that began in the late eighth century, did not emerge until 1968 with Gwyn Jones's masterly A History of the Vikings. Read more.
Christopher Woodward takes the measure of William Kent's art and architecture
PUTTI IN HIS HANDS
I've never forgotten the prince's cradle I saw in a palace in Rome, carved at the height of the early-18th-century Baroque. It was as deep and as long as a beer barrel sliced in two, its exterior gilded and encrusted with shells. At one end a cherub on tiptoes shhhhed through puffed cheeks; at the other a woman's breasts rose over the rim, her uplifted arms transforming into wings. Imagine the view of a child, whose world came into focus rocked by candlelight below a ceiling painted with gods and legends. It was a cradle that could so easily topple over. Read more.
Jeremy Noel-Tod on the studied lines of Marianne Moore
'The Infant Modernists' is one of the great unwritten works of critical biography. Shiningly specific childhood experience, the oeuvres of Woolf, Joyce and T S Eliot all insinuate, lies at the heart of their sophisticated mystery. John Updike put his finger on this when he parodied Eliot's later critical prose with an essay called 'What is a Rhyme?', which begins, with ponderous coyness, 'I do not know whether all childhoods are painful. My own, or that drastically edited set of snapshots which is all that remains to me of my own, did (or does) not seem especially so.' Read more.
Gillian Tindall on Patrick McGuinness's fragmentary memoir of Belgium
SOUPÇONS OF BOUILLON
This book had a powerful effect on me. Given that it is a meditation - sometimes hilarious, sometimes freighted with tragedy - on times past, it might seem one for the over-sixties rather than for all ages. But Patrick McGuinness, poet, Oxford don and product of an Anglo-Belgian marriage, has written it, he says, for his children 'so that they know where they come from'. There is an eventual suggestion that he has, perhaps, written it as a tribute to his mother, who died aged sixty in 2002, with whom he always spoke in French and who provided his main link to a working-class world in a small town on the edge of the Ardennes that is now slipping away from him. The brief section on her passing is headed 'The Factory for Sad Thoughts'. It takes a detour via bilingualism to communication gaps in dubbed films and ends, 'Of all the poems I've ever written this is the one I didn't.' Read more.
John Gray on the impact of the First World War
AFTER THE FIRE
The central tension in this refreshingly contrarian book becomes apparent near the start. Discussing Woodrow Wilson's dictum 'the world must be made safe for democracy', pronounced in 1917, Reynolds writes: 'The crisis of 1917-18 ignited the Bolshevik revolution in Russia ... The backlash against it fuelled Mussolini's fascist movement, which gained power in Italy in 1922. By the 1930s fascist or right-wing authoritarian regimes, backed by military force, had become the norm across central and eastern Europe, and above all in Germany. Even France became polarised between right and left. In this new age of communism and fascism, of mass politics and political "supermen", the liberal variant of democracy seemed antiquated and irrelevant.' Read more.
Brian Dillon on the curatorial life of Hans Ulrich Obrist
ON THE ROAD WITH HUO
On first meeting Sergei Diaghilev in 1916, King Alfonso of Spain is said to have inquired of the impresario, 'What is it that you do in this troupe? You don't dance. You don't direct. You don't play the piano. What is it you do?' Diaghilev replied, 'Your Majesty, I am like you. I don't work, I don't do anything, but I am indispensable.' Read more.
Colin Tudge on the dangers of industrial farming
The pun in Farmageddon is fully justified: agriculture has seriously lost its way and since it sits at the heart of all our lives - and the lives of all other creatures - this places the whole world in danger. Modern farming fails to provide us all with good food, yet this, surely, is its purpose. Almost a billion people worldwide - one in seven - are chronically undernourished, even though we produce enough food for 14 billion - twice what we need now and 50 per cent more than the world will need this century (the UN tells us that the global population should level out at around 10 billion by 2100). But as Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott point out, about 50 per cent of what's grown is wasted and about half of the cereal that does pull through (and at least 90 per cent of the world's soya) is fed to livestock. We could easily produce all the meat that is needed to support the world's great cuisines if we simply fed the cattle and sheep on grass and browse, which is their natural fare, and fed pigs and poultry on leftovers and surpluses, as was traditional. Read more.
Joanna Kavenna on The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
The central argument of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is that woman is 'other' to man. Everyman expresses the human condition; Everywoman is regarded as a subcategory of the universal. This should really by now sound archaic and peculiar, like theories of eugenics or the ideas of Cesare Lombroso. And yet, in 2007, the Nobel Committee commended Doris Lessing as an 'epicist of the female experience'. Lessing, even as she thanked them nicely for the prize, was obliged to ask, 'Why not human experience? ... I've never approved of this business of dividing men and women writers ... it makes them sound like enemies.' Any author who has politely explained, once again, that her work is not exclusively about 'women' even though, yes, she is a woman will sympathise with A L Kennedy's remark to critics: 'I'd advise you to avoid the whole Woman Writer area ... Very dull.' A dissonance emerges: the writer creates in a liminal zone where she is not Woman but an individual, creating in her own way, and then her work goes out into the world and is scrutinised on the grounds of what it says about Woman and nothing else. Meanwhile, her male equivalent has his own problems, of course, but at least he is not obliged to fend off this particular variety of dullness. And so we get sent, kicking and screaming, back to Simone de Beauvoir. Read more.
Tim Martin on Bark by Lorrie Moore
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK
Lorrie Moore's energetically forlorn, desperately hilarious short stories seem to take a while to compose, and Bark is her first new collection in 15 years. But the pieces in this volume show that she has lost none of her capacity to disturb while she amuses. These eight stories are crawling with jokes, quirks, asides and comic observations to the point that it's almost possible to overlook how sad they are, and how obsessed with death, decline, sickness, fading and a roster of personal and political betrayals. 'If you're suicidal and you don't actually kill yourself,' says one character, articulating what seems like a theme of the collection, 'you become known as "wry".' Read more.