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Beachcombing

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:49

Singular focus

VISITORS to the Cannes film festival have come to expect taboos to be broken and cinematic forms to be twisted into new shapes. A typical winner might be a three-hour Turkish adaptation of Chekhov, a Thai journey through reincarnation, or (clutch those pearls) an explicit French romance between two women. The 68th edition of the festival ended on May 24th with many calling it an off-year, but it still had films that could impress, and even shock, with their force and originality.

The Palme d’Or went to Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan”, a relatively conventional drama about a Tamil fighter from Sri Lanka who starts life anew in a French housing project. The win seemed to reflect France’s concerns over its immigrant population as much as any dramatic achievement. For true éclat it was necessary to look to “Son of Saul”, a piece of high art imagining a low point of humanity, which won the Grand Prix—essentially the second prize. This debut feature directed by Laszlo Nemes, a Hungarian, depicts a seemingly unapproachable subject—the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp—with extraordinary...

Stranger and stranger

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:49

The Meursault Investigation. By Kamel Daoud. Translated by John Cullen. Other Press. 143 pages; $14.95. To be published in Britain by Oneworld in July.

WHEN Albert Camus first published his best known work, “L’Étranger” in 1942, Algeria was still a colony of France, and “the Arab” killed by the book’s anti-hero, Meursault, had no name. Seventy years on, that omission is rectified in a scorching debut novel that is sure to become an essential companion to Camus’s masterpiece. He was called Musa.

“The Meursault Investigation” by Kamel Daoud, an Algerian journalist, is a biting, profound response to French colonialism. It is also a lamentation for a modern Algeria gripped by pious fundamentalism. And it has earned the author both the 2015 Prix Goncourt for best first novel and a Facebook fatwa from a minor Muslim cleric calling for his death.

The book starts as a caustic, rambling monologue told by an old man in a bar to an appropriately nameless French expat. The narrator is Musa’s younger brother, Harun; he says he and his mother are “the only genuine heroes of that famous...

Size matters

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:49

Dietland. By Sarai Walker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 320 pages; $26.

IN A small café, surrounded by the temptations of baked goods, Plum plumps herself and her laptop down each day to answer e-mails from a thousand teenage girls. Girls who cut themselves, girls with broken hearts, girls who make themselves throw up every night. She does so on behalf of a magazine editor who maintains she is too busy to write herself. Plum works in the café because she is too fat for the slender magazine journalists, who feel ill at ease with her in their glamorous office.

Sarai Walker’s first novel, “Dietland”, is a curious concoction—part exploration of the way society treats the female body, part thriller. Using Plum’s desperate efforts to shed her bulk, Ms Walker unpicks the way in which women are encouraged literally to take up less space. Joining a weight-loss programme, Plum longs to erase her own edges, to shrink into acceptability: “I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen. If I was smaller they wouldn’t stare. They wouldn’t be mean.”

Alongside Plum’s anguish runs the story of a guerrilla feminist group which takes aim at society’s ingrained patriarchs with brutal effect. A dozen men accused of rape, including footballers and pornographers, are kidnapped and dropped to their deaths from a skydiving plane. In response to...

Early days yet

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:49

Celebrated centurion

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964. By Zachary Leader. Knopf; 812 pages; $40. Jonathan Cape; £35.

CHIMING with the centenary of the birth of Saul Bellow and the tenth anniversary of his death comes a biography drawing on a wealth of previously restricted material and new interviews. “The Life of Saul Bellow”, by Zachary Leader, is the first in a two-part portrait of a writer whom Mr Leader calls “the most decorated...in American history”. This volume charts his initial struggles, burgeoning talent and first big artistic achievements, finishing with the publication in 1964 of “Herzog”, which many believe to have been Bellow’s masterpiece.

Mr Leader, an academic at the University of Roehampton in London, takes the reader through Bellow’s early years in Canada and his relationship with his Russian immigrant parents, particularly a “tyrannical” father who deplored his son’s “dreamy side”. Two formative events stand out. Aged eight, Bellow develops appendicitis and from his hospital bed becomes a reader. A year later the family is “smuggled...

Stones that speak

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 15:49

YOU don’t notice it at first. But all over the archaeological site at Palmyra you see the same symbol—on architraves and lintels, and especially on the magnificent Bel temple. The line of carved stone eggs, each one separated by a dart or arrow pointing downwards, was first used by the Greeks on the Erechtheum behind the Acropolis. It was brought to Syria by the Romans, who built Palmyra and decorated its monuments with the egg, meaning life or rebirth, and the arrow, war or death. For centuries the two were carved together, signifying the duality of human existence.

The jihadists of Islamic State (IS) understand the meaning of symbols better than most. Over the past year they have projected fear across Iraq and Syria, posting footage of people they have beheaded. In February they released videos of ancient statues being smashed in the museum at Mosul in northern Iraq and, later, the bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian capital, Nimrud, 20 miles (32km) away. IS wants to do away with “false idols”, promising instead an Islamic caliphate that threatens to be as extreme as it is thuggish.

So when IS overran Palmyra on May 20th, many...

Signifying something

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:45

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

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:45

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. By Bernard Cornwell. William Collins; 352 pages; £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 preceding 20 years, Britain helped create the...

Transcendental meditation

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:45

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

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:45

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

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

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 15:45

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

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 16:17

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

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 16:17

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

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 16:17

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

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 16:17

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

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 16:17

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

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 16:07

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

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 16:07

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

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 16:07

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

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 16:07

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.

A...