Category Archives: Book Review

Where We Are

scruton

Where We Are –
The State of Britain Now
By Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury – 16.99

As utterly insufferable as most of the ramblings of Sir Roger Scruton invariably are, I’ve always felt compelled to give him both the patience and the time of day. But lo-and-be-fucking-hold, there comes a point in any sane reviewer’s occupation, where surely enough has to (instinctively as well as intellectually) be enough.

The sublime pomp of Where We Are – The State of Britain Now, reads as if the singer Meatloaf has gone into a terribly ill-advised bout of political warbling.

Warbling, being the most apt, if not operative word here.

There isn’t a remote section within any of this book’s 227 pages (excluding Index), where Scruton – Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London – doesn’t inexorably beat the reader over the head: over and over and over and over and over and over again…

Whether it’s page 12 (‘Our Country: Right Or Left’) where he writes: ”The history taught in my grammar school sixty years ago, was the ‘proud islanders’ version. After all, we had recently won (my italics) a difficult war against a dangerous enemy and in doing so had made the world safer for everyone, the Germans included.”

Hmm, so some thirty million Russian deaths – not to mention the colossal input of American, financial aid – contributed nothing to Britain supposedly ‘winning’ the Second World War?

Or whether it’s page 160 (‘The Impact of Globalization’) where he most bizarrely writes: ”The question has been planted in the hearts of disaffected Western Muslims by the messages beamed to them from outer space (once again, my italics), inviting ‘brotherhood’ for Allah’s sake. And after all the fragmentary responses it finds an answer at last in some spot of earth, where the brothers can come together in an act of sacrifice […]. Reactions to terrorist attacks also increasingly take the form of a reaffirmation of settlement.”

Hmm, sensible stuff, no?

As is surely self-evident, Scruton writes with about as much plausible and intuitively well informed literary finesse; as Tommy Robertson might, were he to attend a T.S. Eliot Convention on the Aesthetics of Poetry.

Hog-wash of the first order (M’Lord).

David Marx

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A Certain Idea Of France

Gaulle

A Certain Idea Of France –
The Life Of Charles De Gaulle
By Julian Jackson
Allen Lane – £35.00

De Gaulle’s admirers have included both Henry Kissinger and Osama bin Laden. He has been compared by admirers and detractors to French figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Richelieu, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Danton, Saint-Just, Napoleon I, Chateaubriand, Napoleon III, General Boulanger, Leon Gambetta and Georges Clemenceau; and to non-French figures as diverse as Bismarck, Franco, Kerensky, Mussolini, Salazar, Mao, Bolivar, Castro and Jesus Christ. The range of these comparisons reflects de Gaulle’s extraordinary contradictions: he was a soldier who spent most of his career fighting the army; a conservative who often talked like a revolutionary; a man of passion who found it almost impossible to express emotions.

(‘Introduction’)

De Gaulle may have had a certain idea of France ‘all his life’ but it was not always the same idea.

(‘Introduction’)

De Gaulle had genuinely convinced himself that it was his mission to introduce participation into French society, despite the fact that his way of exercising authority was the antithesis of participatory.

(‘The End, June 1968 – November 1970’)

During the Charles de Gaulle era, it could be argued that France was and quintessentially remained, a work in progress. A (working) prognosis of assumptive thought, fundamentally underlined by the many perplexing parameters of an idea. An idea, not only occasionally derided and deliberated upon within the seemingly impossible context of both persuasive and non-persuasive French politics itself – but the very rubric of a seemingly idealistic idea.

And regardless of anything other – such as irritating outside influence – the varying ideas and the utmost dense trajectory thereof, remained totally de Gaulle’s and totally De Gaulle’s alone.

After all, ”in the 1960s, when he was President of France, it was often said that he governed through the magic of his rhetoric and his mastery of television.” A quality, which (if true) may partially explain the country’s inexorable, political bumpy road, and its most fraught, internal passionate division – with which de Gaulle is still associated.

Indeed, a non-diversionary division, which de Gaulle was supposedly, so very capable of igniting among his followers and non-followers alike.

A quality, which as Julian Jackson makes clear right at the very outset of A Certain Idea Of France – The Life Of Charles De Gaulle, was overwhelmingly inflammatory to say the least: ”The extraordinary unanimity around de Gaulle in France could not have been predicted when he left power in 1969. It airbrushes out of history how much, throughout his career, he was a brutally divisive figure. During his thirty years in politics, de Gaulle was the most revered figure of modern French history – and the most hated. He was reviled and idealized, loathed and adored, in equal measure. Other twentieth-century French political figures have been hated but none with such intensity as de Gaulle. For some people hating him gave meaning to their lives; others were driven mad by it.”

Now there’s a certain calamity for thought.
Voltaire wouldn’t have been at all pleased.

Although when current French President, Emmanuel Macron, had his first official photograph taken, he had on the table behind, him a copy of Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs, the aforesaid division really does need to be placed into some sort of considered context.

As such, these 777 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, several pages of maps – among them, De Gaulle’s Paris and The Free French in London – Biographical Notes, Biographies, Notes and Index), are an altogether exquisite and rather erudite examination of one of the most towering figures in French history.

To be sure, many would no doubt argue the most towering figure; which , either way you choose to look at it, more than substantiates this veritable tomb of both book and analyses. Two reasons for the latter being the degree to which Jackson was given unrestricted access to new archives, and his altogether commanding knowledge of the period.

Just one example of this (and there are many) really does come to light throughout the book’s penultimate chapter – the afore-quoted ‘The End, June 1968 – November 1970’ – where Jackson resoundingly writes: ”[…] Nixon was accompanied by his main foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, who had his first and only opportunity to meet the man on whom he had written so perceptively when still an academic:

Somewhat awestruck, I approached the towering figure. Upon seeing me he dismissed the group around him and, without a word of greeting…welcomed me with this query: ‘Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?’ I replied with some diffidence that a unilateral retreat would undermine American credibility. De Gaulle was not impressed, and asked where such a loss of credibility might occur. When I indicated the Middle East, his remoteness turned into melancholy and he remarked: ‘How very odd. I thought it was precisely in the Middle East that your enemies were having the credibility problem.”’

It is just such investigation which alerts the reader to the fact that A Certain Idea Of France – The Life Of Charles De Gaulle really is – in and of itself – something of a mighty achievement.

It’s designated five parts (‘De Gaulle before ‘De Gaulle,’ 1890-1940,’ ‘Exile, 1940-1944,’ ‘In and Out of Power, 1944-1958,’ ‘Republican Monarch, 1959-1965’ and ‘Toward the End, 1966-1970’) are profoundly revelatory in detail, and written in such a way as is almost impossible to put aside.

In conclusion, this is a tremendous modern biography of a man who both saved and remade France at nigh the same time. I therefore, wouldn’t be surprised if it re-sets the bar; due to quite possibly being the finest biography written on de Gaulle.

David Marx

Monet & Architecture

monet

Monet & Architecture
By Richard Thomson
National Gallery/Yale University Press – $40.00

”So Monet’s commitment to the picturesque – however tacit, however sporadic – was part of his engagement with tourism, which he could not escape. Another long consistency was his relationship to the modern.”

               (‘Conclusion’)

”During his first months at Argenteuil Monet had painted various motifs in and around the town, scouting for what suited him. He depicted views of the rather ordinary streets – among them the rue de la Chaussee and the Boulevard Heloise – as well the railway yards, a large property on the mall and a gathering for the Pentcostal fete d’Argenteuil outside the town hall. His reconnoitring of possibilities thus took in the banal, established and modern.”

              (‘The City & The Modern’)

Surely Monet’s ”reconnoitring of possibilities” is just one aspect of his trajectorial brilliance?
After all, said possibility is what resolutely accounts for one still being able to glean ever so much from his ever so idiosyncratic and inspired body of work.

Monet & Architecture traverses and reflects upon exactly what its title suggests.
In so doing, it very purposefully as well as perhaps simultaneously (and inadvertently), draws the viewer unto an almost other worldliness of magical, majestic design.

The relentless, monumental mode of which, has throughout these 242 pages (excluding Index and Photographic Credits) been both expertly and wonderfully compiled. Not to mention notated upon, by the Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, Richard Thomson.

Such inherent, quasi durable diversion, isn’t something one normally stumbles upon everyday; especially when it comes to Monet.

This is something Thomson makes evidently clear at the very outset of this altogether exquisite book, when he writes: ”To consider the work of Claude Monet (1840-1926) in terms of architecture is unusual. We typically think of him as a painter of landscape, of the sea, and in his later years, of gardens. But the built environment – cities and villages, houses and monuments, churches and cathedrals, bridges and railway stations, French and foreign – is present throughout his work. For 50 of the 60 years of his long career, until Monet dedicated himself entirely to painting motifs in his Giverny garden in the period before the First World War, buildings had a frequent, often insistent, sometimes subtle, presence in his oeuvre.”

Buildings did indeed enjoy ”a frequent” and ”often insistent” presence throughout Monet’s work; the architecture of such great cities as Paris and Rouen in France, as well as London, Amsterdam and Venice, all made their indelible mark and impression.
All of which has been lavishly reproduced in Monet & Architecture.
As such, one could turn to almost any page of said reproductions, and be caught amid the most compelling of almost lyrical, painted reflection.

The dark composition(s) of The rue de l’Epicerie on page 159 for instance, or the lightness of touch as so mesmerizingly captured in Vue de l’ancien avant-port du Havre on page 111. Not to mention the almost haunting depiction of either Vue d’Amsterdam on pages 34 and 35 and/or perhaps the most compelling of all – the seemingly magnetic persuasion of colour which celebrates La rue Montorgueil, Paris, Fete du 30 Juin, 1878 on pages 88 and 89.

Upon the time-frame of the latter, Thomson has been compelled to write: ”In his canvases Monet sometimes featured the modern, but often he masked it, and that disguising or marginalisation suggests attitudes to the recent or immediate that not only made assumptions on the painter’s part, but also made requirements of the spectator. For when we look at Monet’s motifs in which modern buildings are present, how to respond is not always evident” (‘The City & The Modern’).

So much of Monet’s work vibrantly cascades as if within a cocktail all too considered colour; which (I suspect), has over the years, been responsible for occasionally – if not again, inadvertently – diverting the viewer from many of the paintings actual architecture.

Yet thanks to Richard Thomson and this wonderfully captivating book, much of the above touched upon artistic diversion has now hopefully been rectified.

Rectified, may of course, be a little too strong an assumption; but hopefully those who wholeheartedly appreciate the work of Monet, will equally as well as wholeheartedly understand where I – and to a certain degree, Thomson himself – are coming from.

David Marx

Pocket Lisbon

Lisboa

Pocket Lisbon
By Kerry Christiani
Lonely Planet – £7.99

”Built high and mighty on the rubble of the 1755 earthquake, Baixa is Lisbon’s riverfront gateway, its royal flag-bearer, its lifeblood. Trams rumble, buskers hold crowds captive and shoppers mill around old-world stores. The main drag, Rua Augusta, links the regal Praca do Comercio to Rossio, where you’ll find a neighbourly vibe in closet-sized ginjinha (cherry liqueur) bars and street cafes.”

Having recently spent a very brief amount of time in Lisbon, I can most definitely vouch for the fact that the above is most decisively true. The area of Baixa simply resonates with ambience and atmosphere, which the Lonely Planet authoress, Kerry Christiani, herein captures nigh perfectly.

To be sure, the area is one of the many amid Portugal’s capital city, to which almost all holiday makers and weekend get-awayers will instinctively gravitate. Reason being, this particular part of the city is historical as well as hopping as well as hectic.
All rolled into one.
All at the same time.

Rather like Lonely Planet’s Pocket Lisbon, which is essentially ”designed to get you straight to the heart of the city.”

To be sure, this compact and convenient travel guide, covers a very varied terrain of everything one needs to know about this most alluring of European cities. From Top Sights – such as the always seemingly packed Tram 28, the Castelo de Sao Jorge (for which one most definitely needs to wear sensible footwear) and the aforementioned Praca do Comercio – to Local Life, from Need to Know to Before you Go, from Neighbourhoods to an array of so-called Best of Sections (such as Food, Shopping, Bars & Nightlife, Museums & Galleries, Contemporary Art & Design, Viewpoints and Outdoors).

It appears to be the case within the so-called Pocket format, that there’s always a pull-out map between the back page and cover, along with inspired colour photographs and further pertinent maps which are a little more detailed.

As already mentioned in my review of Lonely Planet’s Bruges & Brussels, accommodation is the only aspect of travel that is not quintessentially addressed. Although I do have to say, this isn’t really an issue – as lets face it, most of us have already booked somewhere to stay via the internet.

Recommended with gusto.

David Marx

Trouble In The Tribe

tribe

Trouble In The Tribe –
The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel
By Dov Waxman
Princeton University Press – £24.00 HB/£14.99 PB

Put two Jews in a room, and you’ll get three opinions.

          David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister

Truth is, North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.

         Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The utterly sickening, outrageous, futile and shocking mass murder which took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last weekend – in which eleven, elderly Jews were murdered by a white supremacist piece of human garbage – will, if nothing else, probably unite the American Jewish community.

Particularly in relation to the ever increasing, thorny issue of Israel.
If, this is the case, it will be the only, sole, positive aspect to have emerged, by way of default murder.

But what a price to pay; especially for an issue so steeped in complexity and ever increasing division. Or to, to quote Jeremy Ben-Ami (President of J Street): ”Supporting and loving Israel should be more than a simply yes-or-no proposition. It should be a meaningful relationship filled with hugging and wrestling, questioning and arguing (‘The Changing American Jewish Relationship With Israel’).

According to Kirkus Review, this book is ”a meticulous, precise, well-organized survey that takes into account the many different views and will certainly facilitate the heated conversation.” Now there’s no doubting this book will most certainly ‘facilitate the heated conversation,’ although I wouldn’t have personally thought, that the conversation(s) will (now) continue to be quite so heated. Fundamental reason being, the American Jewish Community will, as John Lennon once sang, come together, as a direct result of the aforesaid atrocity.

That said, Trouble In The Tribe – The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel, is a pain-staking, exceedingly well researched analysis of a most inflammatory issue, that just will not go away.

In a rather (un)qualified shift, ever increasing numbers of American Jews are becoming ever less willing to unquestioningly support Israel, and are becoming ever more prone to publicly criticise its government. Indeed, more than ever before, the country’s Jewish population – the young especially – are vehemently arguing about, and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Herein lies the quintessential crux of this book; wherein Dov Waxman coherently contends that Israel is rapidly becoming a source of disunity within American Jewry.

In and of itself, this is heralding a new era of American Jewish conflict which is fast replacing the previous era of solidarity. An era, somewhat exemplified by Albert Vorspan – one of the leaders of the Reform Movement – who, in The New York Times Magazine, wrote: ”Beyond any issue in recent years, American Jews are traumatized by events in Israel, This is the downside of the euphoric mood after the Six Day War, when we felt 10 feet tall. Now, suffering under the shame and stress of pictures of Israeli brutality televised nightly, we want to crawl into a hole. This is the price we pay for having made of Israel an icon – a surrogate faith, surrogate synagogue, surrogate God. Israel could not withstand our romantic idealization… Now Israel reveals itself, a nation like all the others” (‘The Rise and Fall of ‘Israelolatry’/Disillusionment (1977-Present)).

Such surrogate thinking can’t be doing the American Jewish Community any good whatsoever; which on the whole, is what these 215 pages (excluding Preface and Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) essentially addresses.

Nuanced and always balanced, Trouble In The Tribe, is, like its title suggests, an overtly contentious and troubling read. Albeit a most important one.

David Marx

Pocket Bruges & Brussels

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Pocket Bruges & Brussels
Lonely Planet £7.99

Belgium’s celebrated art heritage blossomed in 15th-century Bruges with painters now known as the Flemish Primitives. It may seem an odd term given that not all were Flemish and their work was anything but primitive – the term actually derives from the Latin primus, meaning first, an indication of their innovative and experimental approach. They pioneered a technique of painting in oil on oak boards, adding thin layers of paint to produce jewel-bright colours and exquisite detail.

                            (‘Flemish Primititves – Groeningemuseum & the South’)

As with their slightly larger brethren, Lonely Planet ‘Pocket Size ‘Guides traverse most things one needs to know when travelling abroad; which, in relation to both Bruges & Brussels, essentially consists of occasionally exquisite architecture, museums and galleries.

The only aspect not included in the format, is in-depth information on hotels and accommodation.

Fair enough really, as what it may lack so far as information on actual accommodation is concerned, is more than compensated for in the inspired and all round flair department of what one needs to know. And what one needs to (fundamentally) see.

The above opening quote being a prime example of said flair, whereby you’re essentially informed before you even arrive. What’s more – as the name suggests – you can slip this handy little guide into your pocket (as it really is no bigger than the average mobile phone).

That said, it does come replete with a pull-out map of both cities (along with more detailed maps throughout its 176 pages), and assorted colour photographs for added enticement.

If any were actually needed!

David Marx

 

The Complete Short Stories

the-complete-short-stories-paperback-cover-9781786890016.600x0

The Complete Short Stories
By Muriel Spark
Introduced by Janice Galloway
Canongate – £14.99

Most of us Spark implies, see what we want to see and what we want to see is not necessarily what’s there.

                                                             (Janice Galloway)

As Galloway also astutely writes in this book’s Introduction ‘The Smaller Bigger Picture’: ”Ghosts are everywhere, some on buses or in office-blocks, some (the catching kind) in doctors’s surgeries, and others wave innocuous hellos on the Portobello Road. Angels and demons (further explanations of the plausible time-and-motion demon from the novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye) drift back and forth […].”

As with many a collection of short stories, there can sometimes be a certain semblance of linearity that merely traipses through the literary back-catalogue of the author’s finest moments. In the case of The Complete Short Stories of Edinburgh’s Muriel Spark, it’s surely more a case of having assembled the shimmering, diverse trajectory of such concordance within the ever so far and (erstwhile) wide reaching parameters of the writer’s idiosyncratic imagination.

Be it the aforementioned ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the curiously entitled ‘Miss Pinkerton’s Apocalypse,’ aptly entitled ‘The Thing About Police Stations,’ or indeed, the book’s opening short story, ‘The Go-Away Bird;’ they are all – to varying degrees – on high-octane, perceptive alert.

An alert which addresses the rather more phrenic tentacles of life’s seemingly deft, underlying darkness. An audacious, and at times quizzical quality, which Galloway unsurprisingly notes amid ‘The Smaller Bigger Picture’ where she writes: ”You will encounter protagonists who have been corrupted, sucked dry of purpose and wired to the moon. Some are from the moon. Mrs Spark, famously Catholic and somewhat nervous, has fun even with the religious and the ‘highly-strung.”’

To be sure, the journey which these forty-one short stories embark upon, convey a certain characterisation, which continue to wholeheartedly set Spark apart from many a contemporary (and adversary).

David Marx