Black radicalism, Kehinde Andrews argues, is the most misunderstood ideology of the 20th century. And he’s right. It has become a vague term, lazily employed to encompass everything from the black nationalism of WEB Du Bois or Martin Delany, the Pan-Africanism of Kwame Ture (AKA Stokely Carmichael) and the black Marxism of Amilcar Cabral to the self-sufficiency of Marcus Garvey and the cultural nationalism of the Nation of Islam.
The reasons for misunderstanding black radicalism are intertwined with the reasons it exists in the first place – black thought has been minimised, dismissed and treated with contempt.
You might not agree with Andrews, but we need himContinue reading... Read more »
It’s a wonder Andrew Miller is not a household name. Now 58, he has been publishing confident, controlled fiction for more than 20 years; whether he alights on 18th-century Paris or 1990s Los Angeles, his novels are always suffused with wit, grit and melancholy wisdom. He’s the kind of novelist other writers admire and readers mean to get around to, who makes it on to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime but rarely the bestseller charts. Perhaps his excellent eighth book, a cat-and-mouse thriller set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, will change that, though the fact it’s not made this year’s Man Booker longlist is already something of a travesty.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free opens in 1809, shortly after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular war. John Lacroix, a wounded British officer in his early 30s, is being transported back to the barely inhabited Somerset estate of his deceased father. His housekeeper nurses him back from the brink of death, but John is altered by war – in particular, an atrocity that took place in a quiet mountain village while the British army retreated from Napoleon’s forces. Instruction comes for John to return to his regiment but, wondering whether he has “lost some common, invisible thread of sense”, he decides to flee to the Hebrides instead, packing his violin as he begins his precarious journey.Continue reading... Read more »
Impressive debuts by Alexia Arthurs and Nafissa Thompson-Spires bring grit and wit to issues around racial identity
The stories in the debut collection from Alexia Arthurs shuttle between Jamaica, her birthplace, and the US, where she lives. Among the varied scenarios you find depictions of island life, in which a betrayed wife turns up at the home of her husband’s lover brandishing a (blunt) machete; a student party in Brooklyn brought to a halt by a quarrel about Lena Dunham’s Girls (“I fucking hate that show... I really can’t imagine Hannah or any of her friends having POC friends... it glorifies gentrification”); and the life story of a pop star resembling Rihanna, portrayed as a depressive self-Googler whose mother, despite her misgivings (“I don’t see why yuh can’t sell music wid yuh clothes on”), tenderly looks after her after the sudden death of a co-star in a never-to-be-released promo.
Several stories examine US society through the prism of the characters’ motherland, and vice versa. “Yuh nah be’ave yuhself... so dey lef’ yuh wid me until yuh can be’ave yourself,” says Trudy, grandmother of 14-year-old Brooklynite Stacy, sent by her parents to live back in Jamaica after she’s found giving a classmate a blowjob at school. Stacy’s parents blame American mores, emboldened by the memory, for her mother Pam, raised in Jamaica, of being beaten when, at 16, a love letter was discovered in her exercise book. Yet other stories complicate the picture by showing how repressive attitudes to sexuality blight the lives of female characters who don’t leave Jamaica, punished as “slack” for getting pregnant by predatory men.Continue reading... Read more »
Claire Alden is 34 and works as a GP in north London: it’s an ordinary enough sort of life. But she is also the daughter of Lord Colin Spenser, who vanished 26 years earlier after becoming the prime suspect in a brutal attack on Claire’s mother and nanny. Sound familiar? Flynn Berry makes clear at the start of A Double Life (Orion, £14.99) that while the crime at the heart of her novel was inspired by the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974, the characters were not.
In Berry’s version of the story, Claire and her family had to move to Scotland and change their names after her father’s disappearance. Now an adult, with a brother who is struggling with addiction, Claire is possessed by a quiet, implacable rage with her father and with his moneyed group of public school friends who she believes helped him disappear. “He is a hedonist. That’s part of my fury – during all of this, even now, he’s somewhere enjoying himself,” she says, as she shadows the friends Colin left behind.Continue reading... Read more »
Fictional presentations of Hitler offer a uniquely difficult dilemma for an author. Err on the side of caricature, and one is left with the one-dimensional ranting demagogue of popular imagination. Humanise him too much, and you run the risk of creating a sympathetic martyr: a gift for the far right and neo-Nazis. There is also the chance of a descent into banality, as seen in Menno Meyjes’s otherwise perceptive 2002 film Max, where an account of the young Führer’s career as an artist is rendered occasionally ridiculous by such lines as “Come on, Hitler, I’ll buy you a lemonade.”
It is to debut novelist Glenn Skwerer’s credit that such moments are largely avoided in his intelligent and engrossing account of Hitler’s youth in early 20th-century Austria. It is here that Eugen Reczek, an undistinguished young man with vague musical ambitions, falls into the path of the charismatic yet disturbing 16-year-old Adolf, of whom it is said, by his mother: “he is difficult and strange and he lives in his head”. Reczek is both confused and beguiled by this intense young man, who adores the operas of Wagner with a fierce passion, but also has half-formed ideas about nationalism and pride. When Hitler heads to Vienna in 1908 to pursue his artistic dreams, Reczek follows, but soon finds his friend taking more interest in racial purity and his dream of a new Germany than painting. The rest is history.Continue reading... Read more »
Mary-Kay Wilmers has been the editor of the London Review of Books since 1992, and has just celebrated her 80th birthday; almost a decade ago, she published The Eitingons, an account of her mother’s Russian family, including Leonid Eitingon, a general in Stalin’s KGB who features in an essay, My Distant Relative, included in this selection of Wilmers’s writing from 1974 to 2015.
Most of the pieces are book reviews, and all but three were written for the LRB; only occasionally does Wilmers venture into strictly personal territory, most notably in a zinging delve into the menopause. “I have complained a lot about men in my time,” she begins. “In fact, I do it more and more… Here I am, four paragraphs into my musings, or ravings, and beginning to doubt whether I will find anything to say about the menopause that isn’t a way of saying something about men.”
She was bemused when her analyst seemed to be 'bananas' in early evening sessions, only to realise the woman was a soakContinue reading... Read more »
None of us today would have heard of Beatrice di Portinari had Dante, Italy’s greatest poet, not decided to retain the suggestive name (“Beatrice” signifies blessings) of a Florentine girl whom he conveniently first met at the age of nine – forms of three represent the Trinity in The Divine Comedy’s innovative terza rima – as his celestial Guide. Beatrice takes over from Virgil. No pagan, however distinguished, may enter Dante’s paradise. Beatrice is the initially reproachful (“What right had you to climb the mountain?”) but eventually redemptive spirit who draws the purified poet into the heart of the eternal rose within which, in the bliss-filled closing lines of The Divine Comedy, Dante himself becomes annihilated and immortalised.
But already my desire and my will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed
By the Love which moves the sun and the stars.
It landed “like a Zeppelin bomb”. Such was Siegfried Sassoon’s response to the appearance, in November 1929, of Robert Graves’s memoir of the first world war, Good-bye to All That. Sassoon did not intend the remark as a compliment. Reading Graves’s work had made him feel that his sometime friend had “rushed into the room and kicked [his] writing table over, thrown open all the windows” and “let in a big draught”. Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Edmund Blunden concurred: Graves had gone about the business of recollecting his wartime experience with a bewildering disregard for accuracy and with all the delicacy of a “bull in a china shop”.
It is reasonably well known that Sassoon and Blunden responded to Graves’s assault by marking an edition of his book with a series of corrective annotations. What is less well known is that Sassoon kept a personal copy, which contained more vituperative asides: “rot”, “fiction”, faked”, “skite”.Continue reading... Read more »
Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!
Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism. Over the past decade, the 2008 crash has given rise to a cottage industry of books, articles, documentaries, even films but not, so far, an overarching theory. Now, a compelling new book has arrived which deserves to be at the top of the reading list of anyone interested in the events of 2008 and eager to make sense of the aftermath .
George Osborne’s austerity meant treating a large section of the population as cattle whose market value had tankedContinue reading... Read more »