Jeremy Worman

Writer, Journalist, Teacher

Category: Criticism

Jeremy reviews – Virtual War by Michael Ignatieff

The opening chapters of Michael Ignatieff’s brilliant study of the Kosovo war deal with the situation at close range. His reportage from the Balkans includes interviews with key participants and moving reflections of the bombed Belgrade. The control of the material is striking.

The chapters that follow reveal Ignatieff’s moral thrust, as he explores the concept of ‘virtual’ war’, when only the enemy are killed, the Allied Command is in another continent and the media provided ‘a light show for Western TV audiences’ who’ve never had to face the body bags of their own sons and citizens. He deconstructs the rhetoric of the war — ‘precision violence’ — and convincingly argues that democratic decision-making was virtually bypassed (a theme taken up by Tony Benn, but few others).

The coherence of this multi-layered critique of ‘the first postmodern war in history’ makes Virtual War deeply disturbing and hugely impressive.

Jeremy reviews “Wainewright the Poisoner” – Andrew Motion

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), the little-known subject of Andrew Motion’s intriguing book, was a significant figure in the London of his times: artist and writer, he painted Byron and was a friend of Fuseli and Blake. The form of the narrative is as beguiling as the subject matter. Eschewing straight biography, Motion writes the ‘Confession’ from the fictionalised first-person viewpoint of Wainewright.

At the end of each chapter, he adds ‘Notes’ — scholarly, biographical information about the real Wainewright. This ‘creates a fascinating alternative perspective to the vivacious but chilling story of the gentleman-dandy artist. After the suspicious death of three relatives, he was charged — though only with the forgery of life insurance documents and transported to Tasmania. Wilde wrote about him, spookily foreshadowing his own downfall.
This mixed-genre study produces a complex reconstruction of its subject, and reinstates Wainewright in his Romantic context.

Lachlan’s War – Michael Cannon

(Published in The Tablet, 5 August 2006)

Dr Lachlan McCready, the eponymous hero of Scottish writer Michael Cannon’s third novel, is the much-loved doctor in a small fishing village, Rassaig, on the west coast of Scotland in 1941. For those who remember the popular television series of the 1960s, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, there is a resemblance between the programme’s benign, elderly Dr Cameron, and Lachlan McCready: both tend their community with humour and wisdom. But this bold, readable novel soon develops in darker and more complex ways than Dr Finlay ever attempted.

After a complicated journey, a Jewish refugee boy, Franz, turns up in the village and Lachlan gives him a home. At the same time three English girls, working on farms to help the war effort, are billeted in the area. The locals gossip salaciously about them.

Cannon is a natural storyteller and he explores Lachlan’s past, including service as a doctor in the First World War, particularly convincingly. Cannon has the ability both to expose, and to sympathise with, human frailty. He writes intensely about sexual and religious passion, and his judgement of religious fundamentalism is acid sharp, embodied here in the figure of “Gavin Bone, Elder of the Free Presbyterian congregation”, and hater of all the village Catholics. Cannon makes a fascinating investigation of the conflict between a Presbyterian and a Catholic view of the world, as it is lived out in a small village.

If there is a flaw in this short novel it is its ambition: there are just too many characters and incidental plots. Lachlan’s War is attempting to be too many different kinds of novel: it is historical, psychological, a novel of ideas, and a novel of place. Occasionally, too, the author’s style runs to melodrama.

That said, it runs along at a cracking pace. The stories within stories keep the reader alert and interested, if sometimes frustrated that the central characters are not getting their share of attention. When the focus shifts briefly to Franz’s background in Prague, we feel alienated, and not close enough to care that much. It is Rassaig that provides the strange, sometimes macabre and primitive atmosphere that gives such a rich texture to the narrative.

The story concludes on an uplifting and moving note of change and acceptance, with Lachlan’s reflections placed rightly at the centre: “Only fools, or those who read too much, fail to take consolation from the texture of the everyday.”

Jeremy reviews Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

“South of Calcutta are the “Sundarbans”, an archipelago of more than 50 islands in the Bay of Bengal, and this is the sensual and turbulent setting for Amitav Ghosh’s spellbinding, tautly written contemporary story of struggle and human dignity. The author is a convincing interpreter for the Western reader of this unusual world: born in Calcutta, with a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, he brings to his ambitious work a 19th-century, Hardyesque scope of analysis and exploration.”

You can read Jeremy’s full review on The Telegraph’s website:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3619219/The-Bengal-archipelago.html

Greenfly – Tom Lee

(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 2008)

An Unsettled Calm

There is an effectively cold and unnerving tone to the author’s first published work. Most of the short stories focus on people who are living at the edge of a crisis: a couple waiting for a drug deal to be concluded; relationships that are almost over; and a woman who is secretly planning to cross a border into another country. These common themes are developed into well-structured and usually satisfying narratives by the verve and originality of their plots. We are rarely given a sense of the natural world, which increases a feeling of claustrophobia. Locations in Germany, America and South America broaden the range of interest.

The stories are sometimes bleakly humorous. Many are set in a contemporary world whose values are nihilistic. Even if characters have a conventional surface life, the weirdness of their thoughts or actions puts most of them in the oddball category. Cocaine, affairs, obsessions, and psychological collapse, break through the mask of the self.

The worlds of GreenfIy are eerily insubstantial because they feel so temporary, merely part of the storytelling devices of the author, without a sense of their own permanence. Descriptions of characters too are kept to a minimum and there is, deliberately, little exploration of the inner self. As Henry James might have said, nothing is solidly specified. The writer’s lightly-worn postmodernist awareness of the fictiveness of fiction usually works well. In ‘Mrs Echegary’, for example, the title seems to be a playful nod to William Trevor’s novel Mrs Eckdorf in 0’Neill’s Hotel. Mrs Echegary is waiting in her hotel room for her lover. Eventually she leaves, dissatisfied. Numerous vignettes are linked to the main narrative. The reader can never settle in one place, just as the characters never seem at peace in a stable world. These extra stories run the risk that the reader could lose emotional connection to Mrs Echegary. But we don’t. We care about her plight. The writer has pulled off a clever trick of drawing together the disjunctive nature of the text into a satisfying conclusion – a trademark of his style.

‘Cerology’ is brilliantly ambitious. The title itself is full of hints and clues, both medical and mythical. I suggest that the reader researches the word. A professor in the 1890s develops a frightening new field of science. The story is told through the diaries of his wife, which are given to his granddaughter, who is currently writing an article, ‘The Fantastic Vagina: Sigmund Freud and the Narratives of Edgar Allan Poe.’ The sub plot, about sexual positions, is a minor tour de force. The main plot depends upon the relationship between the professor and his daughter, but we have not gained enough insight into their emotional bond, and therefore the climax is not convincing.

Perhaps there is a warning here for the author: he should not become too absorbed in over elaborate textual games. A few of these narratives distance the reader by not developing a deeper sense of the characters, though most of the stories are fresh, strange and compelling. ‘Berlin’ shows the author at his best. GreenfIy is an accomplished debut.

Jeremy reviews – Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

The French writer Michel Houellebecq’s explosive second novel is set in contemporary France ‘in the midst of the suicide of the West’. It is a tirade against liberal, individualistic values. The loose plot recounts the lives of two middle-aged half brothers — Mlchel, an introverted molecular biologist, and frustrated ex-teacher Bruno, who is constantly in search of sexual satisfaction. Both grew up in the wake of the Slxties political and sexual revolutions.

Philosophical insertions, reflections on anthropology and false gurus, and discussions about literature deliberately dismantle the conventional form of the novel in order to say Big Things about Western culture. The humorously obscene commentary about sex lightens the load. Clearly, to the Left Bank type characters, oral sex is the new art form in France, and fellatio is as prevalent as café au lait. Some will rail against Houlellebecq’s show-off nihilism, but everyone will ponder the conclusions of the extraordinary Atomised.

Jeremy reviews – The Married Man by Edmund White

Edmund White’s engrossing eighth novel opens in a sensual 1989 Paris. The central character, Austin, a ‘Europeanised American’ homosexual, is on the verge of new love with Julien, a young, still-married French architect. The third-person narrative lyrically evokes a sense of grand bohemian life. Well-drawn male characters are rather Jamesian, with the addition of a full and explicit sex life. Tension is created in The Married Man by the clash of values between Austin’s European aesthetic and the politically correct puritan ideologies of America, where he teaches for a year. A fellow lecturer advises: ‘Just imaglne you’re in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution.’

Returning to Europe, he travels with his now divorced partner, and sometimes with an ex-lover, to Venice, Rome, and Morocco. The ancient permanence of these landscapes becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of human love blighted by Aids. A moving and quietly powerful novel.

Jeremy reviews – Underground by Haruki Murakami

In Tokyo, on 20 March 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured by a series of gas attacks on subway trains, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Haruki Murakami, a well known Japanese novelist, investigates through interviews with both victims and cult members the ‘implications for the’ Japanese psyche’, posing the question: ‘Where did all that come from?’

Answers are not explored convincingly, however. There is too much passive recording of interviewees, and too little analysis from the author. We have the impression of Japan as a straight-jacketed, depressingly conformist culture, summed up by a subway employee: ‘Work means you fulfil your duties.’

Interviews with Aum members merely illustrate general tendencies of cults — obsessive, leader-oriented millenarian — rather than probing the motivations of this particular group. The reader is left frustrated by a dull book which delivers less than it promises.

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