All posts by Bruce Johns

Feeling green

Does Ireland deliberately time its referendums to coincide with the Hay Festival? Three years ago we listened to Colm Tóibín rejoice at the outcome of the vote on same-sex marriage, and on Saturday we shared Roddy Doyle’s euphoria at the victory on access to abortion, even though its true proportions were as yet unknown.

On both occasions there was genuine delight from British members of the audience at the steps Ireland was taking, as Doyle put it, to move from the nineteenth century to the twenty first. And at the same time a degree of envy as well. To see our near neighbours awash with the optimism uncorked by progressive change cast a doleful shadow over the situation here. In 2015 we were still reflecting on the sense of national renewal which characterised the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum and wishing the same spirit could somehow be discovered here. This time round we had the even more depressing comparison with Brexit, which seems (to the defeated side in that poll) so insular, backward-looking and mean-spirited.

There was talk of a reverse exodus, with the Irish diaspora flooding home; and reference was made to the number of British people applying to Dublin for passports. ‘Including civil servants,’ Doyle told us with a mischievous twinkle. ‘You should be worried.’

We are.

House rules

On our way back from holiday, feeling not gloomy on account of the weather but favoured by the rain’s perfect timing, we passed a large construction site on which a new housing development was going up. It appeared to be a greenfield project, judging by the wood to one side and remnants of pasture round the edges. I always find it depressing to see yet more of the natural world torn up to meet our needs, and the familiar depression settled over me now. But from that sentiment a well-trodden path winds through the debate on our housing crisis and its possible solutions.

People need roofs over their heads, it is rightly said, the crisis urgent, a solution long overdue. My objections are those of les satisfaits whose own needs have already been met (to which sanctimony our house, being converted from a barn, adds an extra pinch of double-standards). It is also pointed out that the proportion of the country which has been built upon remains astonishingly small (6% in the latest survey). And besides, there is little natural about the British landscape. The field whose fringes alone have escaped this latest uprooting is the result of clearances and deforestation stretching back two thousand years. My lamentations, in other words, delivered from the comfort of a passing car, are crocodile tears. Bring on the diggers. Let new estates rise.

All of which is true, or at least important to acknowledge. My response is an emotional one open to obvious refutation. Will brownfield sites really provide the space we need? Can building upwards be justified after Grenfell Tower? Am I not primarily concerned to preserve my own cosy, semi-rural way of life?

But on this occasion it is not the ravaged greensward that affronts me so much as the giant hoarding which advertises the homes rising from the fertile but expendable mud. To begin with, judging by the dwellings pictured, they do not address the need for social housing, our most pressing area of deprivation, no matter how many rabbit hutches are squeezed, at least notionally, into the plan. Secondly, they conform to all the blandest and most outmoded stereotypes of domestic architecture whose references always seem to be backward-looking, down to the obligatory splashes of Tudor black-and-white. It might serve as a metaphor for the national predicament. Unable to imagine a future for ourselves, we turn to the past for solace and solutions. Thirdly, there is no foregrounding of energy efficiency, two decades after the full menace of climate change became clear. Double-glazing-as-standard is so far short of what is needed it may serve as our epitaph.

Original, environmentally-sensitive buildings with cutting-edge design: are these to be found anywhere? Of course they are. A recent (perhaps still current) series on ITV tours the most astonishing houses in the world, self-indulgent palaces occupied (or sometimes just visited as a second home) by the obscenely rich. The architects, with their Thunderbirds dress-sense and tortoiseshell glasses, talk of inspiration, partnership with the client and innovative materials. Not once, that I have seen at least, does anyone query the lavishing of so much talent and treasure on the foibles of the uber smug and well-heeled. Why can’t the discipline of architecture, and the distribution of wealth, focus instead on the urgent tasks facing mankind in its social and environmental extremity?

Of course, it will be argued that people don’t like modern architecture. Charles Windsor is their guru in such matters, not Richard Rogers. And it is part of my case that architects should descend from their shards and gherkins, their phallic symbols and ivory towers, to engage with popular taste and needs. But in this, as in so many areas, a younger generation is less wedded to convention in all areas of life, only to find its outwardness and optimism squatted on (as in the Brexit vote) by those of greater age and smaller imaginations. It is also true that few of us are educated in or about design. Taste does not arise spontaneously, nor should it be imposed from above. Something so important to both public and private spheres should be on the curriculum along with other forms of creativity and appreciation. Instead of which our schools are being turned into businesses with over-rewarded management, cramped syllabuses and Fordist methods of learning. It is from the visionary, as well as from each other, that we have become, like our houses, semi-detached.

Pale around the Gills

One of those odd coincidences occurred recently which set one thinking about an issue raised by two, otherwise unrelated events. On the day we visited the museum in Ditchling, East Sussex I happened to finish reading Falstaff, the novel by Robert Nye, and both experiences set me thinking about morality in art.

Ditchling Common was the home, for a few years, of the community of craftspeople and makers led by Eric Gill. Gill’s genius as an engraver, designer of typefaces and sculptor has been tarnished, to put it mildly, by revelations about some rather less savoury predilections, which included having sex with one or more of his daughters and trying it on with a dog. It is an old dilemma: should we countenance the work of someone so compromised or order its removal from public view? In favour of leniency it may be argued that Gill’s lettering and engraving (including many war memorials) are beyond reproach, anonymous when encountered and too widely disseminated to be recalled like a faulty car part. His sculpture, meanwhile, is largely religious in flavour (he was a fervent if oddball Catholic) and may serve the useful, if unintended purpose, of debunking that sort of piety. In fact, apart from diary entries, only a few, rarely-seen drawings of his daughter hint at something off-colour and theirs would be a relatively minor loss if we decided to avert our eyes. Even in this case, however, a more adult approach would surely be to trust one’s own judgement and immunity to being depraved.

To these specific circumstances may be added a more generic defence. The dead lie outside our jurisdiction. By deleting their work (even supposing that were possible in Gill’s case) we would be punishing not them but ourselves. Instead, cases like his might be used to investigate the pathology of genius and perversion, extremes of the human spirit still insufficiently understood.

There rests the case for a kind of suspended sentence where posterity is concerned. The trouble is, given the peculiar nastiness of child abuse, even I am not totally convinced. The sexual predators recently exposed are not able to continue their careers in a part of life kept separate from any moral or criminal offence. In such cases the awfulness is the man. Can something similar not be applied retrospectively when the miscreant is immune to censure or due process? Or would that result in galleries being half-empty, libraries with closed doors?

Which brings me to Nye’s brilliant, innovative novel. First published in 1976, it purports to be Falstaff’s own account of his life using what appears about him in Shakespeare supplemented by much highly impressive research. The exaggeration and self-mythologising are rampant, blatant and explicit by turns, much of the obscenity concerning his exploits with an (in modern parlance) under-age niece. One commonly-used (and often self-serving) mitigation of inappropriateness is that it dates from, or refers to, an earlier time when the moral climate was different from our own. In a case such as this, however, the question arises: which timeframe are we talking about?

In the fifteenth century child brides and the debauching of innocence were commonplace. By our own standards, life was brutish and short. Women and girls were chattels or vessels for men’s pleasure and progeny. In a work of fiction is it not possible, even praiseworthy, to make this clear, or should my pleadings be dismissed as the speciousness of a man who enjoys reading dirty books?

The second context is that in which the book first appeared. Here a different set of considerations apply. Nye was writing less than twenty years after the Lady Chatterley trial, when Britain’s old obscenity laws bit the dust. People were still testing the boundaries of what was possible or artistically justified. And the emphasis on liberation, sexual and otherwise, ushered in by the 1960s had yet to give way as a prevalent cultural force to materialism and personal greed. In his writing Nye was an innovator, as I shall shortly explain; but he was also a creature of his times, both empowered and constrained by commercial reality and cultural assumptions. To break moulds is still to be defined by them.

The third epoch is, of course, our own, when a character like Falstaff – rumbustious, licentious, self-aggrandizing – is more likely to be seen through the prism of male entitlement. The books exist, there is no going back on that; but it is unlikely we shall see a new edition while justice is still being sought for the victims of sexual abuse. We read or view or listen with current events looking over our shoulders, and it is impossible to read the passages regarding Miranda, the niece, without wincing at their impropriety. But two things redeem Nye’s project, both of them entirely in keeping with the times. Firstly, the women he writes about are endowed with agency, as current jargon would have it. Miranda herself, and Doll Tearsheet the bawd, are strong, feisty and, yes, lusty characters not passive victims of Falstaff’s appetites. Secondly, none of it is true – and not just in the sense that this is a story. In Sir John, Nye gives us an early and almost unmatched instance of the unreliable narrator, since established as a staple of the post-modern novel. Not only is this clear from what we know of the man from Shakespeare’s plays; the book contains a clever device which enables someone to contradict what the old man is saying. True, the passages involving Miranda can still cause offence as male fantasy, with possible implications for the author’s state of mind. But, like any great work of art, his book exists in the unique space it has made for itself, at arm’s length from its creator and from reality while embracing and, for this reader at least, enriching life.


The Other Side of Silence

As it follows his tragic heroine from her early life in Bremen to the deserts of colonial Africa, suffering untold horrors along the way, André Brink’s novel passes through a number of fictional hinterlands. As an indentured skivvy, farmed out by the orphanage where she grew up, Hanna is forced to wait on a series of abusive patriarchs, late-night indignities hidden from their wives; and one thinks of The Handmaid’s Tale, published some years earlier, particularly when a chess board is brought out, the equality of the game shaming the imbalance of power. Later, having been rescued and nurtured by tribespeople, themselves brutalised by German rule, she enters a pre-modern world of myth and oral tradition that reaches back to sagas and song lines, the culture of animism and memory that was murdered by print. Then her fightback begins and I found myself being reminded of that old Hollywood chestnut, the ragtag band of victims and losers which somehow revenges itself on enemies too stupid to exploit their superior numbers and strength. Only Bruce Willis is missing. And throughout these episodes the violence, remorseless and bloody, conjures the Shakespeare of Lear or Coriolanus. Here is our stage, both authors announce: let’s see how much blood we can show being spilled.

The scope and anger of Brink’s vision is epic in tone, perhaps self-consciously so. Implacable, as well, the horrors inflicted on subject peoples being twinned with the oppression of women by men. These are the original sins of empire and gender, the foulness to which so many present-day ills can be traced. Yet in order to bring home the extent of this savagery he describes the humiliation piled upon Hanna with a degree of detail that verges on prurience. Is this an example of looking evil in the face, or does his narrator belong to the long list of males from whom the poor woman should have been protected? And about that voice. Our guide to these events is someone researching the case long afterwards. The sketchiness of the records (even Hanna’s family name is unknown) excuses, or mandates, some uncertainty about what happens. This is a not uncommon device which in other hands has allowed a dialogue to be established between the story and the act of storytelling itself. Yet here, the writer’s intercessions are rare enough to feel token in nature, while long passages of action and description – of both actual and interior landscapes – go far beyond what historical reconstruction could hope to achieve. The God-like narrator – another avatar of patriarchy – is fair game nowadays but the alternative requires more attention than it receives in Brink’s cake-and-eat-it approach.

These quibbles give me no pleasure because for an Afrikaner to assault one of the creation myths of his tribe took courage, even after the end of apartheid. Has anything quite so excoriating been written about Britain’s imperial past, ignorance of which lies at the heart of current misconceptions regarding our country? The idea of truth has taken a battering recently, swapping its definite article for inverted commas. Yet fiction is one sphere in which that goal is deemed attainable, however crafty the means. In giving voice to the silenced victims of injustice Brink has affirmed the moral purpose of the novel, as he did throughout his life, while falling short of its highest standards.

Soul of a Nation

‘West Coast Black art stands in direct opposition to art for art’s sake. It insists that if art is not for the sake of something it is not art.’

This quote, from the American artist Noah Purifoy, is to be found in Tate Modern’s exhibition Soul of a Nation. Art in the Age of Black Power, and raises questions that, overtly or otherwise, are central to all artistic endeavour: Why am I doing this? What purpose, if any, does it serve?

Throughout most of history such agonising would have been thought pointless, even heretical. Art was not a separate category but embedded in social or religious life, the artist a craftsman who knew his or her place. The cave painters of Lascaux were admired no doubt but served an ecstatic vision that was collective in nature and possibly drug-induced. However exalted, Imhotep the pyramid-builder worshipped as well as obeyed his god-king. And Phidias, great sculptor of Zeus, immortalised deities or perfection in human form, both subjects inherently ideological. The architects of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals were billed as masons, where they are known at all, the glory they strived for not personal but royal and divine. In Bali, an island as saturated with images as anywhere on earth, artists only began to sign paintings in the 1930s, when visiting westerners taught them to monetise their work. And so on.

So where did it come from, the notion of art as a subjective activity, sufficient unto itself? Talent would always have had its due, pushing boundaries and attracting reward: a place near the fire, first dibs on the slave girls, one’s mark on the chancel wall. By the time of the Renaissance artists as celebrities were well-established, albeit deferential to prince or Church. Then, as capitalism developed, new patrons and subjects came into play, Dutch masters like Vermeer becoming fascinated by the landscape, exterior and domestic, of their new, mercantile world. In Britain, birthplace of industrialism, art became a commodity available to an emerging middle class which, keen to imitate aristocratic taste, was a soft touch for artists and dealers; while developments in printing enabled the wholesale reproduction of images, which hung as engravings on ever-more humble walls.

Thus the grip of ideology and patronage was slackening as the artist’s options increased. Still great voices were raised in defence of art as secondary to values – Ruskin’s high-mindedness stands out, as does Nietzsche’s insistence that art cannot avoid strengthening or weakening current hegemonies of thought. But the contrary view had begun to be theorised, by Whistler among others, and with Turner’s work light, hitherto the medium through which some prescribed reality was depicted, became a subject in itself, just as physics was supplanting religion as the key to understanding the universe. Art developed a momentum of its own, with movements and fashions driven by practitioners’ experiments with style, the market struggling to keep up, chequebook in hand. It helped to have Gaugin, Van Gogh & co perpetuating the image of the doomed genius, one’s tortured soul established as the proper concern of art; but mostly they were becoming cannier at milking the punters, Picasso’s signed napkins to the fore.

Art for art’s sake became a slogan, a watchword for integrity and the human spirit. What was this: an aberration, or a new, liberating stage in human development like access to education and cheap travel? Accountability still had strong advocates, backed up by armies and secret police. Socialist realism was Stalin’s riposte to artistic freedom: heroic labour, hummable tunes. And now we have Islamists destroying temples in Syria and threatening libraries in Timbuktu. Yet is the culture that evolved from artistic freedom any less shallow or beholden? Today’s market panders to the super-rich. Paintings sell for hundreds of millions. Boardrooms outbid galleries in a war of the walls. ‘Art for art’s sake,’ sang 10cc, ‘Money for God’s sake’. Meanwhile style and subject matter have never been further removed from the understanding of most people, at a time of pressing global issues like poverty and climate change. Can we afford such self-indulgence? Is this the result of allowing artists a free hand?

Which brings us back to the Tate exhibition, Black Power and Noah Purifoy. His statement, quoted at the beginning, can now be seen as historically more representative than the opposite, supposedly prevailing point of view. What would we have thought of a black artist choosing that moment to explore the quality of light in Mississippi, as cities burned and bodies dangled from trees? Yet Purifoy’s own response was far from what Stalin meant by art relevant to the people. No images here of the oppressed, nobly struggling. Instead, he made his mark with sculptures formed from wreckage left behind by the 1965 Watts rebellion (called riots by the media: how we name things is also contested, politicised). In other words, even if we expect art to be ‘for the sake of something’, the form that engagement takes is open to interpretation, with gifted, creative minds able to lead, rather than follow opinion. And that is what we find in the rest of the exhibition. Just as the civil rights movement and Black Panthers enacted contrasting strategies of resistance to oppression, so the artistic community differed in its creative response. Those working with abstraction were criticised for being too rarefied or introspective, but insisted they were articulating a no-less distinctive voice. Others, while being more accessible, also focused on developing a black aesthetic as a means of dignifying their community rather than portraying its immediate troubles, the photographs of Roy Decarava being a case in point. And in America the Beautiful Norman Lewis could dare to make an arresting image out of Klan members gathering in the night, its appeal not only moral but aesthetic as well.

I left the Tate troubled by Purifoy’s polemic but here is one way the circle might be squared: expect art to address some form of meaning external to itself but defend with your life the freedom to choose how this is done.

Armed With Madness

Drug addict, sexual predator (or willing prey), absentee mother, Mystic Meg, groupie to Modernist giants: Mary Butts had a restless, scandalous career that yielded a small output of fiction and autobiography. Armed with Madness is the best-known of her novels, although that is not saying much. It was re-issued as recently as 2001 with a small fanfare of revival but has never found a large audience. No surprise there. Many of her sentences obey the rules of syntax but signify nothing. The characters are too elusive, or too privileged, to engage with. And the plot, involving a grail-like chalice, draws on Christian and folkloric themes with iffy associations. Yet one feels there is something worth searching for in the maze: a form of truth or of storytelling that might be archetypal, a tilt at the literal world and its limitations. Why do we read, after all? To understand and enjoy, of course, but sometimes to meet an intelligence stranger or more subtle than our own.

The setting is Dorset, where Butts herself was born, a county of hillforts and barrows, of tucked-away valleys and bald, sweeping downs. The uncanny survives here, a throwback to more superstitious times or, as she would have it, an age in contact with primal forces. A brother and sister, Scylla and Felix, live in a house near the sea with their old housekeeper – a sort of Brideshead avant la lettre. Along the coast Picus mucks in with Clarence, a war veteran haunted by his experiences. The two of them might be lovers; Scylla and Picus certainly are, or become so during the story. These names have mythological origins (Picus is the woodpecker, alter ego of Zeus, and so on). Sexual dimorphism, private means, a classical education: this is part avant-garde, part ancient régime.

Two events trigger the plot, such as it is. The chalice is found in the well at Clarence’s cottage and an American, Carston, disturbs the group’s personal chemistry. Sexual tension, a quest to find what the cup means, the volatile pathology of Clarence’s trauma: these elements are woven into an almost abstract design. The archness of the prose is tiresome at times, making us long for plain statements of feeling or fact. And along the way we encounter Butts’ hatred of materialism, which can be viewed as social critique, moral posture or the sour grapes of a landed class. Really, she belongs to a subset of modernists who disliked modernity. Throw in a hint of antisemitism and, yes, this is a hard and sometimes repellent read. Yet I found enough reasons to soldier on, beyond a cussed refusal to be beaten. Curiosity, for one. A wayward boldness of style. The strange, almost ritual quality of the interactions. In fact, when behaviour is explained in terms of normal motives it feels like a loss of nerve. Against all the odds, the fate of Butts’ characters contrives to matter – less for their own sakes than as a form of enquiry into love or life or . . . your guess is as good as mine.

Reading throws up curious juxtapositions. My next book after Armed with Madness is Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time which examines the relationship between Art (personified by the composer, Shostakovich) and Power. I find that Butts’ novel still preys on my mind – a recommendation of sorts. It was written on the eve of the Depression, in a style guaranteed to be of no interest or relevance to the majority (a charge levelled against Modernism in general). And I imagine, in some mashed-up history of the period, Stalin denouncing her as elitist and degenerate, consigning the books and their writer to the flames.  Art can be rarefied, self-serving, a smug, minority pursuit; yet when persecuted on these, or any other grounds it makes the strongest case possible for liberty.

The Noise Of Time

A man steps from a train wearing amulets made of garlic. He stands all night, with a small suitcase packed, waiting for the lift doors to open. The fate of his opera, and therefore his life, is determined behind a screen. His interrogator, having prepared him for the worst, unaccountably disappears. In the Land of the Free, where any question can be asked, they want to know if he likes brunettes or blondes. His name appears under articles he has not written. Banned, unbanned, it feels much the same.

The structure of a book, like everything else about it, contributes to the author’s purpose and the reader’s response. By recounting The Noise of Time in this episodic, non-chronological way Julian Barnes creates an impression of someone cut adrift by the capriciousness, sadism and incompetence of tyranny. There are no fixed points any more. The past changes daily. Friends betray you. Truth, lies: they change places all the time. The figure observed squinting in this spotlight is Dmitri Shostakovich, most gifted of Soviet-era composers, most compromised as well. Heroism is not the subject here but survival: bewildered, squalid, often unexplained. Dmitri Dmitrievich is hapless socially, rootless politically and not infrequently envious of the dead. Only music, its writing and performing, matters to him which makes this portrait of the artist so downbeat and so painfully honest. Not that his peers fare much better. Stravinsky, coining it in the States, is a prima donna. Prokofiev sells his soul for a succession of flashy cars. And in case any Cold War triumphalism intrudes, America is portrayed as a nightmare of shallow commercialism, where art falls short of being serious because, however lavish the rewards, the stakes are so miserably low.

Barnes is a peerless tactician, never once stating the obvious, allowing the nightmare he describes to speak for itself. The prose is precise, sardonic and self-aware. His appreciation for the subtleties of Russian culture is lightly worn (the recurrence of old sayings, the fact that even Stalin can be addressed by his first name and patronymic). The lickspittles and nonentities who serve the General Secretary are largely condemned out of their own mouths. The general awfulness is not overdone. This reluctance to adopt a moral, still less moralising position adds to the dismayed but detached tone of the book, which exists in the ever-more fertile ground that has opened up between fact and fiction. Cowering or collaborating, Shostakovich cuts a memorable but pitiable figure whose flawed humanity brings us face-to-face with that most uncomfortable of questions: in his place, what would I have done?

The Buried Giant

No book is completely original. Too much has been said before. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant comes as close as any novel of recent times to breaking genuinely new ground. As much as anything, this is related to mood. The latter is what remains from a book after names and other details have faded. Often we are less conscious of it while reading but in this case the atmosphere captures or bemuses us right from the start. How is this trick performed? Characters regard as normal things which are anything but. The world that seems real to them strikes us as dreamlike or illogical. Their emotions are familiar and involving, their expectations and response to events not. And we are equally wrong-footed in terms of fictional genre. Is it historical? Tenuously, at best. How about romance, in the original sense of the word?  There are elements of quest and chivalry, but too much that is offbeat and dark. Fantasy, then? But this is the opposite of escapism, of sublimation in made-up worlds. If a label has to be applied it might be ‘allegorical’ yet bearings are still hard to find as the unexpected keeps occurring. In these circumstances much depends on one’s trust in the author. Is he taking me somewhere or wasting my time? Ishiguro’s track record and the limpid gravity of his prose underwrite the promise in any story of resolution. And as the point of it all finally edges into focus we begin to recognise the stealthy but impressive ambition of his work.

Perhaps the book reflects his own hybridised heritage, there being something of both Beowulf and Murakami in its straight-faced bending of the real. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, leave their village to visit a long-lost son. The time is that period after the Romans have left when Britons and Saxons sometimes fought, sometimes lived side-by-side. Or is it? Early signs of historical accuracy are undermined by the presence of ogres, dragons and giants. Arthur is referred to as a real person, not least by one of his knights who has survived. And a curious loss of memory has settled over the land.

At first the pace feels slow, the scenes and conversations somewhat becalmed. A tone is being established, groundwork that may deter the less persevering. But as other characters are encountered the story becomes more eventful, with passages of genuine tension and dramatic power. That dream-like mood persists, however, so that we remain unsure of the writer’s intentions. Great deeds are performed with the stylised grace of figures on a frieze. We peer through the amnesia to which most have succumbed and glimpse the terrible cost of remembering. Even as it draws near the nature of the dénouement is hard to grasp, the fog slow to lift in fact and metaphorically. Then the final clash and its aftermath are described with heart-rending unaffectedness. At last what Ishiguro is writing about becomes apparent – or at least imaginable. One feels wiser, admitted to something, bereaved.

The Radetzky March

Great books keep finding new things to say. That might even be the definition of greatness. I had this thought while reading The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, written in the early 1930s but set in the period leading up to the First World War. It is one of two masterpieces to come out of Austria in this era, the other being Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities. Whereas Musil’s unfinished epic is a key Modernist text, Roth wrote in a more traditional form and style but to no lesser effect. Taken together they prove there is more than one way to skin the literary cat.

The Radetzky March observes the decline of two families, one great, the other with a smaller but no less burdensome dignity. Its main characters are the Trottas (no relation to Del and Rodney in Peckham). Their fortune is made when the Slovenian Joseph Trotta, an infantry lieutenant, saves the life of the Emperor Franz Josef at the Battle of Solferino. His son, both proud of and unequal to the father’s heroism, becomes a provincial official: lonely, self-important, disappointed. His son enlists in the army, with largely unhappy results. Thus the second and third generations struggle to uphold the glory of the first. Parallel with this story, and presiding over it, is the life of the Emperor himself. Prodigiously long-lived, virtually senile, he dithers as the empire slides towards disaster and disintegration.

The two dynasties are linked by this trajectory and by a simple but elegant device. When the Trottas are in need of help they appeal to the old man in the Schönbrunn Palace who, reminded of his debt to their founder, obligingly intercedes. It is this form of absolutism, unequal to the task of governing a vast, fractious dominion, that dies with Franz Josef’s heir at Sarajevo. History and the novel’s cohesion are neatly, fatefully served. Translated into English, Roth’s book makes this background accessible to British readers, poorly-informed (I include myself) about Austro-Hungary. It was landlocked, for a start, and therefore a different kind of empire to Britain’s, contiguous peoples in a forced embrace, with all the potential for mixing and conflict that implies. But it shared the dream common to all such polities, of transcending differences in some great project of union and shared identity. And it is this spirit which provoked the thoughts mentioned at the beginning of this review.

The idealism of empire generally masks the self-interest of the imperial power and groupings derived from conquest are unlikely to last, however benign they become. Still, as we learn from the book, this one had its guiding principles, honour high among them; a degree of even-handedness; a sleepy, ceremonial status quo. Peace was kept between peoples with ancient enmities. Trade was facilitated. Remind you of anything? Towards the end of the novel the entire edifice – overblown, grandiloquent, bureaucratic – is teetering. National sentiment makes ready to break its chains. Violence brews. The parallels should be clear by now. Attempts to unite part or all of Europe form a long procession from Charlemagne to Delors, with failure implicit in the exercise. And at this moment in our own turbulent times it is tempting to draw parallels between Roth’s Vienna and present-day Brussels as cases of centres that cannot hold. The Radetzky march even has its counterpart in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: sooner or later, anthems tend to ring hollow. Brexiteers might well rub their hands, the centralising impulse in retreat once again, history favouring the border over the open road. But which lessons should we learn from that history? What breaks out at the end of the novel is World War with deaths counted in millions, the scion of the Trottas among the first. A second instalment followed, not to mention genocide in the Balkans. Roth and his wife were casualties of this descent into barbarism, whose momentum the EU was intended to reverse. Some law may be at work here, sentiment tilting one way then the other, the logic of events irresistible. And it is true, transnational groupings, even when voluntary, are cumbersome, temporising affairs. But read this wonderful book and ask yourself: is the alternative really better?

The Thrill Of It All

I had two bites at Joseph O’Connor’s novel, hearing the first half on audiobook during a holiday then reading the paperback after finding a copy in Oxfam. As a result it was Ciarán Hinds’ restrained, confiding brogue that rose to me from the printed word, even when it was a woman speaking. For once my imagination, normally insistent on playing every part, did not complain. Being read to well is a pleasure, even when the voice is inside one’s head.

The Thrill Of It All relates the slow ascent and rapid break-up of a pop group or rock band (the distinction a matter of opinion, a marker of allegiance and taste). It is mainly Robbie’s story, although the others also have their say. The least talented of the four (and nothing without them) he is somehow key to their success: peacemaker, ballast to larger egos, harmonic counterweight, rhythm-navvy: a sort of Ringo without the drums. His friendship with Fran, a Vietnamese-born outcast from foster care, lies at the heart of the book and the band. Fran is a genius and, in time, a monster, his demons (displacement, abuse) projected and magnified. There are echoes here of Lennon and McCartney, the one bitter and edgy, the other safer in every sense of the word. The group is completed by a sister and brother with more technical ability and perspective on the business. In less resourceful hands they would have made up the numbers, nothing more; but, viewing the book as an album, Trez and Seán get a few tracks of their own. The chemistry between the four of them feels authentic, bearing in mind that we readers are a tough crowd, being experts in rock psychology from following our own favourite outfits as they fight, make up, splinter and reform. There is a script to be followed, certain niceties to observe, and O’Connor has done his homework – on this and much else besides. In getting it right he seems to be telling the story of all groups and that part of our own lives as well.

Tellingly, it is the pre-fame sections of the book which work best. Robbie and Fran meet and grow up in Luton, depicted as a drab, small-minded town notable chiefly for not being London. But they transform it through their adventures into a mythical landscape of suburban kitchens, grotty pubs, windy busking pitches and college corridors. Anyone who fled where they grew up but feels rooted all the same will recognise this sequence of get-me-out-of-here and take-me-back. This is their Hamburg phase, full of scallywag energy and irrational hope: having the dream, as many have found, is sweeter than living it. And in many ways the stand-out creation of the novel comes from this period in the person of Robbie’s dad. Jimmy is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Role, not only in his own right but on behalf of the Irish diaspora in England, doggedly tribal, modestly self-made. I laughed out loud when hearing his words spoken and did so again when reading them for myself. In fact, just thinking about him calling his son ‘Bridget’ makes my windpipe convulse.

The band’s brief spell in the limelight is harder to make original and therefore less gripping. Details of stadiums played, studio sessions with celebrity producers, the obligatory musical differences – for the first time one thinks: I’ve heard this before. And despite covering the longest period chronologically, the years after they split are skated over – necessary to prevent the book overrunning but lopsided, nonetheless. That said, there is some A-list name dropping and no let-up in the flow of musical opinions to agree with or shout down – the very essence of fandom. None of which is a plot spoiler, by the way. Because it leaves unanswered the question that arises regarding all ex-groups from the Beatles onwards: will they get back together? To know that you will have to read the book. Or submit to being spellbound by Mr Hinds.