Books in Brief: what to read this November

From Truss to Didion, Frans Hals to facts about flags, here are this month’s short reviews from the magazine

November 01, 2023
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Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain, from 1945 to Truss
by Steve Richards (Macmillan, £22)

The central argument of this engaging canter through postwar Britain is not, despite the subtitle, about “crisis and change”. It is instead closer to AJP Taylor’s verdict on a different country in 1848: “Germany had reached a turning point and failed to turn.” 

Taylor was a historian famed for his noteless yet erudite TV lectures, and Steve Richards—a political columnist and broadcaster—is a master of the same art. His chapters are episodic, each tackling an event such as the Suez Crisis, the oil shocks and Brexit, but in rough chronological order they make for a surprisingly comprehensive overview of the last 80 years. The first half is shaped by a lifetime of reading; the second by Richards knowing the players involved. He has a knack for diving down to remind us of a telling but forgotten detail of NHS reform or the Brexit wars, before soaring back up to illuminate how it fits into the longer story.

Time and again, the lesson is that the noise and fury of politics ultimately disturbs very little. With the exception of Margaret Thatcher, who—with guile, iron will and good fortune—remade the country in line with her ideas and prejudices, we find huge personalities and dramas come and go without making much stick. Suez looked as though it had done for our “fantasy island” delusions—until, 60 years on, we got Brexit. The 1970s shocks could have jolted us to think more strategically about energy security—but they didn’t. Politics has occasionally cemented deep change—for example, the “permissive society” reforms of the 1960s—but has rarely initiated it.

All of this is pertinent in a discontented and divided country ahead of a general election in which a “safety first” opposition could conquer all. After a lifetime of watching Westminster, Richards shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom Clark

The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters
by Benjamin Moser (Allen Lane, £30)

“Taste,” for French poet Paul Valéry, “is made of a thousand distastes.” This rings true for Benjamin Moser’s book on the Dutch masters, which unfolds as both art history and memoir. Here, biography is made of a thousand omissions and history of a thousand unknowns. What is shown in paintings is as important as what isn’t—the intangible and enigmatic feelings they stir.

A recurring joke in the book is how often biographers (Moser included) are forced to admit “almost nothing is known” about their subject. Rather than puffing up scant facts, Moser considers individual lives, life in general and the fragility of all biographies. Unknowns make the knowns shine brighter, just as Frans Hals’s gloom-laden backgrounds make his figures stand out with more vitality. We hurry along with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a tourist. 

Inevitably, Rembrandt and Vermeer hold sway, but they don’t overpower the others. Moser relishes strange facts and is attuned to the charisma of his subjects, such as the extraordinary painter Rachel Ruysch or the witch of Haarlem, “Crazy Babs”. His metaphors are bodily, rooted in physical forces—light, magnetism and gravity—those swells of attraction that pull spectators through galleries. This keeps descriptions fresh and, by stepping back into the experiences of looking, helps the reader navigate the cast of 20-something artists, relatives, critics and devotees.

It’s a meditation on belonging, how we strive to adopt a nation through its art, how we fall in love with a place, its past and foreignness. If it had been possible to get a ticket for the sell-out Rijksmuseum Vermeer show, I’d have happily been accompanied by this pacey and sensitive prose. Moser, who hails from Texas but lives in the Netherlands, is an excellent guide.

Brett Walsh

How the Tricolor Got Its Stripes: And Other Stories About Flags
by Dmytro Dubilet (Profile, £18.99)

For years, the vexillology community has been crying out for a hero; one-time keynote speaker of the Flag Institute and the UK’s most prominent flag enthusiast, Eric Pickles, has never quite cut through. Yet now, at long last, we might have found the one we’ve been waiting for: Dmytro Dubilet, a Ukrainian fintech entrepreneur and ex-politician.

“I have produced written material before,” he begins modestly in his new book on flags, “I used to be a journalist.” I don’t know about you but, speaking as a journalist, that’s all the reassurance I need. But I’m being facetious: genuinely, this book is a treasure trove of pithy, easily repeatable facts, making it the perfect book for extremely well-balanced men like myself who want to impress other extremely well-balanced men. (The impressiveness of these facts on women is less obvious, but there’s no harm in trying.)

Facts like, did you know it was Napoleon who came up with the Italian flag? Did you know the orange on the flag of Cyprus represents the country’s rich copper deposits? And did you know blood is red? Of course you did, but did you know that red on the majority of world flags represents blood? Well, now you do.

In a world in which facts are being undermined, it’s a relief we still have books like this one, making a stand by being composed of almost nothing but facts. It’s in this respect that How the Tricolor Got Its Stripes transcends most forgettable stocking fillers and becomes something truly important: a rallying cry for democracy, an appeal to reason, a defence of the concept of truth itself. No, really—I mean it.

David McAllister

The World According to Joan Didion
by Evelyn McDonnell (Fourth Estate, £16.99)

“I thought that by following in her footsteps, I might be able to walk like Joan,” Evelyn McDonnell writes. McDonnell, a professor in journalism at Loyola Marymount University, has “read, taught, admired, emulated” Joan Didion, her fellow “native daughter of California”, for much of her life. That adulation courses through The World According to Joan Didion, a 200-page paean to Didion’s literary and aesthetic style. 

Each chapter is divided into a theme that recurs in Didion’s life or work: “Orchid”, “Snake”, “Hotel”, “Man”, “Gold”, “Morgue”. McDonnell tries to write like Didion—her repeated phrases, her arch first-person voice, her distanced, devastating observations—falling often into unintentional parody. In “Morgue”, she recounts Didion’s daughter’s death: “in twenty months, there would be no more Quintana. There would just be Joan. Lone Didion.” McDonnell analyses Didion’s writing as though the reader is an especially slow student. “Place was not just a setting in her writing: it was a character,” she declares. “She wrote vividly about locations and their influences on people and events.”

When McDonnell steps away from hagiography, it is only to tell Didion off for her rather conservative politics. She regretfully informs us that the Republican-raised writer was “deeply problematic”, and probably “needed some feminist consciousness-raising”. She mourns Didion’s “lack of consciousness” about her own privilege that must explain her scepticism of the 1970s women’s movement. “#MeNot could have been Joan’s hashtag,” she concludes, inexplicably.

The World According to Joan Didion was intended as “more of a notebook” than an “exhaustive biography”. Either way, it feels unnecessary. Didion was a woman who wrote “entirely to find out what I’m thinking”. Far too much of McDonnell’s information about Didion’s life and mind has already been told—and much more elegantly—by Didion herself.

Emily Lawford

Vengeance is Mine
by Marie NDiaye, tr. Jordan Stump (MacLehose Press, £12)

Marie NDiaye’s latest novel is inspired in part by the recent film Saint Omer (2022), which NDiaye wrote with the acclaimed French director Alice Diop. The book is a haunting, mysterious tour de force from the winner of France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Like NDiaye’s previous novels published in English, it’s elegantly translated by Jordan Stump, who excels at capturing the beguiling combination of disquiet and clarity that marks her almost hypnotic prose.

The novel is probably best described as a psychological thriller, though it takes all manner of swerves through the genre. Maître Susane is a 42-year-old Bordeaux-based lawyer. Her job is “saving people who can’t do anything”. Most recently, she’s been tasked with representing Marlyne Principaux, a mother who has murdered her three young children: a crime that’s left Marlyne “free” but “monstrously guilty”. As disturbing as her client’s crimes are, though, it’s Marlyne’s husband Gilles who unsettles Maître Susane more. She can’t help thinking that she’s met him before; a long time ago, to be exact, when she was about 10 years old, and he 14, and something significant passed between them—he “enraptured her”, setting her entire future on track. 

NDiaye burrows into the memories—perhaps real, perhaps imagined—of her troubled protagonist as she’s torn between two selves: “the woman who was rational and the woman who wasn’t but often understood things more rightly.” Set during the depths of winter—“dark days of ice and mist”—the impenetrability of the fog, the “snow-veiled” cityscape and the icy ground underfoot are all evocative metaphors for both the moral murkiness through which Maître Susane wades and the opacity—everything “twisted, frustrating, unnameable”—that she’s struggling with in her own psyche.

Lucy Scholes