Book Review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

battles kings elephants

Mathias Enard’s Compass won numerous awards and garnered rave reviews from the great and the good of the literati following its release. Whilst recognising the quality of the writing, I found reading the story akin to hard work – ‘A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia’. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants. I did so because of recommendations from fellow bloggers – discerning readers but without the literary baggage carried by certain professional critics. I am glad I did not turn away from the author due to my reaction to just one of his works.

The protagonist of this story is a young Michelangelo. He has completed his apprenticeship in Florence, funded by the Medici’s. He has created his famous statue, David. The tale opens with him fleeing Rome – and a Papal commission for which he has not received the promised payment – for Florence, from where he travels to Constantinople. The Sultan there has offered a huge sum of money for the design and planning of a bridge to span Istanbul’s harbour. The Great Turk has already rejected the drawings submitted by Leonardo da Vinci.

“You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal”

Based on historical fragments – what is known about true events – the author creates a tableau of the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century, complete with sights, sounds, smells and cultural attitudes. Due to his esteemed reputation and commission, Michelangelo moves within the upper echelons of the city. He comes across as a somewhat temperamental aesthete, albeit one who eschews many offered pleasures.

Structured in short but richly evocative sections, the reader travels through Constantinople on strolls the artist takes alongside those tasked with looking after his needs. He befriends a poet and is drawn to a beautiful singer / dancer. He struggles to picture the bridge he knows he must help create.

Although this latter issue is drawn out in the telling, what fills the pages is a picture of an elite with sensuous appreciation of the arts but one that still harbours deeper, more bestial dangers. The powerful wield their systems of reward and punishment with ruthless vigour. Michelangelo is favoured but, as an infidel, is a magnet for his patron’s enemies.

“Here too there are conspiracies and palace intrigue; jealousies, plotters ready to do anything to discredit Ali Pasha in the Bayezid’s eyes”

A beautifully written account of a time and place that remains concise without sacrificing detail. A skilful imagining of a defining period in Michelangelo’s life that is as much about Constantinople as it is about the artist.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.


Book Review: The Netanyahus


In recent years Fitzcarraldo Editions have been blurring the lines between fiction (blue covers) and non fiction (white covers). What is the difference when it comes to storytelling? Recollections, no matter how rigorously checked and cross referenced, will always be filtered through the lens and prejudices of the teller.

Joshua Cohen states clearly that The Netanyahus is a work of fiction, although featuring real people – some of whom are still alive – and inspired by events that actually happened to them. His interest in the episode around which the novel is constructed was piqued when the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, mentioned it during one of their regular conversations.

“the time he was asked to co-ordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess.”

One of the children, Benjamin, went on to become the youngest ever Israeli prime minister and the longest-serving head of state in the country’s history. This, however, is a footnote to the story Cohen tells of the father – the egotistical and aspiring academic.

Set in the winter of 1959/60, the tale is narrated by Rubin Blum, an historian on the tenure track at what was then still Corbin College. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, and they have one daughter, Judith, who is applying for college. They are the first Jews to live in Corbindale.

“We were talked-down-to, deigned-to, patronized, studied. Our presence was a nuisance to some and a curiosity to all.”

The Netanyahus do not actually arrive until more than half-way into the book. Prior to this we have character introduction and scene setting, which I very much enjoyed reading. The writing is witty, pithy and cognisant. Cohen pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes, observant of tics, taking down the lazy confidence of the privileged who remain unaware – or unconcerned – about how they may come across to those they regard as beneath them yet will indulge to a limited degree.

Blum’s parents and parents-in-law feature. His mother-in-law is portrayed as the Jewish matriarch from hell – critical, competitive and domineering.

“She’s talk about concerts in terms of how expensive the tickets were and how much better her seats were than her friends’. She’d talk about art in terms of how much Walt had bid at auction and who against.”

Jewish men are portrayed as proud and intransigent, the scholars within the community ‘afflicted with the hubris of the wounded intelligentsia’, who feel regular work is ‘trivial and beneath him’. Politically, many were ‘men of the Left, or professed to be, though they were Marxists with the tastes of bourgeois.’

There are interesting details on the founding of Israel – the politics, history and infighting. These bring to light ingrained resentments. The older generation do what they can to bequeath these, to keep them alive. What is depicted is hatred inherent in the desire to keep Jews Jewish. I pondered if the people chose to be unhappy, if they were strangely happy nursing their malcontents.

Having built a strong backstory, the Netanyahus arrive at the Blums’ house during a snowstorm. Instead of being alone as expected, Ben-Zion brings his wife and three young sons. It becomes apparent that the whole family are badly house-trained. Carnage ensues. What had been verbal sparring – with strong doses of humour lightening the facts and opinion shared – descends into farce wrapped around imperious lecturing. The well-mannered Americans struggle to deal with a man wielding a massive ego and enormous dose of self-entitlement, who displays anger towards any who will not bow to his will.

“he felt underestimated, condescended to, demeaned. He felt insulted, he who’d delivered the insults and had come seeking favor.”

Ben-Zion’s lecture style is described as ‘touting his own delusions as definitive’. The transcripts provided here help explain how his sons turned out as they did.

This is a clever novel and will likely appeal to those who enjoy impressive linguistics within an engaging and entertaining tale. It mines tropes for their comedy, although I am on the fence as to whether I found the injections of humour funny or sad, focusing as they do on casual cruelty in conversation and other bad behaviour. What anyone finds funny will always be highly personal.

There were also elements I found disturbing. I assume Judith is around sixteen years old. She dislikes her Jewish nose so concocts a plan to enable her to access the surgery her family refuses to countenance. I worried for the trauma suffered by her grandparents as a result of her actions. Later in the story there is an interaction between her and the eldest Netanyahu child, Jonathan, who is three years Judith’s junior. The resulting scenes were slapstick but their basis remained inexplicable if not a worrying assault, on or by a child.

That said, I did enjoy this book for the insights it offers into Jewish attitudes and history. It may be yet another American male writing a campus novel, but the window it provides has enough originality and literary merit to make it a worthwhile read.

Book Review: Simple Passion


“I do not wish to explain my passion – that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify – but simply to describe it”

In 1989 Annie Ernaux embarked on an affair with a married man, one that would consume her entire existence for well over a year. Simple Passion is an examination of how a passionate love creates a vortex around which all other life events swirl, granted scant attention. The author grew indifferent to anything not related to her lover. She awaited his phone calls announcing intention to visit imminently – always accepted. Their afternoons together were spent indulging in sex accompanied by carefully selected wine and food – kept at the ready, just in case. She would purchase new clothes and lingerie for him to remove. She existed in a state of anticipation for the few hours they would spend together, although only when he chose.

It may be considered that Ernaux suffered from this treatment, yet it was accepted by unblinkered choice. The intense nature of passionate love pushes all else aside. Even her children – students who would occasionally stay with her – were required to be absent should this man deem to visit. She did not expect her boys to understand their mother’s sexual desires.

“From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger”

When not with her lover, Ernaux cultivated fantasies about their days apart. She had no wish to know anything about his wife lest this affect how she depicted the woman in her head. Ernaux did what she could to avoid running into him outside of their assignations, fearing he would not acknowledge her, or that her treatment of him give away to others how she felt. The affair was contained within the walls of her apartment. She knew it would end and this gave each visit a frisson – that he may never call her again.

“I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself. All I have done is translate into words – words he will probably never read, which are not intended for him – the way in which his existence has affected my life”

At under fifty pages this short work provides insight into emotions that are rarely acknowledged. Ernaux writes that she had no wish to discuss her affair with friends lest they assume their own experiences were similar – thereby diluting the intensity of feelings she valued highly. There was hurt and jealousy to deal with, all swept away by the glorious moments spent together when she would give herself over entirely to the pleasures of sex. As the months passed, her obsession only grew as his attentions waned.

The writing is forensic and measured yet charged with physical sensation – all credit to the translator, Tanya Leslie, for capturing meaning beyond what straightforward words can express. It is not told as a story in any sort of linear fashion. Rather it is a sharing of the depth of Ernaux’s capitulation to the pleasure of desire and sexual gratification.

This is not a book requiring judgement but rather one that shares the intensity of love when it is rationed and must end. Perhaps not for the prurient as, despite explicit descriptions, what it explores is feelings engendered.

A remarkable work that opens a window on the most personal of relationships and what goes on within. The structure and style of the text allow for pauses to savour. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: The Second Body

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The premise of this essay by Daisy Hildyard is that every living being has two bodies – the physical body that can eat, drink and rest, and a body embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. Its purpose is to explore what the author calls the second body, and the alleged boundaries between all kinds of life on earth. It is not altogether clear if she is attempting to prove a conclusion she has already reached or to discover something new.

Her musings and anecdotes are wrapped around interviews with a number of individuals: staff working in a butcher’s shop; a criminologist specialising in wildlife crime; a PhD candidate working on micro biology; a senior researcher studying bio information; an evolutionary biologist. The author admits that she does not always fully understand the detail what these experts in their fields tell her.

There are repeated references to an Earthrise image which the author credits with making people consider the world as a single entity, something she appreciates herself when flying to a holiday destination. She also brings up climate change but does not make clear the point this raises, other than when she blames it for the flooding of her home.

“The river was in my house but my house was also in the river.”

To be clear, I make no argument against climate change but its inclusion in this essay comes across as a throw in.

There are mentions of the ordinary in her interviewees’ lives – opera, gaming, washing dishes – as if there is a need to prove empathetic aspects of the human condition. The author is seeking a definition yet fails to make clear the reasons for inclusion of certain subjects along the way.

She comes at the same points from numerous directions.

Each human being, as an entity, is made up of the same parts. However they look, when cut they bleed. The same could be said of other beings. Defining the boundaries between species can at times appear arbitrary. Each takes inside itself parts of others in food, air particles, water. A body expels skin, hair and other substances which are inhaled, absorbed or fertilise other living things. Around the world this process has an effect. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.

An individual’s impact on the world is consumption of resources and expenditure of waste, not what their life story may be. The human body replaces itself over time, shedding and renewing cells, yet each body is regarded as one separate being.

“This critical tradition speaks of psychology, the unfathomable depths of the individual, cultural identity and private individuality.”

There is symbiosis between cells, animals, people. Not everything acts purely in its own best interests. There is invasion, dependence and loss. Even amongst bacteria there is collaboration.

The author explores the boundaries between our first and second bodies as she seeks her definition. Interspersed with her commentary are musings on personal experiences, on Shakespeare, on death.

Any Cop?: There were interesting aspects but overall the essay lacked coherency and innovation. I expected something more than a somewhat rambling discourse on man’s place within the natural world.


Jackie Law

Book Review: Compass

Compass, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell), narrates the thoughts of a middle aged academic as he spends a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. Franz Ritter is a musicologist suffering from insomnia. He believes he is ill, possibly dying, although doctors have yet to diagnose any specific ailment. As he lies in his bed he thinks back over key events in his life. These include travels in the Middle East, acquaintances he spent time with there, and his obsession with a woman he has been friends with for many years. Franz met Sarah, another academic, when she was working on her thesis for her PhD. She has since gone on to enjoy success in her field. Despite being an intelligent, articulate and personable colleague, Franz regards her through the lens of desire. He has an image of how she should look and behave, expressing annoyance when she diverges from this construct. His supposed love for her is based on possession; he grows jealous when she expresses interest in other’s work.

As the night progresses Franz recounts conversations and adventures with other colleagues, many of them fellow academics. They take themselves and their work very seriously, assuming each will be remembered for what they regard as important contributions to obscure studies. Franz is often condescending, self-aggrandising and self-pitying. When Sarah laughs at his habits and conceits he feels hard done by. When others show an interest in Sarah he develops a dislike for them.

Despite travelling extensively himself, Franz complains of the activities of tourists in Vienna. His arrogance would be amusing if this story were not so heavy. Franz’s melancholic nature permeates each rambling recollection. There is a huge amount of detail provided. Some of this is interesting if sieved from the surrounding asides.

As with anyone’s tired night-time thoughts, the discourse wanders. Franz considers the lives of musicians and composers alongside the histories of Middle Eastern countries. He remembers his encounters with eastern natives and the reactions of the westerners he travelled with. All are explored in depth, piecemeal, alongside his memories of Sarah. The night drags on, as did my progress through these pages.

It was not the quality of the writing but rather the garrulous pretentiousness of the narrator that stifled engagement. Franz’s devouring passions may be interesting but were drowned by the relentless intensity with which he shares. He is easy to dislike with his opium habit, hypochondria, and treatment of female colleagues. Given this, the denouement was unexpected.

“better to publish well-chosen, brief articles than vast works of erudition”

A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia; reading this felt like hard work. There is much about the Middle East that piqued my interest, but I felt relief when I turned the final page.

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Counternarratives


Counternarratives, by John Keene, is a collection of historical fiction pieces imaginatively written in the style of reportage. Most are set in America through the centuries of slavery leading up to the practice’s eventual abolition. The exploration of ingrained and continuing racial prejudice is percipient and depressing.

The ownership of people, the cruelties inflicted and the effect this had on all is presented in a variety of settings. The attitude that troublesome slaves should be broken, that they were property to be used or traded, reminds the reader of the entitlement the paler skinned fully believed was their due. They could think ‘only of their own disappearing universe’, not that of those on whose lives they viciously inflicted their ideas.

These jaundiced views remain recognisable in the world we live in today. There were instances of comeuppance but only the occasional glimmer of positivity:

“we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must deliver and savor the years.”

The essence of the subject matter and the breadth and depth of each short story is impressive. However, although the author takes an innovative approach to presenting his themes I found the writing dense and often challenging to read. The stories are substantial with a strong evocation of time and place. What was a struggle was maintaining engagement.

There are many who appreciate strong, literary prose and this may well be a book more suited to them. As a reader who wishes to relax and enjoy a book these tales proved heavy going. Creatively constructed and thought provoking though each piece is, this is not a book that I can personally recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.