Book reviews

The Innocent by David Szalay and other new releases hitting our shelves this week

Time In
The Innocent David Szalay

4/5
Jonathan Cape Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s

Soviet Russia was a place where frankness was at the very least a liability and could prove lethal. So it is fitting that David Szalay’s story of three decades in an intelligence officer’s life is as oblique and circuitous as an information exchange in a bugged apartment. Aleksandr is an officer in the MGB (precursor of the KGB). A kulak’s son, born and educated under Communism, he is also a true believer, even in the aftermath of the Krushchev thaw, as the tenets he has lived by melt like overheated steel and he, like so many others, tries to find vindication for the regime in a series of international sporting events: the Fischer-Spassky chess match, USSR Vs West Germany in the UEFA European Championship and, most damaging, the disastrous 1972 Munich Olympics. Between trying to invest these matches with a significance they simply don’t possess, Aleksandr wrestles with his family and his memories.

The result is a manuscript which weaves through the book, recounting the young officer’s 1948 trip to a hospital in a Urals backwater to check up on a piano prodigy, Yudin, who had been brain-damaged during World War II. It is a trip – or rather, a series of trips – that holds the key to Aleksandr’s whole life.

Szalay expertly captures a nonsensical situation, born of a dictatorship’s obsession with hierarchy and bureaucracy, that nevertheless accrues layers of serious meaning: for Aleksandr, for the hospital director and his wife. Even for the pianist, whose trajectory from talented optimism through violence to apathy and unintelligibility offers an uneasy analogy for Russian Communism: the Soviet state as a wrecked brain. Szalay’s coolness is occasionally disconcerting, but this is a double-headed story that is both sad and compelling.
Nina Caplan


The Atmosphere Of Heaven Mike Jay

4/5
Yale University Press Dhs130 Available to order from Magrudy’s

Nitrous oxide is an excellent anaesthetic still in use today, but for years after Thomas Beddoes discovered it, ‘laughing gas’ was simply a harmless diversion for well heeled Victorians. Beddoes was actually looking for a cure for tuberculosis. He didn’t find one, but his efforts to create an intellectual circle that could threaten the status quo were more successful. At his Bristol laboratory, Beddoes – described by a contemporary as ‘a little fat democrat of considerable abilities’ – gathered a circle of gentlemen scientists and poets that included Peter Mark Roget (of Thesaurus fame) and the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Erasmus Darwin (who was famed for cutting a semi-circle out of his dining table to accommodate his stomach).

As France was engulfed by revolution in the 1790s, Beddoes and his companions applied the lessons from their scientific endeavours to the state of British politics, to the fury of king and church. By emphasising the importance of empirical evidence, Beddoes and his ‘sons of genius’ raised questions about the regime’s legitimacy that the regime had no desire to answer: after all, the English hierarchy was feeling so wobbly at this point that, as Beddoes’s friend Joseph Priestley said, it ‘has equal reason even to tremble at an air pump or an electrical machine’. It’s a good story, although no revolution occurred, and the circle didn’t last long. In 1828, 30 years after its demise, Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miner’s safety helmet, reminisced about the heyday of this radical union of scientists and poets, ‘that delightful season when, full of power, I sought for power in others; and power was sympathy, and sympathy power’.
Tom Feiling


Ballistics Billy Collins

4/5
Picador Poetry Dhs59 Available to order from Magrudy’s

Reading Billy Collins, the New York City-born author and former US poet laureate, is a bit like reading TS Eliot at school or Philip Larkin at college. He surprises us with his laidback fluency, and teases complex ideas with deceptive ease. He likes to reflect on the construction of verse. In ‘The Great American Poem’, he compares poems to novels with a gentle protest about the clutter of plots and the rigid formulae of prose fiction; in ‘The Breather’ poetry is hearing yourself breathing; in ‘Bathtub Families’ it’s a celebration of found words, accidental conflations. This collection of 55 short-ish poems – none is more than two pages – explores themes of ageing, solitude, love, art and all the big abstract nouns but also reflects on brand names, waiters, fish dishes and other trivia. In ‘Aubade’ (‘Maybe I am awake just to listen to the faint, high-pitched ringing of tungsten in the single lightbulb’) we recall Larkin’s poem of the same name (‘Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape’), and in the very next poem, ‘No Things’, the bard of Hull is named.

‘High’ deftly defines the rush of caffeine and anti-depressants as well as the inevitable descent into torpor that ensues. Collins makes us wonder, think, smile, empathise and occasionally re-read to discover a hidden idea. At times, the work seems rootless – you can’t smell America or anywhere in particular in Ballistics – and there is a bit too much on the role of the poet. But this is a breezy, well-crafted collection with the surface cadences of natural speech but the engaging, subtle echo of philosophy.
Chris Moss

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