This week’s review was a double-header of Alistair Moffat’s The Highland Clans and Allan Massie’s The Royal Stuarts. Andrew Crumey, my predecessor as literary editor, always told me that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is that even if a non-fiction book isn’t very good, you still learn something, but with a bad novel all you learn is how bad the novel can be. Luckily, both books come highly recommended.
I’ve been away visiting Andrew down in Newcastle – hence the blog silence – and it’s a city in which I increasingly enjoy spending time. In full Bufton-Tufton mode I spent a couple of hours looking at the Roman artefacts in the natural history museum (how I miss Chambers Street in Edinburgh) and in full La-di-Da-di mode we went round the Jenny Holzer exhibition at Baltic Mill. It’s an unsettling experience. Andrew quizzed a member of the gallery staff about the bones in Holzer’s piece on Bosnian rape victims. The bones, we learned, were purchased from a Californian dealer to whom people donate their bodies. They represent the Bosnian dead. Or rather, they represent a work of art about the Bosnian dead. We wondered if those who donated their bodies ever envisaged such a terminal fate. (As we did, it should be said, looking at a 26th Dynasty mummy). The Holzer has been buzzing in my brain since. In particular, it made me worry about Wimsatt and Beardsley’s Intentional Fallacy. (You know the drill: the opinions and intentions of the author are not the ultimate site of meaning for the work). Hozler’s cut-ups of aphoristic snippets, culled from philosophy, military transcripts, folk-wisdom and the testimony of rapists, seem to create a dilemma. When you read a line like “Her eyes had three different colours in them”, is it necessary to know the provenance of the quotation to fully understand the meaning of the work? (Bones and words seemed to be linked somehow). Does the use of LED display challenge the banality of the capitalism’s linguistic bombardment or reduce all meaning to the level of a pitch? I suppose the point of installation art is just such provocations.
But how we laughed when the news came through about Orlando Figes and the anonymous reviews. The simmering feud between Figes and Rachel Polonsky seemed to come to a head over the Amazon reviews posted by “historian”, who loves the work of Figes and disparages his rivals and those who win prizes for which he was shortlisted. His lawyers fired off rebuttals that Figes was “historian” (given the tag cloud included orlando, it was either an incompetent e-jacking or a brilliant triple bluff). But then it transpired that “historian” was Mrs Orlando Figes. Cue snickering.
The serious issue, however, is anonymity in reviews in general. I’ll post about that next.