Book reviews: New titles by Graham Caveney, Giles Tremlett, Charlotte Van den Broeck and Chitra Ramaswamy
From Agoraphobia by Graham Caveney
Picador, 208 pages, £12.99
“If we’re talking about agoraphobia, we’re talking about books,” writes author Graham Caveney in this short but voluminous tome exploring his all-consuming fear of open spaces. Confined to his home, he escapes through reading. The first agoraphobe he encountered through a book, he realized years later, was Harper Lee’s reclusive Boo Radley – but the literary world is full of people like him. Caveney draws on literature, history and philosophy to better understand his condition, and writes in fragmentary prose. His own story is written in the margins. He writes about the alcoholism that nearly killed him, and about his support group, where other agoraphobes trade coping strategies and lines: “Agoraphobia: Don’t Leave Without It.”
Caveney traces the roots of his phobia to the sexual abuse he suffered from a Catholic priest as a child. Later he pursued the Marist order and his agoraphobia became evident. “The process taught me how slippery, capricious and biased our stories can be…” he writes. “Lives are messy, contingent, mysterious. Our stories about them should never be overly polished, but disturb and surprise, making us as different from ourselves as from others. This gripping book embraces slipperiness, disorder and mystery.
By Sophie McBain
España: A Brief History of Spain by Giles Tremlett
Head of Zeus, 320pp, £25
“Spain is different” was the slogan concocted during the Franco years to attract tourists from northern Europe to the costas. It captured a deeper truth: the country is indeed strangely and often intoxicatingly distinct from the rest of Europe. But why? Giles Tremlett, a seasoned Madrid correspondent, offers an excellent roundup of history that explains it all. From the geological foundations of the Iberian Peninsula to the Eurozone crisis and beyond, his new book puts geography at the heart of his argument. In many ways, Spain stands at the crossroads of history: a meeting point between the European, Atlantic, Levantine and African worlds. Yet it is also with Portugal a peninsula at the southwestern tip of Europe. It is both central and peripheral.
In Tremlett’s quick and readable account, the country’s past plays out like a contest between these two realities and the contradictory forces they produce: those of purist isolation and heterodox openness. Spain emerges from his narrative as a stone fortress still able to absorb newcomers (from the Romans, Visigoths and Moors to virtually every twentieth-century “-ism”), a synthesis of insularity and integration.
By Jeremy Cliffe
Bold Ventures by Charlotte Van den Broeck, translated by David McKay
Vintage, 304 pages, £16.99
Are architects more susceptible than other artists? This is the conclusion of Charlotte Van den Broeck, a Belgian poet fascinated by the mirroring of the architectural flaws and the psychological flaws of their creators. His book examines 13 buildings that have been implicated in the suicides of their architects. Case studies include Eduard van der Nüll, an architect of the Vienna State Opera who committed suicide because of the critical opprobrium the building received; the great Baroque architect Francesco Borromini, who committed suicide while struggling with the design of a church; and the architects of a Washington DC movie theater who committed suicide in the years after a fatal roof collapse.
Except, however, that all of his deaths had nothing to do with the buildings. Indeed, Van den Broeck’s book is less about her case studies and more about herself and the nature of creativity, as if she fears that her own mental scaffolding isn’t strong enough to sustain her life as an artist. writer. Less of his personal stucco and more bricks and mortar would have helped.
By Michael Prodger
Homelands: The Story of a Friendship by Chitra Ramaswamy
Canongate, 368 pages, £16.99
Fleeing Nazi Germany, Henry Wuga arrived in Britain in the late 1930s on the Kindertransport. He married in Glasgow and worked as a baker before starting his own kosher business. Journalist Chitra Ramaswamy, born in the 1970s to Indian migrant parents, was sent to interview Wuga for a story about the experience of refugees living in Scotland. Despite their different backgrounds, they have developed a close friendship against the backdrop of Brexit, rising anti-Semitism and the rise of the far right.
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Ramaswamy tells the story of Wuga from Nuremberg to Scotland (including stays in many British internment camps), inserting details of his own life. As she goes, she asks herself: what constitutes a home? Ultimately, she discovers that there is no real answer beyond the fact that “disorientation is the true birthplace of millions of us.” Inspired by James Baldwin and WG Sebald Austerlitz, Homelands is the latest in a proliferating genre of intergenerational memories and an eloquent testimony to the tribulations of national belonging.
By Gavin Jacobson
[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from David Bosco, Emma Smith, Charlotte Philby and John Agard]
This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, Putin against NATO