Great escapist reads: A frothy frisson of Ian Fleming
Spies, women’s lib and the spirit of Brigitte Bardot
THRILLER OF THE MONTH
It’s a great pity the movie with Jennifer Lawrence is such a mess, but Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow novels, about a rising star of Russian counter-intelligence who is also spying for Washington (and having some boffo sex while she’s at it) are great escapist reads: spy novels that have more of the frothy frisson of Ian Fleming than the procedural weightiness of such grandmasters as John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth.With Matthews’s latest, The Kremlin’s Candidate (Michael Joseph), he completes the trilogy that began with Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason. Here double agent Dominika Egorova (the Lawrence character) is about to be promoted — but she’s also in great danger. An American naval officer who became a Russian “asset” after she was honeytrapped as a young lieutenant by Egorova, is poised to lead the CIA.
If she gets the job, she’s bound to inform the Kremlin that the spook who seduced her is a CIA mole. Much fun and games follow, including a tryst between Egorova and Vladimir Putin.
LESSING IS MOREAs a literary history, Lara Feigel’s Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury) is a brave attempt at examining how Lessing introduced her notions of a liberated woman into her fiction, even at the risk of being disliked.
Feigel had discovered in Lessing’s books a discussion about “how as a woman to reconcile your need to be desired by men with your wish for sexual equality”, and seemed in particular thrall of the way Lessing “placed sexual fulfilment at the centre of women’s lives”.
All of which, Feigel writes, “had allowed me to see my own sense of the inextricable nature of body and mind, of the personal and political, as the basis for thinking about life”.
And so she follows Lessing’s own journey through life, from her childhood in then Southern Rhodesia, through two marriages, the move to London in 1949, the infatuation with Stalin, the infamous decision to abandon her first two children, the dalliance with the Free Love movement, Sufism, and so on.
Some critics have however pointed out that Feigel channeled Lessing perhaps a bit too closely. Writing on the slow collapse of her own marriage, Feigel describes how her husband withdrew from coitus, denying her an orgasm, because he didn’t feel ready to have another child with her. Too much information, perhaps? Perhaps not in Lessing’s books.
THE ISSUETwo postwar European social histories worth noting. I wrote about Shawn Levy’s Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi and Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome last year, but it’s now available in paperback from Weidenfeld.
Described as an “uproariously readable” account of “Hollywood on the Tiber”, Dolce Vita Confidential charts the rise of Rome’s Via Veneto from bohemian neighbourhood to a teeming boulevard of actors, filmmakers, attention-seekers, hustlers, prostitutes, aristocrats, revellers, drug addicts and, of course, a new breed of celebrity photographer, the paparazzo. Fans of La Dolce Vita will recognise a lot in the book from the Fellini film.On to the French capital: Agnes Poirier’s magnificent Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 (Bloomsbury) is stuffed with a vivid cast of artists, intellectuals and film stars who rejuvenated the city after the war.
It is, according to the Times of London, a “briskly plotted, gossip-fuelled, character-driven cultural history”, which begins with the “evacuation” of the Mona Lisa from Paris in August 1939 on the eve of World War 2, before taking the reader through the Nazi occupation, the deportation of the Jews and dissidents, the Resistance movement, the liberation of Paris, reprisals against collaborators, and the great explosion of art, music, literature, film and fashion on the Left Bank.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, the “three Existential Musketeers”, are the stars here. (De Beauvoir is described by one lover as looking “like a lesbian, a cocaine addict and a fakir, too”.)
But the supporting cast is enormous: Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Norman Mailer, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Marlene Dietrich and Juliette Greco, among others.
Some of the stories are fascinating. When Sartre’s Being and Nothingness first appeared in Paris bookshops in 1943, it became a surprise bestseller. This 700-page existentialist treatise proved especially popular with women, who may even have read it. The truth of the matter was that it weighed exactly 1kg, and it was used as a kitchen weight, as the standard brass measures had all been melted down for ammunition.
One tale left unexplained, however, is the significance of the Left Bank. There is no account as to what circumstances — whether social, political, geographic, or cultural — led to the area being such a crucible of experimentation and progressive ideas.
By the end of the decade, though, such considerations would hardly have mattered. The French New Wave was just around the corner, Truffaut and Godard and others were emerging from film school, and a very young Brigitte Bardot was making her mark as a model. De Beauvoir was so taken with her that she labelled the teenager her “spiritual daughter” and the most liberated woman in postwar France.CRASH COURSE
“Most Americans,” Chris Hughes writes in Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn (St Martin’s Press), “cannot find $400 in the case of an emergency, yet I was able to make half a billion dollars for three years of work”.Some would say “work” is a bit of an exaggeration. As a student, Hughes helped co-found Facebook. He asked his roommate Mark Zuckerberg for a 10% stake in the company. Zuckerberg gave him 2% instead, but within a few years Hughes was as rich as Croesus anyway.
He is the first to acknowledge that he has too much money and that tens of millions of his countrymen have too little. But Hughes has a (not entirely original) solution, which he lays out in a bluntly cogent manner in Fair Shot: take from the rich and give to the poor. This, of course, is an heretical notion in Donald Trump’s America. But it is one which may give our lawmakers pause for thought.
As Hughes shows, the far-reaching effects of such cash grants include more work, higher incomes, better education performances, and improved health.
His plan? Raise the marginal tax rate for those earning more $250,000 a year to 50%, for both earned income and capital gains, and give a monthly $500 grant to almost every single adult living in one of the 42 million households earning less than $50,000 a year (not a universal basic income, in other words.) Doing so, Hughes believes, would lift millions out of poverty overnight.
But only if they’re working Americans. The Hughes plan would only apply to those who made more than $6,000 a year, who care for dependants younger than six or over the age of 70, or who are enrolled in an accredited college or university. Those who live at the bottom of the social spectrum simply won’t benefit, in other words.
Hughes’s ideas of economic emancipation were forged in Africa. As a budding philanthropist, he took two trips to Kenya to observe different attempts at alleviating extreme poverty there. He concluded that it was better to give poor folk unrestricted cash than to second-guess their needs by building schools or giving them computers.Reviewing Fair Shot for the New York Times, financial journalist Felix Salmon noted that Hughes played a crucial role in the achievements of both Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. “But ultimately he’s a better follower than a leader. Fired up by his new cause, he could have published a rallying cry, an inspirational manifesto. Instead, he has delivered a book with more footnotes than passion — and, for the very poorest, a proposal that seems deeply unfair.”THE BOTTOM LINE“It was like watching her swat flies. As soon as she sent one child outside or got one to read a book, another would sneak on to a computer.” — Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Templeton Press)