From Vigdis Hjorth to The Waste Land: recent books reviewed in brief


After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris Between the Two Wars by Helen Rappaport
Scribe, 336 pages, £20

Helen Rappaport’s evocative tale of Russians in Paris ended long before a new generation of émigrés fled their homeland to avoid Vladimir Putin’s conscription edict. The fate of many who a century earlier escaped the Bolsheviks is welcome reading. Perhaps 50,000 of them headed for Paris in adversity where they might have gone before for fun. If certain Russians – Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky – played an essential role in the artistic development of Paris, the fate of most of their peers was less brilliant.

Rappaport reflects tales of glamour, like the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka, a former lover of Tsar Nicholas II who set up her own successful dance studio, and the aristocrats who set up fashion houses, with the stories of refugees who rushed to earn a living – the taxi drivers, railway porters and Renault car workers. There is also the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who returned home only to end her life. Ernest Hemingway described the discovery of Russian outcasts in the city who yearn for the old order and are marked by “a kind of childish hope that things will turn out well one way or another”. But, as Rappaport shows, this was rarely the case.
By Michael Prodger

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis
Faber & Faber, 544 pages, £25

That TS Eliot kept his beard “deeply” in September 1919 might not be a fact you thought you’d ever want to learn. But Matthew Hollis’ biography of “The Waste Land,” Eliot’s seminal modernist poem which turns centenary this month, makes those details gripping. On Armistice Day in 1918, Ezra Pound “stamped his Adam’s apple repeatedly” as he despaired of the state of Britain. Vivien Eliot – the poet’s first wife – wrote “wonderful” three times in the margin next to a first draft of the second part of “The Wasteland”.

Like the 434-line poem, this book immerses the reader in the political, social and cultural themes of the time – but what came before is also important. Hollis, biographer of the poet Edward Thomas, weaves a rich body of research into a fast-paced narrative. “The Waste Land” spoke so well to the fractured post-war world because it used images – from Ovid, from Shakespeare – that were already ingrained in the public consciousness. As a culture, we reward writers who stray from tradition. But, Hollis argues, “our poets’ most individualizing moments are those in which they are in communication with the past.”
By Ellen Peerson-Hagger

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth Translated by Charlotte Barslund
Back, 352 pages, £14.99

Norwegian novelist Vigdis Hjorth is used to writing about strained family dynamics. Her 2016 novel Will – translated into English in 2019 – caused an uproar in her own family: it contains strongly autobiographical elements, but also concerns a protagonist who claims to have been sexually abused by her father. In response, Hjorth’s mother threatened legal action against a theatrical adaptation and his sister wrote her own autobiographical novel, titled Free will.

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is the mother dead continues Hjorth’s preoccupation with family. Johanna, an artist, has become estranged from her mother since she produced paintings that portrayed motherhood unfavorably. Now, back in Oslo after decades in the United States, she is obsessed with reconnecting. In an uneasy stream of consciousness, Hjorth captures the spirit’s inner dialogue – “Does mum have a hearing aid?” Why do I want to know this? – with almost nauseating precision. But the fixation on a single subject is as exhausting for the reader as it is for Johanna. As the novel develops, Johanna’s reality and imagination merge. Sometimes we lose interest in finding out the difference.
By Emily Bootle

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She’s Kind Yet: Essays on Being Bad to Be Good by Mia Mercado
Harper One, 224 pages, £20

What does it mean to be nice? Who benefits from politeness? Are you really nice if part of the motivation is that others see you as such? In this collection of essays, Mia Mercado examines what drives her to make such jokes. Written with wit and plenty of pop culture references that will be familiar to readers of his column in The cupMercado draws on her personal experience as an Asian American woman in the Midwest to offer light-hearted commentary on identity politics.

Mercado’s people-pleasing tendencies are clear in his writing. The humor goes from trying too hard to seeming almost sycophantic, and its attempts at sincere self-reflection are easy to dismiss when interspersed with listicles, self-answered quizzes, and a short story featuring “Little Miss Shithead”. His attempts to tackle difficult subjects – such as the sources of racial or sexist attitudes – are superficial. “Much of kindness comes down to the ability to absorb the carelessness of others,” Mercado writes. The reader ends the book without being more informed about the subjects she promises to distil.
By Ellys Woodhouse

[See also: Why Annie Ernaux deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature]

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