Michael Hofmann celebrates the festive season with an extraordinarily spiteful review of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the LRB. Gert can well understand that a book about an Australian soldier in the Japanese prison camps is not to everyone’s taste, and she very often disagrees with general opinion on books herself, but, as John Irving said,
Another thing about not writing negative reviews: grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying. When you’re no longer a child, and you no longer live at home, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. One reward of leaving school is that you don’t have to finish books you don’t like. *
Hofmann’s real intent here seems to be to lash out at the general deterioration of taste that could allow a book like this to be admired. He accuses Flanagan of deliberately playing to a vulgar taste for easy emotion and garish action:
You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount.
If Flanagan isn’t knowingly doing this, then he’s just plain stupid, an inferior thinker in a way Hofmann seems to consider uniquely Australian:
‘typical of Australia’ is of course exactly what this one-for-the-price-of-two catalogue means to be, and is.
This showy rant is more about Hofmann’s discontent with the state of contemporary judgment than it is about Richard Flanagan, deep as his personal dislike of Flanagan seems to be. He sees the book as an example of the way the contemporary novel panders to cinematic effects – Nothing that wouldn’t fit onto a screen.…the designated,audience-approved victims of any Hollywood film…like film, 4D, coming soon to a cinema near you… Where other reviewers, he says, almost universally adored the book, he thinks it’s fake, polystyrene. What’s wrong with all those other critics that they can’t see it?
There are threads of more useful criticism here about the tone and structure of the book, particularly about the love-affair at its heart, but they are drowned out by the shouty self-indulgence of the whole:
Basically Flanagan is never happier as an author than when he has a poetry-loving psychopath of a Japanese officer (Colonel Kota) who stares fixedly at men’s necks because he has nothing in his own head but how to cut off the heads of others.
This is a book for the crass multitudes that has somehow managed to hoodwink the literary establishment, is the message of this extended tantrum.
Do not remove a fly from your friend’s forehead with a hatchet.
vol 36 No. 24, 18 December 2014 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n24/michael-hofmann/is-his-name-alwyn
*George Plimpton The Writer’s Chapbook (Viking 1989) p. 245.