Critical eye: book reviews roundup

Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual by Michael Scammell, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and Philip Ball's The Music Instinct
Fri 26 Feb 2010 19.11 EST

"Michael Scammell has laboured a quarter of a century to get the full picture," John Sutherland observed in the Times, reviewing Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual. "In the long interval another scholar, David Cesarani [wrote] Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (2000). Cesarani's Koestler is a multiple rapist, intellectual opportunist, bad Jew and 'wife-batterer'. Scammell offers a more favourable verdict. Which of them is right? Scammell, any fair-minded reader must say. But mud sticks, and Koestler's image will never now be clean of it." Cesarani emphasised "Koestler's taste for sexual violence", Geoffrey Wheatcroft noted in the New Statesman. "And yet, as often happens, the more objective and even-handed biography is the more damaging. One may admire Koestler as a writer, but it is hard to like him as a man after reading Scammell's book." "Although Scammell does his best to stick up for Koestler, he was clearly a misogynistic bully on a pathological scale," Dominic Sandbrook wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "Scammell admits that Koestler 'did behave extremely badly', but claims that this was merely typical male behaviour of the time – a case, it seems to me, of stretching his biographical sympathy too far."

Tim, the protagonist of Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed, is prone to episodic, compulsive bouts of walking. "Tim's predicament is front and central – and if it is to take up that position, surely it needs to have meaning, to tell us something about the modern condition?" Robert Epstein objected in the Independent on Sunday. "But searching for that meaning is as fruitless as Tim's attempts to comprehend his problem." However, for Tim Adams in the Observer, Tim's condition "speaks plausibly to the restlessness that all our bodies imply, an internal rebellion that mocks in particular the moneyed certainties of an outwardly successful American life". Catherine Taylor in the Sunday Telegraph had another theory: "The point Ferris seems to be trying to make in the novel – which unfortunately becomes as meandering as its protagonist's relentless hikes and quasi-philosophical rantings – is not only the pathos and terror wrought by a psychotic condition, but an over­riding fear of happiness and stability."

"A central argument of this book is that, while we can learn extraordinary things about the effect of music on the brain, its workings are ultimately mysterious," Damian Thompson said in the Sunday Telegraph of Philip Ball's The Music Instinct. Its "greatest virtue consists in conveying the impression that answers to genuine questions about music won't come to anyone in too much of a hurry," Guy Dammann agreed in the Observer. "Easy answers tend to be irrelevant. Philip Ball, thankfully, doesn't try to provide any, but rather sends the reader back to the music a better listener." "If you try listening to music after reading this book, you'll probably hear it differently – more knowingly, even," Tom Payne wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "Ball's subtitle proposes two goals. He achieves the 'how music works' part triumphantly, but offers much less on 'why we can't do without it'. What preoccupies him most by the end is: 'Can music mean anything?'" "If there is one small gripe, it's that The Music Instinct does sometimes get bogged down in technical stuff," Doug Johnstone said in the Independent on Sunday. "The jacket blurb claims that no specialist knowledge of music or science is needed, but this reviewer (PhD in physics and amateur musician) occasionally struggled, especially on the musical side."