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4 June 2023

From Jacqueline Rose to Kira Yarmysh: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Encounterism by Andy Field and Art Firsts by Nick Trend.

By Gavin Jacobson, Christiana Bishop, Rachel Cunliffe and Michael Prodger

The Plague by Jacqueline Rose
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 160pp, £12.99

The slimness of Jacqueline Rose’s The Plague belies the intellectual power and remarkable fluency contained within it. Over the course of six essays, all of which deal with the subject of death – when, in the circumstances of pandemic and war, dying “can no longer be pushed to the outer limits of your lived experience or dismissed from your conscious mind” – Rose cements her place at the summit of Anglo literary culture. The book is also testament to the essay as the most exhilarating form through which to confront the history of the present, a form that, at its best, teems with ideas, always threatening to collapse on itself, and which remains unapologetically hostile to the banalities and commonplaces that underpin the social order.

Though her exegeses of texts by Albert Camus and Simone Weil are subtle and illuminating, Rose never tries to have the last word or entomb her subjects in cast-iron conclusions about their life and thought. She invites us to do our own thinking, to grapple with the violence and paradoxes of existence, thereby honouring the revolutionary principle that thinking, as she writes, “is always the enemy of domination”.
By Gavin Jacobson

[See also: The science of fandom]

The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number Three by Kira Yarmysh, translated by Arch Tait
Serpent’s Tail, 384pp, £16.99

While taking part in an anti-corruption protest in Moscow, Anya is arrested by police, convicted and sentenced to ten days in a detention centre. Her only reference for prison comes from what she’s seen on TV, so she braces herself as she enters a communal cell shared with five other women. After discovering that her fellow offenders are more tough than threatening, Anya’s greatest challenge is enduring the boredom of the empty, unbroken hours. The book’s author, Kira Yarmysh, is no stranger to that feeling, having been incarcerated for 50 days in Russia on charges connected to her role as press secretary to the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

Yarmysh’s narrative flits between Anya’s present – where a fragile camaraderie is forming between the women – and the past events that shaped her political activism. As the days stretch on the book takes a sinister turn, as Anya’s isolation intensifies and her perception of reality becomes blurred. Yarmysh’s debut is gripping. In using her own experiences she reveals not only the intolerance of the Russian state, but also the resilience of those subjected to its injustices.
By Christiana Bishop

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Encounterism: The Neglected Joys of Being in Person by Andy Field
September Publishing, 304pp, £18.99

There is a hint of the magical about a haircut. The intimacy, the trust, the almost sacred promise of transformation. Or at least, there is in the way the performance artist Andy Field writes about it. The snip of the hairdresser’s scissors becomes “a kind of alchemy”; her art is “a source of respite, remedy, and repair on almost any high street anywhere in the world”. Except, of course, during the pandemic, when most kinds of human contact were severely restricted. Only when we were shut away did many of us start to realise what we were losing – and how much the online universes we were inhabiting pale in comparison.

This book of essays is Field’s ode to “the neglected joys of being in person”. He can describe the most mundane of interactions – eating a pizza, taking a photograph – and make them sound other-worldly. It’s a spirited celebration of the everyday, but there is sadness too, in how technology and the digitalisation of our lives has turned us all inward. “What will the machines need to know about holding hands to really be our friends?” he asks at the end. It’s almost enough to make you want to make eye contact with a stranger.
By Rachel Cunliffe

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Art Firsts: The Story of Art in 30 Pioneering Works by Nick Trend
Laurence King, 208pp, £16.99

There is, in art at least, something new under the sun. Some subjects are so hoary that it is easy to forget that there must have been an original and in his intriguing, revealing and sometimes provocative book, Nick Trend looks at 30 pictures that established new genres. There have, for example, been tens of thousands of paintings of real landscapes, but which was the first? Albrecht Altdorfer’s Danube Landscape with Castle Wörth of c1520, says Trend. The first loving kiss? Giotto’s wonderfully tender Anne Greets Joachim at the Golden Gate of 1303-05. The first smile, as opposed to gurning gargoyles? Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Young Man of 1470.

Trend looks at a wide range of topics, from the first self-portrait by a woman (Caterina van Hemessen, 1548) to the first orgasm (Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, 1606), and includes alongside his discussion of each ur-painting deftly chosen further examples from later periods. It is a neat conceit that will have readers mentally fact-checking his 30 highlighted works as well as rising to the implicit challenge and finding first works for categories of their own.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine