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Mr. Chartwell in the New York Times

March 13 11

My review of Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt appears in today’s New York Times. The title character is a personification of depression in the form of an enormous talking dog, come to impose himself on none other than Winston Churchill, who is about to leave Parliament for the last time.

In my review I compare Hunt's Churchill to Sydney Greenstreet; I worried I was in the presence of the wrong fat man, and the statesman might at any moment announce that there's only one Maltese Falcon. (Unfortunately this is not the worst Churchill I have experienced recently: Timothy Spall's performance in The King's Speech was especially disappointing given how much I have enjoyed his work in the past.)

Otherwise the story of Mr. Chartwell is a slight but cheerful love story that gains extremely little from the presence of "Black Pat" Chartwell or any of the small cast of historical characters.

The review is available here.

Update: My review was the subject of an angry letter to the editor, apparently by a  fan of Muriel Barbery, whose book The Elegance of the Hedgehog I had reviewed previously in the TLS and which I again admitted to disliking. 

J. Robert Lennon of Ward Six, on the other hand, found my approach more appealing, writing "Rhian showed me a surprising review by Tadzio Koelb in the NYTBR this weekend. What's surprising is how clearly and cogently it's written, and its willingness to take a step back and examine the context into which the book in question, Rebecca Hunt's Mr. Chartwell, is being published."

While contemporary reviewing is admittedly pretty uninspired, I will, in its defence, say that newspaper reviewing has been fairly poor for a long time – easily over a century. I direct readers to The Novels of Henry James, by Oscar Cargill, who noted (in 1961, when the state of publishing was already being much bemoaned) that in the 1890s James got torn to shreds by the British press while the ephemera of the day was glowingly reviewed. (My copy of Cargill is packed, otherwise I would quote him directly.) Meanwhile, Dalkey is re-releasing Fire the Bastards!, in which Jack Green responded to the near-sighted critical reaction the press offered Gaddis's The Recognitions. It's a healthy reminder that things weren't always necessarily better in the past.

T. Koelb