Book Festival reviews: Richard Sennett | Mat Osman | AN Wilson

If all the world’s a stage – and it certainly feels like it in Edinburgh at the moment – then this is the ideal time and place to explore the importance of performance in culture and politics. World-renowed sociologist Richard Sennett takes on this subject in his forthcoming book, The Performer: Life, Art & Politics, which he previewed at the Book Festival.

Sennett knows a few things about performance, having been a professional cellist before he became a sociologist. And performance is key, he believes, to understanding the popularity of the “cluster of demagogues” occupying positions of power in the contemporary world.

Donald Trump, he said, is “an actor of genius, transforming the exercise of power into a spellbinding performance – his timing and delivery are impeccable.” Boris Johnson, in turn, is “a commedia dell’arte buffoon”, but a persuasive one: “If anyone else had led the Leave campaign, we would still be in the EU. He is a genius at seducing people through theatrical means.”

With Trump looking to run for President again if he isn’t arrested, and other populists still in power around the world, the question is, can anything be done? Censoring content won’t work, Sennett said: the only way forward is to “wilt the pointing finger”, to challenge the theatricality with a different kind of politics.

Meanwhile, Suede bassist turned writer Mat Osman admitted to sharing a fascination with the business of performance. Having spent his life as a professional musician, he said that in his fifties he is now aware of the strangeness of going on stage. “We all perform, at work, in our families. Do these personas rule us or we them? If you pretend to be something all your life, is that what you are?”

Osman came late to writing, and is clearly making up for lost time. His second novel, The Ghost Theatre, is about performance and performed identity, set in the theatres of Elizabethan London. Having discarded his original idea to “write the story of the Sex Pistols in Elizabethan times” he caught a documentary about children who were abducted at the turn of the 17th century to work in popular children’s companies in which young people performed adult material and made immense profits for theatre owners.

However, The Ghost Theatre is not only that story, it’s a pacy adventure with elements of fantasy and a bird-worshipping religion thrown in, set in a time when the Elizabethans were busy “inventing modern entertainment”.

What does success mean as a writer? How can it be measured? AN Wilson, speaking with Stuart Kelly about his memoir, Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises, unflinchingly posed these question to himself.

Wilson was part of the first Edinburgh Book Festival, 40 years ago, sharing a stage with John Updike and Martin Amis. “If anyone had asked me there, ‘Do you think you will become a great writer?’, I would have been arrogant enough to say yes. Somewhere along the line, I realised that’s not the case.”

Having appeared on the line-up of Granta Best of the Young British Novelists in 1983, along with Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, Wilson said he now considered himself an “average writer and biographer”. Kelly – along with many in the audience – contested this, on the grounds of his highly respected back-catalogue including some 20 novels.

But Wilson spoke not with false modesty but with equanimity, just as he spoke to “drifting away from religion” in his middle years (in which he wrote books such as Against Religion), adding he is now “calmy confident as a New Testament Christian” within the Anglican church.

There is no shortage of egos neither in literature, nor at book festivals, making it all the more impressive to hear an acclaimed writer evaluate his career with calm acceptance.