Autumn at Taos by DH Lawrence

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Evening Light on Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico.

DH Lawrence wrote that, in New Mexico, a “new part” of his soul “woke up suddenly” and “the old world gave way to a new”. In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because “all is god”. In a related way, America, in the shape of Walt Whitman, liberated his poetic landscape.

This week’s poem, “Autumn at Taos”, seems to occur in real time. The speaker is encountered while out riding, and the poem’s rhythms let us experience the small, muscular, intimate “trot-trot” movement of the pony through the contrastingly immense sweep of landscape. Repetitions slow the pace, acting as reins. For instance, when “the aspens of autumn” of line one immediately reappear in the second line, the narrative seems to pause and look around. Lawrence is not an unselfconscious poet, whose brilliancies happen by chance. His judgment is nowhere more apparent than in these repetitions. Look at “mottled” in stanza three. At first we see distantly a mottled effect; then the speaker makes it clear that the mottling is produced by cedar and pinion. No sooner have the trees come into focus than, out of the blue, out of the idea of “mottled”, comes that amazing otter. The word acts as a little visual bridge.

Earlier, aspen and pines formed the stripes of a tigress, and the grey sage of the mesa, a wolf-pelt. The otter, at first, seems only its sleek self, but it’s clear from later in the poem, when the speaker is relieved to get back to “the pine fish-dotted foothills” (curious but effective elision) and “Past the otter’s whiskers”, that this liquescent, “silver-sided” creature embodies another variation of the landscape.

The otter is as fierce as the previous creatures, if less hairy. “Fish-fanged” suggests the slender length of the teeth, and, inevitably, the impaled fish. We get, in effect, a fish’s view of its looming predator.

With the introduction of the mythical hawk of Horus the man on the pony himself becomes mythic. “Behold me” he says, biblically, “trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden/ Great and glistening-feathered legs…” For a moment, we might think of Christ, mounted on an ass, entering Jerusalem. Horus was an Egyptian god represented by the sun as a winged disc but Lawrence may be conflating him with the feather-clad Mexican sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Whatever his provenance, this bird gets royal poetic treatment. A duller writer might have gone for the “natural” word-order of his trio of adjectives: “great, golden, glistening-feathered…” Lawrence’s arrangement, split by the line-break, redeems the full force of words (“golden”, “great”) that are almost poetic clichés. The tarnished adjectives are suddenly made to tower and flare.

There’s a sexuality in these movements and positions, the rider bestrid by Horus or moving slowly under pines that are like the “hairy belly of a great black bear”. They might even imply different states of being. In Lawrence’s anti-democratic view of society, there were sun-men, an elite, and lesser mortals to be “thrust down into service”. Perhaps here he enacts a passage between both states: at any rate, the speaker is “glad to emerge” from the bearish pine-wood, and celebrates his release with a fresh, sunlit vision of the aspens, which, “laid one on another”, remind him of the hawk-god’s layered feathers.

Looking back on the “rounded sides of the squatting Rockies” unleashes more big-cat imagery, landscaped into metaphor. Possibly the speaker is a little unnerved by the “leopard-livid slopes of America”, comforting himself as he reassures the pony that all these predatory “fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes/ Are nerveless just now”. That “just now” implies only a temporary reprieve. The land, and the sensuous life-force it embodies, will triumph over its colonisers, artists included.

“The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world,” DH Lawrence wrote. The effort of attention here is also an effort of painterly imagination and out of the two he has made a strikingly original landscape poem. The creatures in it are not meant to emerge with that vivid, individualised presence of the different beasts of Birds, Beasts and Flowers: even the otter is a quick sketch. But the vision of natural integration between the land and these subliminally-present creatures could not be more alive. And, as so often in the animal poems, part of the charm lies in watching the amused, earnest, marvelling, deeply affectionate man who is watching the animal. Among the creatures in this poem is that small human figure on the pony, not a sun-god, but an English poetic genius, printing in his own way the new paths of technique which the American genius, Walt Whitman, has cleared before him.

Autumn at Taos

Over the rounded sides of the Rockies, the aspens of autumn,
The aspens of autumn,
Like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines.

Down on my hearth-rug of desert, sage of the mesa,
An ash-grey pelt
Of wolf all hairy and level, a wolf’s wild pelt.

Trot-trot to the mottled foot-hills, cedar-mottled and pinion;
Did you ever see an otter?
Silvery-sided, fish-fanged, fierce-faced, whiskered, mottled.

When I trot my little pony through the aspen-trees of the canyon,
Behold me trotting at ease betwixt the slopes of the golden
Great and glistening-feathered legs of the hawk of Horus;
The golden hawk of Horus
Astride above me.

But under the pines
I go slowly
As under the hairy belly of a great black bear.

Glad to emerge and look back
On the yellow, pointed aspen-trees laid one on another like feathers,
Feather over feather on the breast of the great and golden
Hawk as I say of Horus.

Pleased to be out in the sage and the pine fish-dotted foothills,
Past the otter’s whiskers,
On to the fur of the wolf-pelt that strews the plain.

And then to look back to the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies.
Tigress brindled with aspen,
Jaguar-splashed, puma-yellow, leopard-livid slopes of America.

Make big eyes, little pony,
At all these skins of wild beasts;
They won’t hurt you.

Fangs and claws and talons and beaks and hawk-eyes
Are nerveless just now.
So be easy.


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Trenches: St Eloi by TE Hulme

British troops marching to the trenches

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the western front during the first world war. 

The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.

No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.

It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.

The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.

The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.

Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.

Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.

An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.

“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.

Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.

Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.


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Poem of the week: Square One by Roddy Lumsden

City workers walk across London Bridge

City workers walk across London Bridge.

Several commentators on recent books blogs have said they’d like to see a discussion of Roddy Lumsden’s poetry, and PotW’s own MeltonMowbray posted a request earlier this year. So for this week’s poem, I’ve chosen one of my favourites from Lumsden’s latest collection, Terrific Melancholy (recommended if you haven’t already got a copy). I hope aficiandos and new readers alike will enjoy the elegiac virtuosity of “Square One.”

Panning shots of the razzmatazz of contemporary London begin with an unnaturally motionless River Thames, which contrasts with the surrounding fluidity of endless construction and self-invention. The location is mirrored in spirited, slangy diction, and a repetitive device that stitches all together in bright gold lamé thread. On the page, you almost see the green light. Read the poem aloud, and you hear the gunning of engines in the repetition of the hard “g” – described in phonetics as a voiced, velar stop.

This technique recalls the generative devices of the poets and novelists of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) who choose specific verbal constraints as a means of triggering ideas. The most famous, and diabolically complicated, is probably the “story-making machine”, set in motion by Georges Perec in the construction of his novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Poets have experimented with lipograms, palindromes, etc. Whereas these techniques need not, and mostly do not, emerge from the material, the “go” device in “Square One” connects directly to the poem’s theme and rhythmic energy-supply. It also echoes the dominant phonemes in the names of the two mythological giants who’ll emerge in the poem’s last line – Gog and Magog.

This is the London of Boris, bendy buses and bad bankers, but it’s also a tumult of lives harder to record, more slippery and edgy. As well as “the emos, indie kids/ Goths and ravers melting down the day” in stanza one, the prefix nets a jolly haul of “gowks”, “gonzos”, “gorillas” and “gomerils” to flesh out the “city’s multiplicity of fools”. Food is a vivid class-indicator: the “retired politicians” feast on dumplings and meggyleves (Hungarian sour-cherry soup) as well as scandal, while others “stare at bangers and bubble, tea/ gone cold … “. But the poem seems to imply freedom of choice. I like the fact that the power-brokers are simply given their space in the gorgeous, rotted tapestry, without comment. Brand- and place-names, from Gossamer to Gospel Oak, add further texture.

Are any other Oulipan devices used in the poem? I had a subliminal sense that further patterns were sometimes employed, but without being able to put a finger on them. I even wondered about the game of Go, which can be played with a 13 x 13 board (the stanzas are all 13-liners here), but drew a blank.

The title might suggest the Square Mile, or any of London’s many squares: it also recalls Larkin’s famous reference in “The Whitsun Weddings” to “postal districts, packed like squares of wheat”, a curious simile, since, contrary to northern myth, London has many postal districts nearer the breadline than the cornbelt. “Square One” might be anywhere, but it implies return, a reluctant new start. While elegising a lost Albion, the poem knows that new mythical creatures are constantly being born.

Perhaps the day of the poem represents a vaster historical period, one stretching from an almost-absurd respectability (“gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs” to start the day and “dawn trains given the/ go-ahead at suburban junctions”) to the present social chaos. The poem’s author is a Scot, but an end-of-empire regret seems hinted. The accumulation of details evokes the thrill of change and movement, together with a despairing sense of being swept away into anonymity. Yet there’s no question that the speaker loves the city. The sun rises and sets almost romantically in images of the “gold tide,” the “slant shadows” of the high-rises, and the “misted moon.” Noted for its stillness in the first stanza, the river remains obstinately static, but, at the end of the poem, it seems to have found a voice, and utters a punning command to “own torn myths”. And this is exactly what the poem so exuberantly does.

Square One

Going steadily, rowed out from east to west, concrete
gondolas brink the Thames, which is still – it’s the land which is
googled by gravity, thrown around – an optical illusion
good enough to fool the city’s multiplicity of fools:
goons and gomerils who labour under Mammon’s lash,
gowks and golems who queue to flash their lips and lids in
god-forsaken church halls, reeking basements and seeping
Golgothas, clamped blithe to ardour: the emos, indie kids,
Goths and ravers melting down the day we launched with
gongs struck in gentlemen’s clubs, skirted girls at Nonsuch and
Godolphin thronging in corridors, dawn trains given the
go-ahead at suburban junctions, the first trace of the sun’s
gold tide as it washes back to our side of the sphere, but now,

 going for lunch, you swing between delight and throwaway,
gourmet and grease, dither between syrah in a silver
goblet or Tizer from a sprung can; you might stare over roasted
goose at the Gay Hussar, at your companion’s bowl of
goulash, as retired politicians two tables over whisper scandals,
gossip through dumplings and meggyleves, hissing the latest
Gordon or Boris anecdote, Obama’s honeymoon months,
government soap; you might stare at bangers and bubble, tea
gone cold; evening settles in at Kilburn, down Battersea Park;
Golders Green wanes; high-rises throw slant shadows over
Gospel Oak; students breathe the soot of a bendy revving on
Gower Street; in the doorways of basement strip joints,
gorillas strike stances; toms swap fat packs of Fetherlite and

 Gossamer, hitch into their tangas and fishnets waiting for the
gonk to finger a phone box card, the way a kid fingers what he
got from the kitchen drawer; evening touches Camden where
gonzos sup Stella; dancers shift in the wings of the opera;
goluptious girls slip into slingbacks, swim into creamy
gowns, or swash out of them, as that misted moon plays
go-between in a city of secrets, crimson or bilious – what
good will come of us, falling in the dark, our names
gouged into plane-trees? – we are becoming history,
godmothers to our own torn myths: twisted and crazed,
gorgeous giants, we hang spinning over the still river:
Go on! it murmurs – own torn myths – and midnight mentions
Gog and Magog – sweet, towering boys, long gone.


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Readmill Networks Lonely Bookworms

Traditionally, reading has been a solitary activity. But two Berlin-based Swedes hope to change this. They’re close to launching new software called Readmill, which promises to create a social network for bookworms to share their reading habits, margin notes and recommendations.

The pool table in the living room is covered by a wooden slab, a second room is full of boxes, and David Kjelkerud still has no idea how the coffee machine in the kitchen works. There’s simply no time for such trivialities. He is, after all, feverishly building a start-up. Two months ago he moved from Stockholm to Berlin with his co-partner Henrik Berggren to catapult book reading into the Internet age.

The duo is finalizing the last pieces of Readmill, an intelligent bookmarker for digital books. In their shared office space in Berlin’s central Mitte district, also occupied by start-up Amen, a flurry of development is going on, interrupted by tech conferences, presentations for investors and the search for cooperation from E-book industry players.

The goal is to transform book reading into a social activity, bringing together readers via their e-readers, and to grab a share of the booming E-book market. Other companies have their eye on social reading as well, such as the platform LovelyBooks. But Readmill, set to go live soon, wants to take the idea even further.

Both avid readers, Berggren and Kjelkerud have an ambivalent relationship with books. Kjelkerud calls them “somehow cold and unsocial.” Reading is solitary, and anyone who wants to discuss a passage must first shut their book, he explains. Berggren says that even digital books and the internet-connected reading devices haven’t changed things much. “There are many E-book services, but none of them are really social,” he explains. What was missing were good ideas to network books and readers with each other. for Books

Readmill, an intelligent bookmark for e-books, is their answer. The program looks over the reader’s shoulder, keeping a protocol of their progress and showing sections that have been highlighted and commented upon by other readers. This way Readmill members create a semi-public reference list for their books, giving them the possibility of alerting friends to interesting passages for discussion.

Music fans will recognize this principle from, a music website that analyzes listening patterns to develop new artist and concert suggestions, in addition to bringing users with similar tastes together. Like, Readmill’s software operates on three levels: as a background process for reading applications, as a web service that processes reading habits, and as a reading app for the iPad, where members can upload e-books that aren’t copyright protected.

Also similar to, Readmill gets interesting when as many other e-book reading programs and devices as possible feed the Readmill central server with data. By year’s end, Berggren told SPIEGEL ONLINE, the company hopes to be supporting enough reading programs so that it could, theoretically at least, be combined with 80 percent of all e-books.

Publisher Partnerships in Progress

It isn’t an impossible goal. Currently there aren’t that many different reading devices and programs. Publishers and reading device manufacturers will also benefit from Readmill, its creators say. “Ultimately, Readmill is about discovering books,” Kjelkerud says. With partnership negotiations with publishers underway, the possibility of Readmill adding a book purchasing function isn’t far off.

But the company isn’t just focused on e-books. To help connect old-fashioned book lovers through Readmill, they’ve also created an android app called ReadTracker, with which users can also follow their reading progress on paper.

Berggren and Kjelkerud say that it was only their move to Berlin from Stockholm in March 2011 which made the realization of their social book dream possible. It was both a challenge and an opportunity to free themselves from social obligations to enable a sole focus on their project.

“It was so hard to always have to reject my friends’ bar invitations,” Kjelkerud says. Berggren adds: “With such a move you’re also making it clear to yourself that now things are serious, that now we have to push through.”


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Poem of the week: Stone by Janet Simon

A stone

‘A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone’.

“– Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye,” Zbigniew Herbert concluded in “Pebble”. This week’s poem by Janet Simon, “Stone,” recalls the political-parable style of much central and eastern European 20th-century poetry, and seems to share Herbert’s sense of the stone as a point of moral reference.

There are four characters in Simon’s fable: the speaker, the addressee, a passerby and the stone itself. The addressee, as epithets such as “creamy” imply, is well-fed, well-washed, and, evidently, authoritative. This person is not initially unpleasant. He emphasises the stone’s smoothness, because he (or she) is an expert on smooth. Handing the stone to the speaker seems well-intentioned.

But the speaker’s ironical tone (“You sanction me …”) alerts our suspicions. The stone is identified with authority. Perhaps the speaker threw the stone in the first place? At any rate, it’s a difficult gift to receive. A “defence” is needed, one that proves an impossible compromise. Now an “outsized pebble” in the speaker’s mouth, the stone seems to implicate language – language as fixed and made “frigid” by those in control.

The spitting out of the stone is rejection, but certainly not malicious; nobody is meant to get hurt. The passerby misinterprets it, however, and sees, and uses, the stone as a weapon. The suave, creamy-skinned authority figure takes fright, becomes violently discoloured, bolts the door, rings the police – self-betraying reflexes that prove the power was hollow all along.

The crux of the poem comes when the speaker picks up the hurled-back stone. In six short, sparely-written lines the truth of the parable is laid out: the stone is neutral, uncoloured by its misinterpretations. Yet the stone seems to have a frailty of its own: it “pleads” for understanding.

The last stanza is more generalised, building from the situation narrated earlier. The “you” may be the same addressee, or a plural “you” that embraces everyone caught up in cycles of attack and revenge. The destruction is incomprehensible to the speaker, but there’s a clear insistence on the innocence of the stone. “And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone,” Simon concludes, echoing her earlier notion of “stoneness” and, of course, alluding to Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”.

Stein herself said that her sentence was an attempt to escape the particularity of the Romantic “rose” and recover the universal. Incidentally, the line was parodied rather unkindly by Ernest Hemingway, reminding us that “Stein” can literally mean “stone” in German: “A stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”

Simon’s stone may be all these things, too. And the hinted pun returns us to the idea of the stone as language, even voice – a difficult voice, a tongue you might have to hold. The act of holding the stone, in fact, seems mirrored in the poem’s shape.

This shape is one of enclosure around a central “core”. The exterior stanzas spread themselves. The first seems to mirror the spacious home, the easy hospitality of privilege. The last, conversely, suggests open air, lawlessness, danger, with the speaker needing to assert her eloquence.

These stanzas are like cupped hands. In the middle, the shorter-lined, indented core-stanzas focus on the stone, its adventures, and the cost of engaging with it.

It has been a consolation and a weapon, represented homeliness and the destruction of home. Personified, the stone seems not only a touchstone or neutral mineral, but an unreliable mortal. If it pleads guiltlessness and sings, even metaphorically, it must have about it some human quality. It’s not innocent, then, but perhaps it represents what Václav Havel called “Living in Truth”.

Janet Simon has published one full collection, Victoria Park (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1995). “Stone” is from her pamphlet, Asylum, where its distinctive presence is underlined by realistic and moving poems reflecting the poet’s experiences working with asylum seekers and the homeless. Asylum was published by Hearing Eye in the Torriano Meeting House Poetry Pamphlet Series, of which number 62, “Protest” by David Floyd, will appear in November.


You would reduce this stone to something homely.
Set in the palm of your soft hand,
it rests as if it wouldn’t harm a fly.
In your pink fingers, it is a generous stone.
You offer its smooth surface as the best
of possibilities in the best possible of worlds.

      You pass this stone to me
      with pleasing manners.
      You sanction me to hold it
      for a few minutes
      and to speak uninterrupted
      in my own defence.
      Your gracious patronage
      reduces me to gibberish.
      To avoid stuttering
      I place this outsized pebble
      in my quivering mouth.
      Its frigid texture
      is cold, impenetrable.
      I cannot chew on it.
      I spit it out.

      An angry passerby
      picks up this stone
      and hurls it
      through your window.
      Your creamy skin
      turns puce-vermillion,
      and as he runs away
      you bolt your doors
      and ring for the police.

      I bend down and pick up
      this stone.
      It hasn’t changed
      its shape or colour.
      Its unrelenting stoneness
      pleads with me.

I do not understand what force of hatred
makes a man destroy your house,
what speed of terror grabs you to defend it,
but I accept this stone, I hear its silent plea
of guiltless being. It sings to me
in my own ignorance, I am a stone.
And a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.


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Poem of the week: All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby

Day of the dead

Mexicans mark the day of the dead in San Gregorio. Bellerby’s poem likewise seems to melt the borders between life and death.

Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.

 Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”

 All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”

The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.

Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?

Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.

 The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.

 The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.

 Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.

 I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

 This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.

 Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

 The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

 Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

 Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

 And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.


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10 of the best women dressed as men

Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind/Ganymede in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

Surface male … Katy Stephens as Rosalind (as Ganymede) in a 2009 RSC version of As You Like It.

Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

Bradamante covers herself with armour and fights as a manly knight. “He” is befriended by the Saracen warrior Ruggiero, who realises his luck is in when his new comrade takes off her helmet and shakes out her long tresses. Ruggiero is instantly love-struck.

 As You Like It by William Shakespeare

The bard loved to give us a bit of cross-dressing (Portia, Imogen, Viola, Julia …), but with Rosalind he outdid himself. In As You Like It he has a boy actor playing a woman who dresses up as a man who pretends to be a girl (in order to help Orlando with his wooing). Talk about fluid ideas of gender …

 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Out in the wilderness, Don Quixote’s friends are looking for the deluded knight. They meet Dorothea, a young woman wearing male clothing. She tells her tragic story – she has been seduced then discarded by a rich man’s son and has adopted this disguise in order to flee.

 The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker

The thief Moll Cutpurse dresses in a man’s clothes but arouses the interest of many male admirers. When her would-be lover Laxton arranges a rendezvous, she arrives in disguise and fights him with a rapier. “Venus … passes through the play in doublet and breeches, a brave disguise and a safe one if the statute untie not her codpiece point.”

 The Country Wife by William Wycherley

Margery Pinchwife’s cruel husband is terrified of being cuckolded, so when he takes her out to the shops in London he dresses her as a young man. However, the rakish Horner is in on the trick and takes the opportunity to kiss and manhandle the “pretty” gentleman in front of the tormented Pinchwife.

 The Rover by Aphra Behn

Our heroine, Hellena, disguises herself as a young gent so she can prevent the man she loves, Willmore, succumbing to Angelica, a famous courtesan. In her male guise she tells Angelica a story of Willmore’s affair with another woman, rousing her to fury and alienating her from the “roving” Willmore.

 The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The dark, brooding monk Ambrosio – a pillar of rectitude – is attended by an admiring young novice, Rosario. “He seemed fearful of being recognised, and no one had ever seen his face. His head was continually muffled up in his Cowl.” No wonder – for one day in Ambrosio’s cell he reveals himself to be the beautiful Matilda, and effortlessly seduces the devout Ambrosio.

 Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Éowyn desperately wants to avenge her father, killed by orcs. She disguises herself as the male warrior Dernhelm and fights alongside the Riders of Rohan in battle, even managing to kill the Lord of the Nazgûl – who has boasted that no man can ever defeat him and is nonplussed to discover that his opponent is, in fact, a woman.

 Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Nan Astley, a simple girl from Whitstable, falls for male impersonator (or “masher”) Kitty Butler, whom she sees strutting her stuff on stage. Eventually she joins her in the act, and later walks the streets of London dressed as a man. When she is picked up by the wealthy widow Diana she cohabits with her in the guise of “Neville”.

 Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Searching for her brother, who is missing in action, Polly Perks cross-dresses in order to join the Borogravian army. She befriends another squaddie, Lofty Tewt, who confides that “he” too is a girl. Slowly the truth becomes apparent: everyone in the regiment is in fact a woman dressed as a man. Naturally, they triumph in battle. JM


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Ten of the best men dressed as women

Alan Cumming in The Bacchae

Alan Cumming in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae.

The Bacchae by Euripides
Pentheus wants to witness the revels of the Maenads, women under the ecstatic influence of Dionysus who range freely in the woods and mountains. He is persuaded by the god that in order to do this he must dress as a woman. He is spotted spying by the possessed women and is torn to pieces.

Metamorphoses by Ovid
Thetis, Achilles’ mother, knowing that her son will die if he fights in the Trojan war, disguises him as a woman among the daughters of King Lycomedes. Odysseus turns up with some girly presents plus a spear and shield, which are immediately seized by the warrior, who thus reveals himself.

Epicene by Ben Jonson
Rich, grumpy, misogynistic Morose proposes to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying, provided he can find a “silent woman”. A spouse called Epicene is found, and turns after marriage into a perfect shrew. Morose pays Dauphine to rid him of the termagant, whereupon his resourceful nephew pulls off the wife’s wig and reveals her to be a male in disguise.

Don Juan by Lord Byron
In Istanbul, our hero is sold as a slave to one of the sultan’s eunuchs, who commands him to dress as a woman. He has been spotted by the sultana, Gulbeyaz, who has designs on him. When the sultan arrives he rather fancies “the new-bought virgin”. “I see you’ve bought another girl; ’tis pity / That a mere Christian should be half so pretty”.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
In a sequence usually omitted in film adaptations, Mr Rochester dresses as an old Gypsy woman and turns up at his own dinner party to read the fortunes of the guests. Even Jane does not recognise him, until he suddenly throws off his disguise.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
On the run, Huck and escaped slave Jim find some women’s clothes on an abandoned houseboat, and Jim persuades Huck to go ashore disguised as a girl, to find out if people are still searching for them. As “Sarah Williams” he is admitted to a lady’s house, but she sees through his disguise when he begins to forget his own supposed name.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Farmer Gregory Rose shows his devotion to the rebellious Lyndall by dressing himself in her mother’s clothes in order to serve as her nurse when she is terminally ill. She accepts his disguise and is consoled by his presence.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
In prison for stealing a car, Toad wins the sympathy of the jailer’s daughter, who dresses him as a washerwoman to help him escape. He wanders the countryside, hitching a lift first on a barge and then in the very car that he earlier stole. Foolishly, its owners let this friendly lady take a turn at driving.

William the Showman” by Richmal Crompton
William Brown is staging a historical waxworks show with the Outlaws and decides that the poor audience response is down to the lack of “famous ladies”. After a quick raid of sister Ethel’s wardrobe, he struts his stuff as Mary Queen of Scots.

On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard
Rustic apprentice Christopher and his garrulous companion Weinberl travel to Vienna with a hare-brained idea of going “on the razzle”. Hiding from their boss, they end up in Madame Knorr’s women’s clothes shop, where they must don capacious tartan women’s garb and pose as mannequins. More cross-dressing follows. “I’m not the woman you think I am … I’m not even the woman you think is the woman you think I am”.


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Ten of the best cathedrals in literature

Salisbury cathedral

Salisbury cathedral, the focus of William Golding’s novel.

The Spire by William Golding

Salisbury resident Golding imagined the building of the cathedral whose spire towers over the city. Ignoring the warnings of others, the obsessive Dean Jocelin drives the work on, convinced that an angel is prompting him. As he becomes madder, the miraculous building takes shape out of the dust and chaos.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Dickens’s last novel is set in the precincts of the cathedral of Cloisterham. “… a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath.” Murderous passions are nursed in the shadow of the great cathedral.

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

The cathedral is the central character in Hugo’s huge historical novel. All his characters gravitate to it. Quasimodo is the bell-ringer and swings down on a rope from the towers of the Cathedral to rescue the Gypsy girl Esmerelda from the gallows. They seek sanctuary in the great church, but violence and death pursue them there.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Housewife Emma Bovary has an assignation with student Léon Dupuis in Rouen cathedral. “In the choir a silver lamp was burning, and from the side chapels and dark places of the church sometimes rose sounds like sighs, with the clang of a closing grating …” For Léon, the religious solemnity is fitting: he is a devotee of love. Emma arrives, tries to pray, but is overwhelmed by “the tumult of her heart”.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The clergymen of Barchester find the pursuit of God’s purposes is an often ignoble business. The unworldly Septimus Harding, precentor at the great cathedral, is drawn into a furious dispute about church corruption, his only solace being the sublime sound of the cathedral choir as its songs ascend to heaven.

Old St Paul’s by Harrison Ainsworth

Ainsworth’s best-selling Victorian romance is set in the 1660s. During the great plague, the old cathedral becomes a hospital. At the climax, the great, dilapidated old building burns down, trapping two of the novel’s villains in its vaults where they are drowned in molten lead.

The Choir by Joanna Trollope

Trollope’s tale of submerged provincial passions is set in the cathedral city of Aldminster, where the cathedral itself is falling down and the costs of repairs seem likely to be met by abolishing the costly boys’ choir. From the worldly dean to the idealistic choirmaster, everybody wants the best for the cathedral, the good of which becomes the justification for whatever they want to do.

“The Cathedral” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote a sequence of six poems inspired by a visit to Chartres cathedral with the sculptor Rodin. In the second, the poet muses on what the influence is of this huge tracery of stone, overwhelming rather than elevating. “And in the towers’ quelled ascent, / and sudden spurn of skies, sat Death”.

“A Cathedral Facade at Midnight” by Thomas Hardy

The poem recalls a night walk in the cathedral close at Salisbury, where Hardy took the movement of light across the building as a metaphor of ancient belief in the light of modern unbelief. The facade is thick with “the pious figures” of saints and clerics, holy men and women seen “Under the sure, unhasting, steady stress / Of Reason’s movement, making meaningless”.

The Cathedral by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Huysmans has his alter ego, Durtal, who has converted to Catholicism, explore the elaborate symbolism he discovers in stone in the great gothic edifice of Chartres cathedral. An apparent rejection of modernity, it was a bestseller.


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Ten of the best Hamlets

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Tom arrives in London and goes with his witless companion Partridge to see Garrick play Hamlet. Partridge is unimpressed. “‘He the best player!’ cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, ‘why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.'”

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Mrs Malaprop naturally has a Bardic bent. Talking of Sir Anthony Absolute’s handsome son, she remembers Hamlet’s praise of his father only a little inaccurately. “‘Hesperian curls – the front of Job himself! – An eye, like March, to threaten at command! – A station, like Harry Mercury, new . . .’ Something about kissing – on a hill.”

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In Goethe’s Bildungsroman, the hero owes the formation of his character as much to Shakespeare’s plays as to any experience of the world. Wilhelm joins a theatrical company and stars in its production of Hamlet. Several chapters are devoted to scene-by-scene analysis of the play, leading to a triumphant performance.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip and Herbert Pocket watch the absurd Mr Wopsle play “that undecided prince” in a production heckled by a rowdy London audience. “On the question whether ’twas nobler in the mind to suffer, some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both opinions said ‘Toss up for it’ and quite a Debating Society arose.”

Ulysses by James Joyce

In the “Scylla and Charybdis” section Stephen Dedalus opines about the Dane, hinting at Shakespeare’s covert Catholicism. “Not for nothing was he a butcher’s son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm. Nine lives are taken off for his father’s one, Our Father who art in purgatory.” He reckons the play was written out of Shakespeare’s anger at being cuckolded.

“William Holds the Stage” by Richmal Crompton

William has set his heart on playing Hamlet in the school play and takes the stage, uninvited, to deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. His recall is about as accurate as Mrs Malaprop’s, but still remarkable, as he delivers the speech while chased by stagehands.

“Hamlet” by Boris Pasternak

All well-read Russians have been happy to discover their own predicament in the situation of the Great Dane. Pasternak’s narrator is an actor about to play the role: “I’ve slowly come out / To the stage, and leaning at the door, / Try to gasp in echo’s distant sounds, / What’s prepared for me in my life’s store”. Then he becomes the part. “It is defined – the action’s order, / And the road’s end . . . hypocrisy’s all over”.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Writer Bradley Pearson develops a tendresse for Julian, the daughter of a friend who is also a rival author. His affair with her would be sufficient revenge, but is twisted by his obsession with Hamlet. He can consummate his passion for the epicene Julian only when she dresses up as the prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Hamlet’s antics as seen by two childhood friends, drafted in by Claudius to find out what the prince is up to. They’re as mystified by his words as the most befuddled A-level candidate, though they see he is “stark raving sane”.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

The novelist admits that he thinks of himself as Hamlet. In Lunar Park a character called Bret lives on Elsinore Lane, goes to places like Fortinbras Mall, Osric hotel and Ophelia Boulevard. He is haunted (down the phone) by the spirit of his father, whose death he is called to avenge.


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Ten of the best fishing trips

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Crusoe learns fishing when he is living as a slave in Moorish captivity. His skills come in useful once he is shipwrecked. “I frequently caught fish enough, as much as I cared to eat; all which I dried in the sun, and ate them dry.” He also hooks a dolphin.

“Point Rash-Judgement” by William Wordsworth The poet is walking with friends when they notice “a Man / Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone, / Angling beside the margin of the lake”. They moralise to each other about the fecklessness of someone who is enjoying such sport in the middle of the harvest, but then he turns towards them and they see he is “gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks / And wasted limbs”. He is fishing because he is starving.

“The Fisherman” by WB Yeats Fishing can make you noble, it seems. Yeats recalls a man who went “To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes / At dawn to cast his flies”. Silent and intent, “Climbing up to a place / Where stone is dark under froth”, he is contrasted with all the vain and clamorous men that the poet has known.

The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter Jeremy is a frog, who dons a Macintosh and galoshes to go fishing. A good thing too, because after catching and releasing a stickleback, he gets swallowed by a hungry trout. The trout finds the coat indigestible and regurgitates the fortunate Jeremy, who hops home resolved not to go fishing again.

“Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway Nick Adams is off on his own, camping in the wilds of Michigan. He eventually catches a huge fish. “There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped.” Gradually you realise that the minute description of Nick’s pursuit is an evasion of the trauma of war from which he has recently escaped.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan Much of this hippy classic was written during the author’s camping trip in Idaho, which features in the book. It is a collage of sketches and memories in which fishing recurs, a boyhood enthusiasm that focuses the author’s bucolic ideals.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver A woman finds out that her husband and his pals discovered the dead body of a woman floating in the water where they were fishing. It emerges that they decided not to let the discovery spoil their male-bonding trip, tethered the corpse for a couple of days and went on fishing. Her husband cannot understand her horror.

“Pike” by Ted Hughes Hughes invokes boyhood memories of fishing in a pike-patrolled pond. “It was as deep as England. It held / Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old / That past nightfall I dared not cast.” The boy fishes frozen in fear, thinking of the pike “That rose slowly toward me, watching”.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx Quoyle flees to Newfoundland and comes to rest in Killick-Claw, a town on the edge of the Atlantic suffused with the tang of fish. He works for the local newspaper, whose editor calls in sick almost every day so that he can go fishing. Quoyle is slowly reborn, finding out all about love and cod fishing.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth Roth’s novel ends with a fishing episode that is as far from philosophic serenity as you can get. Zuckerman finds Les Farley, whom he knows to be a killer, ice fishing on a secluded New England lake. On the ice next to him lies the ice-augur, his murderously sharp cutting tool. “And now you know my secret spot . . . You know everything . . . But you won’t tell nobody, will you?”


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Making It New

How the Greek and Latin classics have been imitated, adulated and misunderstood over the centuries.

For the ancient Romans, the word “classicus” originally designated somebody belonging to the highest tax bracket. To be “classical” was to be in the upper crust. By the fifth century A.D., the term had taken on wider meanings; the classical was distinguished not only by its excellence but by belonging to the past, and the past was by definition superior to the present. Today it’s now almost axiomatic that the older and more venerable the classic, the younger and fresher it may seem. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote that “Homer is new this morning and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.” Even Chanel’s “little black dress” is a classic because, like Homer’s “Iliad,” it never goes out of date. The classical in all its forms continues to exhibit an astonishing resilience.

“The Classical Tradition” is a guidebook of great erudition that is notably well written and unexpectedly compelling. It definitely is not another of those solemn introductions to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Instead it is a lively compendium of the manifold ways in which the enduring creations of the classical tradition, and the Greek and Latin classics, have been imitated, adulated, denounced and misunderstood—or understood all too well—over the past two millennia.

In their introduction, the editors—a triumvirate, as is only fitting (Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis)—state that they aim to strike a balance between “an unwavering commitment” to the truth and “an undogmatic appreciation of the endless resourcefulness and inventiveness of human error.” Accordingly, the tradition in question isn’t simply the preserved legacy of Greece and Rome in art and literature, philosophy and statecraft; it comprises the centuries of commentary and interpretation that have elaborated and embellished that legacy.

The Classical Tradition,” boasting some 563 articles (as well as 150 beautiful color plates), has an extraordinarily wide range. There are the topics you expect to find, such as classical architecture or education or philosophy, all clearly and expertly presented. The many biographical entries are especially rich, presenting figures from the classical period and the many others who drew on the classical inheritance for their own achievements over the centuries: architects and painters and sculptors, poets and philosophers and scholars, as well as gods and heroes.

Here we find Picasso—for whom the myth of the Minotaur was so important—rubbing shoulders with Plutarch, whose famous “Lives” of classical figures, among much else, served as a source for Shakespeare. Here Galileo, who drew on Seneca and other classical authors for his “most speculative arguments,” appears not far from Ganymede, the beautiful mortal boy whom the gods transported to heaven. We are told that Ganymede’s story—in various forms and with various moral purposes—appears in Homer and Plato, in a painting by Michelangelo, and on a column capital at the 12th-century cathedral in Vézelay, France, “which shows the boy terrified, upside-down in the beak of an eagle, and menaced by a hellish demon.”

There are superb shorter articles on the persistence of classical themes in comic books (“Asterix,” “Wonder Woman”) and cinema (think only of “Last Days of Pompeii” and “Ben-Hur,” among dozens of other films). The physical permutations of the tradition are traced not only in urban design but in such structures as catacombs and sewers. Each article brings some unexpected insight or little known fact into the discussion, to illuminating effect. In the article on Julius Caesar, the author cites Karl Marx’s enthusiastic praise of Caesar’s military prowess, while in the article on Achilles we are reminded of how savagely Shakespeare portrays that ancient hero, in “Troilus and Cressida,” as a cowardly egomaniac.

In the classical tradition as presented here nobody stands still; and sometimes the posthumous tribulations of ancient figures seem worse than what they experienced while alive. In the article on “Cicero and Ciceronianism” we learn that the reputation of that ancient orator and statesman was badly damaged by the great historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who denounced the hapless Cicero as a “bombastic” public speaker and a “sleazy politician.”

One has the impression that the editors of “The Classical Tradition” asked their contributors to write in as entertaining a way as they could. The scholarship is impeccable, but there is a donnish drollery in many of the articles. Thus in the entry on “Pronunciation of Greek and Latin,” not a subject normally rich in laughs, we learn that ancient Greek sheep said “bay bay,” not “baa baa,” and that in the 19th century “educated English people knew that the answer to the question ‘Why were Roman sailors wicked?’ was ‘Because they were nautae.’ ” The contributors, all 339 of them, seem to have had some fun in carrying out their assignments, and this communicates itself to the reader.

The Roman poet Ovid, who died in exile around 17 A.D., described “The Metamorphoses,” his masterpiece, as “a continuous song.” As the author of the article on Ovid notes, the poet was describing the seamless way in which his tales of transformation flowed one into the other, but the phrase also describes the long afterlife that his poem has enjoyed. It has been translated and imitated repeatedly, inspiring poems, novels, plays, films and operas, as well as sculptures and paintings.

The classical tradition of which the “Metamorphoses” forms so central a part might also be described as just such a “continuous song,” with all the variations that so fabulous a melody inspires. Ovid sang of “bodies changed into new forms.” That is what the classical tradition itself has been doing for centuries. It is a maze of transformations. At last, in this marvelous guide, it has found its Ariadne, whose thread (we are prompted to remember) helped to guide her lover out of a labyrinth.

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London


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Ten of the best angels in literature

Il Paradiso by Dante Guided by Beatrice, Dante ascends to the Primum Mobile, where the angels dwell. Beatrice explains the nine orders of angels, hierarchically arranged: Seraphim (the closest to God), Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

“Aire and Angels” by John Donne In amorous enthusiasm, Donne takes literally the notion that his beloved is an “angel”. She is as pure as a heavenly being, but has had to take bodily form, “For, nor in nothing, nor in things / Extreme, and scatt’ring bright, can love inhere.” When an angel appears it takes “face, and wings / Of aire”.

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe Good and Evil Angels appear in the play as a double act. “O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, / And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,” says the Good Angel. But the Evil Angel’s counsel – “Go forward Faustus in the famous art” – is more welcome. Finally the Good Angel exits and the Evil Angel gleefully invites Faustus to the “vast perpetual torture-house” that is hell.

Paradise Lost by John Milton Milton’s angels don’t just fly around doing good (or ill), they eat, drink (fruit juice only) and chat. Adam asks the visiting angel Raphael whether angels have sex, “To whom the Angel, with a smile that glowed / Celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue, / Answered, ‘Let it suffice thee that thou knowest / Us happy, and without love no happiness’.” Yes they do.

“The Angel” by William Blake The poet dreams of hiding his “heart’s delight” from his guardian angel, who flees from him. The poet resentfully arms himself against his angel’s kindness. “Soon my Angel came again: / I was arm’d, he came in vain; / For the time of youth was fled, / And grey hairs were on my head.”

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy “I don’t believe in anything supernatural,” says Tess, but she gets an angel for a suitor. Angel Clare even plays a harp. This human angel (“more spiritual than animal”) wants a “pure” woman and is too high-minded to be able to understand Tess’s corporeal nature.

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald Fred Fairly is a scientist, an academic at St Angelicus (“Angel’s”) College, who can’t help thinking of angels. “Fairly perhaps sees a bird flying over the fens, and he looks attentively at a young woman, and he combines the two of them, and imagines an angel. That is how the imagination works.” He falls in love with Daisy, who is a kind of angel (a nurse, anyway).

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie Bollywood film star Gibreel Farishta has an angelic screen name (Farishta means “angel” in Urdu) and after his plane is blown up over the English Channel he is magically transformed into the very angel Gibreel. He alights in England and we find he has acquired a halo. But is he a force for good, or a deluded soul?

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman Pullman has derived more than his title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, though his interpretation is Blakean: we find out that there was indeed a war in heaven once, but the rebel angels fought for freedom against “those who want us to obey and be humble and submit”. Will and Lyra enter the world of angelic conflict and acquire their own guardian angel called Balthamos.

Skellig by David Almond Another Blakean children’s tale, in which Michael finds a mysterious winged man called Skellig living in the garage of his parents’ dilapidated new house. He looks like a tramp and eats spiders. Michael and his new hippy friend Mina care for this being who has fallen to earth, who becomes more and more angelic and finally helps save the life of Michael’s baby sister.


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Hollowed by time

LEO TOLSTOY died one hundred years ago today, aged 82. His last days and hours succumbing to pneumonia in a railway master’s house were followed by the entire world. A special telegraphic wire was installed in Astapovo to transmit news about the state of his health, and newspapers carried reports from the Russian and foreign press. Tostoy was hardly aware of all the commotion.

Nine days earlier he had left his estate in Yasnaya Polyana in secret before dawn, accompanied by his doctor. Having contemplated leaving home several times before, he decided it was finally time to break away from his family life, from the rows over his literary heritage, from the battles between his wife and his secretary. On the night of his escape he wrote that he was doing what people of his age do: leaving the worldly life to spend his last days in quiet and solitude.

On the way to the station he stopped at Shemardino convent to see his sister. He stayed the night in a hotel by a monastery, and again left at four in the morning, heading south. He did not get very far, reaching Astapovo with a high fever.

His escape from Yasnaya Polyana inspired his contemporaries with awe. It was seen as a heroic release from the constraints of life, the removal of the last barriers between him and the God. (“The release of Tolstoy” was the title of a wonderful account of Tolstoy’s last days by Ivan Bunin, a Russian poet and writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1933.) Tolstoy’s death—like his life—was a monumental event, particularly in Russia. Writers, artists, followers and peasants flocked to his funeral. Trains from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, where he was brought after his death, were packed. (The government forbade the running of extra trains.)

A “cinematograph” filmed the coffin being carried by peasants. A choir of 100 people sang “Eternal Memory” and a procession of some 10,000 people in black coats followed the coffin. There were no clergymen at the funeral. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. His relationship with God did not need intermediaries.

Leopold Sulerzhitsky, one of Tolstoy’s friends and followers, once wrote in a letter that there were two Tolstoys—the great and the real. “The great has remained and will remain for ever, and that is why he is not lost, but the kind friend, tender and patient, full of humility is gone for ever.” This assessment is in keeping with a new biography of the man by Rosamund Bartlett, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life”. Informative and detailed, with the facts of Tolstoy’s life and the usual tributes to his ideas, the book sadly lacks the flare necessary for breaking beyond the obvious.

“I fear the death of Tolstoy,” Anton Chekhov once observed. “If he were to die, a large empty space would appear in my life… So long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and snivelling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished into the outer darkness.” Chekhov never lived to see Tolstoy’s death, having died of tuberculosis six years before him at the more gentle age of 44. But he was right to understand that Tolstoy’s presence imposed certain ethical restrictions on Russian society.

Devastatingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is hardly marked in Russia. Tolstoy was a man who opposed state violence, who considered the Church’s union with the state as blasphemous, who denounced pseudo-patriotism, and who wrote to Alexander III asking him to pardon those who assassinated his father. These principles are firmly out of fashion in today’s Russia. By turning Tolstoy into an icon, the Soviets ultimately hollowed him out.

A recent political manifesto published by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia’s most odious, wealthy and Kremlin-favoured film directors, is a good example of the country’s dreary move away from Tolstoy’s ideals. Called “Right and Truth”, the 10,000-word call for “enlightened conservatism” draws on the ideas of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of Russia’s most reactionary thinkers, who viewed Tolstoy as one of his most dangerous enemies. (He once denounced democracy as “the insupportable dictatorship of vulgar crowd”, and saw Tolstoy’s non-violent resistance as a real threat.) As a senior figure in the Church, Pobedonostsev helped to initiate Tolstoy’s excommunication. In 1899 the Holy Synod banned all prayers in Tolstoy’s memory after his death.

A hundred years after Tolstoy’s death, this ban feels very much in place in Russia today.


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Russian Topical Stamps: TOLSTOY LEO

USSR Stamps - Commemoratives of 1935-1936

Memory Makers

On the publication of scrapbooks by legendary photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton, fellow nostalgist Charlotte Moss revels in the art of cut and paste

Scrapbooks are diaries of a sort. While I have yet to come across a scrapbook with scandalous confessions or incriminating evidence, a private collection of pictures and ephemera can reveal volumes about the creator’s life.

DEAR DIARY: Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks were works of art in their own right.

Scrapbooking does not have a reputation as cool, which has always struck me as odd. Few other art forms invite you to employ your taste and wit as you mash up your favorite images and ideas.

It is the most democratic and accessible art, and according to the Craft & Hobby Association, it is the top-selling category in the country’s $27 billion craft and hobby industry. I remember creeping into my grandmother’s attic and finding a trunk with my mother’s scrapbook of valentines. I felt as though I had met my mother in a different time. All of my life, I have created scrapbooks and collected others from inspiring women such as Elsie de Wolfe, Pauline Trigère and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Weighing in at 14 pounds, “Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook” (Assouline) offers reproductions from the iconic Vogue and Vanity Fair photographer’s personal scrapbooks. It showcases images that Beaton took as well as pictures taken by others that he admired. They’re arranged in idiosyncratic collages and spreads, ironic juxtapositions and “once in a while just a great picture,” New York gallerist James Danziger wrote in his forward to the book. In an interview I asked Mr. Danziger about the collection of images chosen from Beaton’s scrapbooks for this volume. He said they are like a “valentine to a liberal arts education, from Greco-Roman statues to pop stars.”

The pages above feature a montage of Hollywood stars; others show bullfighters and dancers

The photo spreads selected were distilled from approximately 40 scrapbooks and over 8,000 photographs from the Cecil Beaton Archive. Beaton started collecting postcards when he was three years old. Later on, his country house weekends were not complete without a session of “cutting and pasting,” comparing notes and reviewing the pages of a previous weekend’s accomplishment. In his diaries, Beaton describes a scene at Wilsford, the home of his great friend Stephen Tennant. “We looked at scrapbooks of old photographs and [Tennant] rhapsodized suitable texts,” he wrote. These were gatherings one would have paid to observe.

From bullfighters, bodybuilders, dancers, society figures, the Royal family, actors and artists, there is a commonality that struck the book publisher Martine Assouline as she edited the scrapbook pages selected for the book. She described it to me as a “lesson in elegance.”

Some might say the proliferation of digital cameras and the attendant Facebook and Flickr pages have rendered physical scrapbooks less relevant than they used to be. But why not see them as newfangled iterations of an age-old artform? Witness the creativity that users are unleashing on Polyvore, the scrapbook-y fashion website that lets users mix and match pictures of clothing, accessories and arty backgrounds to create one-of-a-kind “sets.”

As in all, endeavors that become systematized, CAVEAT EMPTOR…. Homogeneity lurks. Proceed with caution. Memories are precious; protect them. Personalize them. Be creative, add, subtract, layer, annotate. My favorite quote from David Hockney says it all: “The thing about high tech is that you always end up using scissors.”

Charlotte Moss is a designer based in New York.


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You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Why W.C. Fields is funnier than G.K. Chesterton. Or is he?

Judd Apatow’s Collection of humor pieces, “I Found This Funny,” comes with a warning right there on the cover. The subtitle promises Mr. Apatow’s “Favorite Pieces of Humor” but cautions that the selections include “Some That May Not Be Funny at All.” Just in case we missed the point, Mr. Apatow repeats the caveat in his introduction: “I am well aware that significantly more than three pieces in this book are not funny.” He apologizes to those who might mistakenly have picked up the book expecting a compendium of amusing stories. “To be honest, one third of this book might be depressing. I was in a strange place when I picked these pieces.” One marvels at the honesty—and wonders what he could have been thinking.

The first offering is by James Agee, a fellow a bit too earnest to be good for many laughs. “A Mother’s Tale” is a gruesome little fable about the abattoir ever awaiting the bovine masses. Yes, as the bloody-minded fairytale comes to a close, there is the smallest of jokes—a little calf has heard the mother cow tell the whole story and understood none of it—but it’s just a little relief at the end of what is otherwise a grim advertisement for vegetarianism. By this measure “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a laff-riot.

Skip forward a story or two and one finds Mr. Apatow’s own contribution, “How I Got Kicked Out of High School,” a diary of his odyssey helming the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” The pilot is bought. The program airs. The reviews are great. The ratings are not. His back starts to hurt. Did he mention that the reviews were great? The ratings tank. The show moves to a lousy night. His back is killing him. The show is honored by the Museum of Television & Radio. The series is canceled. He gets back surgery. “I did the best work I’ve ever done. I received the best reviews I’ve ever received,” Mr. Apatow writes. “It was the lowest-rated show on NBC.” He suspects that the show failed because he and his team refused to “be like all the other ‘successful’ teen shows.” At least what Mr. Apatow lacks in humor he makes up for with self-regard.

Steve Martin with Johnny Carson in 1980. (These days Mr. Martin writes novels; see review at right.)

Elsewhere in the collection he selects a couple of “Saturday Night Live” scripts, including “Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster.” Barely rescued on the tube by Adam Sandler’s goofball demeanor and a lascivious turn by Alec Baldwin, the written skit can only be described as lame.

And then there are the various pieces about comedy that frankly make no effort to be funny. Take Jonathan Franzen’s biographical musings on his childhood infatuation with the “Peanuts” comic strip. “I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle,” Mr. Franzen writes. “He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house.” So Snoopy is a not-animal animal—a truly curious turn of phrase in which authorial pomposity competes with compositional clumsiness. (For my money, pomposity wins.) Also notable is the fact Mr. Franzen had to identify Snoopy as a “cartoon beagle” (I guess for the sake of those too dense to realize that ceci n’est pas un chien). You could say Mr. Franzen’s prose is funny, if unintentionally so.

Among the book’s actually amusing selections are some pages from Steve Martin’s autobiography. Though the excerpt isn’t exactly a gaggle of gags, it is charming and well told. Mr. Martin recounts how he got his start in show business, playing various stock melodrama characters—villain, hero, comic relief—in a rickety, canvas-roofed theater at Knott’s Berry Farm called The Bird Cage. After each show there would be “a ten-minute ‘olio’ segment,” with an actor or two coming out to perform their specialties. It was there, Mr. Martin writes, that “I was able to work steadily on my fledgling comedy-magic act.”

We don’t learn from Mr. Martin why actors and comedians refer to such little routines as “olio” acts. But the answer to that question can be found in “Humorists,” by Paul Johnson. The journalist and historian has written biographical sketches of people he finds funny. One of them, William Claude Dukenfield—better known as W.C. Fields—learned his trade in vaudeville, where his particular specialties were juggling and balancing things: He could balance two billiard balls on the tip of a pool cue. “In his early stage career he performed ‘Olio Acts,’ ” Mr. Johnson writes of Fields, “tricks in front of the oilcloth stage curtain lowered for scene changing.”

Mr. Johnson admires Fields’s mastery at juggling his “hates,” which included—to judge by his quips—dogs, babies, Eleanor Roosevelt and the IRS. But Mr. Johnson likes sly sight gags, too, like the ones packed densely into William Hogarth’s paintings of 18th-century England. In one, a newly elected, and presumably corrupt, member of Parliament is hoisted on a chair and “carried in triumph” through the streets in his rural county. “But his posture is precarious,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for his bearers are drunk, and a huge sow and her piglets have charged through their legs. The MP in fact is about to be precipitated into the stream which flows through the little town.”

Mr. Johnson credits Benjamin Franklin (who used short jokes to fill dead space in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”) with inventing the American taste for one-liners. “God heals, and the doctor takes the fees” is one Franklinism. Another: “One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they are valued.” Then there is Charles Dickens, who “looked at the mass of humanity and plucked out of it the egregious and the eccentric for our delight.” Mr. Johnson cites a character from “Our Mutual Friend,” a villainous man named Wegg who is paid to read aloud to a newly rich dustman. Wegg “charges extra for poetry, for ‘when a person comes to grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should be paid for its weakening effect on the brain.’ ”

Some of Mr. Johnson’s choices are a bit more of a stretch. He gets much amusement out of Samuel Johnson, whom he sees as part of a category of “really funny talkers” that includes Sydney Smith, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. The part of Dr. Johnson’s wit that Mr. Johnson values, though, makes the great man seem like a cultured precursor of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, relishing mockery and taking much “merriment” at others’ expense. Mr. Johnson also strains to find comedy in the work of G.K. Chesterton, who is too sententious to be truly amusing. Even Mr. Johnson concedes: “To GKC the act of making a joke was one of the most serious decisions you could possibly make, on a par with publishing a political manifesto, or a declaration of war.” You could say that “Humorists” is a motley collection.

Mr. Johnson doesn’t go to much effort to explain what he thinks makes comedy work, but he does endorse a theory that we like to laugh at “chaos, contemplated in safety.” He is particularly tickled by the “chaos artists” who make a mess of everything, whether through sputtering rage or plain idiocy. Such slapstick is ancient in origin and has been endlessly recycled. As Charlie Chaplin himself once told Mr. Johnson: “The best jokes are the simplest, and oldest. The finest stage direction ever is Shakespeare’s, from The Winter’s Tale: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ ”

There is raw energy in the old chased-by-a-bear shtick, and Mr. Johnson revels in it—just as he takes joy from the Marx Brothers’ unsubtle antics.

It is amusing in itself to see a writer as sophisticated as Paul Johnson—the author of more than a dozen works of history—relishing humor in its less elegant forms when, by contrast, a writer of rather raw comedies such as Judd Apatow prefers the affected sotto voce typical of highbrow short stories. Mr. Johnson chuckles with P.G. Wodehouse and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Apatow furrows his brow with James Agee and Jonathan Franzen. What gives?

I suspect that where Mr. Johnson is secure enough in his erudition to be seen indulging a taste for slapstick, Mr. Apatow is eager to prove his intellectual bona fides, desperate to be taken seriously. Now that’s funny.

Mr. Felten writes the biweekly Postmodern Times column for the Journal.


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The Adventures of Samuel Clemens

Twain’s autobiography, finally available after a century, is a garrulous outpouring—and every word beguiles

There was always something divided about Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a psychological fault line implicit in his desire to be known professionally as “Mark Twain” and in the word twain itself. One half of the great writer sought to reveal himself in an autobiography planned as early as 1876, when he was only 40. The other half quailed at trying to emulate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s frank “Confessions.”

“Rousseau,” Clemens pointed out, “confesses to masturbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites.” If we allow that fiction is a superior form of lying, it’s a fair guess that at least two of these embarrassments can be laid to the door of the author of “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain (let’s call him that, for critical convenience) enlarged on his qualms about self-revelation in a letter to his brother Orion. He noted with a touch of envy that Rousseau had been “perfectly aware of the shameful nature” of certain requisites of a true autobiography, “whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy and sweet & unconscious .”

The last four words were not so heavily erased that Orion could not read them. In 1899, still struggling to find an honest way to write his apologia pro vita sua, Twain told a reporter: “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. . . . It is too disgusting.” The depth of that disgust was clear when he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about “the author-cat” raking dust over every noisome revelation, “which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell . . . the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.”

It seems clear that Twain, an enormously successful writer and platform personality, had a black view of himself that went far beyond questions of sex or mendacity. His instinct was to take the often harsh facts of experience and sweeten them into something as delightful as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”—which, aside from being his most perfect book, is a boyhood memoir so thinly disguised that it could have been called “The Adventures of Sam Clemens.”

If he had not died in 1910, just as American puritanism was yielding to Freudian analysis of the torments of memory, Twain might have realized that his personal derelictions were (as far as we know) few, and by no means contemptible. Mark Twain was actually a magnificent person, blessed with literary genius, bonhomie and exquisite humor. His family and friends adored him. From the 1880s on he had the respect, even the reverence, of literary peers on both sides of the Atlantic. Publishers and lecture agents fought to sign him up. When, in 1894, he was ruined through no fault of his own (except the lifelong delusion that he was a shrewd investor), Henry H. Rogers, one of the busiest financiers on Wall Street, came to his rescue, as a national treasure that could not be foreclosed on.

By the time Twain had paid off his last debt and found himself wealthy once more, the most popular author-lecturer since Charles Dickens, he was an old man, bereaved of his wife and two of his four children. (Only one, his daughter Clara, would survive him.) Hamlin Garland, a fellow Midwesterner, observed that “Clemens, like many another humorist, was essentially sad.” Yet his volcanic vitality was intact, and the rapturous reception of his 70th-birthday speech at the Players Club in New York, in 1905, prompted him to return to the manuscript of his autobiography.

After some 30 or 40 false starts, it was already a formidable manuscript. Perhaps “repository” is a better word for what he proceeded to pile up over the course of six manic months in 1906 and left behind, still incomplete, at his death: an unorganized, crumbling, sneeze-provoking mass of letters, diaries, oral transcripts (more than 5,000 pages of them), news clips and other memorabilia. Now to be published in its entirety—this is the first of what will eventually be three volumes—”Autobiography of Mark Twain” aspires to completeness and definitiveness. Yet, as even the publisher admits, it is less a book than a gigantic fragment: the outpourings of a egotist so garrulous that the type sometimes dwindles to a size that will constrict your pupils.

Fortunately, Twain was that rare motormouth whose every word beguiles us. That does not mean that this book does not ramble. On the contrary, rambling is its deliberate style. Except for a few “written” passages of orthodox narrative and other preliminary scraps, it is mostly a collection of stream-of-consciousness monologues, dictated in Twain’s New York townhouse between Jan. 9 and March 30, 1906.

He congratulated himself on having hit upon something new in nonfiction, after more than 30 years of stylistic experiments: “a form and a method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face . . . like contact of flint and steel.” At the drop of an ash from his cigar, he could segue from memories of “Uncle Dan’l,” the original of Nigger Jim in “Huckleberry Finn,” to a headline in that morning’s newspaper. Oral flexibility transcended the drag of linear narrative and enabled Twain to be selective in his truth-telling. And since saying a thing was, in a strange way, less specific than writing it, he could edge closer to self-exposure—always with the liberating assurance that his comic persona would step in and make light of stories that threatened to become embarrassing or libelous.

To their credit, the editors of this centennial edition (most of the “Autobiography” has been published before, but in fragmentary and bowdlerized forms) make no attempt to connect Twain’s non sequiturs, other than simply to reproduce them in the order they were set down. Footnote fetishists will appreciate the meticulous annotations of every item needing amplification. And best of all, there is no tampering with Twain’s language, that superb instrument capable of a thousand modulations. Seemingly informal, it is in fact precise, taut, studded with mots that could not possibly be more juste: “I remember the raging of the rain on that roof . . . ”

Thanks to the shorthand skills of his stenographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, we could almost be guests in the great man’s bedroom. Curly-headed, bristle-browed and a touch bronchial at this time of year, Mark Twain lies propped up after breakfast and talks enchantingly about his barefoot boyhood in Missouri, his apprentice days as a printer’s brat and cub reporter, and his years piloting on the Mississippi. Then comes adventure after improbable adventure as he wanders across the breadth of the U.S., prospecting for silver here, escaping the penitentiary there, compulsively scribbling his experiences.

The publication of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in 1867 brings him his first fame and his first trip abroad, during which he meets the Buffalo heiress Olivia Langdon and vows to marry her. That dream is realized amid an accelerating rush to wealth and bestsellerdom, as book follows book and his travels expand to encompass the globe. In the process, he builds up an international reputation as the funniest man alive.

It is a mystery how Paine’s writing arm did not go into convulsions over, say, Twain’s story about being coached as a duelist in antebellum Nevada, or the one about the Episcopal minister whose hair turned green, or others about the over-efficient burglar alarm, the stammerer who tried to cure himself by whistling, and (most sublime of all) bare-assed Jim Wolf going after amorous cats on an ice-slick roof, with 14 saucers of red-hot candy below: “The frosty breeze flapped his short shirt about his lean legs; the crystal roof shone like polished marble in the intense glory of the moon; the unconscious cats sat erect upon the chimney, alertly watching each other, lashing their tails and pouring out their hollow grievances; and slowly and cautiously Jim crept along, flapping as he went . . .”

But no, I won’t spoil the story with further quotation. Let Twain get to his punch line with his own precise timing, in the sure knowledge that he will immediately trump it. This is the way with great raconteurs, and great melodists in music: There is always the delicious promise of more and better to come.

Aside from the occasional explosion of sulfurous wrath against some malefactor (“If I had his nuts in a steel trap . . . “), and one or two shock confidences (as when Twain unfairly blames himself for the death of his only son), there is little in this huge volume to justify his scruples about publishing it posthumously, in installments spread over a century, to spare the sensibilities of persons mentioned.

The most he will say about sex is that he finds it difficult to kiss and caress his near and dear. But this was less a matter of physical coldness than of upbringing. He does not sentimentalize any of the many painful experiences of his later years as a writer, publisher and bankruptee and maintains a self-control even when describing the loss, to heart disease, of his beloved wife, Livy.

Occasionally, maybe once in 50 pages, the old man will go on a little too long. His dreams, dietary problems and complaints about stock-market reversals are as boring as yours and mine. Many of the news stories he fixates on seem dated now. (An exception is the Moro Massacre of March 8, 1906, when clean-cut American boys in the Philippines behaved just as barbarously as they would later do at My Lai and Abu Ghraib.) On the whole, however, this volume is hard to stop reading. Twain’s prosody is so sure, and his powers of observation and selection so great, that he can take the most unpromising material—a real-estate deed, a letter from a would-be author—and make it glitter, like dull stone that turns out to be quartz or even diamond. Like Nabokov, he knew how to “caress the details, the divine details.”

There is a passage describing the interior of a farmhouse that young Sam lived in as a boy that matches anything in “Speak, Memory.” Significantly, however, these couple of pages are among the few that Twain took the trouble to write rather than dictate. If his autobiography is, ultimately, inferior to Nabokov’s, it is because he was mistaken in thinking that improvisations—even inspired improvisations—can ever cohere into a satisfactory whole. Unless there is line, there can be no architecture.

By June 1909, Twain realized that he was on the way to producing the longest book ever attempted. He lost heart and left it unfinished—at a half-million words. His stream of consciousness had become an unmanageable flood: He needed to get out of it before he drowned.

One of the first magazine men to pitch for serial rights to the autobiography prophetically advised Twain to insert a clause in his will allowing for full publication in “the year 2000 . . . by electrical method, or by any mode which may then be in use.” This edition is a bit late for that deadline. But stylistically speaking, it can only gain by appearing at a moment when the preferred forms of human communication are torrential texting and tweeting. What an irony that our supreme literary craftsman should be seen, in retrospect, as the inventor of the blog!

Mr. Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven. “Colonel Roosevelt,” the final volume of his trilogy on the 26th president, will be published this month.


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Not Quite a Genuine Likeness

‘Steve Martin doesn’t feed off the audience’s energy—he instills energy in the audience,” the movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote. “And he does it by drawing us into a conspiratorial relationship with him.” Over the past decade, Mr. Martin has diverted some of that energy into writing three rather serious novels. Are readers as prepared to collaborate in Mr. Martin’s storytelling as his legions of fans were in his stand-up?

“Shopgirl” (2000), Mr. Martin’s debut novella, was a pensive Beverly Hills romance with a varnish of foreign-film sophistication. But its spell was ruined by a hectoring omniscient narrator who repeatedly flouted the Novel 101 rule of characterization: Show, don’t tell. Three years later, “The Pleasure of My Company” showed much improvement, enhanced by the affecting voice of its emotionally challenged protagonist, who sought and eventually found human connection despite his fear of leaving his Santa Monica apartment. Here the narration succeeded in creating an alliance with readers instead of a barrier against them.

How disappointing, then, to note that voice and character have become obstacles for Mr. Martin once again. “An Object of Beauty” is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young woman navigating her way through the Manhattan art world. The novel’s narrator is an old friend of Lacey’s, an art critic named Daniel, who chronicles her rise to prominence from an entry-level cataloguing job in the basement of Sotheby’s auction house.

Problem No. 1 here is Daniel, whose role as narrator so eclipses his presence as a character that he seems more voice-over than earthling. In fact, he is not physically present for most of the novel’s key scenes, though he can describe them in detail. “If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don’t,” he admits. “I have found that—just as in real life—imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.”

Readers may be willing to go along with this contrivance, up to a point. That’s when they realize that all the novel’s characters are nearly as insubstantial as Daniel. Lacey, for instance, is a one-note song of self-interest, willing to engage in all kinds of deceitful behavior to realize her dreams of buying and selling art. To inject some complexity into her personality, Daniel remarks on her “joie de vivre,” her “openness to adventure,” her “sense of fun.” Yet all we see of her in action is a grim, calculating climber, outlined in such broad strokes that we are not moved to feel anything for her at all.

If the characters are so flimsy, then what holds this novel aloft? It turns out that the main event is a series of disquisitions about modern art, accompanied by reproductions of the works—by the likes of Milton Avery, Andy Warhol and Robert Gober—under discussion.

Occasionally these orations come from characters, including Daniel the narrator, but more often they seem to appear from on high, like leaflets from a helicopter. Sometimes they are incisive (“All great pictures flow toward museums”); at other times they are prosaic (“The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright’s questionable masterpiece that corkscrews into Fifth Avenue”). Together they tell a coherent story about the art market of the past several decades: its booms and busts, speculators and crooks, triumphs and fiascos. But despite Mr. Martin’s diligent efforts they are, by fiction-writing rules, only information dumps, distracting readers again and again from Lacey’s story.

Readers looking for more seamless collaborations with art-world novels might turn to Michael Cunningham’s “By Nightfall” or Fernanda Eberstadt’s “When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth.” These authors don’t allow their books’ milieu to engulf their characters, a predicament Mr. Martin has not been so fortunate, this time, to avoid.

Ms. Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.


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Ten of the best spas

“Tunbridge Wells” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

The mineral spring waters of the Kent town allured fashion-conscious Restoration folk, witheringly described in Rochester’s poem. “I trotted to the waters / The rendezvous of fools, buffoons, and praters, / Cuckolds, whores, citizens, their wives and daughters”. His fellow punters “without drinking, made me purge and spew”.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

In Georgian Bath, the novelist’s alter ego, Matthew Bramble, suspects that the mineral water pump is connected to the baths: “What a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below”.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Catherine Morland gets the chance to go to Bath and enjoy the social whirl because her mother’s friend Mrs Allen has a gouty husband. We never find out whether Mr Allen is cured, but Catherine gets a husband in the pump room.

St Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott Scott’s tragic tale of two brothers in love with the same woman is set in a small Scottish town where a spring of mineral water is discovered, making it suddenly a fashionable destination. Scott based St Ronan’s on the town of Innerleithen, whose popularity was greatly increased by his novel.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexei, the narrator, has come to Roulettenburg as tutor to a Russian family. “Granny”, a rich relative, arrives to take the waters, and Alexei helps her lose lots of cash – but catches the gambling bug himself. Will his ability to win money impress the lovely Polina?

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi is married to dull civil servant Instetten, who cannot understand why, after the birth of their first child, she does not become pregnant again. She is despatched to take the waters at Bad Ems, and while she is away her husband accidentally discovers letters showing that she has had an affair.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

This Edwardian tragedy begins with the meeting of two apparently strait-laced couples, the Americans John and Florence Dowell, and English Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, in the German spa town of Nauheim. It is “a special heart cure place”, where Dowell has travelled because of his wife’s infirmity. But her relationship with Ashburnham will suggest that the waters have more than invigorated her. 

In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield’s stories are narrated by a young English woman who is staying in a Bavarian boarding house while taking a cure. In the Luft Bad she lies around naked with all the other women. She gets hosed down and is told “there is a man who lives in the Luft Bad next door. He buries himself up to the armpits in mud and refuses to believe in the Trinity”.

The Escape by Adam Thirlwell

Thirlwell’s anti-hero Haffner, an ageing libertine, finds himself in an Alpine spa town, where he has travelled to try to reclaim his wife’s villa, stolen by the Nazis. The other characters may be there for the waters, but Haffner, in his late 70s, seeks health through sex, mostly with a helpful yoga instructor.

C by Tom McCarthy

McCarthy advances his neo-modernist credentials by sending his constipated protagonist Serge Carrefax to a spa town called Klodebrady, where his excrement is analysed by the disapproving Dr Filip. “Nationality seems less of a defining label here than type of illness.” He too gets a bit of a sex cure.


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The Man Who Launched a Blockbuster

Previously unpublished emails show how Stieg Larsson set out to defy the conventions of the crime novel

Stieg Larsson did not live to see the enormous success of his Millennium trilogy, which has now sold over 46 million copies world-wide. But a new book, “On Stieg Larsson,” offers a window into the creative process behind the series of thrillers, which revolve around the antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

“On Stieg Larsson,” which is part of the Millennium Trilogy Deluxe Boxed Set to be released on Nov. 26, includes four essays about the author, as well as an exchange of emails between him and his book editor, Eva Gedin, as they finished up the series. Below are two emails sent by Mr. Larsson in 2004, with his thoughts on the development of the books. On Nov. 9, soon after the last of these emails, Mr. Larsson—who was also the editor of Expo, an anti-racism magazine, in Sweden—died suddenly at the age of 50 after having a heart attack at his office. His first book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was published in Sweden in 2005.

Stieg Larsson on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1987, on assignment for a Swedish news agency. His Millennium trilogy has now sold over 46 million copies.

Friday, April 30, 9:44 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

I’ve just realized that it’s Walpurgis Night [a traditional spring festival celebrated in northern Europe]. I had forgotten all about it. The young are muttering away and cannot wait to go home or go out for a few beers, and I’ve promised to let them loose after nine. Poor old Daniel Poohl—he’s our assistant editor-in-chief and has been sleeping in the office for a couple of weeks now. They’re going on about setting up a branch of the trade union. Hmm.

You’ll get book III as soon as I’ve tied up a few loose ends. I’m looking forward to meeting Elin [Sennero, a copy editor]. I am not altogether confident of my ability to put my thoughts into words: My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them, and I am used to both editing and being edited. Which is to say that I am not oversensitive in such matters. Sometimes we will disagree about matters of fact, and like everybody else of course I have a few hobby horses I am unwilling to abandon. I think the first few chapters are a bit long-winded, and it’s a while before the plot gets under way. The idea was really to build up a substantial gallery of characters and set the scene before the story got going. Etc.

I’m pleased to hear that you think the books are well written. That makes an old churner-out of texts feel happy.

You might be interested in a few of my thoughts concerning the books:

In many respects I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels. I have used some techniques that are normally outlawed—the presentation of Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, is based exclusively on the personal case study made by Lisbeth Salander.

I have tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn’t have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn’t listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model airplanes. He doesn’t have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotypical “slut,” as he himself admits. I have also deliberately changed the sex roles: In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo,” while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical “male” characteristics and values.

A rule of thumb has been never to romanticize crime and criminals, nor to stereotype victims of crime. I base my serial murderer in book I on a composite of three authentic cases. Everything described in the book can be found in actual police investigations.

The description of the rape of Lisbeth Salander is based on an incident that actually took place in the Östermalm district of Stockholm three years ago. And so on.

I have tried to avoid making victims of crime anonymous people—so, for instance, I spend a lot of time introducing Dag Svensson and Mia Johansson before the murders take place.

I abhor crime novels in which the main character can behave however he or she pleases, or do things that normal people do not do without those actions having social consequences. If Mikael Blomkvist shoots somebody with a pistol, even in self-defense, he will end up in the dock.

Lisbeth Salander is the exception to this quite simply because she is a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people. She does not have the same concepts of “right” and “wrong” as normal people, but she also has to face up to the consequences of that.

As you have probably realized, I have devoted an awful lot of space to secondary characters who, in several respects, play just as big a role as the main characters. The intention, of course, is to create a realistic universe around Blomkvist/Salander.

In book I Dragan Armansky [head of a security firm] was introduced in considerable detail: Obviously he is going to be a secondary character who keeps cropping up. In book II the group of police officers around Bublanski and Sonja Modig are given prominent roles. And in book III Annika Giannini [Blomkvist’s sister] and Erika Berger [editor-in-chief of Millennium magazine, where Blomkvist works, and Blomkvist’s occasional lover] are much more prominent than in the earlier books. In book III another person appears who will be a regular member of the gallery of characters in future books. This is wholly intentional on my part. I think that secondary characters can often be much more exciting than the main player.

The only character with whom I have had difficulty is Christer Malm [Millennium’s art director]. In my original plot he was going to play more or less the same role as Erika Berger, but it didn’t work with him as editor-in-chief. And so I was forced to invent Erika Berger, who became a much more entertaining character.

I am going to have a problem with Miriam Wu [Salander’s girlfriend] down the line—I don’t really know what to do with her. The difficulty here of course is that Lisbeth Salander cannot acquire confidantes and at the same time remain an outsider. We shall have to see what happens.

As far as Paolo Roberto [a real-life former boxer who appears in the second novel] is concerned, I’ll have a chat with him in the near future. Kurdo [Baksi, a friend who also appears in the series] is not a problem. He’s my “little brother,” after all. We’ve known each other for many years.

All the best,


Thursday, Oct. 28, 11:39 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

Great that you like number three. It was a bit easier to write than the first two. Please tell Lasse Bergström [the former head of Norstedts, publisher of the books, who called the books “unputdownable”] that he is obviously an intelligent and sensible person of impeccable taste, and that flattery will get him everywhere.

Hmm. I cannot be sure, but I have the impression that you Norstedts people are seriously enthusiastic about my books. O.K., I know they are not bad, and of course I am delighted to read such flattering judgments: but I hope that you are not, for whatever reason, holding back negative comments. I am perfectly capable of coping with criticism

It is most satisfying to see that Lasse noticed that I changed the genre from one novel to the next: he cottoned on exactly to what I was trying to do.…



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Fantasy Not Just For the Young

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking-Glass

By Lewis Carroll (1865, 1871)

The only good thing, I found, about having gone to Rugby School, the famous and wretched boys’ boarding school in the British Midlands, is that Lewis Carroll went there too. The two Alice books are wonderful for children, and in some ways perhaps too good for children, full of adult wisdom and trickery. The first book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” was initially met with dismissive notices (though John Tenniel’s illustrations were well received), but it quickly became a beloved classic. What is most admirable about the second book, “Through the Looking-Glass,” is that it is emphatically not a return to Wonderland; Carroll’s great feat is to have created two entirely discrete imagined worlds for his heroine. I have loved Alice all my life and can still recite “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from memory if asked to do so, or even if nobody asks.

Peter Pan

By J.M. Barrie (1911)

‘Peter Pan’ was a play first, and really the play is better than this subsequent novelization, so I’m cheating a bit here. But the tale of the boy who never grew up is an imperishable one, which not even its subsequent Disneyfication could destroy. Those misled by the 2004 movie “Finding Neverland” into thinking that J.M. Barrie was a tall, gorgeous sex god resembling the actor Johnny Depp may be surprised to learn that the author was in fact extremely short, just 5 feet 3 inches, and almost certainly remained a virgin until the end of his life. So, in more than one way, Barrie was a boy who never grew up, and “Peter Pan,” rooted in this painful reality, would become an archetype, the archetype, of our yearning for youthful anarchy, for what another writer, A.E. Housman, called the “blue remembered hills” of childhood. And there is a mystery at the heart of “Peter Pan,” which Barrie deliberately refused to solve: What was Captain Hook’s name before the crocodile bit off his hand?

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55)

I was introduced to the Tolkien trilogy—”The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “The Return of the King”—and its prequel, “The Hobbit,” by a history teacher when I was 15, the perfect age at which to read Tolkien. I plunged into the world of Middle-earth with a will, even acquiring the rudiments of Elvish and the ability to recite the dread inscription on the Ring of Power in the dark tongue of Mordor. I believe that the secret of the trilogy’s enduring success lies in Tolkien’s infinitely detailed creation of the world it inhabits—there is so much “back story” that is only hinted at, so much to do with the history and legends and religions of dwarves, elves and men, that the world we are given becomes almost too rich with allusion to that submerged information. And then, of course, there is one genuinely immortal character, a greater creation than Gandalf the Grey or the Lord of the Rings himself: that is to say, Gollum.

The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman (1995)

Any book that begins with the death of God is OK by me. I love Philip Pullman’s fabulist world of familiar spirits, “daemons” and magic “dust,” his journey from a notably weird Oxford to flying cowboys, Nordic witches and giant, warrior polar bears. And under all the playfulness is a vision of a secular-humanist universe that has captured the imaginations of adult readers as well as youthful ones. This is an age polluted by much spiritualist and “holy” mumbo-jumbo and easy fanaticism; “The Golden Compass” and the rest of Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy are a powerful counterweight to all that claptrap and have the added benefit of really being fun to read.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon (2003)

Books for older children or “young adults,” to use the strange formula of the marketplace, have been taking on more and more complex real-world issues—child abuse, crime, poverty, illness, death. If you have ever known anyone with Asperger’s syndrome, especially a child, you will know how tough it can be to be around. I know just such a boy as the one in this book, whom I love very much, even though, when asked to play ping-pong with me, he tends to say, “Oh, but Salman’s so old and useless, I’ll just thrash him,” and then goes on to prove that he was right. This kind of imperative truth-telling in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” exonerates the book’s young hero from involvement in the killing of a dog; his subsequent investigation into the crime is beautifully carried off. And we would do well to remember what Sherlock Holmes said in the story “Silver Blaze” about the original “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Holmes was reminded, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” and he replied: “That was the curious incident.”

Mr. Rushdie’s most recent novel, “Luka and the Fire of Life,” has just been published by Random House.

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Trying to Show the Unknowable

The ordeals, strategies, problems and triumphs of Holocaust literature.

‘A novel about Auschwitz,” Elie Wiesel once wrote, “is not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz.” The testimony of Holocaust survivors, he seemed to imply, is inherently true, while literary representations of the Holocaust are, at some level, inherently false.

Of course, it is not a simple matter. As Ruth Franklin argues in “A Thousand Darknesses,” her superb study of Holocaust literature, every canonical work, including “Night” (1958), Mr. Wiesel’s famous book about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, blurs the distinction between fiction and reality. If the best works do so self-consciously, as she contends, there is always the danger that certain works will cross the line into bad faith, inviting charges of distortion or fraud.

And indeed, in recent years, a number of Holocaust stories have been exposed as hoaxes. The case of Binjamin Wilkomirski stands out. After being lauded by survivors for faithfully conveying their ordeal, his purported memoir, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” (1996), became a scandal when it was discovered to be, like the author’s name and personal history, a fabrication. Ms. Franklin does not discuss “Fragments” in detail, but it offers a touchstone for her investigation, showing the tension between Holocaust testimony and the fiction derived from it—in this case, fiction posing as lived experience.

Despite the hazards of trying to represent events often said to be “unknowable,” Ms. Franklin insists on the moral authority of the imagination and shows the power of literature to uncover the truths that are latent in documentary material. There is the case, for instance, of the postwar German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, who rewrote an obscure Holocaust memoir by one Jakob Littner and turned it into a superior work of art. For “Schindler’s Ark” (1982), the novelist Thomas Keneally based his narrative on careful research of Oskar Schindler’s life, almost to the point of making the book (as one critic said) a “workaday piece of reportage” rather than a textured work of fiction. For the film “Schindler’s List” (1993), as Ms. Franklin observes, Steven Spielberg more freely manipulated the factual history to create, for his audience, the potent illusion of “witnessing” the Holocaust.

Ms. Franklin is especially drawn to difficult cases. Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jewish Pole, was a prisoner at Auschwitz and served in the camp’s Sonderkommando—the squad that processed the dead and their belongings—if only for a day. Although fellow survivors reported that he acted heroically in the camp, he suffered, Ms. Franklin concludes, a “psychological wound.” In the stories collected in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” published soon after the war, he adopted the voice of a cynical narrator who alternately mocks Jewish victims and recoils in disgust at their suffering. By implicating himself in the workings of the camp, Ms. Franklin says, Borowski found a powerful way to explore the tangled roles of victim and perpetrator.

In other cases, fiction’s autobiographical core is even more perplexing. Imre Kertész draws on his own experience in Auschwitz for his novel “Fatelessness” (1975), but the naiveté of his narrative voice denies us the consolation of straightforward testimony. “We can never be certain,” Ms. Franklin says, “of an episode’s truth-value.” In his quasi-autobiographical novel “Blood From the Sky” (1961) the Ukrainian-born French writer Piotr Rawicz presents two capricious storytellers who deliberately obscure facts and recount brutality in language at once florid and sardonic. Together they create a form of “anti-witness”—not false witness but witness whose immersion in evil has made mental and moral clarity impossible.

Nonfiction writers may seem to be more trustworthy, but we must not always take their words at face value, Ms. Franklin warns. Primo Levi, whose profession as a chemist helped him survive Auschwitz, presented his own experience—in “If This Is a Man” (1947)—in language of scientific clarity. But he also took many liberties in telling the stories of his comrades. In W.G. Sebald’s mesmerizing blend of fiction, encyclopedic detail and travelogue in “Austerlitz” (2001) and “The Emigrants” (1993)—both grounded in the experiences of Jewish children in the Holocaust—Ms. Franklin finds a painstaking strategy for restoring people and places to life. “Restitution,” Sebald called it.

Questions of authenticity became acute once therapists and cultural theorists asserted that trauma was transmissible, permitting readers (and filmgoers) to “bear witness” to events they had not experienced. The archetypal test case is Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” Because Kosinski cagily led readers to believe that his story of an unnamed boy wandering through a violent Eastern European landscape was based on his own childhood, Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller, among others, hailed it as a Holocaust masterpiece. Once it became known that the story’s incidents were invented—and that Kosinski’s family had hidden safely from the Nazis during the war—the book was condemned as a sadomasochistic fairy tale. By exploring the gray zone between witness and voyeurism, however, Kosinski had suggested that the lies of literature could provide surprising access to horrific events.

If the documents on which historians depend can prove unreliable, the best of Holocaust literature, Ms. Franklin emphasizes, has the advantage of being “self-conscious about its own unreliability.” True enough. But since the events of the Holocaust, not to mention its vast historiography, play very little role in her book, an important dimension of the problem is left out of account. (A more practical drawback is that she provides no endnotes or bibliography.) Still, by scrupulously defending the integrity of literature, Ms. Franklin has offered her own eloquent testimony.

Mr. Sundquist is a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.”


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Maxim Jakubowski’s top 10 crime locations

LA story … Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Big Sleep.
Maxim Jakubowski is a writer and editor who was the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer for 10 years. He has edited anthologies of noir tales about London, Paris and Rome and is currently working on a Venice volume. Following the Detectives, which has just been published, is an illustrated book that follows the trail of some of crime fiction’s greatest sleuths, discovering the cities and countries in which they live and work. His new novel, I Was Waiting For You, moves between Paris, New York, Barcelona, Tangiers, Venice, Los Angeles and Rome.

“I have always felt that one of literature’s virtues and attractions is that it can powerfully evoke places and times and bring them to life alongside plot and characters. Hardy’s Wessex springs to mind, as do Thomas Mann’s Venice or the Saint Petersburg of Dostoevsky and the teeming London of Dickens. But I would argue that crime and mystery fiction offers the perfect blend of storytelling and sense of place, where characters and atmosphere prove of unique appeal: the location works as an extra, indispensable character and is indivisible from the sometimes breathless action taking place in the narrative. Think of Stockholm and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, Sara Paretsky’s Vic Warshawski and the mean streets of Chicago, Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho and Barcelona, Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana or Mankell’s Wallander in Ystad. What with the tsunami of popularity that crime and thrillers have enjoyed over recent years, there are now few places on the map that are not associated with a specific detective or cop. These are some I find most distinctive.”

1. Los Angeles in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939)

 Although Michael Connelly is fast becoming the bard of modern Los Angeles, Chandler remains the pioneer whose iconic Philip Marlowe novels define the city’s mean streets and sprawl. From rich mansions to backstreet dives, shady bookstores and cheap hotel rooms, Chandler captures the essence of a city in flux between affluence and despair with tarnished knight Marlowe at the helm.

2. London in Derek Raymond’s I was Dora Suarez (1990)

From Sherlock Holmes onwards, London has been mapped by successive generations of crime writers, but none has evoked the loneliness of lost souls whose dreams have been shattered by the big city like Raymond in his Factory novels. His anonymous avenging angel figure of a cop is based in Soho’s Poland Street and roams a familiar but grim landscape which no tourist would ever contemplate visiting. A bleak but unforgettable view of London.

3. New Orleans in James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain (1987)

This was the first novel in which Burke introduced his ex-Vietnam vet anti-hero Dave Robicheaux as he roamed ceaselessly through the humid streets of the French Quarter, the Garden District and the adjoining bayou country in search of justice while wrestling with his own demons. The shimmering prose catches the smells, colours and unique atmosphere of the Louisiana city. The decline of the Crescent City has been chronicled in his following books, all the way to hurricane Katrina.

4. Paris in Fred Vargas’s Have Mercy On Us All (2001)

The French capital in which Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg investigates is the real Paris – the small popular ‘quartiers’ with their bars, small local businesses and merchants, neighbourhood restaurants and secret histories – not the Paris of the Eiffel tower and the Champs-Élysées. Her idiosyncratic and at times whimsical plots allow her sleuth to look behind the facade of bourgeois Paris and unveil a hotbed of intrigue and crime, a striking web of darkness behind the facade of the City of Light.

5. Bologna in Barbara Baraldi’s The Girl With the Crystal Eyes (2008)

Italian cities are not just striking monuments and a crowd of churches. Baraldi’s colourful serial killer chiller in the tradition of Dario Argento’s “gialli” film thrillers transforms the cobbled streets of Bologna into a shuddering symphony of darkness. The whole city turns into a gothic world of shadows when night falls, a place where Hannibal Lecter and Hitchcock would feel right at home. Emo psychogeography at its most striking.

6. Brighton in Peter James’s Dead Simple (2005)

The best British crime writers thrive when they associate a character with a city (Ian Rankin’s Rebus with Edinburgh, John Harvey’s Resnick with Nottingham) and Peter James’s cop Roy Grace has put the Brighton of Graham Greene into the shade. His investigations, assisted in a major way by the fact James spends a day a week on average with the local police force, explain why Brighton, behind its gentle facade, is in fact one of the UK’s capitals of crime. From sea front to back alleys, posh areas and rundown streets, Roy Grace’s Brighton has become a portrait of England today.

7. Miami in Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (1984)

Maybe it’s the weather that warps the mind, but Florida is a bedrock for fictional crime. Local authors from John D MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen, James Hall and Vicki Hendricks have all dissected the often bizarre manifestations of evil and retribution, often inspired by real life, but the late Charles Willeford, with his Hoke Moseley series, best captures the quirky, violent, contradictory place that is Miami. Drugs, beaches, crazed immigrants, rednecks, cults, alligators and crooked cops, it’s all here in abundance. Anyone who’s spent time in Miami airport will recognise the madness in a trice.

8. San Francisco in Joe Gores’s Spade and Archer (2009)

Steve McQueen and Bullitt and the Haight-Ashbury of hippie days have created an indelible image for the city on the bay in the public mind, but it is also the stamping ground of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, one of crime’s iconic sleuths. Ironically, the fascinating city is best recreated in all its teeming complexity and contrasts in Gores’s latter-day prequel to Spade’s adventures, in which he fills in the gaps that Hammett left. The treachery of Chinatown, the looming shadow of the Golden Gate bridge, the darkened warehouse districts, and the sharp contrast between haves and have-nots fix San Francisco like a fly in amber.

9. Oxford in Colin Dexter’s The Dead Of Jericho (1981)

What with the sheer number of fatalities in Oxford during the course of the Inspector Morse novels, many tourists might still believe it to be one of the UK’s most dangerous cities, but there is no denying that Colin Dexter put the city on the fictional map. Quiet campuses. the architectural splendour of academia and its buildings, warm country pubs, opulent houses, working-class shabbiness all come together to construct a convincing image of the city, to the extent that there are now numerous local tours based on the world of Morse which attracts visitors by the busload. How crime fiction put a city on the map!

10. New York in Lawrence Block’s Small Town (2003)

One of American mystery writing’s treasures, Lawrence Block is a New Yorker through and through, despite many years of travel. Small Town is his paean to Manhattan, a sprawling narrative that moves effortlessly between Greenwich Village, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side and all points in between and could almost be used as map in your peregrinations through the canyons of the Avenues and side streets. He seizes the unique vibrancy of the city, alongside a gripping plot.


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Anna Shevchenko’s top 10 novels set in Moscow

Exaggerated and distorted through fiction … Moscow through a rainy window.

Anna Shevchenko studied at the National University, Kiev, before moving to the UK to study at Cambridge University.  A linguist and international negotiator, she speaks seven languages and is the author of two cultural guides to Russia and Ukraine. Her first novel, Bequest, is an international thriller set in both Kiev and Moscow.

I chose the books where Moscow is more than a setting – it shapes the characters and their actions, almost becoming a character itself. I was always intrigued by the way the cityscape can influence the mindset: Moscow, for example, can be seen as a chaotic cluster of villages, a cobweb of streets or as a grid.

The Moscow of Russian authors builds various stage sets which resemble giant, grotesque Russian dolls with grimaces on brightly painted faces. Their image of Moscow is often exaggerated or distorted.

Western writers’ Moscow settings are more linear: they recreate and distill the existing reality of controlled society, reflecting western perceptions of monochrome gloom and danger and, recently, of the bizarre chaos of the post-Soviet capital.

The Moscow of my novel, Bequest, is a hungry metropolis, which swallows its provincial victims and influences the decisions of one of its characters.

1. Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin (Moscow in 1598)

Pushkin’s drama about the rule of Boris Godunov, a charismatic leader with dark secrets, untangles Kremlin intrigues and plotting. Red Square is full of drunken crowds, raw emotion and brutal force. (“Why doesn’t my baby cry when he needs to? Everybody is crying …” asks a peasant at the square, throwing her baby on the pavement.) Moscow is dark and intense.

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Moscow from 1810-1813)

The city of glamour and gambling, of superstition and appearances, relationships and glitzy balls.

“Moscow is about gossip, St Petersburg is about politics,” says one of the characters.

It contrasts with the abandoned and burned city of 1813, Moscow after the Napoleonic invasion: the city of lost hopes, lost loves and lives.

3. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Moscow in 1900)

Moscow as a symbol, rather than a city, a dream of escape from drab provincial reality for three educated sisters.

Their “To Moscow!” is a desperate cry for help. They do not return to the capital of their childhood, abandoning their hopes of a perfect life. This play is often compared with the story of the Brontë sisters, but I find it very Russian for all its melancholy, nostalgia and layered emotions.

4. The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov (Moscow in 1927)

Masterly theatrical satire of the Moscow of the first post-revolutionary decade. Moscow here is a railway station, full of con artists, chaos and … missing chairs. One of them contains diamonds, hidden under the shabby upholstery: just as the sparkles of humour and joie de vivre are hidden in an impoverished Moscow, under communist slogans of canteens providing carrot burgers.

5. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Moscow in 1933)

My favourite book of all time. I re-read it on my birthday, together with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, every decade (at 20, 30, 40), always to discover a different angle, a new depth.

The phantasmagoria of Satan’s arrival in Moscow in the 1930s is mixed with the sadness of doomed passion. This is a Moscow full of irony and covert satire on the first ominous stirrings of Stalin’s regime. This book made the Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow a place of literary pilgrimage.

6. The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Moscow in 1949)

“If a man has no freedom even in prison, where else might he have it then?” asks one character.

Moscow as a prison. The characters work in the first circle of hell – as prisoners in the KGB secret research institute, Sharazhka. They joke, laugh, love, make complex moral choices, but there is no escape from Moscow and from themselves. Autobiographical, chilling; a powerful triumph of the freedom of the human spirit.

7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Moscow in 1981)

For me, as an insider of the Soviet system, Martin Cruz Smith’s crime novel was one of the best western descriptions of the Moscow map as a grid of Soviet ideology at the beginning of the 1980s.

The background of the story of Soviet investigator Arkady Renko is the hypocrisy and corruption of the system, with the mutilated bodies in a Moscow amusement park as the main attractions.

8. Generation ‘П’ (published as Babylon in the UK) by Victor Pelevin (Moscow in the early 1990s

Victor Pelevin is an author you either love or hate, but you cannot remain indifferent to his description of a new generation – the generation that thrived in the post-Soviet Moscow of the early 1990s, where the move from collective to individual is through smoky underground passages, hallucinating mushrooms, drugs and consumerism.

9. The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Moscow in the late 1990s)

The Day Watch-Twilight Watch-Night Watch trilogy, by Sergei Lukyanenko, became a phenomenal bestseller in Russia, satisfying Russian craving for all things mystical.

The Night Watch is my favourite, set in the futuristic and twisted Moscow of parallel worlds. Dark evil forces, vampires and ordinary Muscovites coexist. Walking the streets of Moscow, you never know where you will be crossing the line …

10. Icon by Frederick Forsyth (Moscow in 1999)

The city is dark and intense. There are Kremlin intrigues and drunken crowds, a charismatic leader with dark secrets and brutal force.

… Or have I said that already about the Moscow of 1598, in Boris Godunov?


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An Epistolary Performer

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s humorous and impassioned dialogue with friends, enemies—and himself

“It’s been ten years since Katie excommunicated me. She used to keep a lightweight typewriter for me in London when she worked for Oxford Press in Dover Street, but I offended her after John Berryman’s death while she and I were having a beer, and she said, ‘How dare you speak of John in a place like this?’ As John’s death was hastened by alcoholism I didn’t see that there was anything improper in reminiscing in the presence of so many bottles. But Katie said in a trembling voice: ‘Take your typewriter away and never come to see me again.’ ”

So wrote Saul Bellow (1915-2005) to the playwright Robert Hivnor in 1985. The vignette tells us a great deal. That Bellow could always tell a good story. That he could inspire great affection, which could quickly turn into abrupt dismissal, especially on the part of women. That he always thought of himself as the innocent party. And that such episodes troubled him perhaps more than he let on.

An American, Montreal-born Saul Bellow in 1964.

“Katie” was Catharine Carver, who had been Bellow’s editor at Viking. She was as passionate in her support of “her” authors as she was of their privacy. That you do not speak ill of the dead or gossip about those who are not present were central tenets of her life. She invariably refused to release the private letters of the authors she had worked with and who had become her friends, no matter how much editors and biographers begged her.

I have a lot of respect for her position. I wouldn’t want my private letters to be made public. On the other hand, I’m not willing to forgo the experience of reading the letters of Keats, van Gogh or Kafka just because they were not written to me. And I’m sorry that the fascinating new volume of Bellow’s letters does not contain the ones he wrote to Catharine Carver.

The publication of the letters of Keats and van Gogh would have ensured their immortality even if not a single poem or painting by them had survived. Saul Bellow’s letters are not in that league, but their publication is a major event, offering not only a rich mine of information for those interested in his work but also a fascinating book in its own right. That they don’t quite reach the heights of the genre may not even be a reflection on Bellow but may be the result of the vagaries of history. For though the first letter here dates from 1932, when Bellow was just 17, there are a mere 120 pages of letters covering the years before the publication of “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953 and his sudden rise to fame.

But the years before public recognition, when an artist is pouring out his hopes and frustrations (usually to one devoted friend, a Theo van Gogh or Max Brod), are usually the most interesting ones—and perhaps one of the reasons why the letters of Keats, van Gogh and Kafka are so moving is that fame only came to them posthumously. In a 1992 letter to the novelist Stanley Elkin, Bellow wrote: “When I was young I used to correspond actively with Isaac Rosenfeld and other friends. He died in 1956, and several more went in the same decade, and somehow I lost the habit of writing long personal letters—a sad fact I only now begin to understand.” He goes on to suggest that these deaths threw him back upon himself. “I suppose the letters in ‘Herzog’ reflect this solipsistic condition. . . . With me, for a long time, it’s been fiction or nothing.”

There are no letters to Rosenfeld here (he informed Bellow that he had thrown them away in the course of one of his moves, and Bellow professed to be relieved) or to close friends such as Delmore Schwartz, and so it may be that the best of Bellow’s correspondence is, necessarily, missing from this volume.

But it’s also possible that Bellow never opened up completely to anyone, even in his youth. On her return from a tour of Eastern Europe with him in 1960, Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt: “Saul and I parted good friends, though he is too wary and raw-nerved to be friends, really, even with people he decides to like.” And in the 1992 letter to Elkin, Bellow confessed: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were also practicing to be writers.”

The letters do often feel like performances. This can be part of their charm. His mock-letters to old and trusted friends are hilarious: “Dear Mr. Berrimon,” he writes to the poet John Berryman, “I ‘ave souvent theenk of your conference sur I-do-and-do-not-wish-to-be-cast-upon-your-shore. It is a titre sublime. Et sérieusement, vous avez peint ze human situation more better than J.-P. Sartre avec une seule strook.” “Dear Yevgeny Pavlovitch,” he writes to the critic Alfred Kazin, “You know me, Yevgeny, and my Russian lack of organization. I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to. So, do I have that letter from the man? Of course not.”

The one-liners that are a glory of the novels abound here. “To have a holiday in Jerusalem is something like consummating a marriage in a laundromat.” “Will I read your book?” he writes to John Cheever. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?” Of an official visit by Václav Havel to New York: “Havel and I chatted for about three minutes and were separated as if we were tomato seeds in the digestive tract.” There is nothing studied about such images: They seem to burst out of him as soon as he puts pen to paper.

The letters are also full of those wonderful vignettes that pepper his books, comic and perceptive at the same time: “Just now we’re in Positano, on the gulf of Salerno,” he wrote in a 1950 letter, “in the midst of the mountains and hanging over the sea. . . . On holy days the Saints are taken for a walk by a procession. It would seem incredible for the gods never to see the sun, and they are shown it on Sunday.” Or from Chicago in 1968: “I saw N Leites [a Sovietologist at the University of Chicago] with his bald musclebound skull hurrying through melting slush, moving with ballistic energy from 53rd to 55th, a bottle under his arm—moving with such force, and the muscles of shyness and analytic subtlety (probably pointless) gathered up on his shaven head.”

There’s so much going on here, such swift and impassioned dialogue between the spiritual and the physical, the place and those who inhabit it, that, as so often in his books, we can only gasp in joyful wonder. Just as the volume brings out how much a part of a group of the children of immigrants Bellow was, both in his early days in Chicago and in his New York years and later life—when his editors, his agents and most of his friends were nearly all first- or second-generation Jewish-Americans (Berryman and Cheever are notable exceptions)—it also reveals how unique he was in his gifts and energy. At the age of 3, in Montreal, he was speaking French in the streets and Yiddish at home and working his way through Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew with a rabbi. At 8, desperately sick in a hospital in Chicago, he was devouring a New Testament he found there, falling in love with Jesus, sensing that he must keep this from his family. As a young man, he writes that he is working hard at his music and his Hebrew. In his old age, he takes up Latin and Caesar’s “Commentaries,” reads the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and corresponds with Owen Barfield, the anthroposophist and cultural historian.

If playfully turning T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish with Isaac Rosenfeld at 13 was not all that different from what his contemporaries at Eton might have been doing with Homer or at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand with Racine, there is the added sense here that it is an amazing thing for little Jewish boys from Chicago to be entering such a world. Remembering his youth in an essay, he later wrote: “The children of Chicago bakers, tailors, peddlers, insurance agents, pressers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on relief, were reading buckram-bound books from the public library and were in a state of enthusiasm. . . discovering their birthright, hearing incredible news from the great world of culture, talking to one another about the mind, society, art, religion, epistemology, and doing all this in Chicago.”

But of them all only Bellow found a way to channel both the energy and the newfound learning into a sustained oeuvre. How he did this is one of the stories that unfolds in the course of this book. Utterly confident from the start, he coped with the usual rebuffs of youth and finally got a novel published when he was 29. “Dangling Man” appeared in 1944 to warm reviews and was quickly followed by “The Victim” (1947). But at the same time, even as he defended his work to friends and editors, he admitted to being dissatisfied with what he was writing. It felt too tight, constricted, too willed. But how to find freedom and not descend into chaos?

The years 1948-52 were crucial. Living on a Guggenheim grant in Paris with wife and child, he began to find an answer. A voice was released in him, and Augie March was born: “I am American, Chicago born . . . and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.”

“I knew . . . that I’d put my hand strongly to a good thing and was making it resound,” he wrote to his editor Monroe Engel as he was working on it. “Easily or not at all,” became his motto in the writing of the book, and, as with Samuel Beckett in the same years, the breakthrough took him to where his real interests lay. He never looked back.

Although in later life he felt that “Augie March” was too loose, it was the key that unlocked his genius. The next 20 years were miraculous, as one masterpiece followed another: “Seize the Day” (1956), “Henderson the Rain King” (1959), “Herzog” (1964), “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970). All were greeted with acclaim, and prizes were showered upon him, culminating with the Nobel in 1976.

After that, a decline set in, not helped, in my opinion, by his continuing to teach, first at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and then at Boston University. Unlike Beckett or even his great rival, Bernard Malamud, Bellow was unable to reinvent himself with success. From “Humboldt’s Gift” (1975) to “Ravelstein” (2000), works that would have been admirable from anyone else were, for him, merely repetitive. “Humboldt” is baggy, overblown and irretrievably sentimental in its belief that to be a businessman or a crook is somehow to be more in touch with life than to be an intellectual, “Ravelstein” a lesser version of “Henderson” and “Herzog.”

Bellow confessed late in life that he had never expected the degree of fame he got and that perhaps he had not known how to deal with it. The middle portion of this book consists of rather too many letters in which we find him complaining of how his ex-wives are treating him, never recognizing that he might be partly to blame. He married, divorced, married again, divorced again, until, at the fifth attempt, in his 70s, he settled into a contented old age with a wife almost 50 years his junior. He fathered a fourth child at 84, and spent more and more time giving speeches at the memorial services of old friends and writing to others about the old times.

The last letters—suddenly more natural, less defensive—are the surprise of the book. Bellow’s sharpness of observation and his way with words is unabated, as in this account of the grandfather of the girl to whom the first letter in this volume is addressed, Yetta Barshevsky: “I even came to know Yetta’s grandfather, whom I would often see at the synagogue when I came to say Kaddish for my mother. He was an extremely, primitively orthodox short bent man with a beard that seemed to have rushed out of him and muffled his face. He wore a bowler hat and elastic-sided boots. The old women, it seems, were wildly radical communist sympathizers. The grandfathers were the pious ones.”

It is in this funeral address, given 64 years after his letter to Yetta, that he struggles for the last time with the great mystery which his whole writing life had been devoted to articulating: “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response. Today’s memorial testifies to Yetta’s secret power, the power of being Yetta.”

Since his death, Bellow has to some extent come to be taken for granted. These letters—introduced with a fine essay by Benjamin Taylor and lightly annotated by him (sometimes too lightly, but better that than the overkill of a scholarly edition)—may help to remind us of his essential qualities of linguistic brilliance, comic exuberance and a very Russian and very Jewish awareness of the depths as well as the foibles of men.

Let’s re-acquaint ourselves with him.

Mr. Josipovici’s most recent book is “What Ever Happened to Modernism?”


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The Zealotry Of Free Thinkers

Many philosophes ended up gouty and spherical, despite the austerities

The history of ideas is a field that is extraordinarily difficult to popularize. Philipp Blom’s approach is to use collective biography, in the case of “A Wicked Company” the 18th-century thinkers of the Enlightenment’s “forgotten radicalism,” as he puts. They include Diderot, Hume and Rousseau, perhaps not household names like Christopher Hitchens or Oprah Winfrey, but “forgotten”—surely not?

The guests at Baron d’Holbach’s twice-weekly salons were called “wicked company” by British actor-manager David Garrick, who frequented the salons during two sojourns in Paris in the 1760s. Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men, who had rebelled against oppressively small-minded fathers, fleeing to the big city, where they “dared to know” before settling down to the minor celebrity they had acquired by old age. It is not the story of a major event, like the French Revolution, but it has faint ancestral resonances for the atheists, humanists and rationalists who, to popular amusement, recently threatened to arrest the pope on his visit to Britain.

The radicalism of Mr. Blom’s group of thinkers consisted of advocating democracy over monarchy and aristocracy; racial and gender equality; the right to choose one’s individual way of life; freedom of thought and expression, including freedom of the press; and, finally, religious toleration, including the right to believe in nothing at all. Most important, they thought there were no fields of human activity that might not benefit from the application of philosophic reason. Commonplace nowadays, these views were shocking at the time.

Mr. Blom focuses on the rival salons of Paris and the often fraught personal relations of his subjects. The salons were organized by aristocratic men and women, affording the philosophes opportunities to try out their literary wares and show off their quick-wittedness. Some of these convivial occasions involved gargantuan quantities of food and wine, if Mr. Blom’s sample menu offering 30 dishes is any guide. No wonder so many philosophes seem to have ended up gouty and spherical, despite the moral austerities they often enjoined on others.

The atmosphere was undoubtedly heady with speculation. The novelist Laurence Sterne noted that “an infinitude of gaiety & civility reigns among them—& what is no small art, Every man leaves the room with a better Opinion of his own Talents than when he entered.” The more skeptical historian Edward Gibbon remarked on the “intolerant zeal” of those who “preached the tenets of Atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.” That is an arresting assessment, considering Gibbon’s own skeptical views of religious belief.

Mr. Blom’s coupling of the lives of the philosophes with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued. If readers weary of the ins and outs of philosophical materialism, never mind, since another bodice-ripping liaison dangeureuse is just around the corner. It is useful to be reminded that Diderot, Jean d’Alembert and their contributors produced a 17-volume Encyclopédie consisting of nearly 80,000 individual articles and 20 million words, not to mention an additional 11 volumes of illustrative materials. That it was a collective enterprise probably explains why its editors did not enjoy the posthumous fame of a Kant or Voltaire.

Mr. Blom’s other strategy is the essentially romantic one of pitting his brave little band of free thinkers against a rather stereotypical “authority.” The Catholic Church (and the Calvinist fathers of Geneva) appear only as a reactionary presence, ever ready to symbolically burn books and persecute their authors, as part of an ancien régime whose complexities are not explored. That a parallel Catholic Enlightenment strove to reconcile reason with religion by jettisoning the more obviously ludicrous aspects of faith seems to have passed the author by.

As Mr. Blom concedes, the more mainstream Enlightenment thinkers were appalled by the social implications of his radicals’ views. And even the radicals themselves seemed to have had their doubts. Voltaire was not alone in wishing dark religion upon his servants, to inhibit their thieving fingers, even though he remained a deist himself. Rousseau was also, rightly, worried about the coldness of a purely material universe. And consider a love letter that Diderot wrote in 1759 to his mistress, Sophie: “If there were a kind of law of affinity among our organizing principles, if we could make up one shared being . . . if the molecules of your dissolved lover could become agitated, move and seek your molecules scattered through nature!” Poor Sophie.

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s instrumental view of “civic” religion would lead, directly, to the grotesqueries of the Jacobins’ Cult of Reason—personified by the fat actress Désirée Candéille prancing about half-naked as the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame in 1793—and to the state’s systematic murder of those who rejected such secular cults, a prefigurement of the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Mr. Blom seems to be celebrating the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment for positing “a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty.” That view of the world is certainly embraced by their intellectual descendants today. But judging by the crowds of people I recently saw mob Pope Benedict XVI on a grim London public-housing estate, it may take more than Mr. Blom’s book to make the radical Enlightenment broadly appealing, especially since the pope’s message combines faith, love and reason.

Mr. Burleigh is the author of “Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror.”


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The Lady and the Playwright

He had her from “Must you go?”

It was Jan. 8, 1975—opening night of the revival of “The Birthday Party” at London’s Shaw Theatre. Lady Antonia Fraser—historian and author of the best-selling “Mary Queen of Scots”—was in the audience and then at the postperformance dinner for the play’s author, Harold Pinter.

[ccfraser] Lady Antonia Fraser

As the festivities wound down, Lady Antonia, daughter of the Seventh Earl of Longford, wife of British M.P. Hugh Fraser, and a brainy and very dishy mother of six—comparisons to Julie Christie and Marianne Faithfull were frequent and reasonable—accepted a ride home from neighbors. But first she wanted to offer quick congratulations to the man of the hour: “Wonderful play, marvelous acting,” she told Pinter. “Now I’m off.”

“He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. ‘Must you go?’ he said. I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning . . . my projected biography of King Charles II. ‘No, it’s not absolutely essential.'”

So began a 33-year marriage of true minds that ended with Pinter’s death from cancer on Christmas Eve in 2008, at the age of 78. He was “loopy” about her. She was “dippy” about him. He called her his destiny, wrote her love poems, ordered up flowers for her in extravagant quantities and described their situation as “joyous, dangerous and unavoidable.”

Unavoidable indeed. Lady Antonia left her husband. Pinter left his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant. The British tabloid press, agog—titled Catholic aristocrat consorting with working-class Jewish playwright!—never left them alone.

The couple’s blazingly happy relationship—they married in 1980—is chronicled in Lady Antonia’s affecting new book, “Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter.” It is neither biography nor memoir, but an assemblage of gleaming bits and pieces fashioned from her diary—a mosaic of moments, low and high (his diagnosis of esophageal cancer in 2001; his 2005 Nobel Prize), private and public (the covert meetings in dark bars at the dawn of their affair; Pinter’s highly vocal railing at human-rights violations; his support of the Serbs and rage about the Iraq war).

An inveterate journal-keeper for more than 40 years, Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” a month after Pinter died. “I never intended to publish it. It wasn’t written for that reason,” she said, drinking coffee in the lobby alcove of her midtown hotel after an early morning swim. “But I was sitting in a restaurant with an old friend who was trying to cheer me up and who happened to ask, ‘Do you still keep diaries?’

“The whole thing, including the title, came into my head like that. It was an act of love and remembrance, really, a book of celebration at a time of such tremendous grief,” continued Lady Antonia, 78, who has a posh, creamy voice you must sometimes bend close to hear and who has a manner that is equal parts grand and grandmotherly. “It was a very surprising thing for me to do because I’m not a very candid person, and I don’t believe I would or could write it now. It was the effect of grief.”

There were no touch-ups of the text, no airbrushing, she insisted. “A sense of historian’s honor. I wouldn’t do that.” But 33 years did have to be shaped and arranged into manageable length. “This was not the American Civil War.”

In assembling the book, whose diary entries are sometimes appended with commentary and memories, Lady Antonia operated with one basic rule: “Everything had to relate to me and Harold. I couldn’t just put in things because they were fun.”

Fortunately, that self- imposed stricture allowed for anecdotes and encounters involving (in no particular order) John Gielgud, Joan Collins, Helen Mirren, Jude Law, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Karl Lagerfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael Gambon, Salman Rushdie, Steve McQueen, Vaclav Havel, Princess Diana, Warren Beatty (who put the moves on Lady Antonia) and Samuel Beckett. Duly recorded was a side-splitting exchange between the two giants of the theater. “I’m sorry, Sam, if I sound gloomy,” said Pinter, to which the “Waiting for Godot” author most courteously replied, “Oh, you couldn’t be more gloomy than I am, Harold.”

Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” “like a bat out of hell,” she said. Ultimately, however, the deeply ingrained habits of a historian took over. In the book’s more thematically arranged middle portion, “I did think ‘I am now exercising my profession. I’m seeing what fits where and how to construct it.’ That was rather fun, because I also thought ‘at the end there are going to be no references, no bibliography. It’s all me. I am the source notes.'”

Since the book’s publication last spring in Britain—it was released in the U.S. last week—Lady Antonia has grown to expect several things from reporters. There will surely be an exclamation of surprise that Pinter wasn’t really very, um (pause) Pinteresque at all. He was chivalrous and romantic, a doting stepfather and step-grandfather (and seriously afraid of bugs and heights). There will almost certainly be a request for Lady Antonia to read one of the poems from Pinter that are sprinkled through the diary (she complies with admirable composure). And of course there will be a question about what her late husband would make of the book. “As I was writing I was confident that he was, as it were, with me,” Lady Antonia said. “And I tell people that he would have loved two things about it, that his poems run through it and that I draw no veil over his politics at all.”

Lady Antonia, whose books include biographies of Oliver Cromwell, James I of England, the wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette is currently without a subject for her next book. During Pinter’s final illness, she had done considerable work on a biography of Elizabeth I, but abandoned the project after finishing “Must You Go.” “I thought, ‘I can’t go back. I think it’s a fascinating topic but I don’t have anything special to say,'” she recalled.

“I’m very self-disciplined. If I’m going to spend years thinking about something, then the reader is going to have my best. They’re not going to have something I cobbled together because I said I’d do it,” continued Lady Antonia, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and whose fascination with religion has found expression in almost her entire oeuvre. “So I repaid the advance—ouch, ouch—and there it is. I shall do something, but I really haven’t had a minute this year. On Jan. 1, I will go back to my usual routine.”

The work on “Must You Go” was no replacement for grieving—only a postponement. “After I’d written it and was getting it ready for publication, I did have a kind of letdown,” said Lady Antonia. “But by that time I was stronger, as one is.”

Closure? She recoils at the word and the notion. “Thank you very much. No closure,” she said tartly. “I don’t want closure in stopping mourning. I don’t want it to stop. But it is the oddest thing when something happens and I think ‘I must tell Harold.’

“And I can’t.”

Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.


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Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s top 10 supernatural families

The Pevensies in the 2005 film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Gang of four … the Pevensies in the 2005 film of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has been a competitive cheerleader, a volleyball player, a teen model and a primate cognition researcher. She graduated from Yale University with a degree in cognitive science and used her research to imagine the werewolf world in her first novel, Raised by Wolves. She currently teaches Yale’s most popular undergraduate class, Sex, Evolution and Human Nature, which looks at what evolutionary psychology and mating behaviour in animals can tell us about human nature.
“There’s only one thing I love more than a good supernatural story, and that’s a story that explores what it means to be a family: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whether it’s a family of choice or blood makes very little difference to me, but there’s something so compelling about the idea of being connected to other people and part of their lives in a permanent and often complicated way. One of the reasons I chose to write about werewolves was because it offered a lot of opportunities to explore growing up within – and sometimes away from – your family (or, in werewolf terms, your pack). So, in honour of my two favourite things in literature, I give you my top 10 supernatural families in fiction.”
1. The Weasleys (the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling)

From Fred and George to the insufferable Percy (not to mention Ginny’s performance in Chamber of Secrets), the Weasley family is brimming with memorable characters and complex relationships – leading to some of the best lines and most heartbreaking scenes in the entire seven-book series.

2. Nick and Alan Ryves (The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan)

One’s a strategist, the other has a habit of keeping swords under the sink. But as different as they are, these demon-hunting brothers exemplify what it means to put family first – while their twisted family history makes their dedication to each other all the more affecting. With the end of the trilogy forthcoming, my biggest concern isn’t the fate of the various romantic relationships in the book. It’s the brotherly bond at its core.

3. Paige, Lucas, and Savannah (Women of the Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong)

I love that we’ve seen Savannah (part demon, part sorcerer, part witch and altogether unprecedented) grow over the course of the series from a 12-year-old kid to a 21-year-old striking out on her own – almost as much as I like the way inheriting custody of Savannah forced Paige, a temperamental young witch, to grow up overnight. Add in Paige’s husband (sorcerer, lawyer, idealist) and this family is the neatest mix of light and dark, with their devotion to each other stronger than any of their supernatural ties.

4. The Sharpe family (White Cat by Holly Black)

Who doesn’t love a family of con-artists? Between a mother in the slammer, a grandfather who used to magically “work” death for a living and older brothers with nefarious plans of their own, this book gives a whole new meaning to the term “family business”.

5. The Pevensies (the Narnia series by CS Lewis)

While not supernatural themselves, these four dimension-traversing siblings set the bar for family-centred fantasy adventure. Inspired by their adventures, I used to force my brother to look for fantasy worlds hidden in our closets. He was not pleased.

6. The Cullens (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

While most people think “romance” when they think of the Twilight franchise, I think the idea of being adopted into a beautiful, mysterious and tight-knit family holds just as much wish-fulfilment appeal as Bella and Edward’s human/vampire romance. As a reader, I never fell head-over-heels for Edward, but I would love to play vampire baseball with the Cullens.

7. Stefan and Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries by LJ Smith)

Long before Twilight mania, these two brothers – on-and-off mortal enemies, doomed to forever fall for the same girls – gave readers a vampire family to sink their teeth into. Reading about them makes me think you really can’t escape your family, even if you try for more than a hundred years.

8. The Stackhouses (The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris)

The Stackhouse family has their share of (figurative) skeletons in the closet – supernatural relatives, illicit affairs and everyday trauma and tragedy – but at the end of the day there’s nothing Sookie wouldn’t do for her brother, Jason, or the cousins (human or not) that just keep crawling out of the woodwork.

9. The Murry family (A Wrinkle in Time quartet by Madeleine L’Engle)

Another family that may not be actually supernatural, the Murry family finds itself constantly entangled in adventures of the science-fiction variety nonetheless – time travel, space hopping, even adventuring into the family baby’s mitochondria. Plus, what other family can boast a Nobel prize-winning mum?

10. The Peltiers (the Dark Hunter series by Sherrilyn Kenyon)

I’ve always been fascinated by big families, so the Peltiers – who have 12 children and run their own bar – would be a favourite of mine even if they weren’t also were-bears (yes, were-bears).


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Ten of the best zoos in literature

“Tobermory” by Saki

Mr Cornelius Appin teaches a cat to talk. “A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it.” Clovis observes: “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.”

“At the Zoo” by AA Milne

Even in Milne’s child-centred celebration of the zoo, there is a tinge of terror. “If you try to talk to the bison, / he never quite understands; / You can’t shake hands with a mingo – / he doesn’t like shaking hands./ And lions and roaring tigers / hate saying, ‘How do you do?’ / But I give buns to the elephant / when I go down to the Zoo!”

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

In O’Neill’s thoroughly weird play, Yank, a ship’s stoker, loses his self-esteem when a woman calls him a “beast”. In the zoo, he seeks kinship with a gorilla: “Ain’t we both members of de same club – de Hairy Apes?” The gorilla “wraps his huge arms around YANK in a murderous hug. There is a crackling snap of crushed ribs.”

The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson

In the near future, Britain is at war with an alliance of European powers. Simon Carter, the narrator, is the secretary of London Zoo, whose troubles weirdly echo those of the political world. Their institution gets a new lease of life with political prisoners being sacrificed to the animals to entertain the public.

“The Jaguar” by Ted Hughes

At the zoo, most of the wild beasts have become indolent and tame. “The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun. / The parrots . . . strut / Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.” Only the jaguar keeps his primal intensity, pacing his cage, “hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes / On a short, fierce fuse”. Just like Ted Hughes?

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

William and Neaera, lonely 40-somethings, meet at London Zoo. They are fascinated less by each other than by the three green sea turtles in the zoo’s aquarium. They scheme to release these creatures with the help of a sympathetic keeper. Soon the turtles are heading towards the sea.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

If we are to believe the novel’s psychopathic yuppy narrator, Patrick Bateman, the nastiest of all his many murders is committed, appropriately, at New York’s Central Park Zoo. Strolling through the menagerie, he encounters a small child whose mother is briefly distracted and duly dispatches him. He leaves the zoo with his “hands soaked with blood”, unapprehended as ever.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The zoo is where divorced parents take their estranged children for a “lovely” day out. In Lively’s multiple-narrator novel, one section is duly given over to selfish Claudia’s little daughter, Lisa, who describes in a thoroughly puzzled fashion a day at the zoo with her mother and Jasper, her careless father.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Martel’s narrator grew up observing closely the behaviour of animals in the zoo his parents ran in India. “Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other.” His observation of animal cohabitation becomes useful when he finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

“A Strange Barn” by Lavinia Greenlaw

This sequence of poems from Greenlaw’s Minsk explores the different animal enclosures at London Zoo, reaching out to events occurring in the years in which they were built. The aviary is linked to the making of Hitchcock’s film The Birds; the penguins in their 1934 pool tell us about the rise of fascism.


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Kate Mosse’s top 10 ghost stories

The Turn of the Screw
Shudders … Rebecca Evans in English National Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw.
Kate Mosse is the bestselling author of five novels, two books of non-fiction, short stories and a play, Syrinx, which won a Broadcasting Press Guild award in 2009. The first novel in her Languedoc Trilogy, Labyrinth, won Richard & Judy’s Best Read award in 2006 and topped the bestseller lists for six months; the second, Sepulchre, was also an international bestseller; and the third, Citadel, will be published in 2011. Her current novel, The Winter Ghosts, is published in paperback this week. 

“Spirits and apparitions, headless monks and white ladies, the traditional ghost story still exerts a hold on our imaginations. Their habitat is ancient woods, ruined abbeys, isolated old houses and crumbling monasteries. But what makes a ghost story? Though purists might quibble, I’d say there are three distinct types of ghost story – as opposed to tales of horror, which have a different dynamic and purpose, or novels that have ghosts in them, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.

“The traditional ghost story is often inspired by folklore and a sense of decaying history, and is similar in tone to the Gothic novels that came before it. In the psychological ghost story, the emphasis is on the mental state of the victim rather than the actions – the existence, even – of the ghost or poltergeist. These stories implicitly, sometimes explicitly, question the reliability and sanity of the heroine or hero, and often reference social or political issues of the day. Finally, there’s the antiquarian ghost story which is associated with a certain sort of Edwardian Englishness. Like their traditional counterparts, they draw on old mythologies and folklore, but are rooted in realism and the sense of the ordinary disrupted or made extraordinary. I see the influence of all three traditions in my own books – though The Winter Ghosts is my first pure ghost story – but in the end, as with the choices that follow, what matters is that each has what the great Edith Wharton called ‘the fun of the shudder’.”

 1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)

From the master of the morbid imagination, this gem of a story blurs the edges between horror and ghost fiction. A murderer’s guilty conscience gets the better of him, driving him to confess his crime. The unnamed narrator murders an old man with a “vulture eye”. He plans carefully and hides the body by dismembering it, but his guilt will not let him rest. Is he imagining the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards or is there something there? Gripping and horrifying, the perfect mix of horror and Gothic, the forerunner of the psychological ghost stories that were to come into vogue.

 2. “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens (1866)

This perfectly balanced, beautifully judged story both preys on both the anxiety provoked by the new technology of railways and deeply held beliefs that a ghost can be an alarum for events to follow. Three times, the ringing of a spectral bell is followed by the appearance of a ghost, harbinger of a dreadful accident. Creepy, clever, and has you looking over your own shoulder.

 3. “At Chrighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1871)

Another classic of ghost-story writing, with a doomed family and a crumbling, historic house at the heart of it. The narrator, Sarah, returns to her childhood home as a guest, having been obliged to work as a governess. There, although the halls are brightly lit and the old servants delighted to see her, a sense of disaster hangs over the festivities and Sarah’s glimpse of a ghostly hunt forewarns of tragedy to come.

 4. “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” by MR James (1894)

This is the very first story in the first published MR James collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A young Englishman and scholar leaves his friends for the day to spend time alone in a claustrophobic, decaying French cathedral city in the Pyrenees. He is encouraged by the sacristan to buy an antique manuscript volume which is possessed of older and evil memories. Wonderfully atmospheric, wonderfully creepy.

 5. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (1898)

This is, possibly, the most exquisite and perfect of all psychological ghost stories. Again, an unnamed narrator, another governess, a different manuscript that claims to tell the story of mysterious country house, a widower and his children and two ghosts of former servants of the house. It is never clear if the ghosts are real or the product of the governess’s increasingly unstable mind. And here, unlike in many ghost stories, there are several strong and engaging characters, not least of all the strange children, Miles and Flora. Simply, a masterpiece.

 6. Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood (1912)

Blackwood is the neglected master of the Edwardian ghost story renaissance. Gentlemen travellers and scholars fill his pages, but always with a psychological – often animist – slant on things. For Blackwood, Nature always has a capital ‘N’ and was a living, breathing thing, sometimes benign, but often sinister. This collection is the place to start, even though my favourite story is “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”, where a wife finds herself powerless to save her husband from the trees he loves. The forest does seem to be alive, getting closer and closer to the house, until the husband vanishes all together. Atmospheric, beautiful, a very subtle story of a peculiar haunting.

 7. “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare (1912)

De la Mare was a significant writer of ghost stories, publishing some 40 supernatural tales in collections such as Eight Tales and On the Edge, but I’m choosing perhaps his most famous work, this lyrical and haunting poem. It’s never clear what bargain the traveller has made, and with whom, only that he has kept his word to come to the deserted house in the wood. The opening line still makes my hair stand on end: “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door.”

 8. “Bewitched” by Edith Wharton (1925)

The celebrated author of novels such as The House of Mirth, Wharton was also a terrific writer of ghostly tales. A blend of Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James, she has a lightness of touch that belies the often very grisly tale. This story, first published in the Pictorial Review in 1925, has a fabulous sense of place and is a revenant story with a twist. It leaves the reader doubting their interpretation of events. Clever stuff.

 9. “The Ghosts” by Antonia Barber (1969)

This is my favourite children’s ghost story, a wonderful time-slip novel set during the first world war. Lucy and Jamie Allen move with their mother and baby brother to the country, where their mother has been engaged by a mysterious gentleman, Mr Blunden, as caretaker of an abandoned house until the rightful owner can be traced. One day, Lucy is walking in the garden to explore and to pick flowers when she meets Sara and Georgie. It becomes clear that the children are ghosts, children of the house who died 100 years ago in the fire that destroyed the estate. It’s a gentle, thoughtful ghost story, of parallel time and the chance to make amends for mistakes in an earlier life. The novel won the Carnegie Medal and was filmed in 1972 as The Amazing Mr Blunden.

 10. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1982)

For my money, the greatest of the contemporary ghost writers. Hill creates believable period characters, she creates a hermetic world that yet speaks of wider superstitions and histories, and creates plots with tension, pace and jeopardy without ever becoming heavy-handed. This is a story of vengeance, of an old curse from an embittered woman, all centred on the brooding Eel Marsh House, gloomy and isolated and cut off from the mainland at high tide. As the tension of premonition and disaster builds and builds, the ghostly screams of an accident long ago will haunt the reader’s imagination long after the last page has been turned. Perfect.


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Five Best Novels on Friendship

The Golden Notebook

By Doris Lessing (1962)

‘The two women were alone in the London flat.” Thus opens a series of unflinching scenes from two years in the lives of Anna Wulf and Molly Jacobs. These key characters in Doris Lessing’s novel—a work blisteringly truthful about money, love, politics and sex—became friends as members of the British Communist Party. Each is divorced and raising a child. Molly is preoccupied with the direction life is taking for her 20-year-old son, Tommy, while the talented Anna, the author of a best seller, suffers from writer’s block. The narrative unfolds in excerpts from Anna’s journals, ultimately becoming a record of her struggle against emotional breakdown. “The Golden Notebook” has been variously judged a feminist treatise, a commentary on the end of Stalinism and a cornerstone of postmodernism. All valid readings, but the book is, for this reader, brilliant above all in its portrayal of the subtle facets of friendship, love and self-deception—and as a portrait of a complexly lived inner life.

The Folded Leaf

By William Maxwell (1945)

After a near-drowning in swim class, two boys—bookish Lymie Peters, who is saved by the fierce, athletic Spud Latham—stick together through the rites of adolescence in 1920s Chicago. The two are inseparable even in college, until their friendship is threatened in unexpected ways. In this beautiful, quiet book, William Maxwell—who was for 40 years the fiction editor of the New Yorker—observes the intricacies of loyalty and trust. Published in 1945, long before the popularization of identity politics, the novel creates its own haunting territory between friendship and sexual love. Maxwell rewrote it more than a decade later to include a revelatory scene about the young men’s relationship—yet it is Maxwell’s gift for rendering the fragility of attachment that makes this book so disarming and memorable.

Mary McCarthy

The Group

Mary McCarthy (1963)

It has been nearly half a century since Mary McCarthy published this trenchant classic about the lives of eight Vassar graduates (class of 1933). Is it possible that, decades after the sexual revolution, the preoccupations of many educated American women are not so different from those of McCarthy’s “group”? Apparently, yes. The grads take jobs, meet lovers and struggle into mid-life. The novel gains authority from a kind of collective intelligence, telling us the truth about Kay Strong’s unfortunate marriage to an actor; about Priss Hartshorn’s efforts to breast-feed her baby; about Polly Andrews’s affair with a married man. The interlocking chapters work as wry commentary on class, love and sex.

A Fine Balance

By Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This magnificent novel, set in India during the 1975 Emergency, depicts a world in which friendship becomes a brief salvation for human beings at the mercy of social and political oppression. Dina Dalal, a widow struggling to maintain her independence by running a sewing business in her apartment, hires Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, an untouchable uncle and nephew seeking a better life. But Om and Ishvar are challenged in their efforts to work: They are loaded onto a bus and forced to rally in support of the prime minister; then their shanty is torn down, forcing them to sleep on the street, where they are rounded up to do forced labor on an irrigation project. At last, Dina permits them to stay in her apartment, along with her boarder, Maneck Kohlah. The flowering friendship among Dina, Om, Ishvar and Maneck forms the heart of the book. For a brief time, the makeshift family “sails under one flag.” Dickensian in its structure and panoramic in its scope, “A Fine Balance” reaches great heights of tragedy and absurdity, but it is never more engrossing than in its detailed depictions of the four friends as they cook together, eat together and share the same bathroom.

Crossing to Safety

By Wallace Stegner (1987)

On a frosty night in Madison, Wis., in 1937, two young and hopeful couples form a bond that carries them through the next 34 years. Larry and Sally Morgan, talented but poor, are befriended by the wealthy and idealistic Sid and Charity Lang. After one memorable year in Madison, the couples and their children continue to meet in Vermont in the summers. Over time, their life expectations are tested again and again. Sid longs to be a poet but finds his dreams in conflict with those of his vivacious wife. Larry’s own writing is put on hold when Sally is stricken with polio. In old age, the Morgans and Langs meet for a final time. The wilderness of Vermont, beautiful and threatening, suffuses their last, wrenching conversations, lending a natural mortality to this examination of human love and frailty. “I didn’t know myself well, and still don’t,” Larry acknowledges. “But I did know, and know now, the few people I loved and trusted.”

Ms. Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her latest novel, “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost,” has just been published.


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Ten of the best mirrors in literature

Richard II, by William Shakespeare A weak king but a consummate drama queen, Richard II sends for a looking glass when he finds himself about to be deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. “Give me the glass, and therein will I read. / No deeper wrinkles yet?” Pronouncing his regal glory “brittle”, he smashes the mirror on the ground, “For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.”

“Snow White”, by the Brothers Grimm Those famous lines addressed by the evil, vain queen to her magic mirror were originally in German: “Spieglein, Spieglein, an der Wand / Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?” “You are,” is always the mirror’s answer, until one day the mirror tells her that her beauty has been surpassed by that of her step-daughter, Snow White . . .

“The Lady of Shalott”, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson The eponymous lady is condemned to watch the world indirectly, via a mirror that exhibits to her the shifting scenes of Camelot. “A curse is on her” if she look directly from her casement. But then Sir Lancelot rides by, and she cannot resist a gander. Oh dear. “The mirror crack’d from side to side; / ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott.”

Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll Alice is playing with her kittens in front of a large mirror. “How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty?” she asks. Before you know it, she is up on the mantelpiece. “Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through.”

Dracula, by Bram Stoker A mirror shows Jonathan Harker that he really is in a fix. “This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!” Gulp!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde Dorian is in the habit of taking a mirror up to the locked room containing his portrait and comparing his reflection with the increasingly horrid image on the canvas. When he realises what a monster he has become, he becomes another mirror-smasher. “He loathed his own beauty, and flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel.”

“I Look into My Glass”, by Thomas Hardy For the ageing poet, a mirror is a cruel thing. “I look into my glass, / And view my wasting skin, / And say, ‘Would God it came to pass / My heart had shrunk as thin!'”Hardy sees his wasting frame but feels the old “throbbings of noontide”.

“Mirror”, by Sylvia Plath Plath finds a mirror thoroughly uncanny. “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.” A woman gazes intro this glass, which is as unpitying as Hardy’s. “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish”.

“The Mirrror”, by Paul Muldoon Muldoon’s poem in memory of his father imagines another malign mirror, taking his father’s “breath away” when he took it down from the wall. Now the dead man’s life has gone into the glass. “When I took hold of the mirror / I had a fright. I imagined him breathing through it.” Father and son seem to replace the mirror together.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters The most overtly supernatural event in Waters’s novel involves a mirror. Rod, heir to spooky Hundreds Hall, tells the narrator that he has just seen a mirror on a stand walk its way across his bedroom. Is he cracking up? Or is there a poltergeist? Hauntingly (in every sense) the novel ends with the narrator catching his own reflection in a mirror.


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Five Best Books on Innocents and Innocence Lost

Mrs. Leicester’s School

By Mary Lamb (1809)

It was long, long ago that I happened to draw from a bulging third-grade Thanksgiving grab-bag an entrancingly illustrated collection of stories about little English girls exiled to boarding school. Ostensibly a book for children, “Mrs. Leicester’s School” had a kind of mythic weight, and at least one of its tales, “The Changeling,” was so heartlessly piercing that, like some legendary metamorphosis, it chilled me for life; I feel its coldness even now. An envious nurse secretly switches babies:—her own daughter will be lovingly reared in a mansion, while the child of nobility, the true daughter of Sir Edward and Lady Harriot Lesley, must humbly endure the other girl’s condescension. But unrelenting class rigidity is merely the carapace of this fabled ruse. After some years the plot is uncovered, clumsily, by the falsely aristocratic child, and each is restored to her rightful parents. For the fallen daughter more than pride of place has been pricked; the most elemental self is subverted and eviscerated. The lie that wounds children is the most chilling of all. “Mrs. Leicester’s School,” Coleridge wrote, “should be acknowledged as a rich jewel in the treasure of our permanent English literature.”

Other People’s Houses

By Lore Segal (1964)

Graham Greene

This prodigiously perceptive memoir in the form of a novel turns out to be still another changeling tale, though here it is deadly force that casts the child out of her proper milieu. The cherished daughter of cultivated parents (banker father, musically gifted mother) is made to flee Nazi-infested Vienna via the Kindertransport, a charitable program to bring young Jewish refugees to England, where they will be entrusted to the care of strangers. Ten-year-old Lore, introspective and vulnerable, is sent to live with a series of well-intentioned persons of inferior culture who nevertheless appear to the child to possess unanswerable worldly power. Once confident of unstinting familial love, she is transmuted overnight into a cautious, anxious and deferential watcher of alien mores and motives; she judges, understands, sees. She is already the writer she will inexorably become.
What Maisie Knew

By Henry James (1897)

‘It made her wonder more sharply what she could do or not do, what particular word she should speak or not speak, what particular line she could take or not take, that might for everyone . . . give a better turn to the crisis.” This mazy thinking is Maisie’s; a preternaturally observant young child of divorce, she wields her “little instinct of keeping the peace” in a labyrinth of adults and their shifting allegiances, brutal hatreds and hidden adulteries. Surrounded, even ambushed, by selfishness, but she is too ingenuous to see how cruelly she is its hostage. The clues—contradictory hostile signals—are there but uncertain and opaque. Of all James’s innocents, Maisie is the most manipulated and the most unsullied. Appraising James’s own acutely intuitive childhood, Leon Edel, his eminent biographer, said of Maisie: “In reality, she is a study of himself.”

A Lost Lady

By Willa Cather (1923)

Niel Herbert is a small boy when he first falls under the spell of the young wife of Captain Forrester, a pioneer railroad builder and the town’s most respected figure. Mrs. Forrester is an enchantress: Her fine house with its unspoiled acreage, the fashionable brilliance of her dress, the uncommon charm of her “many-colored laugh,” her lively engagement with everyone she encounters—all this enthralls Niel well into his 20s. Even as he sees her aging and widowed, even as he discovers her unsavory liaison with a dishonest local ruffian, he remains captivated. Years will pass before the boy’s faithful awe will give way to the man’s bitter disillusionment. But Willa Cather knows that the heart is a perplexing mixture of beauty and pain and that early adoration betrayed can sometimes end in a kind of forgiveness or, failing that, in bewildered and undying sympathy.

The Heart of the Matter

By Graham Greene (1948)

In the heart of this novel of war, smuggling, spying and illicit love, a ship carrying civilians is broken up at sea. After 40 days in open boats, the survivors are brought to an African colony presided over by British officialdom and a handful of humorless Catholic missionaries. Among the ailing passengers are young Mrs. Rolt, freshly widowed by her husband’s drowning, and a boy suffering from fever. Maj. Henry Scobie, a police officer, is called on to read aloud to the child from the mission’s collection of dry-as-dust pious uplift. In a rush of spontaneous invention and moral ingenuity, Scobie transforms “A Bishop Among the Bantus” into a suitably violent pirate yarn. But soon his fabrications accelerate: from the lie that comforts to the lie that deceives. In an excess of pity and love—moved to desire by the pathos of Mrs. Rolt, steeped in tenderness for his unsuspecting wife—Scobie plummets ever deeper into guilt-haunted sin. Yet if too much loving compassion makes a sinner, then how do we recognize an innocent?

Ms. Ozick’s lastest book, the novel “Foreign Bodies,” has just been published by Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt.


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Ten of the best balls in literature

Roxana by Daniel Defoe

The high point for Defoe’s high-class courtesan is her “little ball” in her swanky London apartments. Even the king turns up, and she makes her grand entrance in Turkish dress, prompting all the Restoration beaux to chant “Roxana! Roxana!” (an exotic beauty popular from the Restoration stage). “My dress was the chat of the town for that week; and so the name of Roxana was the toast at and about the court”.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny Price cannot bloom unseen for ever. Sir Thomas Bertram stages a ball at which she will come out into society. She gets to dance with Edmund, which is nice, but has Henry Crawford at her too, with all his sexy compliments. By three o’clock in the morning Fanny is all “knocked up”, as her brother delicately puts it.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

“There was a sound of revelry by night”. Byron’s narrative poem re-enacts the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. But the party has to end. “Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, / And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress, / And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago / Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness”.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray’s Napoleonic magnum opus stages the very same ball. Dance, flirt and be merry, for tomorrow you may well die. Soppy Amelia’s husband is beguiled by her sexy, manipulative friend Becky and invites her to elope with him. Amelia slinks away, heartbroken.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary loves a ball but it always makes her discontented. After she and her dull husband attend a glamorous ball given by the Marquis d’Andervilliers she begins to chafe at the restrictions of provincial married life. Her ambition to consort with toffs has been awakened.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Kitty goes to a ball prepared to perform the first quadrille with Vronsky. Tolstoy seems to know not only about her feelings of excitement, but also about the arrangement of her tulle dress over her pink slip and elaborate coiffure “surmounted by a rose and two small leaves”. Everyone wants to dance with her, naturellement

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The first great set-piece of Wharton’s society novel is Mrs Julius Beaufort’s annual ball. It is a magnificent affair, for the Beauforts have a ballroom, “used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness”. At this ball, Newland Archer feels the pull of the fascinating Countess Olenska.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Toni, a young cavalry officer, makes a mortifying blunder at a ball by inviting Edith to dance. He has not realised that she is lame and cannot walk. In the days that follow he calls on her to assuage his guilt and finds that she has fallen in love with him. But he does not love her; he only pities her.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

There are more balls in Heyer’s oeuvre than in that of any other novelist. In this Regency romance, impecunious Frederica Merriville hopes to launch her beautiful younger sister into society and enlists the help of their louche relation the Marquis of Alverstoke. At a ball for his rich, stodgy niece, the Merriville girls shine and passions begin to boil. 

Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie, the sexually repressed girl with telekinetic powers, is taken to the prom ball by nice, handsome Tommy. He and she are voted king and queen of the ball, but, at the crowning moment, Carrie is doused in pig’s blood by a nasty rival. She lives to regret it . . .


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Block That Adjective!

I am not at all sure—convinced, certain, persuaded—that creative-writing courses are a good idea unless they prevent people from writing sentences like this one, where adjectives—useful, helpful, intensely descriptive words—are stacked upon one another as Pelion used to be piled upon Ossa. Phew! That sentence took some writing and ended, you will have noticed, with a rather useful classical allusion. Thank you.

My bête noire—and there is nothing wrong with using the occasional French expression, although one does not want to sound too much like a menu—is overwriting. Something is overwritten when there is just too much of it. This may be because the writer has labored the point and made a mountain out of a molehill, or because too many words are used. As a result, descriptions are cluttered and the prose quickly becomes unreadable. There is a lot of it about.

The problem is that we speak English. Some languages, such as English or Spanish, have immensely rich vocabularies: If we want to describe something in English, we have a wide choice of words at our disposal and can say what we want to say in many different ways. The problem does not occur if one is writing in, say, Melanesian Pidgin, where rather few words are at your disposal and most of them are pithy in the extreme.

For some people, being able to use all these words is rather like being faced with a chocolate box with multiple layers; the temptation to overindulge is just too great. The result is the use of too many adjectives, adverbs and subsidiary clauses. Such writing then begins to sound contrived. Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think, and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page.

The real aim, of course, is conciseness. Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect. It is sparing in its use of metaphor. And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives. Look at the King James Bible, that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty. The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple, so direct. “Let there be light, and there was light.” That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives. If we fiddle about with it, we lose that. “Let there be light, and there was a sort of matutinal,* glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused, etc.” No, that doesn’t work.

There is a place for the adjective and for the descriptive passage, but these must be carefully handled. A piece of prose that had no adjectives would very quickly become sterile; so it really is a question of restraint. There is a psychological reason for this: If somebody sets out in great detail what is before us, we very quickly become bored. That is not the way we see the world; we look for salience, we look for the feature that will engage our interest. Think about how we describe a cityscape. We do not list and describe every building, we refer to one or two. Manhattan, for instance, can be conjured up with a description of the spire of the Chrysler building; the reader’s imagination can do the rest.

And therein lies the problem. The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene. We do not want to be told everything; we want a few brushstrokes, a few carefully chosen adjectives, and then we can do the rest ourselves. It’s Roget’s fault, of course. I blame him and his wretched thesaurus. Put it away.

* of or pertaining to morning; don’t use this word.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 60 books, including the “No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series.


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Inspiration Revised

Mining the unconscious can be dull. Get me rewrite

When I was a 14-year-old aspiring writer, I wished more than anything for a book explaining the alchemy that transformed words to gold. How did poets cast such a spell? How did novelists spin their silk?

My biology text diagramed the Krebs cycle. My social studies teacher spelled out the principle of supply and demand. I wanted a comparable explanation for literature. I understood that art requires inspiration, not formulas. All the same, I wondered where I might find a road map to Dickens’s brilliance, or a Lonely Planet Guide to Poetry.

One day I found just such a book in my school library. In Aileen Ward’s biography, “John Keats: The Making of Poet,” I learned the tragic story of Keats’s poverty, his vocation, his remarkable friendships, his love for Fanny Brawne and his death at age 26. I learned something else too: the story of Keats’s development as a writer.

Author Allegra Goodman

Analyzing manuscripts, Ms. Ward showed that the Odes did not spring fully formed from their author’s imagination. Keats improved every line, crossing out conventional phrases and replacing them with stronger, rarer choices. Studying Keats’s revisions, Ward concluded that a poet is made, not born. What a startling, unromantic reading of a Romantic poet. What a remarkable assertion about writers: Even the great ones work for greatness.

Now here was a challenge, and an opportunity as well. Starting with inspiration and some talent, you could work to be a writer. You could keep revising, and improve.

Why was this idea so surprising and liberating for me? Like many literary teenagers, I believed that art was a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is the most authentic, that revision is something you do to essays but hardly applies to poetry or fiction. I pictured revision as drudge work, spoiling all that was fresh and original. But what if revision actually improved ideas?

I struggled with revision. As a young writer, I hated cutting paragraphs or pages I had labored over, and struggled to rearrange scenes or rethink characters. I’d revise when friends or editors pointed out problems, but I had trouble starting a revision on my own. Gradually, I learned to set my work aside for days and weeks and return to it with new distance and objectivity. Slowly, I began to identify my own awkward phrases and bad habits.

My writing improved when I unpacked sentences, searched for stronger verbs and cut meandering description. My ideas improved as well. Strange but true: What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often most conventional.

We grow up hearing that we should just be ourselves, and listen to our inner voices. But what if your authentic self won’t shut up? What if your inner voice is boring? In revision you cut excess verbiage. Revising, you can experiment with other voices.

It’s great to tap into your unconscious, but remember how impressionable the unconscious can be, how quick to absorb the tropes of television and romance and life-affirming or cautionary memoir. Revision means testing and questioning conventions, forging a path through the cultural clutter that we mistake for our own creativity.

As a teenager I put off revision for as long as possible. Now, I make revision part of my routine. I begin by rewriting the pages I wrote the day before. Art no longer seems like alchemy to me. Like a scientist, I test my ideas and hone the words I use as instruments. Revision is a form of experimentation, art a method for discovery.

Allegra Goodman’s latest novels is “The Cookbook Collector.” She teaches a course on revision in the Master of Fine Arts program at Boston University.


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The Mastery of Georges Simenon

He created a world that you can smell and taste, that you enter in riveted fascination

“I was born in the dark and in the rain and I got away. The crimes I write about are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away.” In this celebrated statement—from an interview with the New Yorker—the novelist Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, dramatized his own life with a characteristic mixture of self-congratulation and false modesty. But Simenon (1903-89) was not just shooting a line, and the evidence is to be found in “Pedigree,” his lengthy but little-read autobiographical novel. Written in the dark days of Nazi-occupied France, “Pedigree” (1948) stands alone among the author’s mature novels because it took him more than two years to write, rather than the usual three weeks.

“Pedigree” is an unforgettable picture of the Belgian city of Liège and its people as observed by the innocent but pitiless eye of a very unusual little boy. It is a Dickensian portrait, with poverty, crime, lunacy, wealth, corruption, and mockery, but a complete absence of Dickensian sentimentality. The story opens with the birth of Roger Mamelin in 1903 and ends with the liberation of the city from German occupation in November 1918.

PARIS NOIR: Brassaï’s 1934 photograph of headlights on Paris’s Avenue de l’Observatoire.
The author objected to the book being called an “autobiographical novel,” but the details of Roger’s life are too close to those of Simenon’s for argument. Roger’s parents, the houses the family inhabited in the working-class district of Outremeuse, the schools Roger attends, the aunts and uncles and cousins of his extended Flemish-Walloon family, the Russian and Jewish lodgers his mother takes in, are all just like those in Simenon’s life. In many cases, the novelist did not even bother to alter the names.

This Liège is a place where the crowded streets are dominated by lethal electric trams and the market is made lively by battling, foul-mouthed fishwives. As a child, Simenon noticed and remembered the “fat, pink arms of the dairymaid,” the smell of eggs and bacon in the kitchen before a summer’s day picnic in the wooded heights outside the city, and the rituals of Catholic life and, more particularly, death. Then there were the horrors of war and occupation—no fuel, no food, the terror of collective punishments and all the prettiest girls on the arms of German soldiers.

The only hero in Roger’s life is his father Désiré, an honorable failure: a tall trustworthy insurance clerk who the little boy adores—all equally true of Simenon’s father, Désiré. In “Pedigree,” Désiré is married to the monstrous Élise. The battle between Roger and his mother dominates the novel, with the child struggling to understand the volcanic, unloving personality that fate had given him for a mother.


A Reader’s Guide to Simenon

Simenon became world-famous for Inspector Maigret, the good police detective who solved crimes through intuition and a shrewd understanding of human frailty. There are 76 Maigret books, most of which evoke a pungent world of 1950s Paris and provincial France: street markets, warm bars, cold beer and a policeman with the patience of the hound of heaven. The best include “The Madman of Bergerac” (1932), “Maigret’s Dead Man” (1948), “Maigret on Holiday” (1948), “Maigret and the Calame Report” (1955), “The Patience of Maigret” (1965) and “Inspector Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife” (1951). You couldn’t go wrong starting with any of these mysteries.

But Simenon also wrote 117 literary novels, which he called romans durs: psychological stories that examine the behavior of apparently non descript characters at a time of extreme personal crisis. The greatest of these have been ranked among the finest French-language fiction of the 20th century. Between 1946 and 1955, Simenon lived in America, mainly in Arizona and Connecticut, and during this period he produced many of his best novels. “Three Beds in Manhattan” (1946) is a study of sexual jealousy and fear of loss. “Act of Passion” (1947) takes the form of a letter written by a convicted murderer, a doctor in a small French town, to the judge who condemned him. “The Hitchhiker” (1955) takes place on Labor Day on the road between New York and Maine and is the story of an alcoholic whose wife is kidnapped by a killer on the run. “Dirty Snow” (1948), considered by many to be his finest novel, takes place in an unidentified country under German occupation during World War II. Its anti-hero is an 18-year-old youth who commits abject crimes but refuses to break under torture.

Simenon’s is a world that you can smell and taste and that you enter in riveted fascination. His characters stay with you for life. There is the drunken lawyer in “Strangers in the House” (1939), for instance; or the elderly sisters in “Poisoned Relations” (1938), trapped in mutual hatred inside the family home. There is also the building contractor in “The Accomplices” (1955), watching as the police close in on the hit-and-run driver who has killed a bus full of school children. Although you may be appalled by the imaginary world that the novelist inhabited, you are not repelled. On the contrary, you are drawn back to it again and again. So fecund was Simenon’s imagination that there can be no short list of his finest novels. Any such summary must include, along with the titles mentioned above, “The Engagement” (1933), “The House by the Canal” (1933), “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By” (1938), “Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945), “The Heart of a Man” (1950), “The Door” (1962) and “The Little Saint” (1965).

Patrick Marnham

This drama comes straight from the author’s childhood. “The Simenons,” he once said, “took life as a straight line, the Brülls [his mother’s family] came from a tormented race.” From the start of the story, Simenon emphasizes the contrast between Roger’s father’s French-speaking Walloon family and his mother’s Flemish relations. At the time of his birth in 1903, sophisticated or ambitious Belgians spoke French, the language of the country’s dominant group, and Flemish speakers were patronized or treated with contempt. The division grew worse during the 20th century when Belgium suffered two brutal German occupations and Flemish-Belgians were accused of being less anti-German.

Shortly after World War I ended, Désiré Simenon died, and one year later Georges, aged 19, left Liège and never lived in Belgium again. He moved to Paris, started to write pulp fiction and eventually created Inspector Maigret. One of the models for the inspector was undoubtedly Désiré, the merciful father, now brought back to life as the just policeman who exemplifies Georges Simenon’s motto: “Understand, don’t condemn.” But there are also some touches of the autobiographical: Maigret knows the criminal world and studies human nature; he operates on intuition, like a novelist. “Pedigree” shows where the creator of Maigret gained some of this knowledge.

At the age of 15, Simenon (like the novel’s Roger Mamelin) was living in a city made desperate by four years of military occupation. He abandoned his schooling and hesitated on the verge of a life of crime. He was tempted by the black market. He joined his mother on food-smuggling ventures. He had friends who procured girls for prostitution, and together they discussed opportunities for blackmail. He was saved by chance; his father became gravely ill, and Georges was told to leave school and find a job.

By 1939, when war broke out again, Simenon was a highly successful popular novelist who had decided to terminate the Maigret series and work to win the Nobel Prize with his romans durs (“hard novels”), as he called his literary fiction. His working methods were notorious. He did not just write his stories; he lived them. He immersed himself in the personality of his leading character, went into “a sort of trance” and, possessed by the world he was creating, worked in short bursts at tremendous speed.

He would type a page every 20 minutes, 1,500 words an hour, 4,500 words a day for 20 days. In this way he could produce three or four books a year and take nine or more months off. While he was writing he could drink two liters of red wine a day and still lose weight. His children would watch him from the window, notice how his walk changed and try to guess what sort of character would emerge in the next book. But “Pedigree” was different. He did little else in 1942 except write this book. He worked on it in 1941 and in 1943 as well.

The period when “Pedigree” was written explains much. Living again under German occupation, Simenon’s imagination returned to his own childhood. War had traumatized him as a boy and his relationship with his mother, Henriette, was a lifelong trauma. For the purposes of the novel, the author conflated the anguish, making Roger’s mother, Élise, half-German, whereas in real life Henriette Simenon was entirely Flemish.

The other clear departure from biography was that Roger Mamelin is an only child, whereas Georges had a younger brother, Christian. In 1944, as German forces retreated from Belgium, Christian Simenon went on the run, accused of collaboration. On the advice of Georges, he joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed fighting in Indochina in October 1947. Henriette never forgave Georges for helping his younger brother to join the Foreign Legion.

Simenon insisted that “Pedigree” was a book in which “everything is true while nothing is accurate.” But the story was close enough to real life for three people to sue him successfully for libel. (He had to pay damages and cut several passages from the French-language editions of the novel.) His version of the truth was a novelist’s psychological truth, and the most important truth he revealed in “Pedigree” was the identity of his lifelong muse.

Simenon married twice and enjoyed long-standing affairs with two domestic servants; he died in the arms of a maid originally hired by his second wife. But the woman who drove his work was none of these; nor was it any of the 10,000 women he famously claimed to have conquered. It was his mother, the over-apologetic, proud little lodging-house proprietor whose standards he never managed to reach and who never loved him as she loved his younger brother.

Shortly before she died in 1970, Henriette visited Georges in Switzerland, where he was living the life of a millionaire, and returned every penny of the money he had sent her over the years. When she died, Simenon’s inspiration died too. The man who had published 76 Maigrets and 117 dark novels battled on for 12 months and then gave up writing fiction.

Mr. Marnham is the author of “The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret.”


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Five Best Books on Animal Survival

To Know a Fly

By Vincent G. Dethier (1962)

Vincent Dethier spent a lifetime researching the senses, in particular those of insects. His “To Know a Fly” (not an easy task—there are more than 50,000 species) is an exuberant investigation of such matters as taste, hunger and satiation and their role in the survival of the humble housefly. He observes that a pregnant female fly will stop consuming sugar—an “adequate food for her, but useless for her eggs,” preferring instead protein that is good for the eggs but won’t nourish her. “In some quarters it would be hailed as maternal instinct,” he writes, “and by so naming it we would be no nearer an understanding of what it is.” Dethier’s learning from countless fly experiments is vast, but he is bracing in his acknowledgment of what remains unknown. “To espouse ultimate understanding of even so simple a brain,” he says, “reflects an optimism outside the natural order.” But he is entirely convincing when he says that a properly conducted experiment is “an adventure, an expedition, a conquest” and that to know a fly “is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge.”

To Know a Fly by Vincent G. Dethier

Nerve Cells and Insect Behavior

By Kenneth D. Roeder (1963)

This book presents Kenneth Roeder’s most famous discovery—that some moths are able to detect the calls of echo-locating bats and employ defensive measures to evade the predators. The revelation was made all the more remarkable by its timing: only a few years after Donald Griffin astonished the scientific community in 1958 with his revelation that bats “see” the world with their ears. Roeder examines the senses and behavior of insects at the level of neural mechanisms, and along the way we learn about not only the tactics of escape-artist moths but also about the evasive maneuvers of cockroaches and other insects. The study is the product of neuron monitoring via electrical eavesdropping, which means that there is a lot of technical writing in “Nerve Cells and Insect Behavior”—a fascinating work if you stay with it.

Nerve Cells and Insect Behavior | 9780674608016 | Kenneth D. Roeder |  Boeken |

Desert Animals

By Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (1964)

Despite extremes of heat and lack of water, the desert is home to “a richer animal life than we can imagine,” Knut Schmidt-Nielsen says in this pioneering study. The animals that survive in such extreme conditions are aided by a variety of adaptations. For instance, the camel’s body temperature fluctuates wildly—camels start out “cold” in the morning so that they overheat less easily later in the day. The kangaroo rat’s kidney produces only small amounts of highly concentrated urine, enabling the animal to forgo water for long periods and live on air-dried food. After reading Schmidt-Nielsen’s evocation of a world where countless hardy animals thrive, you’ll never again look at a desert expanse and think it barren.

Desert Animals. Physiological Problems of Heat and Water.:  Schmidt-Nielsem, Knut: Books

Honeybee Democracy

By Thomas D. Seeley (2010)

In ‘HONEYBEE DEMOCRACY,’ Thomas Seeley explains how a honeybee colony divides and reproduces: A contingent of 10,000 bees or more communicate among themselves and arrive unanimously at a decision about the best available new home. Building on a lifetime of observation and experimentation, Seeley relates the story with admirable clarity as we see his beloved honeybees—which have been in the consensus-building business for perhaps 200 million years—embark on the establishment of a new outpost. The process begins with a few scout bees and involves a vigorous debate before an agreement is reached. Then, on a signal, the group leaves en masse for the chosen place, likely a hollow tree some kilometers distant that the majority of the bees have never seen before. This spirit of cooperation, Seeley says, has much to tell us about solving complex human problems.

Review: Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley | Saturday Review | The Times

The Beak of the Finch

By Jonathan Weiner (1994)

Darwin made the Galápagos finches famous, but biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant and their graduate students deepened our understanding of how these small birds have survived and adapted across the centuries. Darwin supposed that the various kinds of finches, with their varying beaks and body sizes, came from diverse genetic backgrounds. But he later concluded that the finches were closely related and had thus likely evolved from a common stock. The Grants—working for three decades on the islands—bolstered Darwin’s insight that species are not immutable, as had been thought. One potential problem with Darwin’s theory had been that species appeared to be largely static, but the Grants succeeded in showing that evolution can be very rapid—beak shapes could change from year to year in response to, say, heightened mortality rates caused by food scarcity. Evidence of speedy adaptation has added meaning today as we witness insects becoming resistant to insecticides and bacteria surviving despite the most potent antibiotics.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner

Mr. Heinrich is the author of “The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy.”



Photos have been added.

Arthur, Revisited

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new treatment of Malory’s classic, Le Morte D’Arthur.

From the prolific Peter Ackroyd comes an adaptation of an adaptation: “The Death of King Arthur” is a smooth rendering into plain-seeming modern English of “Le Morte D’Arthur.”

This 15th-century work by Sir Thomas Malory is itself adapted from various French romances, with the theology omitted and the action astutely reordered. Mr. Ackroyd tells us in a short introduction that it was Malory’s “plangent and often elaborate prose” that inspired Milton, Dryden, Tennyson and Swinburne, among others, to write their poems about Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristram and the rest. Actually, many critics would see Malory’s style as “direct [and] unadorned,” as the scholar Elizabeth Archibald does—and it should be remembered that Malory has inspired some awful attempts on Arthur’s life as well as some classic ones. Mr. Ackroyd’s reworking belongs in a category with his attempt on the Canterbury Tales, which was published last year, and his biographies of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens and others, as part of his ongoing engagement with the literary culture of the English past.

“Le Morte D’Arthur” was the work of a man deeply enamored of the image of chivalry. Malory’s knights—particularly Lancelot, the greatest of them all—go out looking for trouble, in the hope of winning honor (Lancelot even steals a weaker knight’s armor so that he can ride out in disguise and attract more challengers). Single combat can go on for hours, sometimes with breaks, sometimes with spectators who simply have to stand and watch, their lives possibly hanging on a sword stroke. The impact of a spear throws many a knight off his horse. Blows to the helmet are brutal enough to crack a skull, and the ground is never left without a plentiful covering of gore. Yet this is a kind of processed brutality: There are rules of combat, of course, and scrupulous attention to this knightly code of conduct is rewarded with respect. Foul play—attacking an unarmed man, poisoning the tip of a sword—is the worst of crimes.

Away from the battlefield, things can be equally decorous, as when the narrator tersely turns away from a scene set in Guinevere’s chambers, shortly before the Queen and Lancelot are ambushed there. Thus, in Mr. Ackroyd’s version: “Whether they engaged in any of the sports of love, I cannot say. I do not like to mention such matters. I can assure you of one thing. Love in those days was quite a different game.”

Malory himself seems to have spent considerable portions of his adult life in prison, where he wrote at least some of his book, on various unseemly charges including rape, ambush, theft and extortion. His life and times were very different from the imagined age of chivalry and courtliness that he wrote about, and the Arthurian literary tradition was itself well-honed by then. Completed around 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485, “Le Morte Darthur” is “quite remote from the experience of life,” as Mr. Ackroyd explains; knights in 15th-century England were now “more likely to serve as members of parliament than as leaders in the field.”

Mr. Ackroyd’s “retelling” of this “Immortal Legend” (on the title page, it’s a retelling, on the spine of the book it’s an immortal legend) seems deliberately to mute the elaborate quality that he sees in Malory’s prose, and avoids as best it can any potentially tricky archaic language. Editions of the original tend to have well-thumbed glossaries and notes, even if the gist of Malory’s medieval English is apparent. “For thurgh our orgulyte we demaunded battaille of you, and yet we knewe not youre name,” Arthur says in the original, of a humiliating skirmish with Sir Tristram. His fellow knight, also defeated, adds: “Neuertheless by seynt crosse . . . he is a stronge knyght at myn aduyse as ony is now lyuyng.”

Mr. Ackroyd has Arthur say: “Our pride tempted us into battle. And still we do not know your name.” And the following line, treated here as a new paragraph, goes like this: “‘This man is as strong as any knight living,’ Sir Uwain said. ‘I will swear upon the Cross that I have not seen his like.'”

So while Mr. Ackroyd’s version is easily readable, it should not be taken as a straightforward attempt to capture the texture and nuances of “Le Morte Darthur.” There are certainly interpretations here that scholarly readers might query. Malory creates a particular verbal effect by having Tristram give Arthur “on the lyfte syde a grete wounde and a peryllous.” In Mr. Ackroyd’s text, this is just a “bad wound on his left side.” It is not wildly misleading, just more restrained than Malory.

Mr. Ackroyd rightly presents this as a “loose, rather than punctilious” translation, but also claims that he has “quietly amended Malory’s inconsistencies.” This isn’t quite true—there is still a nephew who is also called a brother, and the narrative darts around in potentially confusing ways (is Merlin trapped under an enchanted rock or not?).

At least the majesty of Malory’s book survives too, not least in the final chapters telling of the internal conflicts that destroy the Round Table, the passion of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the destiny that Arthur has had coming to him for a long time: death in battle. This, as retold by Peter Ackroyd, remains a bizarre but thrilling piece of writing.

Mr. Caines works for the Times Literary Supplement, and recently edited an anthology about the 18th-century actor David Garrick.

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Charles Yu’s top 10 time travel books

Time travel … A horologist at work inside Manchester Town Hall’s clockface.

Charles Yu is a director at Digital Domain, the Oscar-winning visual effects and animation company set up by James Cameron to create state-of-the-art digital imagery for feature films. His award-winning fiction has been published in magazines and literary journals, and he was named by The Daily Beast as a “writer to watch”. His debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, tells the story of a time traveller in search of the truth about his father.

“There are two kinds of stories: those that are explicitly about time travel, and those in which the time travel is hidden. Unless a narrative is supposed to represent a single, unbroken, continuous stretch of duration in the timeline of the actions portrayed (in which case it’s probably either a court transcript or pornography), there is always, in any story, some element of compression, dilation, distortion or deformation of time – which is a long-winded way of saying there are a lot of time travel stories, and choosing just 10, regardless of criteria, was very hard. I haven’t included, for instance, many of the best-known time travel books (The Time Machine by HG Wells, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few), because (i) everyone already knows about them, and/or (ii) they are already beloved, and deservedly so.

“Instead, I’ve come up with a much more idiosyncratic list. I’ve also cheated. This isn’t a list of 10 novels. I’ve got five novels, one book of lectures on literary theory, two short stories, and one seminal scientific paper. If they have anything in common, it’s that many of them are probably not thought of primarily as writings about time travel, even though they are all essentially about the fundamental weirdness of moving around in time.” 

1. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Vonnegut’s classic about a protagonist who comes “unstuck in time” is a four-dimensional cross-section (a novel) of a four-dimensional object (a life). A discontinuous, non-chronological examination of Billy Pilgrim’s temporal existence, especially his time in the war and the fire-bombing of Dresden. Plus, Trafalmadorians. As Professor Jack Gladney says, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “All plots tend to move deathward.” The truth of this statement is never more clear than in a time travel narrative, and particularly in Slaughterhouse-Five. Even though we are rarely moving in a straight, forward direction in time through this book, we are always, in every story, inevitably moving toward The End.

2. “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Almost instantly, I understood: ‘the garden of forking paths’ was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not to all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space.”

In the space of just a few pages, Borges manages to evoke an idea that might take other writers whole novels to explore: the idea of a narrative as a temporal labyrinth, a set of parallel, counterfactual universes. The brevity only adds to the mystery. We are given a glimpse of one momentarily illuminated portion of a single, ephemeral footpath in a far-flung region of the garden, but in that fleeting interval, we also can sense the scale of the branching structure, infinite in all directions.

 3. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

These are poems made of physics, or maybe physics made of poem. Professor Lightman, a physicist and a literature professor at MIT, creates a kind of rigorous dream, one in which equations (or even perhaps the minutes themselves) seem to hang in the air, or are embedded into the gauzy fabric of the Swiss town in which the young Einstein is dreaming. A town that, despite the fact that it seems to be filled with clocks, is permeated by a haunting stillness, a metaphysical, eternal quality, as if we are inside a word problem as illustrated by de Chirico.

 4. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Arno Strine can stop time at will (more or less; the exact mechanism that allows him to do so changes over the course of his life). He uses his ability as follows: he finds a woman who is sexually desirable to him, stops time, undresses her, writes down his thoughts about her anatomy, re-clothes her, then re-starts time. It’s not as creepy and invasive as it sounds (although maybe it is), because it seems to be an extended metaphor and meditation on fantasy, masturbation, thinking and writing. But here’s where the time travel comes in. When Strine has stopped time in the diegesis of the novel, but is still narrating his thoughts to you, as the reader, something very weird is going on. The narration of the story is taking place outside of time for everyone in the world of the book except for Strine, but it is, of course, still taking place in time for the reader in the physical world. In other words, it’s not just slowed-down time in the story; for large chunks of the book, no time is passing inside the book, meanwhile, plenty of time is passing for you outside. In other other words, this book is a time machine.

 5. The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

It’s hard for me to express how much I love this book. Deutsch weaves together concepts from the theory of computation, quantum mechanics and Karl Popper’s epistemology to make something entirely new. I doubt I understand more than 8% of the book. I’ve read it three times and I’m starting to think Deutsch is actually trying to tell me that I’m in the Matrix. I’ll keep reading it until I can’t read anymore.

 6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

I still remember the feeling of being swept away by this book in elementary school. Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, the brilliant children of world-class scientists, Drs Alex and Kate Murry, move through the cosmos via a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional folding of the space-time fabric. This universe felt more real than my own, and I desperately wanted to live in a place where kids could save their parents, where any minute now, one might be visited by an inter-dimensional being who would explain to me how much more there was to everything than I’d ever imagined.

 7. “—All You Zombies—” by Robert Heinlein

The ultimate time travel short story. The absolute limit in narrative economy and efficiency. One character begets him/herself, and all the others, too. It’s like a grand unified theorem of ontological paradox stories. Amazing that Mr Heinlein laid it all out in 1959.

8. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco

Adapted from Eco’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1993. It might seem like I’m veering off the path here a little, but I promise this is time travel-related, especially if you read chapter three, “Lingering in the Woods”, in which Eco lays out his explanation of the concepts of “story time”, “reading time” and “discourse time”, and explains how a text is a “lazy machine” that sometimes wants to linger and slow itself down.

9. “An example of a new type of cosmological solution of Einstein’s field equations of gravitation” by Kurt Gödel (Rev. Mod. Phys. 21: 447–450.)

OK, now I’m really cheating, but please bear with me. Albert Einstein once told a colleague that he joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, chiefly for the purpose of walking home with Kurt Gödel. Somehow, out of those leisurely strolls through campus, the two got to talking, and then one day, Gödel says to Einstein, “Hey, guess what, I’ve got a solution to Einstein’s field equations for gravitation that involves a rotating universe where time travel is possible”. Now, granted, Gödel probably didn’t call them “Einstein’s field equations”, since he was talking to Einstein – he probably called them “your equations”, and he probably didn’t drop it so casually in conversation: more likely he gave him some calculations on a piece of paper. Regardless, the point is that Kurt Gödel actually discovered mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equations that would allow for a form of time travel in a universe that was governed by general relativity. Not this universe, a hypothetical yet theoretically possible one. But still: whoa! 

10. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

Who can forget the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional tense? This book is my own Total Perspective Vortex on writing. Always something to go back to, in order to feel small, and to laugh, and to remember that whatever I think I might do in the future, Mr Adams probably already did it in the past. And did it funnier.


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William Fotheringham’s top 10 cycling novels

Tour de France
Spoke words … the Tour de France.

William Fotheringham is the Guardian’s cycling columnist and the author of Cyclopedia: It’s All About the Bike, which is published by Yellow Jersey Press.  

“Two-wheeled life has proved a rich vein for publishers in the last 10 years, in tandem with the rapid expansion of the sport throughout the UK. Memoirs and biographies of racers abound, and the quality is generally high, but literature about cycling – whether for sport or pleasure – rarely breaks the surface and doesn’t tend to get into your local shop. Partly that’s because, for all its popularity, cycling stopped being a force for social change a century ago, but the recent dearth of two-wheeled novels may be also be down to the fact tha in recent years, the stuff that has gone on behind the scenes on the great races surpasses mere fiction. It would take a fair stretch of the imagination to come up with more curious stuff than cyclists hiding condoms of someone else’s urine up their behinds to “flick” drugs tests; more unlikely violence than sprinters raining headbutts on the opposition; more gruesome injuries than those unhappily suffered by the occasional crash victim in a major race. 

“The criteria I imposed were deliberately restrictive: the novel has to be centred on the act of cycling, rather than merely including bike riding as a means of transport or in background description. Sadly, this eliminated the short passage in The Sun Also Rises in which Hemingway describes the riders in the Tour of the Basque country, and on the same count I ruled out Alfred Jarry’s chapter on cyclists involved in a perpetual motion race in The Supermale.”

1. The Wheels of Chance by HG Wells

Charming if little-known short romance in which Hoopdriver, a clerk on a cycling holiday, rescues a young lady from a sticky situation and inevitably falls for her. The descriptions of the act of cycling and the mild satire on class distinctions are probably more alluring than the somewhat staid love story.

2. Cat by Freya North

Two-wheeled chick-lit in which the heroine, a journalist, sets out to report the Tour de France, inevitably getting entangled with some shaven legs along the way. Big egos and bigger bulges in the lycra shorts, as North puts it. Perturbingly, Cat’s boss at the Guardian is called William Fotheringham.

3. Bad to the Bone by James Waddington

Racy thriller in which top pros in the Tour de France become ensnared in a Faustian pact with a sports doctor who guarantees success but demands the ultimate price: their lives. Appeared in 1998, the year of the sport’s biggest ever drugs scandal. Twelve years on it still seems grimly apposite.

4. The Rider by Tim Krabbé

Surreal Dutch novel, available in translation, which depicts a bike race from within the mind of one of the racers, back story and all. If thought is the enemy of action, it’s hard to see how the rider ever made the finish. That apart, there are few better fictional descriptions of the process of racing. 

5. The Yellow Jersey by Ralph Hurne

Perhaps the most politically incorrect cycling novel ever, from the big-breasted lady on the cover to the narrator’s habit of calling possible sexual partners “it”. But the tale of washed-up shag-happy pro Terry Davenporting’s one last comeback to ride the Tour is curiously compelling, while the loss of most of the top cyclists after a drugs scandal is prescient for a book written in 1973.

 6. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Magical realist detective story by one of Ireland’s greats, featuring a pair of bike-mad policemen, celebrated for the “atomic theory” according to which bike nuts become half-man, half bike and the machines develop human characteristics. “You can tell a man with a lot of bike in his veins by his walk,” writes O’Brien. Some may question whether this is fiction.

7. Serse e la Bestia by Mauro Gorrino

Short Italian novel in which the protagonist is Serse Coppi, brother of the campionissimo Fausto, in a fictionalised account of his last race, an event in which he died. The beast represents either the voracious pack of cyclists chasing down the Italian, or the grim reaper whose pursuit of Serse is just as ineluctable.

8. The Big Loop by Claire Huchet Bishop

The only venture I’ve found into two-wheeled cycling fiction aimed at teenagers. Depicts the sepia world of the 1950s in which Frenchmen always win their own Tour and heroes are easily distinguished from villains. Sweet but sadly outdated now on both counts.

9. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome

Eleven years on, the trio from Three Men in a Boat are reunited for a cycle tour through the Black Forest. Like The Wheels of Chance, it depicts cycling in its formative years, but as a series of comic vignettes. It includes the following immortal exchange: “There is a lot of uphill about a bicycle tour,” said George, ” and the wind is against you.” “So there is downhill, and the wind behind,” said Harris.

10. The Adventure of the Priory School by Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle wrote two Sherlock Holmes stories in which cycling figures prominently, the other one being The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist. In the Adventure of the Priory School, a kidnapping tale, the distinction between the marks left by bikes with different tyres – one with a patch on one wheel – is of great importance.


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Ten of the best taxis in literature

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway Narrator Jake Barnes first becomes intimate with Lady Brett Ashley, the liberated Englishwoman whom he loves but cannot sexually fulfil, in the back of a taxi driving round Paris. Hemingway’s novel ends in the back of another taxi, driving through Madrid, with Jake and Brett discussing what could have been.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen Bowen’s novel opens in a cab. Eleven-year-old Henrietta Mountjoy, newly arrived from England, is driven through Paris in a taxi with her companion Miss Fisher. Watching the grey city slide by she finds it melancholy and disappointing. O the ennui of a taxi journey!

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond Paddington Bear’s first social embarrassment occurs in the back of a London taxi. Having been rescued by Mr and Mrs Brown at Paddington station, he is fed sticky buns in the station buffet. On the way home the remains of the buns are conveyed from the bear’s paws to the inside of the cab, and Paddington is confronted by an angry cabbie.

Herzog by Saul Bellow Antonia Fraser’s revelations about Saul Bellow telling her how attractive she was in the back of a taxi reminds us of a passage in his own chef d’oeuvre. The affair between Moses Herzog and Ramona, a “mature” pupil in one of his evening classes, begins in the back of a cab. She invites the prof to feel her pulse and, when he reaches for her wrist, puts his hand instead to her breast. “We are not children.”

Money by Martin Amis The bravura opening to Amis’s novel has John Self narrating his journey from JFK into Manhattan in a New York cab driven by a simian cabbie who seems to keep a baseball bat next to the handbrake. After a foul-mouthed altercation over the route and the fare, our gallant English traveller is deposited on the side of an expressway.

“London Taxi Driver” by David Dabydeen Dabydeen’s poem follows a taxi journey from Tooting, in south London, to Waterloo and echoes with the curses of the cockney cabbie. It also narrates the journey of an Indian labourer from Berbice to London.

The Book of Dave by Will Self One strand of Self’s satirical novel is the story of London cabbie Dave Rudman, an angry man whose taxi journeys and imaginative digressions we follow. He battles to bottle up his scorn for his passengers. “Never argue. Always talk football” (which he hates). Centuries later, his diary is discovered and becomes the source for a cult (believers greet each other with “Ware2Guv”).

Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine Who is Violet Park? All that Lucas Swain, the narrator of Valentine’s children’s story, knows is that an urn containing her ashes was left on the back seat of a minicab. It has spent several years on a shelf in the taxi company office, where he discovers it. He decides to purloin the urn and find out how it got into the back of that cab.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo Billionaire Eric Packer is being driven round Manhattan in his stretch limo when he glances out of the window. “It took him a moment to understand that he knew the woman in the rear seat of the taxi that lay adjacent. She was his wife of 22 days . . .” He gets into the cab with her and discourses on the pleasures of taxis and talking to taxi drivers.

The Accident by Ismail Kadare Kadare’s existential mystery tale begins with a taxi overturning on the way to Vienna airport. The cabbie survives, but the two passengers, Albanian émigrés, are killed. What caused the taxi to veer off the road? The driver regains consciousness and half recalls seeing something disturbing in the back of the cab.


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Five Best Books: Terror in America

Death in the Haymarket

By James Green (2006)

A century ago the “anarchist bomb-thrower” was a widely feared specter in American politics. In “Death in the Haymarket,” labor historian James Green explores the reality behind the image. Delivering a gripping account of Americans’ first major encounter with anarchist violence. On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded when Chicago police tried to disperse a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square. In the explosion and riot that followed, seven policemen were killed, sparking national outrage. Green vividly recounts the ensuing trial, in which eight anarchists condemned to death (four were eventually hanged) essentially for their beliefs—though the actual bomb-thrower was never found. The book’s greatest value lies in its evocation of Gilded Age class conflict, showing how the bombing emerged from, and ultimately shaped, struggles over labor policies such as the eight-hour day. Though the context could hardly be more different, “Death in the Haymarket” touches on issues still at the heart of the debate over terrorism, including civil liberties, immigration and free speech.

Living My Life

By Emma Goldman (1931)

Emma Goldman(1869-1940) is best known today as a feminist forebear, an advocate of free love and birth control—just a couple of the controversial stands that made her America’s most notorious anarchist a century ago. Written from exile in the 1930s, “Living My Life” traces a remarkably adventurous, contentious life, including her immigration to New York in the 1880s and her deportation back to Russia three decades later. Goldman confesses in the book that she helped her lover and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman plan an assassination attempt on industrial Henry Clay Frick in 1892. As she became more prominent Goldman turned cagey on the subject of violence, urging Americans to understand the political outrage fueling anarchist terrorism but not quite calling for the commission of violent deeds. Her memoir sometimes reads like an encyclopedia of assassinations, strikes, and protests—many of them lost to contemporary memory. Still, the book reveals Goldman’s flair for the dramatic and her grasp of the way her personal and political life resonated with the great revolutionary conflicts of her age.

Big Trouble

By J. Anthony Lukas (1997)

This sprawling tale could have used some editorial pruning, but when “Big Trouble” is good, it’s truly great. The book focuses on the murder trial of radical labor leader William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, a bête noire of the turn-of-the-century American bourgeoisie. Haywood’s 1907 trial for assassinating the governor of Idaho quickly grew into a national preoccupation, a showdown between capital and labor. It was good theater as well, with Clarence Darrow defending Haywood against accusations that his Western Federation of Miners had been dynamiting anti-union employers and politicians for years. Darrow won an acquittal. As J. Anthony Lukas points out, however, Darrow’s success was hardly proof of Haywood’s pacifism. The book leaves the assassination mystery unsolved, but it masterfully evokes the complicated, violent struggle for power in the industrial west.

 The Masked War

By William J. Burns (1913)

Until the 1930s, policing in America was a haphazard affair. When a major crime occurred, city governments often turned to private-detective agencies rather than local police or weak and incompetent federal agencies. In 1910, when the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times was bombed, killing 21 workers, the city’s mayor hired the renowned detective William J. Burns to solve the crime. “The Masked War” is Burns’s story of how he ran the bombers to ground, eventually pinning the crime on union organizers (and brothers) John and James McNamara. The prose is sensationalistic, the facts suspect and the narrative wildly self-aggrandizing. Yet “The Masked War” captures better than any historian’s account the self-promotion and Red-baiting of the private-detective industry.


By Louis Adamic (1931)

Louis Adamic’s “Dynamite” was—and remains—the only popular overview of the violent clashes that accompanied the flourishing of American industry from the Gilded Age through the New Deal. The book begins with the infamous Molly Maguires—who made use of the dynamite common to Pennsylvania coal country—and ends with the fierce labor battles of the early 1930s. A left-leaning social critic, Adamic is sympathetic to workers who rebelled against their employers. “On the other hand,” he writes, “I do not habitually utter the word ‘Capitalism’ with a hiss.” Adamic adopts a broad definition of the word “terrorism,” applying it to everything from anarchist assassination attempts to labor racketeering and police violence. As a result, “Dynamite” doesn’t speak directly to terrorism as we think of it today—but the book is an energetic reminder that class war in the U.S. was once more than a metaphor.

Ms. Gage is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded” (Oxford),


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A Rare Swedish Triumph

The Swedish Academy doesn’t always get it wrong. It just seems that way. Since 1901, when the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme—a name seldom on anyone’s tongue, even then—the academy’s choices have often been not just wrong-headed but capriciously so. Though the prize has gone to such universally acclaimed writers as Thomas Mann and William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot, it’s hard to understand how so many others have been passed over. To ignore Tolstoy, Henry James, Proust, Joyce, Rilke, Lorca, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, Borges, R.K. Narayan, Graham Greene, along with a few dozen others, argues a level of obtuseness rising almost to the sublime.

Laurels to come: Mario Vargas Llosa in 2009

It’s one thing to pass over great and worthy authors—often, apparently, for political or personal reasons, as in the cases of Borges or Greene—but quite another to pass them over for arrant mediocrities, as well as the occasional buffoon. The word isn’t too strong. One symptom of decline came with the choice, in 1997, of Dario Fo, an Italian clown (literally) though one with impeccable Marxist credentials. Mr. Fo’s award may account for the persistent rumors, in recent years, of Bob Dylan’s candidacy. Mr. Dylan is a great singer and songwriter but his contribution to literature, at least as usually understood, is zilch. Still, awarding him the prize would have been preferable to the 2004 choice of the Austrian misanthrope Elfriede Jelinek, a novelist incapable of creating a credible character or of writing a single shapely sentence. With this disastrous choice the academy hit rock bottom.

You could claim, of course, that such decisions show how daring the Swedish Academy has become behind its solemn façade. But in some years the choices seem to be made by schnapps-befuddled academicians flinging darts blindly at a spinning globe. The academy has a soft spot for what might be called emigres— “portmanteau writers,” you might call them—such as last year’s winner Herta Müller, a German writer from Romania. The epitome of this came as far back as 1981 with the award to Elias Canetti, a Ladino-speaking Bulgarian-born German writer who resided in London. You can’t get much more “multi-culti” than that. This isn’t to say that such authors are unworthy but that the choices are made for reasons that aren’t strictly literary. The academy is intensively lobbied by fans and supporters, often with nationalistic agendas—and sometimes by the hopefuls themselves. The Turkish novelist Yashar Kemal went so far as to rent an apartment directly across the street from the academy’s headquarters where he displayed himself conspicuously at opportune moments. Others engage in drawn-out and loudly publicized reading tours of the Swedish countryside.

This year, I’m glad to say, the Swedish Academy got it triumphantly right. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer by any criterion. For 50 years, in over 30 novels, plays, memoirs and essays, he has created a fictional universe as unpredictable, exuberant and astonishing as those of Mann or Faulkner or his own South American contemporary (and rival) Gabriel García Márquez. “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” (1977) is a comic masterpiece, one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. “The War of the End of the World” (1984) is an epic novel of Tolstoyan grandeur and sweep. His work is consistently brilliant.

A new Llosa novel, “El Sueño del Celta” (“The Celt’s Dream”), is due out in Spanish next month. In awarding the 2010 Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa, the Swedish Academy brings genuine honor to the world of letters and in so doing restores some of its own tarnished lustre.


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Five Best Books on Bibliomania

A Gentle Madness

By Nicholas A. Basbanes (1995)

A perfect primer for those unfamiliar with the “gentle madness” that is bibliomania, this meticulous history also offers plenty to enthrall the most knowledgeable of collectors. Nicholas Basbanes takes us from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, when the first libraries were being formed (and competition for books trumped integrity), to New York in 1992, when what shocked wasn’t the means of snagging books but the price. (A limited edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” sold at auction for $55,000.) Bibliomania has gripped statesmen—Thomas Jefferson’s collection was the foundation of the Library of Congress—as well as thieves, forgers and pranksters, whose dark deeds add spice to “A Gentle Madness.” As Basbanes makes clear, bibliomaniacs are preservers of our history, and here he honors their efforts.

Books: A Memoir

By Larry McMurtry (2008)

Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry, the author of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show,” grew up in a virtually bookless home. His first encounter with storytelling was listening to the adults in his family gossip on their Texas porch. This was probably to his advantage—certainly to ours: his ear for the seductive rhythm and pace of aural tradition graces this memoir of 50 years of hunting, buying and selling books. While maintaining a substantial used-book business in Archer, Texas, he also added to his own collection—about 28,000 volumes at last report. How he built both is a captivating story populated by legendary bookmen, enterprising scouts and endearing eccentrics. What makes McMurtry different from other book collectors is that his love of acquiring books is matched, maybe even surpassed, by his love of actually reading them.

A Passion for Books

Edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan (1999)

The essays, cartoons, lists, poems, stories and quotations in this volume cover just about everything we do with books, to books, and for books. At one extreme, there’s murder: “Bibliomania,” by Gustave Flaubert, the one work of fiction in this collection, is based on the true story of a 19th-century Spanish monk who literally killed for books. Then there’s just the spirit-killing: A list of the “Ten Best-Selling Books Rejected by Publishers Twenty or More Times.” (James Joyce’s “Dubliners” is at the top.) One of the finest essays here is Clifton Fadiman’s “Pillow Books,” in which he discusses the types of books people read at bedtime—those for staying awake and those for their soporific effects. But Fadiman, who died in 1999 at age 95, held with “neither the Benzedrine nor Seconal school”; he read Trollope simply for pleasure.


By Edwin Wolf II, with John F. Fleming (1960)

For decades, A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952) bought most of the important rare books and manuscripts offered at auction in England and America and later sold them for more money than anyone expected. Called a “baby bibliomaniac” as a child, he acquired his first book at auction, the fable “Reynard the Fox,” at age 11. He went on to become a serious student of literature. To follow the course of his life is to understand a critical time of evolution in the rare-book world, when values skyrocketed, the super-wealthy built grand collections, and then the more fortunate institutions became their beneficiaries. In this biography of Rosenbach, Edwin Wolf describes him as “an apple-cheeked, fun-loving, scholarly, bawdy, ungrammatical, tale-spinning, elephant-memoried, supersalesman of great books.” He knew how to “make a sale look like a favor” and collected wealthy clients like first editions. Tales about Rosenbach are a mix of fact and fiction, yet Wolf is careful to separate the two, leaving plenty of rollicking good—and true—stories, including how he received limericks from James Joyce, dined with President Coolidge and sold rare French erotica to Alfred Kinsey.

Tolkien’s Gown

By Rick Gekoski (2004)

‘I first saw them at a friend’s, and it was love at first sight.” So begins this history of 20 collectible modern first editions by rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski. He was just 24 when he laid eyes on the object of his affection: a set of Charles Dickens works, bound in brown cloth. It was his gateway drug, and before long he had turned to dealing. In this engrossing mix of history, literary criticism and gossip, he describes how James Joyce expressed surprise when reviewers didn’t find “Ulysses” funny, and how Graham Greene, while drinking vodka in a hotel room with Gekoski, proclaimed that Henry James was funny. Gekoski is blessed with considerable wit and charm, which no doubt helped him capture plenty of fine books.

Ms. Bartlett is the author of “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.”


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How to Write Like a Cartoonist

Last weekend a French fry got lodged in my sinus cavity.

I suppose it all started when I was 11 years old. Two of my school buddies and I were huddled on the schoolyard, whisper-sharing everything we knew about the mysteries of the human reproductive process. We patched together bits and pieces of what we had heard from our older brothers. This was problematic, because two of our brothers were unreliable, and one was a practical joker. And to be fair, my friends and I were poor listeners.

As I later learned, we got a fairly important part of the reproductive puzzle wrong. I can’t be more specific about our faulty information, at least not in The Wall Street Journal, so instead I will tell you a story about golf. If you choose to draw any parallels, that’s your own fault.

Okay, so this golfer hits a majestic drive, and follows it up with an awesome chip and an improbable putt. The golfer pumps his fist and dances a little jig. He turns to his caddy for a high-five and gets no response. “Wasn’t that some great golfing?” the golfer asks. The caddy says, “Yes…but it was the wrong hole.”

Last weekend, I was visiting my tiny hometown of Windham, N.Y., enjoying dinner out with my parents, my sister, and two 80ish widows who are longtime family friends. One of the ladies mentioned running into an old schoolmate of mine who was part of the misinformed schoolyard troika of way-back-then. When I heard my schoolmate’s name, I flashed back to that day, vividly recalling the key bit of information we got wrong, and I wondered how long it took my buddies to correct their mistaken understandings. I took a bite of my French fry and listened to the rest of the story about how this fellow hadn’t changed much since he was a kid. And then one of the widows added, sort of as an afterthought, “He never had any children.”

Let me tell you that this was a bad time for me to have food in my mouth. The situation demanded a spit-take, but this was a nice restaurant, and I was sitting directly across from the two innocent widows. I clamped my lips shut and hoped for the best. Something sneeze-like exploded inside me. It was an unholy combination of saliva, potato, laughter and compressed air. I squeezed my sphincter shut, closed my eyes, and well, I don’t remember much after that. I think the French fry hit the top of my sinus cavity and caused some sort of concussion.

Anyway, the reason we’re here today is so I can give you valuable writing tips. My specialty is humor, so let’s stick with that slice of the assignment.

The topic is the thing. Eighty percent of successful humor writing is picking a topic that is funny by its very nature. My story above is true, up until the exaggeration about the French fry in the sinus cavity. You probably assumed it was true, and that knowledge made it funnier.

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy. I picked the French-fry story specifically because it is too risqué for The Wall Street Journal. You can’t read it without wondering if I had an awkward conversation with my editor. You might wonder if the people in my story will appreciate seeing my version of events in The Wall Street Journal. I wonder that too.

In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)

Humor is about people. It’s impossible to write humor about a concept or an object. All humor involves how people think and act. Sometimes you can finesse that limitation by having your characters think and act in selfish, stupid or potentially harmful ways around the concept or object that you want your reader to focus on.

Exaggerate wisely. If you anchor your story in the familiar, your readers will follow you on a humorous exaggeration, especially if you build up to it. My story was true and relatable until the French-fry exaggeration.

Let the reader do some work. Humor works best when the reader has to connect some dots. Early in my story I made you connect the golf story to the playground story. The smarter your audience, the wider you can spread the dots. I used this method again when I said of my aborted spit-take, “I don’t remember much after that.” Your mind might have filled in a little scene in which, perhaps, my eyes bugged out, my cheeks went all chipmunk-like, and I fell out of my chair.

Animals are funny. It’s a cheap trick, but animal analogies are generally funny. It was funnier that I said, “my cheeks went all chipmunk-like” than if I had said my cheeks puffed out.

Use funny words. I referred to my two schoolmates and myself as a troika because the word itself is funny. With humor, you never say “pull” when you can say “yank.” Some words are simply funnier than others, and you know the funny ones when you see them. (Pop Quiz: Which word is funnier, observe or stalk?)

Curiosity. Good writing makes you curious without being too heavy-handed about it. My first sentence in this piece, about the French fry lodged in my sinus cavity, is designed to make you curious. It also sets the tone right away.

Endings. A simple and classic way to end humorous writing is with a call-back. That means making a clever association to something especially humorous and notable from the body of your work. I would give you an example of that now, but I’m still having concentration issues from the French fry.

Scott Adams is the creator of “Dilbert.”


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Portrait of Power Embodied in a Roman Emperor

In 1982, when I first read Marguerite Yourcenar’s “The Memoirs of Hadrian,” I asked Arnaldo Momigliano, the great scholar of the ancient world, what he thought of the novel. Italian to the highest power, he put all five fingers of his right hand to his mouth, kissed them, and announced, “Pure masterpiece.” Now, nearly 30 years later, I have reread the work and find it even better than before. A book that improves on rereading, that seems even grander the older one gets—surely, this is yet another sign of a masterpiece.

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian.

Its author was born in Belgium, wrote in French, and lived much of her adult life in Maine with her excellent translator and companion, Grace Frick. As such, Mme. Yourcenar (1903-1987) was, in effect, a writer without a country, though she was the first woman elected to the Académie Française (in 1980). She was the last aristocratic novelist of the 20th century, and not only in the sense that her father was of aristocratic descent. She did not ask in her fiction the contemporary middle-class questions of what is happiness and why have I (or my characters) not found it, concerning herself instead with something larger—the meaning of human destiny as it plays out on a historical stage.

Mme. Yourcenar wrote a good deal of fiction, but her imperishable work is “Memoirs of Hadrian,” first published in French in 1951. The novel is in the form of a lengthy letter written by the aged and ill Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, to the 17-year-old but already thoughtful Marcus Aurelius.

Roman emperors seem to be divided between monsters and mediocrities, with an occasional near-genius, like Hadrian, thrown in to break the monotony. Highly intelligent and cultivated, he was a Grecophile, always a good sign in the ancient world. As emperor, he attempted to pull back from the imperialist expansion of his predecessor Trajan and wanted, as the chronicler Aelius Spartianus put it, to “administer the republic [so that] it would know that the state belonged to the people and was not his property.”

And yet Hadrian was also a Roman emperor, which meant living amid dangerous intrigue, wielding enormous power and being able to fulfill his erotic impulses at whim. He was, Spartianus writes, “both stern and cheerful, affable and harsh, impetuous and hesitant, mean and generous, hypocritical and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable”—in short, not a god but a man.

Mme. Yourcenar has taken what we know of the life of Hadrian and from this sketchy knowledge produced an utterly convincing full-blown portrait. One feels that one is reading a remarkable historical document, an account of the intricate meanings of power by a man who has held vast power. Imagine Machiavelli’s “The Prince” written not by an Italian theorist but by a true prince. Imagine, further, that he also let you in on his desires, his fears, his aesthetic, his sensuality, his feelings about death—in a manner at once haute and intimate, and in a prose any emperor would be pleased to possess.

The fictional thoughts and observations of Emperor Hadrian, above, are at the heart of ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian.’
“I see an objection to every effort toward ameliorating man’s condition, on earth,” Hadrian writes, setting out the political philosophy that will inform his reign, “namely that mankind is perhaps not worthy of such exertion. But I meet the objection easily enough: so long as Caligula’s dream remains impossible of fulfillment, and the entire human race is not reduced to a single head destined for the axe, we shall have to bear with humanity, keeping it within bounds but utilizing it to the utmost; our interest, in the best sense of the term, will be to serve it.”

 Part of the mastery of “Memoirs of Hadrian” is in its reminder that the emperor, like the rest of us, remains imprisoned in a perishable human body. Hadrian’s letter to young Marcus is being written at the end of his life, and so with a sure grasp of the inexorability of “Time, the Devourer.” Hadrian has come into his wisdom only after manifold errors and tragic mistakes; not least among the latter, contriving, through thoughtlessness, in the death of his great love, the Bithynian youth Antinous. He is writing “when my harvests are in.” The letter lets Hadrian take his own measure.

“I liked to feel that I was above all a continuator,” Hadrian writes. He notes that he looked “to those twelve Caesars so mistreated by Suetonius,” in the hope of emulating the best of each: “the clear-sightedness of Tiberius, without his harshness; the learning of Claudius without his weakness; Nero’s taste for the arts, but stripped of all foolish vanity; the kindness of Titus, stopping short of his sentimentality; Vespasian’s thrift, but not his absurd miserliness.”

Mme. Yourcenar has Hadrian compare himself, favorably, with Alcibiades, who “had seduced everyone and everything, even History herself.” Unlike Alcibiades, who had brought destruction everywhere, he, Hadrian, “had governed a world infinitely larger…and had kept pace therein; I had rigged it like a fair ship made ready for a voyage which might last for centuries; I had striven my utmost to encourage in man the sense of the divine but without at the same time sacrificing to it what is essentially human. My bliss was my reward.”

Like most of our lives, Hadrian’s—and so Mme. Yourcenar’s novel—is plotless. What keeps the reader thoroughly engaged is not drama but the high quality of Hadrian’s thought and powers of observation. Hadrian, through the sheer force of his mind, comes alive. That this most virile of characters has been written by a woman might be worth remarking were it not the case that the greatest novelists have always been androgynous in their powers of creation. With the dab hand of literary genius, Mme. Yourcenar has taken one of the great figures of history and turned him into one of the most memorable characters in literature in a masterpiece too little known.

Mr. Epstein’s latest book is “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).


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Literary Life

The working habits of authors can sometimes be as interesting as their creations, on the evidence of Harry Bruce’s “Page Fright,” a delightful volume about the practical side of “the world’s loneliest calling.” He starts with a close look at the tools of the trade: John Steinbeck sometimes went through 60 pencils a day, and Mark Twain was impressed by his first encounter with a typewriter (in 1874), saying: “It piles an awful stack of words on one page.” But much of the book concerns writers’ modes of production.

Thomas Hobbes wrote on his bedsheets, and when those were full he “scrawled on his thighs”; Voltaire is said to have used his naked mistress’s back for a desk. What is it about supine authorship? Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edith Wharton liked writing in bed. Not Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin or Lewis Carroll—they scratched away at stand-up desks. Winston Churchill might have come up with the best approach: He would pad around, thinking aloud, while stenographers tried to keep up. No arguing with the results: He produced nearly 30 million words, won a Nobel and went through countless cigars while the stenos hung on every puff. That’s genius-level multitasking.

Dave Shiflett, Wall Street Journal


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A Gangster Goes to War

In New York right after the turn of the 20th century, the baddest man in the whole downtown was a thug named Monk Eastman, who controlled a gang of 2,000 Jewish hoodlums on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

His was among the most scandalous criminal enterprises in American history, according to biographer Neil Hanson in “Monk Eastman,” the story of, as the subtitle has is, “The Gangster Who Became a War Hero.” Mr. Hanson fashions Lower Manhattan into a mirror of hell that would make even Damon Runyon recoil. The city’s teeming tenements were “anthills of humanity,” the author says, and rightly so: They packed in 290,000 people to the square mile. By contrast, “the comparable figure for the worst of the London slums was 175,000.”

“Whole buildings,” we are told, “seemed to sweat as condensation formed on every wall, and the stench—always terrible—even in the depths of winter frosts—reached new heights of toxicity, flowing up from the sewers, privies, and yards, and filling the halls, stairways and airshafts like a rising tide.” Another 20 pages of this and it becomes hard to resist the impulse to go and wash one’s hands. But oh, the crime!

The area was divided into territories, just like in “West Side Story,” except that these were not hubcap-stealing Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem settling their differences with the occasional knife-fight; no siree, the downtown guys were seriously into guns and shoot-outs that consumed entire city blocks, slaughtering the innocent and the guilty with equal magnanimity.

The western part of Lower Manhattan was run by the Irish, while the Lower East Side was divided between the Italians and the Jews. The gangs had names like the Five Pointers, Yakey Yakes, Gophers, Whyos—but the most fearsome gang of all was a mostly Jewish mob called the Eastmans, after its leader, Monk, who had climbed the ladder of thuggish respectability by a combination of low cunning and epic brutishness.

By his own admission, Monk—who was not Jewish and seems to have been of English extraction—liked “to beat up a guy every once in a while. It keeps my hand in.” His given name was Edward; “Monk” came from his ability to “climb like a monkey” while pulling off second-story jobs.

Killings were frequent in the gang’s activities but generally incidental. Assault was more intentional: “Monk and his henchmen put so many people in the hospital that ambulance drivers started calling the accident ward at Bellevue ‘The Monk Eastman Pavilion.’ “

An especially noxious feature of the gangs, including Eastman’s, was their symbiotic relationship with New York’s octopodian political machine. Tammany stayed in power through the political payoff; Monk Eastman and the other gangsters stayed in power by earning protection from the long arm of the law. Eastman was arrested more than 30 times at just one police precinct, but the cases were routinely dismissed by corrupt Tammany judges or police officials.

In exchange for the get-out-of-jail help, gang ruffians provided muscle at the polls. “Repeaters” was the name given to hoodlums who voted multiple times, and “sluggers” were toughs who stuffed or stole ballot boxes—or intimidated, or even assaulted, voters at the polls. It was said that Monk Eastman alone was good for 10,000 votes.

Eastman’s luck finally ran out in 1904 when an honest jury convicted him for assault. He had attempted to mug a well-dressed drunk young man—who, it turned out, was being followed by Pinkerton detectives at the request of his worried parents. A disgraceful running gunfight ensued—coming to an end only when an alert policeman applied a nightstick to Eastman’s head. His increasing notoriety, it turned out, had cooled Tammany’s interest in protecting him from prosecution.

The five years that Eastman spent in Sing Sing did not discourage his criminal inclinations; in 1915 he was arrested for stealing a car and sentenced for a two-year stretch. The incarceration ended in September 1917, just as America’s entry into World War I was heating up. Out of prison for 10 days, with his criminal enterprises no longer in operation or promising to revive, Monk presented himself at the Army recruiting office in Brooklyn and offered his services. He also lied about his age, saying he was 39 when he was really 43.

Pvt. Monk Eastman, according to the bare-bones Army records, turned into a proper soldier and shipped out with the 106th New York Regiment as part of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division. His comrades called him “Pop.”

The division, 28,000-strong, landed in France on May 25, 1918, to confront the beaten but still dangerous German army on the Western Front. Two months earlier the Germans had launched and lost their huge last-ditch offensive, designed to defeat the Allies before the Americans arrived in force. Now the Allied commander smelled blood and decided the time was ripe to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Thus, after a few scant weeks of training, Monk Eastman and the New Yorkers were abruptly pitchforked into the great final push of the conflict—an attack on Germany’s Hindenburg Line. Here we see the awful brutality of the war, the bone-by-bone straining of thousands of men for yards, even feet, in the horrid sewer that was the Flanders Front along the Franco-Belgian border.

It was said that you could smell the battlefield miles before you could see it—the ghastly smell of death; earth churned into slime by millions of artillery shells; the lingering rotten-egg stench of poison gasses; the decaying carcasses of horses, mules and, yes, men; the blended odors both of the cooking, and the excrement, of a million soldiers packed into a battle area just a few miles wide. Veterans later tried to describe the smell but no one could, and the place made even the aroma of New York slums seem respectable.

Eastman’s battalion, according to one of its members, “jumped off on time” when the battle began but then “fairly melted away” amid the machine gun and artillery fire. “We were up against the [Hindenburg] Line itself,” said the battalion major, “and a lousy, dirty, dangerous place it was.” After two weeks of nonstop fighting, they had the Germans on the run, but at a terrible price: Nearly 80% of the regiment were casualties.

Some idea of the ferocity and tenacity of the battle can be taken from these instructions to a machine-gun company: “(1) This position will be held and the section will remain here until relieved. (2) The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with this program. (3) If the gun team cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead, but in any case, it will remain here. (4) Should any man, through shell shock or any other cause, attempt to surrender, he will remain here—dead. (5) Should the gun be put out of action, the team will use rifles, revolvers, Mills grenades, or other novelties. (6) Finally, the position, as stated, will be held.”

Then the war was suddenly over, and the men were shipped home and mustered out of the service. The survivors mostly went back to their former professions, including Monk Eastman, who had performed admirably for his country as a soldier.

At first he appeared to go straight and secured a petition from his army outfit testifying to his “exceptional record in the army overseas” and “utmost courage and devotion to duty.” His rights of citizenship were restored by New York Gov. Al Smith, and Monk found work as an automobile mechanic, though how he obtained the skills we are not told. Maybe stealing cars also entailed learning how to make them run. But word soon had it that he was again up to his old tricks, which had their consequences.

Since most career criminals don’t write their memoirs, it is hard to get a full picture of the man, save from spare police and military records and from a few anecdotal tales told by contemporaries and from newspaper stories of the tabloid type, which tend to be suspect.

The book’s claim that Eastman was a war hero might be a bit of a stretch, since he was neither decorated nor promoted, despite the high casualties in his unit. A case can be made, though, that anybody, just by going to the Western Front during the war—and staying there—was by definition a hero.

Thus while the story of Monk Eastman is exquisitely rich with the ganglife of New York and the perils of World War I, we’re left with the impression that, in the end, the man was a puzzle, even to himself.

Mr. Groom’s books include “A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1018” and the novel “Forrest Gump.”


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Ten of the best wolves in literature

Metamorphoses, by Ovid Lycaon, king of Arcadia, serves his dinner guest (Zeus in disguise) a special supper: he took a human hostage, “opened his throat with a knife, and made some of the still warm limbs tender in seething water, roasting others in the fire”. His punishment for such savagery is transformation. He howls and foams at the mouth. “His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs. He was a wolf.”

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe After rescue from his island, Crusoe and Man Friday are crossing the Pyrenees “when we began to hear the wolves howl in the wood on our left in a frightful manner, and presently after we saw about a hundred coming on directly towards us . . .” A huge battle ensues in which Crusoe triumphs but a couple of men are eaten alive.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker As Jonathan Harker is taken to the count’s castle he finds the coach seemingly followed by wolves. When he arrives he hears the mountains echoing to their howls. His host delights in the sound. “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” They are Dracula’s fellow “hunters” and respond to his commands.

The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling Baby Mowgli is found by wolves in the Indian jungle. Shere Khan the tiger wants to gobble him up, but Father Wolf claims him. “‘The Wolves are a free people,’ said Father Wolf. ‘They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer.'” Mowgli, declares Raksha, the Mother Wolf, “shall live to run with the Pack and to hunt with the Pack”. Hooray for wolves!

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London London narrates the adventures of a dog called Buck, who ends up in Alaska as the companion of a good-hearted gold-panner. When his master is killed, Buck must learn to live in the woods among the local wolves. He discovers the wolf within himself and finally becomes the leader of the pack.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis Wolves are the natural allies of the evil White Witch, who recruits the biggest and fiercest wolf, Maugrim, as her chief of secret police. He is killed in a final duel with Peter, who is grandly renamed “Wolf’s Bane” by Aslan. But there are good wolves in Narnia too.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken In Aiken’s alternative history of Britain, wolves have fled a new ice age in northern Europe and come to England via the Channel tunnel. Bonnie, Sylvia and Simon must defeat the schemes of evil governess Letitia Slighcarp but also survive a wolf-ravaged winter.

“The Company of Wolves”, by Angela Carter A beautiful girl meets a handsome huntsman who is really a wolf. He visits her Granny and the disguise comes off. “He strips off his shirt. His skin is the color and texture of vellum. A crisp strip of hair runs down his belly, his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit . . . His genitals, huge. Ah! Huge.” He eats the Granny and goes to bed with the granddaughter.

“Life after Death”, by Ted Hughes Hughes’s poem recalls the immediate aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. He and his two children hear the wolves in nearby London Zoo. “And in spite of the city / Wolves consoled us. / Two or three times each night / For minutes on end / They sang”. The howling across Primrose Hill is a dirge. “In their wailing for you, their mourning for us, / They wove us into their voices”.

Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver Based on research into both stone age life and wolf behaviour, the first in Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness features 12-year-old Torak, member of the Wolf tribe. He befriends a cub, “Wolf”, who becomes his guide on a quest to the Mountain of World Spirit. The two can communicate with uncanny ease.


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Ten of the best vendettas in literature

Hámundarson vs the family of Gissur the White In Icelandic sagas, life is given its relish by family feuds. In Njál’s saga, there are several (all the more dizzying because of inter-marriage, divorce and foster-parenting). The main feud is begun when Njáls’s friend Gunnar Hámundarson kills two members of the same family (one might have been forgivable). He is told to leave Iceland, but cannot bear to do so.

Montague vs Capulet The model for many a fictional family feud was established in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The two top families in Verona hate each other and their young bucks regularly scrap. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet naturally fall for each other.

Ravenswood vs Ashton In Walter Scott’s tragic bestseller The Bride of Lammermoor, source of Donizetti’s opera, Edgar Ravenswood has inherited his father’s hatred of the Ashton family, responsible, he thinks, for their ruin. But then he falls in love with Lucy Ashton. Her appalled family decide to marry her off to an obnoxious laird. Murder and madness follow.

Piombo vs Porta Balzac’s novel La Vendetta is a gloomy tale of Corsican mores. At its heart is the doomed marriage of Ginevra Piombo to Luigi Porta. Most of Luigi’s family have already been wiped out by the rival Piombo clan and Ginevra’s father is appalled to see his beloved daughter hitched to a Porta. He lets them sink into destitution and relents too late to save Ginevra and her baby.

Doone vs Ridd Set in the 17th century, RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone tells of the love between members of two Exmoor families who hate each other. John Ridd loves Lorna Doone, even though the Doones have murdered his father. She is promised as a wife to the ferocious Carver Doone. When, after many adventures, John and Lorna are wed, Carver bursts into the church and shoots her.

Grangerford vs Shepherdson The young hero of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn escapes from his drunken father and flees down the Mississippi with runaway slave Jim. When their raft sinks our two adventurers are helped by the Grangerfords, and get sucked into their decades-long vendetta against the neighbouring Shepherdsons.

The Bridegroom’s family vs the Felixes In Lorca’s Blood Wedding, the main characters are not named, except for the Felix family, apparently responsible, several years earlier, for killing the father of a young man who is about to get married. On the wedding night, the bride elopes with Leonardo Felix. The lovers flee to the forest, where Death appears in the guise of a beggar woman. The outlook is not good.

Corleone vs Tattaglia Before it was ever a film The Godfather was a novel by Mario Puzo centring on the murderous vendetta between two New York mafia families. After a quarrel over control of the heroin trade, the killings begin . . .

Atreides vs Harkonnen The names sound like a mix of Greek tragedy and Icelandic saga, but this is the sci-fi world of Frank Herbert’s Dune (and its many sequels). A feud has raged between these families for thousands of years on the desert planet Arakis, only source of the priceless spice mélange. The politics of this murderous struggle are byzantine, and only for the devoted reader.

Kryeqyqe vs Berisha Ismail Kadare’s Broken April tracks the murderous customs of Albanian mountain folk. The Kanun (traditional Albanian law) dictates that young Gjorg Berisha must avenge the death of his brother by killing a member of a rival family. The two clans have been murdering each other for more than half a century. His own life is forfeit in return, though he gets a 30-day truce before he becomes the next victim.


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Nicholas Royle’s top 10 writers on the telephone

Literature on the line … a rotary telephone.

Nicholas Royle was born in London in 1957. His first novel, Quilt, a study of grief in which the news of a father’s death is delivered suddenly and brutally by telephone, was published in August.

“I’ve chosen 10 writers on the telephone, rather than 10 novels, stories or poems, because in a sense everything these authors have written is ‘on topic’. Their writings help us see in different and remarkable ways the extent to which literature and telephones are in cahoots. When the phone starts ringing in a novel or short story, the air is charged with magic and coincidence, superstition and death. The word telephone is literally ‘voice at a distance’. We can think of the literary work as a telephone call (the author or narrator addressing us), but also as a kind of telephone network (both in the form of dialogue and in the narrator ‘bugging’ different characters, recording what they say or think).” 

1. Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Twain may well have been the first writer to name a character after a telephone operator. “Hello-Central” appears in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). But his funniest and most prescient work on the subject is “Mental Telegraphy” (1891), which argues that “the telegraph and telephone are going to become too slow and wordy for our needs” and proposes the invention of the phrenophone (or mind-phone) as a way of understanding the wild and bizarre nature of writing, coincidence and inspiration.

2. Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Proust only comes to the telephone several years into In Search of Lost Time. In The Guermantes Way, the telephone evokes the painful powers of habituation and the strangeness of “lost time” itself: “And I would go down almost without thinking how extraordinary it was that I should be calling upon that mysterious Mme de Guermantes of my boyhood simply in order to make use of her for a practical purpose as one makes use of the telephone, a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought …”

 3. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Kafka has the telephone play nightmarish roles in both The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), as a machine that summons K. For sheer power and concision, however, “My Neighbour” (1931) is a dazzling one-page tale of telephony and paranoia, in which the narrator is convinced that all his business transactions on the phone are being exploited by his mysterious enemy Harras, listening in to his every word through the “wretchedly thin walls” of his rented office.  

4. Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

Bowen wrote numerous great novels, including Friends and Relations (1931), The House in Paris (1935) and The Heat of the Day (1948), about how telephones have infiltrated our thinking and desires: waiting for a call, being interrupted by a call, not knowing what might be announced. The phone becomes a sort of crisis for rationality. As a character in The House in Paris demands: “Reason? You might as well say, what reason has one to answer the telephone?”

 5. Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

Perhaps more than any other writer, Chandler established the central importance of the telephone in modern detective stories. It is difficult, indeed, to think of a contemporary crime investigation narrative that doesn’t depend on telephones (this is true of TV too, of course: it’s the very raison d’être of The Wire). In The Little Sister (1949), Chandler’s melancholy loner detective Marlowe expresses a common feeling that has only proliferated in the era of mobile phones: “Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again … “

6. Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

Spark is the author of perhaps the most macabre and unnerving telephone book, Memento Mori (1959). The phone rings, a voice says “Remember you must die” – and the character who’s picked up expires soon after. We never discover the caller’s identity. But as with other Spark novels, God seems to be lurking somewhere in this prophetic, eerily omniscient scenario.

 7. JD Salinger (1919-2010)

Salinger has Holden Caulfield, narrator of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), express a deep truth: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger is loved and admired for this single book. Famously reclusive, however, he was the last author in the world you could have called up whenever you felt like it.

 8. Frank O’Hara (1926-66)

A sad, funny, deceptively straight-talking American poet who gives his pieces titles such as “Meditations in an Emergency” and “Having a Coke with You”, in 1959 O’Hara wrote a little manifesto called “Personism”, based on his realisation that, when writing a poem for someone, he “could use the telephone instead”. The solemnity of poetry would never be the same again.

 9. Raymond Carver (1939-88)

Carver wrote many stories featuring telephones. “Put Yourself In My Shoes” (1971) starts in a characteristically banal, yet compelling, literally distracting, way: “The telephone rang while he was running the vacuum cleaner.” As Carver recalls in the wonderful essay “On Writing” (1981), when this sentence came into his head, he “knew a story was there and it wanted telling.” A later story, “A Small Good Thing” (1983), poignantly links together the death of a young boy, hit by a car on his eighth birthday, to a case of phone-rage, involving the baker whose specially-ordered birthday cake the parents had failed to pick up on that terrible day.

 10. Hélène Cixous (1937-)

Cixous’s strange and marvellous fictional works all depend on a kind of literary telephony – a sense of many voices calling, singing, telepathically connecting. In one of her finest essays, “Writing Blind”, she observes: “I owe books and books to the telephone and I will give at least one back to it. May it be this very one.” One is left in a kind of magical suspension imagining what such a return call might be.


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Annabel Lyon’s top 10 books on the ancient world

Bust of Alexander the Great
Bringing the past back to life … Persian bust of Alexander the Great.
Annabel Lyon is he author of four books, most recently The Golden Mean, a novel about the relationship between Aristotle and the teenaged Alexander the Great. The novel was a Canadian bestseller, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize. It is published in the UK by Grove Atlantic. “Historical fiction has lately devolved into genre fiction, featuring predictable stories (usually of forbidden love) and affording readers the opportunity for moral outrage at a safe historical distance. It’s fun and easy to feel yourself on the right side of issues such as misogyny, racism, classism and gay rights – but not especially challenging or intellectually engaging. As James Wood wrote in a New Yorker review, ‘Sometimes, the soft literary citizens of liberal democracy long for prohibition. Coming up with anything to write about can be difficult when you are allowed to write about anything. A day in which the most arduous choice has been between “grande” and “tall” does not conduce to literary strenuousness.’ The historical works I enjoy tends to subvert or ignore the tropes of the genre. Here are 10 books concerning the ancient world that subvert, surprise, challenge, and please.”
1. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (1978)

The Roman poet Ovid is exiled to a barbarian village at the edge of the Black Sea, where he ends up caring for a feral child. Most historical fiction tries to impress the reader with the sophistication of the period it recreates (for some reason my mind jumps here to Gwyneth Paltrow’s toothbrush thingy in Shakespeare in Love). Malouf, in contrast, portrays the absolute fear and dread of the “civilised” mind (represented by Ovid) in the face of the truly primitive. The author powerfully conveys the sheer otherness of the ancient world. 

2. Dragonflies by Grant Buday (2008)

A prose retelling of the Iliad from Odysseus’s point of view. The great strength of Buday’s novel isn’t in any formal innovation or revisionism. Rather, it’s the crispness, humour and beauty of the prose that make this book worth seeking out. 

3. Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (1969)

The first 20 years of Alexander the Great’s life, including his time with Aristotle, from the young boy’s point of view. This novel is the first of a trilogy on the life of Alexander. I avoided reading it for a long time because it dealt with many of the events I was writing about, and I didn’t want to have my conception of events influenced by another writer. When I finally finished my own novel and allowed myself to read Renault, I was relieved I hadn’t read her sooner, because I would have been completely psyched out: the writing is excellent, the research immaculate, the characters subtly drawn. I particularly appreciated her no-nonsense portrayal of Alexander’s bisexuality. A lesser author would have made this the focus of the novel, but Renault is cool enough not to let the hot stuff derail her larger narrative.

4. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)

Violent, dirty, shocking, funny, erudite, utterly compelling – Graves’s account of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome has become a classic, immortalised in the great 1973 BBC series of the same name. The novel is supposedly the autobiography of the emperor Claudius, who survived to adulthood only by pretending to be an idiot. Graves himself is supposed to have claimed to dislike the books, and wrote them only out of financial need.

5. The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris (1968)

This young person’s book is the first of a trilogy set in ancient Canaan and Egypt at the time of the Biblical flood.  The main character, Reuben, journeys to Egypt to find a pair of lions for Noah to win passage on the ark for himself and his wife, Thamar.  The book’s quietly irreverent humour and delicate use of magic realism are unusually sophisticated for a young audience.

6. Plato’s Symposium (385-380BC)

We think of this as a work of philosophy rather than a work of fiction, but it’s the author’s use of scenes, dialogue, and setting that make the book a 2,400-year-old delight.  The characters drink, bicker, make passes at each other, wax lyrical, complain about their sandals, and generally remind us that men were never carved from marble and philosophy can be good fun.

7. Aeschylus’s Oresteia, translated by Ted Hughes (1998)

A ferocious translation of Aeschylus’s masterpiece by the great English poet. These plays concern the fall of the House of Atreus and the coming of the rule of law to Greek society. Hughes intended his translation to be performed on stage, not simply read, and it’s not hard to imagine a modern audience thrilling to this bloody, lyrical, utterly accessible version.

8. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson (2002)

Reminiscent of small bones or shards of pottery, these poems often consist of single words or broken phrases; it’s up to the reader to perform the archaeological task of imagining what they might once have been. Carson’s translations are sexy, stark, poignant, and haunting.

9. The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone (2009)

Elphinstone writes about hunter-gatherers in Mesolithic Scotland. A tsunami that scientists guess struck the east coast in 6150 BCE is the catalyst for the action; Elphinstone says on her website that she “used firsthand accounts of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami” as the basis for her character’s story. This interest in linking past and present filtered into her research: she went on archaeological digs and hand-made a coracle of the type her characters would have used. A vivid, detailed book bravely imagining the “silent history” of prehistoric Scotland.

10. The Centaur by John Updike (1963)

An anxious teenage boy and his depressive schoolteacher father in small-town Pennsylvania shift and shimmer in and out of Greek myths: the father becomes the tragic centaur Chiron, while the son becomes Prometheus. It’s a magical feat, pulled off with Updike’s signature wit, painterly vision, and keen eye for beauty in the tiniest of details.


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Five Best World War II Memoirs

1. Quartered Safe Out Here

By George MacDonald Fraser

Harvill Press, 1992

George MacDonald Fraser, British author of the Flashman series of novels, fought in the 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division of the 14th Army during the siege of Meiktila and the battle of Pyawbwe in Burma. He believed, probably correctly, that soldiering in Burma rivaled flying in the RAF’s Bomber Command as “the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service.” This was so not just because of the Japanese enemy; there were also 15-inch poisonous centipedes, malaria, “spiders the size of plates,” typhus, jungle sores on the wrists and ankles, dysentery, and leeches. In terse, unsentimental language, Fraser’s superb war memoir, “Quartered Safe Out Here,” relates how the soldiers in his close-knit company fought their battles, mourned their friends and simply tried to survive from day to day.

2. Kaputt

By Curzio Malaparte

Dutton, 1946

The Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte was sent to Russia by the newspaper Corriere della Sera to cover Hitler’s glorious victory over the Bolsheviks, but instead he witnessed the drawn-out Nazi defeat on the Eastern Front. He recorded what he had seen in an autobiographical novel, “Kaputt,” which he had to keep hidden until after the war. He was sitting in the Europeiski Café in Warsaw, he writes, when he saw German troops returning from the front: “Suddenly I was struck with horror and realized that they had no eyelids. The ghastly cold of that winter had the strangest consequences. Thousands and thousands of soldiers had lost their limbs; thousands and thousands had their ears, their noses, their fingers and their sexual organs ripped off by the frost. Many had lost their hair. Singed by the cold, the eyelid drops off like a piece of dead skin. Their future was only lunacy.”

3. With the Old Breed

By E.B. Sledge

Presidio Press, 1981

Eugene B. “Sledgehammer” Sledge was a private in the U.S. Marines when he was sent to Okinawa in 1945 to help wrest the island from 135,000 well-armed and well-entrenched Japanese. The importance of comradeship under fire is common to most war memoirs but never more powerfully related than in Sledge’s down-to-earth, almost consciously unliterary memoir. This book has an uncanny ability to bring the reader close to what it must have been like to fight in World War II. Sledge’s Company K had already suffered 150 killed, wounded or missing while taking the island of Peleliu, and many more were to perish on Okinawa, but fortunately for the literature of the war, Sledge himself survived what he called “chance’s strange arithmetic.”

4. Life and Fate

By Vassily Grossman

Harper & Row, 1980

Between 1941 and 1945, Vassily Grossman was a reporter for the Soviet Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) newspaper who specialized in interviewing the “frontoviki” (front-line troops). He covered the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin, and his interview subjects included Gen. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the Red Army’s battlefield commander at Stalingrad. The writer was also present at the liberation of the Treblinka concentration camp. Taking extensive notes throughout the war, Grossman—a Jew who felt deeply betrayed by the Bolsheviks’ growing anti-Semitism— incorporated the stories into his monumental autobiographical novel, “Life and Fate,” which has been likened to “War and Peace” in its scope and ambition. The book, and even the typewriter ribbon on which it was written, were confiscated by the KGB after the war, and Grossman was told that “Life and Fate” could not be published for 200 years. That wasn’t true—the book came out in the West in 1980 and in Russia eight years later. Its author had died of cancer in 1964.

5. Panzer Battles

By F.W. von Mellenthin

University of Oklahoma, 1956

The memoirs of the German panzer commander Maj. Gen. Friedrich von Mellenthin recount the greatest tank engagements of the war, at an astounding number of which he was personally present. Von Mellenthin fought in Poland in the north, Africa in the south, Kiev in the east and the Battle of the Bulge in the west. At one point he was arrested for authorizing a withdrawal without direct orders from the Führer but then was reinstated because his military skills were invaluable. About fighting the tenacious Red Army in 1943, von Mellenthin wrote: “We are in the position of a man who has seized a wolf by the ears and dares not let him go.”

Mr. Roberts is the author of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945.”


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Five Best in International Crime Fiction

From Nine to Nine by Leo Perutz, 1918

A year older than his Prague compatriot Franz Kafka and later much admired by Jorge Luis Borges, Leo Perutz forged his own variety of the paranoid fantastic. His early novel “From Nine to Nine,” an international best seller in its day, eschews the supernatural trappings of some of his tales (among them the superb “The Swedish Cavalier” and “The Master of the Day of Judgment”) in its seemingly down-to-earth, minute-by-minute account of an impoverished young student on the run after committing a petty crime. The handcuffed hero’s increasingly desperate maneuvers as he makes his way through the nightmarish crannies of Franz Joseph’s Vienna take on the quality of an Expressionist chase movie, and in true Perutzian fashion there is a neatly devastating reversal in the tale’s final paragraphs. The book’s original title was “Freedom”; its small-scale narrative of restraint and flight feels like a deeply meditated protest against the oppressive hierarchies of the world into which Perutz was born.

Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, 1933

Georges Simenon spent only a short time in Gabon during a two-month African journey in the summer of 1932, but he was able to turn the experience into a devastating sketch of French Equatorial decadence, stripped of exoticism, punctuated by adultery and murder, and palpably suffused with boredom, petty resentment and moral squalor. In place of Conradian prose poetry he gives us flat photographic rendition of a place in which no one can feel altogether at ease. From the barrooms of Libreville to the commercial stations of the interior waterways, Simenon’s feckless young immigrant undergoes a quick and brutal education in colonial ways that will cost him both his self-respect and his sanity. This was the book that signaled most clearly Simenon’s ambition to go beyond his Inspector Maigret novels into the pitiless world of what he called his romans durs, or hard novels. There are scores of other outstanding Simenon novels to choose from among the hundreds he published, but “Tropic Moon” is an excellent point of entry into his harsh and disenchanted world.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, 1969

The incomparable series of novels featuring the Stockholm police investigator Martin Beck and his colleagues owed much to the 87th Precinct procedurals of Ed McBain, but Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö surpassed their model—and have in turn been extensively imitated. The series reached its peak in “The Fire Engine That Disappeared,” about an intricately baffling case involving an exploding house and an inexplicable suicide note. The Beck novels were marked by a picaresque attention to urban detail and eccentric characterization. With an almost Dickensian exuberance they revealed beneath the well-ordered surfaces of Stockholm a seamy and fear-haunted network of criminals, exploiters and victims—not to mention the harried and at times bureaucratically stymied police force. These densely populated pages, animated by bursts of humor and indignation, portray a whole society in motion.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, 2005

Set among mathematicians in an Oxford that seems, at first, as comfortingly abstract as a calculus equation, this Argentinian novel is a puzzle mystery that pays homage to that very old school of mystery-writing that thrived on mystification and decipherment: G. K. Chesterton, the creator of Father Brown, is appropriately invoked at one crucial point (along with such other high-level game-players as Gödel, Wittgenstein, and Lewis Carroll, not to mention an ancient contingent of Gnostics and Pythagoreans). The gaming in “The Oxford Murders” runs deep, but the book plays eminently fair with its mélange of serial murders, logical paradoxes and ominous encrypted messages. Most remarkable is the level of emotion stirred as the strands of convoluted speculation finally converge. While the novel is steeped in the most primordial pleasures of detective fiction, Guillermo Martínez found some brilliant new uses for those old devices.

The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum, 2007

‘The Water’s Edge,’ which traces the investigation of a young boy’s random murder, is notably free of melodramatic complication and sleight-of-hand: Karin Fossum offers up scenes of rural Norwegian life that could pass as documentary observation. This is crime fiction as transcription of ordinary misery, with the horrors of violent death taking their place among the slower but finally no less destructive malaise of marital impasse, social rejection and children’s capacity for cruelty. The degree to which the characters are bound to their milieu is made apparent at every turn—sometimes, in didactic bits of dialogue, almost too apparent. But the sense of place is relentlessly exact. Fossum, who began as a poet, evokes haunted landscapes and claustrophobic interiors with stark precision. Her protagonist, Inspector Sejer, is just the detective for such a book, somber, laconic, almost burnt out by what he has seen.

Mr. O’Brien, whose books include “The Fall of the House of Walworth” and “Sonata for Jukebox,” is the editor of the Library of America


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Learning to ‘Pack a Punch’ in 150 Pages

Shortly before finishing his most recent novel, “The Humbling” (2009), Philip Roth sat down with a yellow legal pad and drew up a list of the historical events he had lived through, knew well and hadn’t yet written about. One of the words he wrote down was “polio.” Several days later, he glanced at the pad again. This time, he circled the word polio.

When Mr. Roth, 77, was growing up in Newark, N.J., in the 1940s, polio’s ability to cripple and even kill without warning was one of the greatest fears. What would have happened, he wondered, if an epidemic had struck his neighborhood?

On Oct. 5, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish “Nemesis,” the fourth novel in the author’s quartet of short novels that includes “Everyman” (2006), “Indignation” (2008), and “The Humbling.”


Building Blocks of a Book

• When he’s working on a project, Mr. Roth is a dedicated note-taker. “Once I’ve started on a piece of work, then I’m good at keeping a notebook and record of what’s coming,” he says. “But if I’m not working on something, whatever comes into my head goes out of my head.”

• Mr. Roth made his main character a javelin-thrower because he was interested in the sport. He watched DVDs to study the sport’s mechanics. “I love the research part of it,” says Mr. Roth. “It’s the journalist’s side of being a writer.”

• He decided against using a child who gets polio as the main character, because he didn’t want to write the book from a child’s perspective. He also considered a doctor as a protagonist, someone who had to treat children as they were struck down. He eventually decided the role would better fit the father of Bucky’s girlfriend.

• Why the Poconos for the summer-camp setting? Mr. Roth worked at a camp in the area for several summers when he was a college student.

• In both of his home offices—in New York City and rural Connecticut—Mr. Roth maintains the exact same set-up, including the same computer, desk and chair, and even the same lamp.


In “Nemesis,” Mr. Roth tells the story of Bucky Cantor, an athletic, javelin-throwing 23-year-old who is a playground director in the summer of 1944 in Newark. Not eligible to serve in the armed forces because of poor eyesight, Bucky becomes a devoted gym teacher. A fellow teacher falls in love with him, and the two appear to have a bright future.

But after a polio epidemic breaks out during the summer, Bucky quits his playground job at her request to join her at a camp in the Poconos. The story then takes a brutal turn.

Early in his career, Mr. Roth would write through an entire novel on his typewriter and then go back to polish it. Now, he says, the computer has made it so easy to make changes that he typically writes five pages and then rereads them. “If it’s too poorly written, I back up and rewrite,” he says. “Not so that it’s necessarily polished and finished, but so that I can decently go ahead.”

When he’s working on a book, he writes every day. He’s satisfied with a single page, although he’d rather have more. “If I have less than a page, I want to slit my throat,” he says.

He writes in New York City and in rural Connecticut, where he also lives. When he’s deeply into a project, he’ll usually start to write at 9:30 in the morning and work until 4 p.m. or so, when he takes a break to exercise. If he’s in the country, he’ll sometimes go back to work after dinner for an hour or two, typically looking over that day’s work.

The work itself is still hard, he says. Perhaps 10 to 15 days a year he simply decides that he’s not getting anywhere and gives up. Mostly, however, he prefers to struggle on in hopes of getting something written down that advances the story. If he quits, he says, he knows he’ll have to face the same problems the next morning.

Mr. Roth says he doesn’t map out the whole story in advance. While he has some inkling as to what may happen next, he basically “feels my way going forward. The book educates me as I write.”

As he thought about the story for “Nemesis,” Mr. Roth remembered how much he and his friends had loved their summer playground director, somebody who directed their games and looked out for them. The kids were in his charge, but they weren’t his kids. He was right in the heart of the action, susceptible to the same risks as the children around him. As Mr. Roth puts it, “The danger was in his face.”

Philip Roth working on a manuscript in December 1968.

Many of Mr. Roth’s works are flavored by autobiographical details, and occasionally he has heard that people he has written about have been upset. But the process of turning a real person into a character is more complex than most people think, he says.

“The person is a model who then develops into somebody,” he says. “You may begin with a real person, but you have to come to inhabit that character yourself, and at that point, at least the way I do it, you leave the real person behind.”

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?’ ”

Mr. Roth started with “Everyman,” where he says “the punch was death and disease.” In the second book, “Indignation,” a “boy screws up and winds up getting killed.” In “The Humbling,” says Mr. Roth, “The guy loses his acting power and then he altogether loses his power and does himself in.”

The short novel, he says, requires different skills, which he didn’t realize when he began the series. “You have to be able to compress and condense,” he says. “That’s the skill, to condense and pack a punch at the same time.”

All four books, he adds, are about suffering. “The nemesis is that which you can’t conquer,” he says. “Do you have one?”

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Wall Street Journal


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Cathy Cassidy’s top 10 stories about sisters

The Virgin Suicides
 Sisterly love … still from Sophia Coppola’s film of The Virgin Suicides (1999)Bestselling children’s author Cathy Cassidy’s books include Dizzy, Driftwood, Indigo Blue, Scarlett, Sundae Girl, Lucky Star, Gingersnaps and Angel Cake. Her latest novel, Cherry Crush, is the first book in her new series for over-nines, The Chocolate Box Girls, about five very different sisters.

“I grew up in 1960s Coventry, addicted to daydreaming, drawing and story-making right from the start. My dad repaired cars and dreamed of big adventures and my mum looked after both me and my ill, elderly Irish gran, who lived with us. I shared a room with my gran, and it was she who taught me to love stories. She would tell me perfect tales of long-ago Ireland, an idyllic life in the country with sisters called Maggie, Delia, Lizzie and Nellie.

“Eventually I had a little brother, but I never did get a sister, so sister stories have always been endlessly appealing to me. In my friendships, I have often looked for something of the family as well, and have been lucky enough to find it. These days, I find that friendships, and the challenge of getting them right, are at the heart of every book I write.

“It was a challenge for me to write a series about five sisters, but one I have loved. The Chocolate Box Girls are my dream sisters: cool, quirky, arty and individual, full of hopes and dreams. Finally, I have five sisters of my own.”

1. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

This book had everything I wanted as a child: three cool, adopted sisters who have to cope when times get tough. I loved the ballet theme, in spite of having two left feet myself. Or possibly three, even. This book is about following a dream, and making it happen through sheer hard work – a message that is as clear now as it was back then. Brilliant.

2. The Twelve Dancing Princesses by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Jane Ray

I was hooked on fairy stories as a child – apart from annuals, a big grisly compendium of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was the only book I actually owned for years. All the rest were from libraries. I still love this story of 12 rebel sisters who outwit their parents and dance all night, every night. My current copy is illustrated by Jane Ray, whose gorgeous artwork is even more perfect than my imaginings.

 3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Doesn’t everybody want to live in a castle? I did, and I wanted my life to be exactly like those of Rose and Cassandra Mortmain: creative, eccentric, falling in love for the first time. Like Cassandra, I liked to “capture” the people and things around me with words and pictures, and these days I often think of Cassandra’s dad with his worst-ever case of writers’ block, being left in a dungeon to write!

 4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I read many of the classics as a teenager, but this is one of the few I have returned to over the years. Five sparky sisters, but in another world – a world where manners, society and social standing dictate everything. Not just romantic but wonderfully real and believable, even now.

5. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I love, love, love this book. Two little girls and their hippy mum in 1960s Marrakesh, this book poignantly, perfectly, captures the magic of childhood. Adults may be imperfect, impulsive, untrustworthy – but children can cope with almost anything when they know they are loved.

6. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I love history – it’s all about stories, after all – but hadn’t read historical novels for a long time when I came across this. Philippa Gregory is the real deal: she knows how to balance fact with fiction, how to pull you into the story and leave you asking questions you have to know the answers to. Before reading this, I didn’t even know Anne Boleyn had a sister, and had no idea of how the two girls had been so used and abused by their family in the pursuit of power. Any woman who isn’t sure whether or not to call herself a feminist should read this – guaranteed to make it all startlingly clear.

7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Four sisters and their evangelical missionary parents in 1960s Congo. As the girls grow up, they begin to see far more than their rigid, narrow-minded father ever will. This novel opened my eyes to a culture on the brink of turmoil – powerful and unforgettable.

8. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

Enchanting, eccentric, full of drama, feeling and emotion, this book is about friends (the Ya-Yas) who pledge sisterhood as young children and stay together through thick and thin. I love the childhood scenes and the searingly beautiful pictures they paint … this book has been passed around my own Ya-Ya sisters.

9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This book shocked and hurt me, but it opened my eyes, too. Sisters Celie and Nettie are black women living in the US deep south in the 1930s. Bruised and broken by prejudice and poverty, they find strength and love in sisterhood and friendship.

10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The story of five teenage sisters in 1970s Michigan … five sisters who each kill themselves as their family disintegrates around them. Narrated by anonymous neighbourhood boys, this is a fascinating, mysterious story that intrigues and confuses.


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Kafka’s Last Trial

An undated photograph of Franz Kafka.

During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels. “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Palestine on the last train to leave Prague, five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. Thanks largely to Brod’s efforts, Kafka’s slim, enigmatic corpus was gradually recognized as one of the great monuments of 20th-century literature.

The contents of Brod’s suitcase, meanwhile, became subject to more than 50 years of legal wrangling. While about two-thirds of the Kafka estate eventually found its way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the remainder — believed to comprise drawings, travel diaries, letters and drafts — stayed in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed to his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe’s death in late 2007, at age 101, the National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeaths the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library is claiming a right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will. The case has dragged on for more than two years. If the court finds in the sisters’ favor, they will be free to follow Eva’s stated plan to sell some or all of the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. They will also be free to keep whatever they don’t sell in their multiple Swiss and Israeli bank vaults and in the Tel Aviv apartment that Eva shares with an untold number of cats.

The situation has repeatedly been called Kafkaesque, reflecting, perhaps, the strangeness of the idea that Kafka can be anyone’s private property. Isn’t that what Brod demonstrated, when he disregarded Kafka’s last testament: that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?

In May, I attended a session at the Tel Aviv district courthouse, dealing with the fate of the papers. Heading to the courtroom, I found myself in a small and dilapidated elevator with flickering fluorescent lights and a stated maximum occupancy of four people. I was reminded of “The Trial,” the novel that opens with the unexplained arrest of Josef K. by a mysterious court that turns out to have its offices in attics all over Prague, running its course somehow separately from the normal criminal-justice system. Half-expecting the elevator to deposit me in the upper stories of a low-income residential building, I emerged instead into a standard municipal-looking hallway with faux-marble floors. Black-robed lawyers paced around, carrying laptops or giant file folders tucked under their arms; many dragged still more files behind them in black wheeled suitcases.

Some minutes later, a barely perceptible charge in the air signaled the arrival of the sisters. Ruth, with her white sneakers, pearl earrings and short, bleached hair, looked like somebody’s grandmother (which she is). Eva, a former El Al employee who was by all accounts a great beauty in her youth, was dressed entirely in black, with a black plastic clip holding back her long auburn hair. Ruth wore a white shoulder bag, while Eva carried a plastic Iams bag with a paw-print logo.

Of five rows of wooden benches in the courtroom, the first three were occupied by more than a dozen lawyers: two lawyers for the National Library; a representative of the Israeli government office that is responsible for estate hearings; and five court-appointed executors: three representing Esther Hoffe’s will (which the National Library considers irrelevant to the case) and two representing Brod’s estate (which the sisters’ attorneys consider essentially irrelevant to the case). The German Literature Archive in Marbach, which has supposedly offered an undisclosed sum for the papers (said to be worth millions), was also represented by Israeli counsel. Ruth’s lawyer and Eva’s three lawyers rounded out the crowd. It’s impressive that the sisters had between them four lawyers, although, to put things in perspective, Josef K. at one point meets a defendant who has six. When he informs K. that he is negotiating with a seventh, K. asks why anyone should need so many lawyers. The defendant grimly replies, “I need them all.”

The events leading up to the hearing that day were set into motion many decades earlier. In Prague in the 1930s, Brod, a passionate Zionist, began mentioning plans to deposit the Kafka papers in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his and Kafka’s mutual friend Hugo Bergmann was then librarian and rector. Brod renewed these plans after his emigration to Palestine in 1939, but somehow nothing ever came of them, and the papers passed to Esther Hoffe. In 1988, Hoffe made headlines by auctioning the manuscript of “The Trial” for nearly $2 million; it ended up at the German Literature Archive. Philip Roth characterized this outcome as “yet another lurid Kafkaesque irony” that was being “perpetrated on 20th-century Western culture,” observing not only that Kafka was not German but also that his three sisters perished in Nazi death camps.

In later years, Hoffe engaged in negotiations to place the Kafka papers — as well as the rest of the Brod estate, which includes Brod’s voluminous diaries and correspondence with countless German-Jewish intellectual luminaries — at the archive in Marbach. Nevertheless, at the time of her death, no transaction had been completed. The bulk of the collection remained divided among an apartment on Spinoza Street in central Tel Aviv and 10 safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich. It is unclear how much of Brod’s estate is still housed in the Spinoza Street apartment, which is currently inhabited by Eva Hoffe and between 40 and 100 cats. Eva’s neighbors, as well as members of the international scholarly community, have expressed concern regarding the effects of these cats on their surroundings. More than once, municipal authorities have removed some of the animals from the premises, but the missing cats always seem to be replaced.

In 2008, when the sisters tried to probate their mother’s will, they were opposed by the National Library. The library contends that Brod left the Kafka papers to Esther Hoffe as an executor rather than as a beneficiary, meaning that, after Hoffe’s death, the papers reverted to the Brod estate. Brod’s will, dated 1961, specifies that his literary estate be placed “with the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Municipal Library in Tel Aviv or another public archive in Israel or abroad.” The Municipal Library in Tel Aviv has renounced any claim to the estate, making the Hebrew University Library — today, the National Library of Israel — the only claimant specifically named by Brod.

The National Library’s argument is complicated by Brod’s so-called gift letter of 1952. The most crucial and enigmatic document in the case, it appears to give all of the Kafka papers outright, during Brod’s lifetime, to Esther Hoffe. The sisters presented the court with a two-page photocopy of this letter. The National Library, however, produced a photocopy of a four-page version of the letter, of which the two missing middle pages appear to clarify the limitations of Brod’s gift. When the court ordered a forensic examination, the sisters were unable to produce the original letter.

Last year, the court decided to grant the National Library’s request that the papers in the sisters’ possession be inventoried: some evidence suggests that the vaults contain further documentation clarifying Brod’s intentions for the papers. The sisters appealed the decision, maintaining that the state has no right to search private property for documents whose existence can’t be proven beforehand. The hearing I attended was to determine the outcome of their appeal.

Eva and Ruth, who fled Nazi-occupied Prague as children, are elusive figures who keep out of the public eye. The fact that they are represented by separate counsel reflects Eva’s greater investment in the case. While Ruth married and left home, Eva lived with their mother, and with the papers, for 40 years. Her attorney Oded Hacohen characterizes Eva’s relationship to the manuscripts as “almost biological.” “For her,” he told me, “intruding on those safe-deposits is like a rape.” (When asked whether Eva had used the word “rape” herself, Hacohen looked a bit tired. “Many times,” he said.)

As long as Esther Hoffe’s will is debated, Eva and Ruth are unable to touch any part of their inheritance, which includes more than $1 million in cash. According to Hacohen, the money is a Holocaust compensation from the German government. The National Library argues that the sum could just as easily represent the proceeds from the sale of “The Trial,” which the library considers to have been a violation of Brod’s will. Eva, who claims to live in direst poverty, has unsuccessfully petitioned for a partial probate, which would have released the money before a decision was reached about the papers.

The hearing I attended brought no good news for the sisters. Their appeal was overruled that day by the district court, and again the next month by the Supreme Court. In late July, one safe-deposit box in Tel Aviv and all four Zurich vaults were inventoried. Witnesses in Tel Aviv reported seeing Eva run into the bank after the lawyers shouting: “It’s mine! It’s mine!” Eva also somehow turned up at the bank in Zurich but wasn’t allowed into the vault.

Five of the safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv initially resisted inspection. Some of the keys obtained after strenuous negotiations with Eva turned out not to match the locks. By now, most of the boxes have been opened. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the banks have already yielded “a huge amount” of original Kafka material, including notebooks and the manuscript of a previously published short story. The specific contents, including any documents that might illuminate the question of ownership, will be made public once everything has been cataloged — a process estimated to last another month. In the meantime, the world continues to wait.

Kafka’s life passed almost entirely within the space of a few city blocks in Prague, where he was born in 1883, attended school and university and, as an adult, lived with his parents and worked in an insurance agency. Kafka and Brod met in 1902, at Charles University, where both were studying law. Brod was 18 — one year younger than Kafka — but already a literary sensation. According to Brod’s biography of Kafka, the two met at a lecture Brod gave on Schopenhauer, during which Kafka objected to Brod’s characterization of Nietzsche as a fraud. Walking home together afterward, they discussed their favorite writers. Brod praised a passage from the story “Purple Death” in which Gustav Meyrink “compared butterflies to great opened-out books of magic.” Kafka, who took no stock in magic butterflies, countered with a phrase from Hugo von Hoffmansthal: “the smell of damp flags in a hall.” Having uttered these words, he fell into a profound silence that left a great impression on Brod.

For years, Brod had no idea that Kafka also did a bit of writing in his free time. Nonetheless, he began right away to commit Kafka’s utterances to his diary, starting with “Talk comes straight out of his mouth like a walking stick” (an observation about an over-assertive classmate). In 1905, Kafka showed Brod his story “Description of a Struggle.” Brod directly adopted a lifelong mission “to bring Kafka’s works before the public.” (An uncannily perspicacious talent-spotter, Brod also brought early recognition to Jaroslav Hasek and Leos Janacek.) In a Berlin weekly in 1907, Brod named a handful of contemporary authors maintaining the “exalted standards” of German literature: Franz Blei, Heinrich Mann, Frank Wedekind, Meyrink and Kafka. The first four were big names of the time; Kafka had yet to publish a single word. After much prodding by Brod, Kafka began publishing literary sketches in 1908, which were collected in a book in 1913.

In most respects, Brod and Kafka could not have been more different. An extrovert, Zionist, womanizer, novelist, poet, critic, composer and constitutional optimist, Brod had a tremendous capacity for survival. In his biography of Kafka, Ernst Pawel recounts how Brod, having been given a diagnosis at age 4 of a life-threatening spinal curvature, was sent to a miracle healer in the Black Forest, “a shoemaker by trade, who built him a monstrous harness into which he was strapped day and night.” Brod spent an entire year in the care of this shoemaker, emerging with a permanent hunchbacklike deformity, which did not impede him in a lifelong series of overlapping relationships with attractive blondes.

Kafka, tall, dark and broodingly handsome, had fewer and more anguished relations with women. From an early age, he was deeply concerned with his health, clothes and personal hygiene. (“The afternoons I spent on my hair,” a 1912 diary entry reads.) He practiced vegetarianism, “Fletcherizing” (a system of chewing each bite for several minutes), “Müllerizing” (an exercise regimen) and various natural healing programs. He worried about dandruff and constipation to an extent that occasionally exasperated even Brod (“for instance, in Lugano, when he refused to take any laxative . . . but ruined the days for me with his moanings”). He wasn’t a good decision maker, and he didn’t have good luck. After years of complaining about his job at the insurance office, he finally worked up the nerve to mail his parents a letter saying that he was going to move to Berlin and write for a living — less than a week before the outbreak of World War I, which obliged him to stay in Prague. In 1917, he was given a diagnosis of tuberculosis. In 1921, he told Brod that his last testament would consist of “a request to you to burn everything.” Brod promptly replied that he would do no such thing: his main justification, in later years, for overriding Kafka’s wishes.

In 1923, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old runaway from a conservative Hasidic family in Galicia. She was his last and happiest love. The six-foot-tall Kafka at that point weighed 118 pounds. The couple lived for some months in a rental room in Berlin but moved in 1924 to a sanitarium in the Austrian town of Kierling, where Kafka, unable to eat, drink or speak, edited the proofs of his story “The Hunger Artist” and eventually died in Dora’s arms, having published, in his lifetime, fewer than 450 pages.

Kafka studies now proliferate at a rate inversely proportional to that of Kafka’s own production: according to a recent estimate, a new book on his work has been published every 10 days for the past 14 years. Brod, in his 84 years on this planet, published 83 books, most of them now out of print.

In his role in Kafka’s estate, Brod presents the paradox of a radically un-Kafkaesque protagonist in a Kafkaesque plot. This was a recurring theme in their friendship. After graduating from law school, Brod, already a published author, allowed himself to be convinced by Kafka’s thesis that “breadwinning and the art of writing must be kept absolutely apart” and took a job in the post office. Brod later bitterly regretted “the hundreds of joyless hours” squandered in offices by himself and the author of “The Trial.”

Four years after Kafka’s death, Brod published a novel, “The Enchanted Kingdom of Love,” featuring a moribund, Kafka-like character called Richard Garta: “a saint of our day” whose brother turns up on a kibbutz in Eastern Galilee and unmasks Richard, posthumously, as a fervent Zionist. In 1937, Brod wrote his biography of Kafka, which, alongside genuinely brilliant insights into Kafka’s life and work, also quotes wholesale from the descriptions of Richard Garta in “The Enchanted Kingdom,” advancing the thesis that Kafka was, if not “a perfect saint,” then still “on the road to becoming one,” and that his most seemingly ambiguous literary works are essentially religious treatments of the transcendental homelessness of European Jewry.

Brod’s biography of Kafka was not well received. According to Walter Benjamin, it testifies to a “lack of any deep understanding of Kafka’s life,” one great riddle of which is, indeed, Kafka’s choice of such a philistine for a best friend. “I will never get to the bottom of the Brod mystery,” Milan Kundera writes, marveling that Brod was astute enough to preserve Kafka’s novels for posterity, yet capable of doing so in such sentimental, vulgar and politically tendentious books. The received image of Brod in Kafka studies is a well-meaning hack who displayed extraordinary prescience, energy and selflessness in the promotion of his more talented friend, about whom, however, he understood nothing and whose dying wishes he was thus able to ignore.

The truth is more complicated. Although the loss, within a few years, of both Kafka and Europe could easily have driven Brod to despair, he instead resolved to transform it into the foundation for a new future, adopting a lifelong determination to fuse his two favorite causes — Kafka and Zionism — into a single, future-bearing entity. Kafka’s life and work became a uniform and inherently meaningful body, in which every last detail had the same supreme importance: in the “22 years of our unclouded friendship,” Brod recalled, “I never once threw away the smallest scrap of paper that came from him, no, not even a postcard.” Whatever Brod thought that Kafka was going to do for mankind, it was definitely something huge. “If humanity would only better understand what has been presented to it in the person and work of Kafka,” Brod writes, “it would undoubtedly be in a quite different position.”

Pinning his hopes of a new world order onto Kafka’s oeuvre — onto, that is, a collection of abstruse literary fiction, mostly dealing with the lives of Prague white-collar workers and animals — Brod was following a dream logic common to Kafka’s own characters. In “Amerika,” Karl believes that he can “have a direct effect upon his American environment” by playing the piano in a certain way; Josephine the Mouse Singer believes that when the Mouse Folk “are in a bad way politically or economically, her singing” will save them. In 1941, Brod published an extraordinary column in the Hebrew paper Davar, recounting his arrival in Palestine with “only one plan” rising from a “mist of many obscure thoughts”: “to act for the memory of my friend Franz Kafka in this country that he missed.” (According to Brod, only Kafka’s “sickness and sudden death prevented his immigration.”) Having transported Kafka’s manuscripts by train and ship to the soil of Zion, Brod had already found a few fellow thinkers “for whom Kafka is more than any other modern writer — he is the 20th-century Job.” Once they had fulfilled their true purpose — namely, the establishment of a Kafka archive and a Kafka club in Palestine — “the Hitler era, the era of destruction” would be followed by an age of “the infinite creation in the spirit of Kafka,” “a good era for humanity, and for Judaism, which has again professed salvation to the peoples by one of its finest sons.”

Kafka’s actual relationship to Zionism and Jewish culture was, like his relationship to most things, highly ambivalent. (In 1922, Kafka compiled a list of things he had failed at, including piano, languages, gardening, Zionism and anti-Zionism.) Although Brod’s attempts to convert Kafka to Zionism were a source of tension in the early years of their friendship, Kafka grew increasingly sympathetic to the cause. As early as 1912, he discussed a journey to Palestine with Felice Bauer, a dictating-machine representative with whom he was to pursue a long, anguished, mainly epistolary romance. (The two were twice engaged to be married before separating in 1917.) In 1918, Kafka drew up his vision of an early kibbutz. The only nourishment would be bread, dates and water; notably, in light of recent developments, there would be no legal courts: “Palestine needs earth,” Kafka wrote, “but it does not need lawyers.”

Kafka’s plans to move to Palestine grew more concrete only as their fulfillment grew less likely. He began studying Hebrew in 1921. According to his teacher, Puah Ben-Tovim, “he already knew he was dying” and seemed to regard their lessons “as a kind of miracle cure,” preparing “long lists of words he wanted to know”; rendered speechless by coughing, he would implore his teacher “with those huge dark eyes of his to stay for one more word, and another, and yet another.” In 1923, Ben-Tovim visited Kafka and Dora Diamant in Berlin. She found them living in bohemian squalor, reading to each other in Hebrew and fantasizing about opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv, where Diamant would work in the kitchen and Kafka would wait on tables. “Dora didn’t know how to cook, and he would have been hopeless as a waiter,” Ben-Tovim observed. Then again, “in those days most restaurants in Tel Aviv were run by couples just like them.” Ben-Tovim left one of Kafka’s Hebrew notebooks in the National Library, where I saw it this spring: a long list of those words from which Kafka expected such miracles: “tuberculosis,” “to languish,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “genius,” “pestilence,” “belt.”

Brod’s interpretation of Kafka as a Zionist manqué is now on trial: if not, technically, in the court of law, then certainly in the court of public opinion. “Why does Kafka belong here?” asks Mark Gelber, a literature professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Because the Zionist enterprise was important to him.” Gelber told me he considers Kafka’s animal stories to participate in a Zionist discourse, from which “Kafka removes the particularist markers, erases the particularist traces.” (This lack of “particularist markers” makes Kafka particularly susceptible to different interpretations and ascriptions: those same animal stories caused Elias Canetti to call Kafka “the only essentially Chinese writer to be found in the West.”) Many European critics — for example, Reiner Stach, Kafka’s most recent and thorough biographer — object to the view of Kafka as “a Zionist or a religious author.” “The fact that specifically Jewish experiences are reflected in his works does not — as Brod believed — make him the protagonist of a ‘Jewish’ literature,” Stach told me. Rather, “Kafka’s oeuvre stands in the context of European literary modernity, and his texts are among the foundational documents of this modernity.”

In a perfect world, Kafka could be both engaged with a specifically Jewish discourse and a foundational author of European modernity. As Brod himself observes of “The Castle,” a “specifically Jewish interpretation goes hand in hand with what is common to humanity, without either excluding or even disturbing the other.” But an original manuscript can be in only one place at a time. The choice between Israel and Germany could not be more symbolically fraught.

For the proponents of Marbach, the debate is really about storage conditions. “In Israel there is no place to keep the papers so well as in Germany,” Eva Hoffe has stated; Stach corroborates that “scholars everywhere outside of Israel are in agreement” that the papers would be better off in Marbach. Anyway, Marbach already has “The Trial,” and it would be more convenient for scholars to have everything in one place. In hopes of securing the cooperation of the National Library, Marbach has proposed to grant Israeli scholars priority access to the collection and to lend the papers to Jerusalem for a temporary exhibit.

But in a battle between expediency and ideals, the two sides are speaking different languages. Otto Dov Kulka, an emeritus professor of history specializing in the situation of Jews during the Third Reich, describes the claim that Israel doesn’t have the resources to take care of the papers as “outrageous and hypocritical.” I spoke with Kulka in his office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I found him editing a document titled, in an enormous font legible from across the room, “Between the Periphery and the Metropolis of Death.” A diminutive, dynamic figure in his 70s, wearing ergonomic sandals and a short-sleeved khaki shirt that exposed a five-digit number tattooed on his forearm, he repeatedly jumped up from his chair to retrieve books from the shelves that towered above us.

Kulka produced and read aloud from a long list of German-Jewish intellectuals whose papers are in the National Library: Albert Einstein, Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Else Lasker-Schüler, Martin Buber. “We are taking care of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and we will take care of Kafka,” he said. “They say the papers will be safer in Germany, the Germans will take very good care of them. Well, the Germans don’t have a very good history of taking care of Kafka’s things. They didn’t take good care of his sisters.” He fell silent. “I was together with Kafka’s sister Ottla,” he added, in a conversational tone.

“Oh, really?” I said, not understanding what he meant.

“Yes,” he said, smiling vaguely. “In Theresienstadt, before she was murdered.” Kulka, 9 years old at the time, never spoke to Ottla but described her as a kind and selfless person, who voluntarily escorted a group of Jewish orphans from Bialystok to Auschwitz.

Oded Hacohen, Eva Hoffe’s attorney, maintains that “moral positions” about Germany are irrelevant to the case. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you care that those manuscripts could end up in Germany?’ ” he said. “I care much more that those Holocaust refugees cannot pay their electricity bills here in Israel.”

Brod met his future secretary Esther Hoffe and her husband, Otto, shortly after his arrival in Tel Aviv. After Brod’s wife died in 1942, he and the Hoffes became extremely close. “Our home was his home; he didn’t have another one,” Esther told a reporter for Ha’aretz in 1968. Esther had an office in Brod’s apartment. She and Otto and Max took vacations together in Switzerland. Although acquaintances of Brod described the relationship as a “ménage à trois,” Eva has denied that her mother and Brod were romantically involved. The relationship will presumably be illuminated in Brod’s diaries, which are believed to be in one of the vaults.

The opening of the safe-deposit boxes might also elucidate the central mystery in this case: given Brod’s evident intention for the papers to end up in an archive, why did he make them a gift to a private individual? And why did he choose an individual who proved capable of hanging onto them for 40 years?

Brod’s surviving acquaintances at the Hebrew University, including Otto Dov Kulka, are convinced that the 1952 gift letter, in which he seemingly bequeathed the papers to Esther, has been altered and that Brod never wavered in his intention for Kafka’s work to remain in Israel. They maintain that the vaults will yield proof that Brod changed his will in later years to name a new executor: Felix Weltsch, a Zionist and philosopher who worked at the Jerusalem library. (Brod mentions this change in a 1964 letter to Weltsch, but the codicil has never been found.)

Reiner Stach, Kafka’s biographer, sees things differently. He maintains that Brod was torn between Marbach, with its impressive facilities, and the library in Jerusalem, where so many of his friends worked. Unable to announce that he was leaving Kafka’s papers to “the country of the perpetrators,” as Stach puts it, Brod left Hoffe to play the bad cop. Stach also suggests that although Brod didn’t wish to profit financially from Kafka, he might have wanted to compensate Hoffe for her long years of secretarial work by allowing her to sell the materials to a well-financed institute.

Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer who considers Kafka to be his greatest influence, proposes that Brod had no idea that Hoffe would sit on the papers for so long. “Half of us are married to people who say, ‘I’m just going to buy a pack of cigarettes,’ and never return,” he told me. “I think this is the literary version of that, with this Hoffe chick.” Keret characterizes Brod as “a good judge of texts, for sure, but a very bad judge of human characters.” If Brod could see what was happening now, Keret says, he would be “horrified.” Kafka, on the other hand, might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

Kafka wasn’t the only ambivalent one. Some part of Brod clearly wasn’t ready to let the papers out of the vaults. Most scholars agree that Brod was reluctant to give up his control over Kafka’s image. Materials in the estate will probably testify to the friends’ visits to prostitutes — which Brod excised from his edition of Kafka’s diaries — or to Kafka’s occasional anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic comments, like the wish he once expressed “to stuff all Jews (myself included) into a drawer of a laundry basket.” Furthermore, Brod’s view of Kafka as the savior of mankind made the papers a huge, life-consuming responsibility, which Brod himself must occasionally have wished to stuff into the drawer of a laundry basket. Everything was at stake — the memory of Kafka, the fate of world literature, the future of Israel — and nobody could be trusted.

Meir Heller, an attorney for the National Library, told me he believes that Brod turned to Hoffe when, in his old age, he began to suspect everyone else of distorting his friend’s legacy. “She was wiping him, she was making his food,” Heller said. “He thought, I can trust her.” He describes Brod’s school of interpretation of Kafka as a “sect” into which only true believers were permitted. Heller mentioned a 1957 letter from Brod to Hoffe, specifying that, after Esther’s death, the Kafka papers should pass to one of Brod’s friends (although her daughters would still receive royalties from their publication); in later years Brod periodically returned to this letter, adding and subtracting the names of those he considered trustworthy. The publisher Klaus Wagenbach was there for a while, but Brod crossed him out after Wagenbach published a Kafka biography that Brod didn’t like.

Heller’s recurring metaphor for the papers comes from “The Lord of the Rings.” “You remember the ‘precious’?” he said, alluding to the magic ring that causes its possessor to guard it obsessively. “That’s how it is. Whoever touches these papers — it distorts their vision.”

One afternoon during my stay in Tel Aviv, I headed to Spinoza Street on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. I was accompanied by Avi Steinberg, an American writer living at the time in Jerusalem. I had become acquainted with Steinberg two months earlier, when he mailed me the galleys of a memoir he wrote about his experiences as a prison librarian. In subsequent correspondence, I mentioned my impending Kafkaesque assignment to report on a “Kafka archive kept for decades in a cat-infested Tel Aviv flat,” confessing to some apprehensions that I would be unable to locate the apartment. Steinberg promptly replied that the address was 23 Spinoza Street, that he had recently rung the doorbell himself but had no answer and that “last week in court, Eva Hoffe’s sweater was covered in animal hairs, possibly originating from a cat or cats.”

Walking through the city center, we discussed the mystery of Kafka’s testament. Steinberg saw in Kafka’s cryptic letter to Brod another version of the parable of Abraham and Isaac. (Kafka wrote several retellings of this story in 1921, the same year he first mentioned to Brod that he wanted his work to be burned.) Kafka, Steinberg suggested, wanted to prove that he was ready to incinerate the child of his creation, simultaneously knowing and not knowing that Brod would step in and play the role of the angel.

“The thing is,” Steinberg said, “we only have Brod’s word for any of this. What if Kafka never even told him to burn his stuff? Has anyone ever seen that letter? What if this is all some big idea Brod had?”

Similarly paranoid thoughts cross the mind of nearly everyone who studies Kafka. At a certain point you realize that everything — even the picture of Brod as a good-natured busybody who ignored Kafka’s wishes — comes from Brod himself. “Don’t write this down — I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the academic community,” one scholar told me, having ventured the idea that Brod himself had composed all of Kafka’s writings and, alarmed by their strangeness, attributed them to a reclusive friend who worked at an insurance office.

Spinoza Street is in a quiet residential neighborhood lined by flat-roofed stucco buildings. The dingy off-pink stucco facade of No. 23 was partly obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under the tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Behind a large protruding window, enclosed by two layers of metal grillwork, lay an indistinct heap of cats. Some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, causing six or so cats to look up in unison, elongating their necks. The breeze turned. A terrible smell wafted toward us.

The smell was stronger inside the building. We knocked on Hoffe’s door several times. Someone or something was moving inside, but nobody answered. Steinberg, who has a mild cat allergy, began sneezing. The sneezes echoed terrifyingly in the empty stairwell.

Back in the yard, we squinted in the hazy sunlight. Two cats staggered out of a rhododendron bush, looking drunk. I kept remembering a line from “The Trial”: “The wooden steps explained nothing, no matter how long one stared at them.” Having taken the precaution of bringing some cat toys with me, I began waving an artificial mouse at a gray kitten I had just noticed under the shopping cart. After some hesitation, the kitten ran out from under the shopping cart and pounced on the mouse, then scooped it up with its little white paws and bounced it off its chest.

What would Brod have made of it all? The situation struck me as enormously sad. It was sad that Esther had gotten so terribly old and died, and that Eva, the beautiful girl whom Brod once taught to play the piano, was now making French headlines as the “cat woman septuagénaire” who guards Kafka’s papers amid “feline miasmas and angora toxoplasmosis.” Ostensibly trying to defend her privacy and financial interests, Eva was plagued at all hours by journalists, while presumably racking up a fortune in legal fees. Nor would Brod conceivably have been delighted that Kafka’s papers had generated decades of acrimony and become the playthings of lawyers. He might have felt gratified by his friend’s extraordinary fame; but it was thanks to that very fame, which Brod himself both predicted and created, that Kafka didn’t belong to Brod anymore. Brod always knew that he couldn’t hold on to Kafka forever, but he never really faced up to it, and this was the result.

The more I learned about the papers’ stormy history, the more convincing I found the “Lord of the Rings” analogy invoked by Meir Heller, the attorney for the National Library. Brod really does seem to have regarded Kafka’s work as “one ring to rule them all.” Ever since he brought it to Israel, it has been guarded with a secrecy and fanaticism unusual even within the contentious world of literary estates.

The first conflict over Kafka’s papers arose in the 1930s between Brod and Salman Schocken, a former department-store magnate who took over the publication of Kafka’s works in 1933. During the war, Schocken continued to publish Kafka from Palestine and, later, New York, but retained the original manuscripts at his library in Jerusalem. Several sources confirm a fraught letter exchange between the two, with Brod demanding the return of certain manuscripts. In 1956, Schocken moved the papers in his possession to Zurich. The Zurich papers were eventually acquired for the Bodleian Library at Oxford through the offices of Sir Malcolm Pasley, an Oxford Germanist and a friend of Kafka’s great-nephew Michael Steiner.

Esther Hoffe was notorious for her elusiveness regarding the papers that she inherited from Brod. According to Der Spiegel, she backed out of a plan to lend “The Trial” to a Kafka exhibition in Paris because she didn’t get a personal phone call from the French president. Later a German publisher reportedly paid her a five-digit sum for the rights to Brod’s diaries, but she never produced the goods.

In 1974, at the request of the Israeli State Archives, an Israeli court reviewed Hoffe’s claim to the Brod estate. The judge ruled that she could do whatever she wanted with the papers during her lifetime. The following year, Hoffe was arrested at the Tel Aviv airport on suspicion of smuggling Kafka manuscripts abroad without first leaving copies with the State Archives (a stipulation of the Israeli Archives Law of 1955). A search of her luggage yielded photocopies of letters written by Kafka and, reportedly, originals of Brod’s diaries. (An estimated 22 letters and 10 postcards from Kafka to Brod were sold the previous year, presumably by Hoffe, in private sales in Germany.)

Hoffe was released. Soon after, an archivist from the State Archives came to Spinoza Street and, in the presence of Esther, Eva and an attorney, tried to inventory the estate. The archivist reported finding more than 50 feet of files, including originals of Brod’s diaries, letters to Brod from Kafka and letters to Brod and Kafka from unspecified “personages.” Most of the files, however, consisted of photocopies. When asked about the originals, Hoffe’s attorney, according to the archivist, “hesitated for a moment, then said that the material is not here,” adding that he, the lawyer, “always counseled to leave a photocopy in Israel, in compliance with the Archives Law.”

The incompleteness of the inventory leaves many questions about the contents of the estate. The answers may well be in a more thorough catalog compiled in the ’80s by a philologist named Bern­hard Echte, now the publisher of Nimbus Books in Switzerland. Copies of Echte’s inventory, which lists some 20,000 pages of material, are closely guarded. Heller has been trying vainly to get one for years.

Echte, the rare scholar whose brush with the Kafka papers doesn’t seem to have injured his sense for the magic of literary discovery, is also the only interviewee in this story who described Esther Hoffe with genuine warmth. Echte told me in an e-mail interview that Hoffe “really tried to fulfill Max Brod’s will because she admired and loved Max Brod like a young girl (and I liked her very much for it).” Although her preference for “books with a good and interesting story” led her to find Kafka “strange,” Echte said, she nonetheless recognized Kafka’s importance to world literature and was prevented only by old age from placing the papers at Marbach. Echte fondly recalled “all the discoveries we made — Mrs. Hoffe and me.” Inside “quite a normal folder” for example, they found “two or three sheets of paper with Kafka’s last notes from Kierling,” the sanitarium where Kafka died. In Zurich, they unearthed a letter that Kafka sent to Brod in 1910, enclosing two birthday gifts: “a small stone,” still in the envelope, and “a damaged book” — which turned up two years later at Spinoza Street and proved to be a novel by Robert Walser. Other treasures that Echte described to me included a copy of “Tristan Tzara’s ‘Première Aventure Céleste de M. Antipyrine,’ the first Dada publication, with a personal dedication of the author to Kafka. Imagine that!”

What else is in the vaults? Most experts agree that the estate is unlikely to contain any unknown major work by Kafka. On the other hand, Kafka often embedded lapidary parables and short-short stories in his letters and diaries. Brod published everything he saw fit, but Peter Fenves, a literature professor at Northwestern University, speculates that there might still be some “literary gems” left: “Perhaps a story like ‘Jackals and Arabs,’ which I can imagine Brod would have suppressed” if Kafka hadn’t published it himself. (In this fable, a European traveler is informed by some jackals — sometimes interpreted as a caricature of Jews — that they have been waiting for generations for him to slit the throats of their unclean enemies, the Arabs.)

The estate is of great interest not only to literary scholars but also to historians and biographers. Reiner Stach, who has already published Volumes 2 and 3 in his three-volume life of Kafka, told me that he has been waiting for years for the vaults to divulge materials necessary for Volume 1: an early notebook by Brod “that is said to contain ‘a good deal about Kafka’ ”; Brod’s unpublished diary from 1909; and letters from Kafka’s hitherto unknown “early friends.”

Kathi Diamant — Dora Diamant’s biographer and the founder of the San Diego-based Kafka Project, which in 2000 discovered Kafka’s old hairbrush at a kibbutz in Jezreel Valley — is eagerly awaiting the release from the vaults of 70 letters written by Dora to Brod. In one letter, Dora, to whom Kathi says she may or may not be related, confesses to having burned at Kafka’s request a number of his manuscripts, perhaps including an unpublished story about a blood-libel case in Kiev. But Dora also saved 20 notebooks and 35 letters, which were seized from her apartment by the Gestapo in 1933. Kathi says that information from the Brod correspondence may help her track down these materials, possibly to a sealed archive in Poland. Both Kathi and Zvi Diamant, Dora’s last living nephew, repeatedly tried to contact Esther Hoffe about the letters: “She refused to help and hung up,” Kathi recalled.

On my last night in Tel Aviv I found myself back at Spinoza Street, to meet the filmmaker Sagi Bornstein, who is working on a documentary about the Kafka case. We met at the end of the block, just as dark was falling. Bornstein, wearing a striped knit cap and a lapel button that said simply “K” (the gift of Dutch Kafkologists), was accompanied by two crew members and a medium-size dog named Babylon Fighter. We sat on a public bench, and Bornstein fitted me with a microphone. His crew filmed our conversation from the other side of the street, where they appeared to be standing in some bushes.

Bornstein was considering two titles for his film: “Kafka’s Last Story,” referring to Kafka’s will, and “Kafka’s Egg,” referring, he said, to “an Easter egg, or the egg of Columbus.”

“It’s something that everyone is trying to solve — but in the end, it’s only an egg,” Bornstein explained. He talked about his experiences shooting in Marbach, Prague, Berlin and Kierling, and about his fruitless efforts to interview Eva Hoffe. “I feel pretty sorry for her,” he said. “I think I understand her pretty well. It’s her life, and she doesn’t owe a report to anyone. Still, the story doesn’t belong only to her. She accidentally got into a story that’s bigger than all of us together.” He fell silent. A girl passed on a bicycle. Babylon Fighter, who does not wear a leash, seemed inclined to follow her, but Bornstein dissuaded him with a stern clicking noise. “So,” he said, turning to me. “You want to go knock on her door?”

I didn’t, frankly, but a job is a job. The crew emerged from the bushes, and we all headed back up Spinoza Street. The lights were on, although it was now past 10 p.m. Bornstein walked me to the door, standing away from the peephole; if she saw him, he said, she wouldn’t open the door.

“I don’t think she’s going to open the door anyway,” I said — accurately, as it turned out. We could hear voices inside. “She’s on the phone,” Bornstein said. Back outside, he speed-dialed Eva’s lawyer Oded Hacohen on his iPhone, and they spoke for some minutes. A large moth circled over our heads in the light of a streetlamp, its wings flapping like some great opened-up book of magic.

“We’ve been having the same conversation for a year,” Bornstein said, hanging up. “He just says we can’t talk to her now. He doesn’t say ‘never’ — just ‘not now.’ It’s ‘Before the Law.’ It’s the exact same thing.”

Bornstein was alluding to the famous parable in “The Trial” about a man who comes before the law but is turned away by the doorkeeper. The man asks if he will be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible, but not now,” says the doorkeeper, explaining that he is only the first in a series of increasingly powerful and terrifying doorkeepers (“The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear”). The man sits next to the entrance for hours, days, years, waiting to be admitted to the law. In his dying breath, he asks the guard a question: Since the law is open to everyone, why has nobody else approached it in all these years? “This entrance was meant solely for you,” the guard says. “I’m going to go and shut it now.” Like many of Kafka’s stories, it carries the dreamlike impact of a great revelation, while nonetheless not making much immediately apparent sense.

Bornstein gave me a lift home on his moped, together with Babylon Fighter and a substantial amount of video equipment. As we whizzed through traffic and a pedestrian mall, narrowly missing a fateful encounter with a young man sprawled on a sheet and claiming to be the Messiah, I reflected on “Before the Law” — specifically, on the feelings the man projects onto the doorkeeper. “Over the many years,” Kafka writes, “the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law.”

Who is Eva Hoffe if not the doorkeeper, the one whom we observe incessantly, who seems to us the only obstacle to our understanding of Kafka? But in fact, beyond Eva lies a series of doorkeepers, most notably Brod, who has been reproached with everything under the sun: with making Kafka a saint, with refusing to burn his papers, with hiding the papers that he refused to burn, with writing such dreadful novels and, overall, with his general inescapability. And then, when we get past Brod, it’s only to face the most powerful doorkeeper of all, Kafka himself.

“With Kafka, people go crazy about getting the original manuscript — not a photocopy, not a facsimile,” Meir Heller once remarked to me. “With most writers, once there’s a copy, nobody cares.” We fetishize the original manuscripts, because they seem to offer some access to a definitive Kafka — a Kafka beyond Brod. But this, too, is an illusion. The manuscripts aren’t definitive, because definitiveness, for better or worse, is the product of deadlines and editors and publishers: things Kafka either went out of his way not to have or ended up not having because of bad luck, tuberculosis and the First World War. When Kafka did prepare manuscripts for publication, he spent much time correcting mistakes and decoding his own abbreviations, sometimes even enlisting Brod’s help; one critic thus speculates that “Brod’s version might, in the end, look more like what Kafka would have published” than the most meticulous German scholarly editions. Maybe there is no Kafka beyond Brod.

Nonetheless, like the man in the parable, we ultimately come back to our faith in the law. In the coming weeks, a court-appointed group will finish inventorying the remaining boxes, as well as the contents of the Spinoza Street apartment. It’s only a matter of time before the list is made public and most of the materials find their way to one archive or another. The last doorkeeper out of the way, we’ll be as close to Kafka as we’re ever going to get.

Elif Batuman is the author of “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”


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A Literary Revolution

Kafka knew that ‘to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done.’

The French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once said that he could never write a novel because sooner or later he would find himself setting down such a sentence as “The marquise went out at five o’clock.” Why did the marquise leave at five? he wondered. Why not at six or seven? In fact, why did she go out at all? And why a “marquise”? Why not a duchess or a washerwoman? The arbitrary nature of narrative devices irked Valéry; they pretended to an authority that was, at bottom, a sham. They invited us to treat mere fancy as hard fact.

Virginia Woolf

In “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” Valéry’s sample sentence serves the English novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici as both a chapter title and a running motif. For, as he notes, the problem of our punctual marquise strikes at the heart of conventional fiction. A novel, to be compelling, has to have plot, dramatic incident and narrative momentum, but these are the very elements that are lacking in our daily lives, confused and messy as they are. It is the distinction of Modernism, Mr. Josipovici argues, to acknowledge that the stories we tell ourselves—even as we strive to fill them with coherence, dramatic logic and ultimate meaning—are hopelessly flawed, incomplete and contradictory.

Modernism, as conventionally understood, was an early 20th- century movement that affected all the arts; it simultaneously broke with tradition and drew self-consciously on tradition. The great modernist figures include Picasso and Francis Bacon in painting and Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music, all of whom figure in Mr. Josipovici’s account. But his main concern is with literature: Proust, Kafka, Beckett, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Mann, among a host of others. Mr. Josipovici, it should be said, is a champion of Modernism. He sees it as a valuable tradition in its own right, one that is not merely endangered but virtually extinct, especially in the smug, ultra-Philistine realm of contemporary British fiction.

Charles Dickens

In Mr. Josipovici’s view, Modernism is something at once vast and intimate, encompassing “nothing less than life itself.” Modernism isn’t a style, he says, but “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.” Even more portentously, Modernism is a kind of anguished repudiation—”a response to the simplifications of the self and of life that Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them.” Its intimacy lies in the stubborn effort, especially on the part of Modernist novelists, to render those little hesitations, those sieges of doubt, those a nxious questionings that beset us even as we attempt to construct some credible narrative of our lives. The true Modernist narrative always involves a disrupted momentum.

Ezra Pound

Mr. Josipovici does not provide a simple, broadly applicable definition of Modernism—it would be hard to do in any case—but he does something better. He takes Modernism out of its traditionally limited time-frame and sets it within a long historical arc that begins in the 16th century. By the use of apt and often brilliant quotations from a wide range of authors—from Homer to Irène Némirovsky—he allows the contours of his subject to emerge. This approach does more justice to the complexity of Modernism than any capsule account could provide. And because Mr. Josipovici is himself an accomplished novelist, he knows how to craft a strong narrative, not unworthy in fact of those blinkered conventional novelists he finds so outmoded. The story he tells is unexpectedly compelling.

The origins of Modernism lie in disillusion or, more precisely, in what the German poet Friedrich Schiller called “the disenchantment of the world.” Unfortunately, Mr. Josipovici, who likes to quote his authors in the original, gets it wrong here, giving Schiller’s phrase as “die Entziehung der Welt,” or “the withdrawal of the world,” instead of the correct “die Entzauberung der Welt.” But this slip doesn’t impair his argument.

T. S. Eliot

In the mid-16th century, the old certainties, the immemorial rituals, the hierarchies of the heavens and earth seemed to crumble. As Mr. Josipovici explains, Schiller’s phrase was taken up early in the 20th century by the sociologist Max Weber, who used it to explain the radical transformation of the world that occurred after the Protestant Reformation, from a divinely appointed cosmos, alive with numinous presences, to a bustling marketplace of enterprise, production and rampant individualism.

In such a disenchanted world, the world we inhabit now, it’s not only pointless but dishonest to write or paint or compose in traditional ways, as though nothing had changed. The old human narrative has been fatally disrupted; it is false to pretend otherwise. Modernism is the anguished response—for Mr. Josipovici, the only valid response—to this irreparable fracture of the world and the self.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Honoré Balzac.

He begins his account with some astute observations on two famous engravings by Albrecht Dürer (his “Melancholia I” and “St. Jerome in his Study” from 1514). Dürer intended the engravings to be complementary; but in fact, as Mr. Josipovici argues, “Melancholia,” with its shadows and dozing bats, has come to depict our present state, while “St. Jerome” in its sunny serenity reveals all that we—we moderns—have lost. Clearly for Mr. Josipovici the shattering of former certainties, despite the gains it offers in self-knowledge, has left us bereft. For Dürer, the calm, orderly world of the saint was as real, as true, as the dark, jagged realm of melancholy. For the Modernist sensibility, however, serenity is no longer possible; truth, if it can be glimpsed at all, is invariably agitated.

Tracing Modernism’s long arc, Mr. Josipovici moves on to Rabelais and Cervantes, two 16th-century artists who “knew in their bones that they were living through a period of decisive change.” They, and such disparate 19th-century figures as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and—perhaps surprisingly—the English poet William Wordsworth, are the true precursors of Modernism, Mr. Josipovici argues. He is particularly good on Wordsworth, showing how the poet in his deepest moments of communion with nature remained “a stranger in the landscape.”

Thomas Mann

With the 20th century and his most cherished authors and artists, Mr. Josipovici comes into his own. Whether discussing a key passage in Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” or quoting from an interview with the painter Francis Bacon, whether drawing on Rosalind Krauss’s studies of Picasso or on Marcel Duchamp’s comments on his own work, he is both passionate and lucid. If he is notably perceptive on such authors as Borges and Kafka, he is equally fine on less familiar authors, such as Claude Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist whom he cites to brilliant effect. Thus, in “The Flanders Road,” Simon evokes the German invasion of France in 1940, depicting the “civilians who doggedly went on wandering about in incomprehensible fashion, dragging a battered suitcase after them or pushing one of those children’s perambulators filled with vague belongings.” In such a scene, the pathos is one with the absurdity, and we feel the force of a difficult truth.

Marcel Proust

Mr. Josipovici has a gift for sweeping the reader along, but even so, reservations arise. One of the least attractive aspects of literary Modernism has been its penchant for casting what it dislikes into outer darkness. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were especially skilled at such excommunicatory tosses. I’ve known poets who refuse to read Virgil or Milton because of the belittling judgments of the high modernists; and the judgments are always couched as a polarity: Homer but not Virgil, Marvell but not Milton. Mr. Josipovici betrays something of this doctrinaire tendency; he is scornful of Anthony Powell and V.S. Naipaul, both of whom he dismisses with a quip. But Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” and Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas” are great 20th-century novels.

Franz Kafka

Mr. Josipovici faults Philip Roth’s fiction for lacking “that sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words, which we experience when reading Proust or James.” Then he imagines his reader objecting that “Roth is an experimental writer!” and “Is that not what Modernism is about?” Here Mr. Josipovici displays a peevish side, remarking: “If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying.” Well, maybe. He’s baffled by intelligent reviewers, “many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf,” who “betray their calling” by praising what he considers second-rate work—not just Roth but Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Salman Rushdie.

Mr. Josipovici does not countenance the possibility that in the works of the Modernist writers, artists and composers he most admires there lay hidden some dimly willed element that led to their supersession. The caustic self-doubt, and doubt of the world, that drove their genius may have proved corrosive over time, diluting the severe standards they applied to art. He quotes Marcel Duchamp, for example, without acknowledging that his wry and cynical playfulness has led, decades later, to the trivial shenanigans of such poseurs as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Samuel Beckett

Perhaps the true question raised by “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” is about the way in which art grapples with reality. The 19th-century novelists created characters and set them within a narrative; this was an “arbitrary” process: David Copperfield and Père Goriot are as contrived as the marquise who went out at five. Balzac carried a cane inscribed with the motto “I smash all obstacles.” Kafka noted that he himself should have a cane inscribed “All obstacles smash me.” Kafka knew that, as Mr. Josipovici puts it, “to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done.”

For Mr. Josipovici, Modernism is ultimately an ethical proposition, and a stern one at that. He says that traditional fiction deludes us, encouraging us in the conviction that “we ourselves will never die”; it “actively prevents us from having a realistic attitude to ourselves and the world.” This probably isn’t Mr. Josipovici’s final view—he hedges a bit here—but he does fault the conventional novel for giving the reader “the impression that he or she understands something.”

Paul Valery

Is it really a false impression when we feel, after reading “War and Peace,” that we have a sense of what it must have been like to wander, amid the smoke and cries of the wounded, across the battlefield of Borodino with the baffled Pierre? Mr. Josipovici is harsh on realism in fiction—he thinks it a dangerous illusion—and yet we still respond to fictional replications of the world, not only in its inmost contradictions but in the sheer sensual beauty of its surfaces. We still take pleasure in make-believe and in the telling of tales, even tall ones, if only because they tell us something true about ourselves, a truth that perhaps we can grasp through no other medium.

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London.


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Trolls and Tribulations

A newly translated collection of short stories from the late Tove Jansson explores the themes of solitude and aging.

What is Finland’s most distinctive export? Nokia, Sibelius—or the Moomins? There is a strong case for the last. The late Tove Jansson is certainly best known as the inventor of these gentle, hospitable, thoughtful creatures with large snouts and inquisitive natures. The adventures of the Finn Family Moomintroll and their friends, living deep in a hidden valley in the dark wilds of Scandinavia, are widely translated and much loved all across the world by children and parents alike. They are especially popular in Japan, where you can order an omelette with Moomintroll drawn on in ketchup from a Moomin cafe. Despite this commercialization, the world Jansson created remains at once strange and wild, with magic hats, comets and electric ghosts, and yet familiar, with trips to the seaside, quarrelling friends, tiresome guests and, crucially, the absolute security and comfort of home and family.

Tove Jansson’s fiction speaks to both children and adults.

Jansson also illustrated the books with clear, simple, elegant line drawings of the Moomins and their environs. The Moomins themselves are charming to look at, and their friends are quirky and amusing; their surroundings, however, are often less so—deserted beaches, hidden caves, a single jetty pointing to a vast, empty sea. Life in Moominvalley is full of fun and adventure, but it can also be confusing, lonely and downright frightening. Jansson’s creatures face real dilemmas: wanting to leave but risking hurt to other people; the paralysing effects of nostalgia and wanderlust; the difficulty and necessity of being kind to a needy but unpleasant guest; jealousy, alienation, covetousness, unrequited love and more. The stories do not shy away from big issues just because they are aimed at children; they are also completely devoid of sentimentality. No surprise, then, that Jansson’s later work for adults, written in the last 30 years of her life, does not pull any punches.

“Travelling Light,” the most recently translated work is a collection of short stories. The title story is told by someone in desperate search of “a certain detachment” from his life; he leaves his flat, packs as little as he can, and has “no intention of ever coming back.” He boards a ship and is dismayed to find that he must share a cabin, despite his desire to be alone and never to take “any interest in anyone.” Gradually, he is drawn into conversation and unwanted intimacy with his cabin mate; he flees and tries to find a chair to sleep in, only to be accosted by someone else demanding his time, his attention, his energy. It clearly does not matter where or how he travels, he will never be free of other people and human contact. And, the story seems to imply, why should he be?

“The Hothouse” is also about a desire to be alone; an elderly gentleman seeks peace and quiet in botanical hothouses and is disturbed by another elderly gentleman doing the same thing. The narrative moves with swift precision through their initial antagonism and gradual friendship and then on to the difficulties—and possibilities—of communication, of really trying to tell a story and explain its importance and feel that it has been understood.

Old age figures largely in this collection; in “A Foreign City,” which is akin to distilled essence of Kafka with a happy ending, the narrator is aware of and embarrassed by his forgetfulness, but in the end he understands and remembers what really matters. In “The Garden of Eden,” a retired professor goes on holiday and ends up trying to resolve local difficulties, while remembering a few of her own.

Jansson’s stories often confound expectations upset certainties; in “The Summer Child,” a well-off family offers to take a city child to the country with them for the summer in a magnanimous gesture. The child who turns up is neither deserving of their charity nor fun to have around; the adults’ motives are revealed as questionable, and it is left up to the children to sort themselves out, which they do, rather savagely. Equally, in “The Gulls,” a beautiful remote island provides no peace and redemption for the couple who have brought their own considerable problems away with them. Again, the wish to retire from the world seems suspect and unachievable. All this is done with the lightest of touches, in a direct, plain style and with a minimum of fuss; “The Forest” is only three pages long, but its emotional impact is huge.

Jansson can speak to both children and adults and her voice is always her own, even when she borrows the words of others, as in the final, beautiful story, “Correspondence,” based on a real exchange of letters she had with a Japanese fan. Her work asks big, complicated questions—about art, nature, belief, prejudice, how to live well—so simply and clearly that it looks easy. But as her stories constantly remind us, nothing is that easy. She is in a class of her own.

Ms. Dallas edits the website and the In Brief pages of the Times Literary Supplement.


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Five Best Groundbreaking Memoirs

The Education of Henry Adams

By Henry Adams (1918)

With its narratordolefully pointing the way toward modernism, insistently (and convincingly) writing in the third person, “The Education of Henry Adams” is a one-man kaleidoscope of American history: its politics and pretenses, its turn from a patrician, Victorian society toward the unknowable chaos of the 20th century. Adams regarded his efforts at education as a lifelong exercise in passionate failure. Though 100 copies of the book were printed privately in 1907, he withheld general publication until after his death in 1918. What he didn’t write revealed an intimate truth: Adams omitted the story of his wife’s depression and suicide in 1885. Here was a seminal memoir, required reading for every student of intellectual history, in which the Rubicon of a life had been left out! Adams lifts the veil just twice: once when describing his sister’s death, and again when he returns to America and visits the bronze statue at Rock Creek cemetery in Washington, commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his wife’s honor.

Survival in Auschwitz

By Primo Levi (1958)

From the opening sentence—”I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943″—this searingly quiet account by Primo Levi, an Italian chemist, of his 10 months in Auschwitz is a monument of dignity. First published in Italy in 1947 with a title that translates as “If This Is a Man,” the book became a blueprint for every such story that followed, not only as a portrait of the camp’s atrocities but also as a testament to the moments when humanity prevailed. On a mile-long trip with a fellow prisoner to retrieve a 100-pound soup ration, Levi begins to teach his friend “The Canto of Ulysses” from Dante. Completing the lesson becomes urgent, then vital: “It is late, it is late,” Levi realizes, “we have reached the kitchen, I must finish.” No candle has ever shown more brilliantly from within the caverns of evil.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Joan Didion in 1981.

By Joan Didion (1968)

If Joan Didion’s first nonfiction collection now seems tethered to the 1960s, it’s partly because so many writers would try to imitate her style: The tenor and cadence were as precise as an atomic clock. She mapped a prevailing culture from the badlands of Southern California and the streets of Haight-Ashbury to the province of her own paranoia, all of it cloaked in jasmine-scented doom. As both background character and prevailing sensibility, Didion brings the reader into her lair: “You see the point. I want to tell you the truth, and already I have told you about the wide rivers.” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” suggested that memoir was about voice as well as facts. Didion didn’t just intimate a decade of upheaval, she announced it with a starter pistol’s report.


By Michael Herr (1977)

Every war has its Stephen Crane, its Robert Graves—and Vietnam had Michael Herr. He spent a year in-country in 1967, then nearly a decade turning what he saw there into a surreal narrative of the war’s geography, from its napalmed landscape to the craters of a soldier’s mind. Soldiers talked to Herr—told him things they hadn’t said before or maybe even known. “I should have had ‘Born to Listen’ written on my helmet,” he told me in London in 1988. What Herr dared to write about was war’s primal allure: “the death space and the life you found inside it.” That he created this gunmetal narrative with a blend of fact and creative memory was acknowledged from the first; his netherland of “truth” mirrored the dream-like quality of the war and influenced its literature for a decade to come.

Darkness Visible

By William Styron (1990)

Certainly there have been other literary memoirs of personal anguish, but Styron’s brutal account of his cliffwalk with suicidal despair blew the door open on the subject. Depression and alcoholism in writers had too often been viewed through a lens of romantic ruin—the destiny- ridden price of creative genius. “Darkness Visible” put an end to all that. Literary lion, second lieutenant during World War II, Styron was brought to his knees in his own brooding woods. His story hauled plenty of ideas about clinical depression out of the 19th century and into the light of day, where they belonged.

Ms. Caldwell is the author of “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship.” The former chief book critic of the Boston Globe, she was in 2001 awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.


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Ten of the best disguises in literature

The Odyssey, by Homer

Odysseus arrives back at his island of Ithaca disguised as a beggar. He is recognised only by his old dog Argus (animals always see through disguises), which dies of joy on the spot. In his disguise, our hero is able to see who has been loyal to him and who has not.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare

The Duke who governs Vienna wants to see what his underlings will get up to in his absence. So he asks his friend Friar Thomas for some monkish garb: “Supply me with the habit and instruct me / How I may formally in person bear me / Like a true friar”. It works, and not even his most devoted courtiers recognise him until he finally unveils himself.

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

Another monkish disguise. Sexy young Matilda lusts after Father Ambrosio, the most pious monk in Madrid. So she dresses up as a young novice monk and finds her way into the monastery. In her cell she reveals herself to Ambrosio, who cannot resist her charms. It turns out that she is in fact a demon.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

One of the great episodes of transvestism in literature comes when Rochester togs himself up as a Gypsy woman to read the palms of the guests he has invited to Thornfield. Blanche Ingram, Jane’s rival for his affections, gets uncomforting news, but Jane is told “the cup of bliss” is going to be offered to her.

East Lynne, by Mrs Henry Wood

Lady Isabel Vane loses her happy home and family when she conducts an adulterous affair with the utterly caddish Francis Levinson. Having learned the error of her ways, she returns to be governess to her own children, disguised by blue-lensed glasses, hair turned white from shock after a train crash and a scarred mouth.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Dick Datchery arrives in the town of Cloisterham, apparently a detective in disguise (he wears a wig). He (or she?) keeps watch over John Jasper, choirmaster and secret drug addict. Drood has disappeared: is he disguised as Datchery? Or is it another character, investigating Drood’s murder? Dickens did not finish the book, so we will never know.

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Watson visits a squalid London opium den in search of genteel addict Isa Whitney. Watson finds his man and notices an old man, “absorbed” in his drug-taking: “very thin, very wrinkled, bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between his knees”. Of course, it is Sherlock Holmes, conducting field research!

Charley’s Aunt, by Brandon Thomas

In the Victorians’ favourite farce, two Oxford students, Charley and Jack, persuade their friend Lord Fancourt Babberly to impersonate Charley’s aunt from Brazil. With “her” as chaperone, they can entertain Amy and Kitty, the two girls they fancy. Jack’s father and Amy’s father both fall for the fake aunt, before the real one turns up.

Third Girl, by Agatha Christie

False identities proliferate in Christie’s novels, but Third Girl satisfies by being peculiarly dependant on wigs. The plot turns on the capacity of Norma Restarick’s stepmother Mary to assume different identities by changing wigs. Her disguise is so successful she manages to pose as Norma’s flatmate without her stepdaughter noticing who she really is.

Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine

Unemployed actor Daniel Hilliard dresses up as a woman and applies for the job as nanny to his children, who live with his estranged wife Miranda. The elder two of his three children recognise him immediately, though his wife is completely fooled. When she discovers his ruse, she agrees to give him more access.


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Val McDermid’s top 10 Oxford novels

What to read? … Students walk past the Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford city centre.

Val McDermid is the award-winning author of numerous crime novels, including a series of books starring her most famous creation, clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill. She read English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – at 17, one of the youngest undergraduates the college had ever taken, and the first from a Scottish state school. Her latest novel, Trick of the Dark, is set in Oxford, and is published by Little, Brown.

“I spent three years at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. I took a degree in English, but more valuable was what I learned outside tutorials. And finally, with Trick of the Dark, I’ve managed to write about it. Oxford exerts a strong influence on those it touches, whether they love it or hate it, whether they embrace it or resist it, whether they admit it or deny it. I didn’t know much about it when I arrived, but thanks in large part to the dozens of books written about it, I know a lot more now.”

1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I was instantly seduced by Waugh’s portrait of the collision between a decent middle-class chap and a dysfunctional bunch of Catholic toffs. Although superficially I had nothing in common with his characters apart from studying at Oxford, I couldn’t avoid all sorts of emotional identification with them. This is the quintessential novel of Oxford gilded youth flying too close to the sun.

 2. The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter

Impossible to avoid Inspector Morse, whose TV adventures have amplified the city’s tourist magnetism. I’ve chosen this one because it features crucially one of my favourite Oxford streets, Park Town. I remember particularly the day Richard Nixon resigned. I had spent the afternoon reading in a hammock in a garden in Park Town, eating figs and drinking Italian wine, then went indoors as the sun went down to turn on the TV and watch history being made.

 3. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

A classic crime novel that brings a streak of surrealism to the genre. Featuring the anarchic English literature don Gervase Fen, the mystery gets under way when a visiting poet finds a dead body in a toyshop in the middle of the night. By morning, it’s been transformed into a grocery store. Written with wit and brio, this is a clever, energetic romp that still entertains.

4. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears

Set just after the Restoration, when conspiracies were rife, this epistolary novel features a quartet of unreliable narrators giving their versions of the same series of events. Cleverly constructed and completely fascinating, it’s loosely based on historical happenings and is crammed with fascinating period detail. It’s as much a novel of ideas as it is of character, but none the less compelling for that.

5. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

A mad fantasy, subtitled “An Oxford love story”, this is a satire on the sheltered world of Oxford colleges a century ago. Zuleika, granddaughter of the warden of Judas College, is a conjuror whose charms bewitch all the men who come into contact with her. Rejection drives them to mass suicide and Zuleika sets her sights on Cambridge. Beerbohm’s a class act whose wit makes this still worth a read.

 6. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

A science-fiction fantasy dressed in the vestments of a Victorian novel, complete with epigraphs, chapter outlines and sidelong nods to Dorothy L Sayers, Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome and Wilkie Collins. There’s time travel; a McGuffin (the bishop’s bird stump); a Gothic villainess (Lady Schrapnell); and enough fun and games to fill a rainy weekend.

 7. Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Strictly speaking, a short story, but an irresistible add-on to the His Dark Materials trilogy. It takes place two years after the trilogy, in the alternate Oxford introduced in Northern Lights. The story itself is intriguing but slight; its main interest comes from the extras that accompany it – a map of Lyra’s Oxford, adverts and tourist information from her universe. An amusing divertissement, but still, you should read the trilogy …

 8. Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

No one has ever cast a colder eye on respectablility than Michael Dibdin. Here, a north Oxford couple’s perfect life is shattered when a dinner guest seduces the wife in her own kitchen. This triggers a series of escalating events that strip bare the superficiality of their lives and end in ruthless murder. Weaving a terrifying thread of sex and violence, this is a brilliant and satisfying thriller.

9. The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

A recent addition to the canon of Oxford fiction, Alderman’s second novel gives a tip of the hat to Brideshead, featuring its own version of a more contemporary gilded youth and an updated take on the grip of the church and its consequences. Alderman is a gifted, witty writer and The Lessons is a sharp, insightful overview of a journey that starts out hopeful and ends horrible.

 10. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

I am no lover of Sayers – I find her style overblown, her snobbishness irritating and Lord Peter Wimsey infuriating – but no list of Oxford fiction would be complete without Gaudy Night. So I will cheat and quote my fellow crime writer Andrew Taylor: “She tried to use a detective story both as a vehicle for serious themes — the value of scholarship, and the price it exacts — and as a novel of character and manners with an attendant love story. It is a book that has given some of its readers their first glimpse of the intellectual excitement a university can offer.”


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Philip Ardagh’s top 10 children’s books by Roald Dahl

 Roald Dahl

Funny guy … Roald Dahl.

Children’s author Philip Ardagh won the upper age category in last year’s Roald Dahl Funny Prize for the first of his Grubtown Tales, and his Eddie Dickens adventures have been translated into 34 languages. He’s also written funny stuff for radio (including BBC radio’s first ever truly interactive drama) and is an “irregular regular reviewer” of children’s books for the Guardian.

This year, he’s a judge for the Roald Dahl Funny prize, which has given him “an excuse to immerse [him]self in some wonderfully inventive fiction from some of today’s funniest children’s writers”.

He has an impressively large beard.

“Dahl was the master. When he died, I was working in a library. A child asked me: ‘Who will write Roald Dahl books now he’s dead?’ Fortunately, his books live on for whole new generations, while we oldies have the excuse of reading them to our children.”

In no particular order, his top 10 favourites are:

1. The Twits

Beard-hating Dahl at his best in this tale of an ever-warring couple: repulsive Mr Twit and his equally repulsive glass-eyed wife. Not forgetting the monkeys. You mustn’t forget the monkeys. If I tell you any more I might spoil the story. Read it. It’s bonkers.

2. Matilda

Matilda is a lovely girl. Her parents aren’t. Matilda loves books and reading. Her parents love conning people and watching telly. School, ruled by the evil Miss Trunchbull, whose speciality is swinging children by their hair and throwing them out of the window, isn’t much better. Then Matilda discovers that she has supernatural powers …

3. The Witches

The Grand High Witch has a simple but fiendishly clever plan to rid England of its children: her hags will take over all the sweet shops, and sell doctored sweets to the children, turning them into mice. (Did I say simple?) Fortunately, a boy overhears their villainous scheming. Unfortunately, he’s turned into a mouse before you can say Jack Robi—

4. James and the Giant Peach

An everyday story of evil aunts (Sponge and Spiker), a giant, flying fruit (the peach of the title) inhabited by characterful, giant insects (including the Old-Green-Grasshopper) and, of course, James himself. Lots of funny policemen, too.

5. George’s Marvellous Medicine

George’s grandma is such a groucher, a grumbler and a griper that he decides to mix up some medicine to try to cure her of her nastiness. As with 94.8% of plans in Roald Dahl books, this one doesn’t turn out quite the way George intended. The results are explosive!

6. Fantastic Mr Fox

Mr Fox is the good guy, looking out for his foxy family (at least that’s how he sees it). Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean are certainly the baddies. In this battle of wits between farmer and “vermin”, Mr Fox is tunnelling for food whilst the farmers are trying to dig him out. A simple tale told as only Dahl can.

7. The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me

A giraffe with an extending neck, a pelican with a bucket-sized beak, a dancing monkey and a boy with big ideas join forces to create the Ladderless Window-Cleaning Company. Their biggest job? To clean all 677 – yes, six hundred and seventy-seven – of the Duke of Hampshire’s windows. Expect chaos in this lavishly illustrated silliness.

8. Esio Trot

Spell “Esio Trot” backwards and you get the word “tortoise”, which should give you a clue as to how crazy this (very short) novel is. It’s about Mr Hoppy’s unrequited love for Mrs Silver downstairs who, in turn, only has eyes for her pet tortoise, Alfie.

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Dahl’s best-known book has everything: grotesque characters, ludicrous situations and, of course, chocolate! Who could ask for more? When Charlie Bucket wins the last “Golden Ticket” to get a free tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, he soon discovers that his fellow winners have bitten off far more than they can chew.

10. The BFG

If flatulence, royalty and a giant with disproportionately large ears are what you’re after in a story, this is the book for you. Throw in kidnapped orphan Sophie (snatched and taken to Giant Land) and a trumpet that blows dreams into sleeping children’s rooms, and the result is an extraordinary Dahl-esque/Dali-esque vision.

NOTE: All of the above are illustrated by Quentin Blake. What a marriage made in Heaven that was!


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Haunted And Confused

‘A self-inflicted summons to compulsion and predation.’

Crime writer James Ellroy’s most compelling mystery story has always been his own. In 1958, when he was 10 years old, his mother, Jean, was found strangled to death near a high-school playing field in El Monte, Calif. The trauma of her unsolved murder has underscored and fueled Mr. Ellroy’s fiction, not only his neo-noir historical crime novels, like “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” but also his exploration of the secret history of the 1960s in the trilogy that includes “American Tabloid.”

In his 1996 memoir, “My Dark Places,” Mr. Ellroy recounted his unsuccessful attempt to solve his mother’s murder with the help of a retired police detective. Now, in “The Hilliker Curse,” he explores a related quest: his perverse, compulsive and often self-lacerating search for a redemptive lover to take his dead mother’s place.

The book is brief, but it covers a world of pain. In dense, explicit and yet jazzily lyrical prose, Mr. Ellroy recounts his masochistic voyeurism; his periods of breaking into women’s homes to fondle and smell and steal their possessions; his drug and alcohol addiction; his tormented dalliances with prostitutes, fans and fantasy girls; a loving but often sexless marriage; and a shattering nervous breakdown at the height of his career. None of this is necessarily shocking news or even revelatory. Mr. Ellroy has been making something of a traveling show of his paraphilia for years. He describes one “knockout performance” at a bookstore reading where he announced to his fans: “I need a strong woman to tame me with her love and walk all over me in high black boots.” Seven women slipped him their phone numbers.

But “The Hilliker Curse”—his mother’s maiden name was Hilliker—is not meant to be merely a confession. It is an act of creation, Mr. Ellroy’s attempt to take the reader into the experience of his anguish and aberrations. It is a show, all right, there is no question about that. He intends to dazzle and seduce us with the romance of his suffering perversity. But there’s a truth of feeling in it, too, an underlying sense of what it is actually like to live in the vortex of an impossible yearning.

Mr. Ellroy doesn’t waste too much time on the psychology of it all. He is clear that the core complex of his desire pre-dates his mother’s murder. His voyeurism seems rooted at least in part in her seductive behavior toward him and in the paranoid hostility of his father, her wastrel ex-husband. The murder, though, torched that fuel, and the fire was made unquenchable by what he calls the Hilliker curse.

The curse, Mr. Ellroy says, was begotten on his 10th birthday. His mother, drunk, slapped him. “I summoned her dead,” he writes. “She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.” The curse then blew back on him, becoming “a self-inflicted summons to compulsion and predation,” unhappily mingled with the guilt-ridden need to find salvation in a woman and to protect her from harm.

But if Mr. Ellroy only touches on the causes of his obsession, he is expert and relentless at dramatizing its effects. He captures beautifully the way in which sexual and emotional disorders can feel at once alien and inescapably personal. His description of his hypochondriacal collapse during a “mega book tour” through Europe and America is agonizing. In Rome, “my publisher booked me a boss hotel suite. . . . I pulled the curtains and anchored them with heavy chairs. I had an epiphany and began reading the Gideon Bible. . . . I got halfway through the Old Testament. Cancer cells started eating at me. I ran to the bathroom and scratched my arms bloody.” Anyone who has been through mental crisis will recognize the painful precision of his account.

Yet Mr. Ellroy also manages to suggest the ways in which such obsessions and crises serve as the novelist’s muse. “Yearning is my chief fount of inspiration. I live in that exalted state,” he writes. “Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation.”

Only the book’s coda rings false. While Mr. Ellroy acknowledges that his previous memoir suffered from a forced sense of closure—an imposition of form over content—he repeats the error here. “The Hilliker Curse” ends on a tin note of triumphant resolution. New love is found. Writing will exorcise the past. “The dominant story line of my life will dissolve on the last page I write here.”

It would be pretty to think so. Yet one has the feeling that there is as much hidden here as revealed, that Mr. Ellroy’s belligerent candor disguises some deeper and still secret shame. How could it be otherwise? Every confession is also a mask. As all good crime writers understand: There’s no bottom to the perversity of the human heart.

Mr. Klavan’s latest thriller, “The Identity Man,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in November.


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Ten of the best professors in literature

Professor Pesca

In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Walter Hartwright’s “worthy Italian friend” is a political refugee who once taught at the University of Padua. He is distinguished by “the harmless eccentricity of his character”, showing his respect for the English by dedicating himself incompetently to cricket and fox-hunting. He also plays a crucial role in undoing his compatriot, the villainous Count Fosco.

The Professor

The most frightening member of the anarchist cell in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is known only by his academic title. “The Professor” is their cerebral bomb-maker – a man of intellectual brilliance who despises “weak” human beings. He always travels with a bomb inside his coat and his finger on the button that will detonate it.

Professor Van Helsing

When beautiful Lucy Westenra turns pale and weak, her suitor John Seward naturally calls for his old tutor Van Helsing, a top scientist and a leading “metaphysician”. Good move: Van Helsing knows how to destroy vampires because he has read lots of books.

Professor Moriarty

Sherlock Holmes’s foe (“the Napoleon of Crime”) is an intellectual gone to the bad. Once a professor of mathematics “at one of our smaller universities”, he has become bored by number-crunching and turned to crime. The author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid is Holmes’s worthy antagonist.

Professor Henry Higgins

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Higgins is a professor of phonetics who sets out to convert a Cockney flower girl into a well-spoken lady. Higgins is a professorial know-all, but is revealed as irascible and intolerant when Eliza turns out to have more willpower than he had expected.

Professor Branestawm

In the children’s books written by Norman Hunter, Professor Theophilus Branestawm is an eccentric and, yes, absent-minded inventor living in an English village (he doesn’t seem to need the support system of a university lab). He is a genius, but most of his inventions work in ways he had not anticipated, or create entertaining havoc.

Professor Kirke

Always off in his study doing something mysterious, Professor Kirke owns the rambling house to which the Pevensie children are evacuated in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Gruff but kindly, he is wise enough to believe in all their incredible tales of Narnia. CS Lewis wrote a prequel – The Magician’s Nephew – to explain why, telling the adventures of Digory Kirke as a boy.

Professor Calculus

An ever-present supporting character in Hergé’s Tintin stories, Cuthbert Calculus is an archetype of intellectual abstraction, and chronically hard of hearing. A scientific genius, he manages brilliantly successful inventions (everything from moon rockets to a pill that cures alcoholism) while apparently incapable of mastering the demands of everyday life.

Professor Welch

In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Welch is the prosing, pompous head of the history department in a provincial English university, who inflicts evenings of madrigal singing on his subordinates. Jim Dixon has to suck up to him but fantasises about doing bad things to him.

Professor Morris Zapp

Cocksure, overpaid, jet-setting Eng lit prof Morris Zapp is the most memorable of David Lodge’s academic characters. Charming and cynical, Zapp has a verve notably lacking in his pallid British counterparts. He first appears in Changing Places, where he visits the University of Rummidge (very similar to Lodge’s Birmingham) and cuts a swath through English academia.


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Charlie Higson’s top 10 horror books

Charlie Higson surrounded by zombies

Stamping images in readers’ imaginations … Charlie Higson surrounded by zombies.

As well as making becoming a household name for his work as a writer and actor in comedy shows such as The Fast Show, Charlie Higson has had a parallel and these days just as stellar career as a writer. After winning acclaim for early, blackly comic crime novels including his debut King of the Ants (1992) and Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen (1996), he moved on to writing for children in 2005 with the Young Bond series. These books have now sold more than 1m copies in the UK alone, and have been translated into 24 different languages.

The Enemy, published last year, marked a new departure for Higson into horror writing for teenagers, with a tale of teenagers defending themselves against a zombified adult world. The first in a series, it was this week shortlisted for the Booktrust teenage prize, with volume two, The Dead, due out next week.

“What constitutes a horror book? A black and red cover? A primary objective to scare the shit out of the reader? A plug from Stephen King on the back? Most of the books on my list would probably be categorised in other genres first, but then – is Alien a sci-fi film or a horror film, or both? Is Wuthering Heights a ghost story? Is Jane Eyre the mother of all psycho-in-the-attic stories? And Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is in many ways a haunted house story. I might well have put it in here if I’d ever actually read it.

“You can have a lot of fun mixing genres up. Personally I’m not the world’s biggest fan of pure horror novels – ghosts and demons and man-eating slugs leave me slightly unmoved. With no belief in the supernatural, supernatural stories usually have little effect on me. Of the big horror names only Stephen King, with his concentration on character, really works for me. I’ve enjoyed other horror writers but wouldn’t put them in any top 10 lists. HP Lovecraft, for instance, is fun but his books aren’t exactly scary. I’m not going to lose any sleep over the possibility of Cthulhu and the ancient gods crossing over into our domain.

“And there are other glaring omissions from my list. Why no Dracula or Frankenstein or Edgar Allan Poe I hear you cry. It’s sacrilege to leave them out of a horror list, I know. But Poe only really wrote a couple of scary horror stories (The Tell Tale Heart is brilliant) and I find Dracula and Frankenstein rather heavy going and 19th century. Of course they’re where it all began as far as the undead are concerned and must be read, I’m just not sure that they still have the power to frighten us. And, let’s face it, that’s what a horror book should do.

“I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of frightening people. I like the idea of disturbing my readers, giving them sleepless nights and stamping images in their imaginations that will stay there for a very long time. That way they will always remember your book, and after all, us novelists are like Dracula, all we want is immortality. The first two of my adult novels (King Of The Ants and Happy Now) could easily be categorised as horror books and my new series for younger readers, The Enemy, is most definitely horror as it concerns kids vs adult zombies, but it is also an action adventure series, which seems to be my default mode. I’m always open to suggestions, though, so if anyone wants to champion some pure horror books that I absolutely must read, then fire away. I’m all severed ears.”

1. The Watcher by Charles Maclean (out of print but Amazon and Abebooks have copies)

An extraordinary book, unlike anything else I’ve ever read, which had a big effect on me when I first read it. The narrator, Martin Gregory, starts out by telling us that he was perfectly normal and happy and that there was no reason for the terrible thing he has done … The sense of impending horror is enormous, and the book, like the narrator, soon spirals into madness. We have to try and work out what is really going on as we see everything through Gregory’s distorted perspective. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that everyone around him is in very great danger.

2. The Shining by Stephen King

You can’t have a horror list without having Stephen King in there somewhere. It’s the law. But the thing is, when he was at his peak his books were brilliant (he hasn’t quite been able to sustain it – you can’t help but start repeating yourself if you write as many books as he has). Engrossing, tragic and, yes, frightening, which you can’t always say about horror books. He’s a great writer and for me the greatest horror writer. If you’ve only seen the film of The Shining then read the book – it’s better (first half of the film amazing, second a bit silly).

3. The Drive-In by Joe R Lansdale

The Drive In, by Texan titan Joe R Lansdale is a great, knowingly trashy nod to the 50s and 60s craze for teen drive-in schlock sci-fi/horror flicks. A bunch of kids at an all-night horror showing at their local drive-in get mysteriously trapped there by some malign force and begin to behave like ants under a glass. Surviving on junk food and fizzy drinks they go crazy and set up a savage and weird alterative society full of great characters like the Popcorn King. Book Two spins off into yet wilder shores.

4. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

A hugely influential horror book, written in 1957. The last human survivor in a Californian suburb ventures forth every day with a supply of stakes to try and wipe out the vampires that have taken over. Matheson was great at mixing horror and science fiction, and rooting the fantastical in everyday reality. This book is a brilliant study in loneliness and obsession, and when the story twists towards the end Matheson very cleverly makes us question all that has gone before.

5. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

There has been a lot of fuss recently about the film of this book. But the book – which is every bit as extreme and upsetting as the film – has been around since as long ago as 1952. Amazing how you can get away with so much more in books without people really noticing. “Oh, it’s a book, it must be good for you.” Well, this book is certainly not good for you. I remember reading it and thinking – should I be reading this, should anyone read this? It is a horrific trip inside the mind of a cold-blooded psychopathic sadist, who is nevertheless good company and at times unnervingly funny. Not in a flip, post-Tarantino way; this is very disturbing and upsetting stuff. There is never any question as to where Thompson stands – the narrator is a monster. We watch his destructive relations unfold and discover the reasons for his condition from the reading equivalent of “behind the sofa”. Unlike a lot of modern writers who go into this area in a sort of gleefully voyeuristic adolescent way that is entirely fake (stand up Brett Easton Ellis). Jim Thompson lived the life. He understood these people and fought many demons of his own. He is my favourite author by a long chalk, and this is an extraordinary book, but it’s also certainly one of the most extreme (and extremely upsetting) things I’ve ever read.

6. Pan Books Of Horror

If any horror collections can be described as seminal it is these. When I was a teenager they were everywhere. Passed around from hand to hand, they had a forbidden, naughty allure, like video nasties. With their classy but trashy covers the stories they contained were gory, nasty, sometimes sexy, often badly written, sometimes brilliant. The collections were a mix of old classics and more modern material, increasingly the latter as the supply of classics ran dry. You’d find Stephen King alongside Algernon Blackwood and some blood-soaked fillers from writers you’d never heard of before and never hear would again. A superfan is currently working with Pan to get the series relaunched, starting with a facsimile reprint of volume one later in the year. Look out for it. And check out his website.

7. Uncle Montague’s Tales Of Terror by Chris Priestley

This one’s for the kids. Written in an accessible, cod Victorian style it has a neat framing device. Edgar goes to stay with his uncle in the woods who proceeds to tell him a series of terrifying stories – all the while hinting at some dark secrets of his own. Rest assured, the stories, which all feature a child in some way, are genuinely scary and unsettling and really do get under your skin. They certainly frightened my 10-year-old when I read them to him.

8. The Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris

Is this crime or horror? It certainly has a classic horror set up – basically it’s Beauty And The Beast. A naïve and innocent, yet ultimately resilient, young girl enters the monster’s lair and he falls in love with her. Then together they sort put each other’s problems. The secondary villain – Buffalo Bill – is certainly a monster from a horror story, making clothes out if his victims’ skin and keeping his latest victim in a pit. The film played like a horror film, and Anthony Hopkins certainly seemed to think he was in one. The book, as usual, is even better than the film. It’s weird and engrossing and seductive and scary with some nice gothic touches. A great, great read.

9. Ghost stories by MR James

Apologies to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, but of the old classics I’ve gone for James. And not really for the original stories but just so I can bang on about Jonathan Miller’s extraordinary BBC film of “Whistle And I’ll Come To You”. MR James was the king of the unsettling ghost story where not very much happens and it’s all about atmosphere and dread. Miller’s film still has the power to be very, very disturbing. Give yourself a treat and buy it. There are other James BBC adaptations you should look out for as well (A Warning to the Curious is another favourite), they used to show them at Christmas in the good old days, and all still work.

10. Don’t Look Now/The Birds by Daphne du Maurier

All right, I’ll admit it, I’m cheating a bit here. I don’t think these 2 stories actually appear together in a Du Maurier collection except on audiobook. And like MR James, my interest in du Maurier is primarily in the films made of her stories (nearly all of her output was filmed – she was the Stephen King of her day). I couldn’t leave her out because to have come up with the story for not one but two all-time classic horror films is a feat to be applauded. And as Don’t Look Now is my favourite horror film I had to get a mention of it in here somewhere. The original stories are still good reads and its fascinating to see how two great directors teased complete films out of them.


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Boxers, Briefs and Books

I WASN’T always a lawyer or a novelist, and I’ve had my share of hard, dead-end jobs. I earned my first steady paycheck watering rose bushes at a nursery for a dollar an hour. I was in my early teens, but the man who owned the nursery saw potential, and he promoted me to his fence crew. For $1.50 an hour, I labored like a grown man as we laid mile after mile of chain-link fence. There was no future in this, and I shall never mention it again in writing.

Then, during the summer of my 16th year, I found a job with a plumbing contractor. I crawled under houses, into the cramped darkness, with a shovel, to somehow find the buried pipes, to dig until I found the problem, then crawl back out and report what I had found. I vowed to get a desk job. I’ve never drawn inspiration from that miserable work, and I shall never mention it again in writing, either.

But a desk wasn’t in my immediate future. My father worked with heavy construction equipment, and through a friend of a friend of his, I got a job the next summer on a highway asphalt crew. This was July, when Mississippi is like a sauna. Add another 100 degrees for the fresh asphalt. I got a break when the operator of a Caterpillar bulldozer was fired; shown the finer points of handling this rather large machine, I contemplated a future in the cab, tons of growling machinery at my command, with the power to plow over anything. Then the operator was back, sober, repentant. I returned to the asphalt crew.

I was 17 years old that summer, and I learned a lot, most of which cannot be repeated in polite company. One Friday night I accompanied my new friends on the asphalt crew to a honky-tonk to celebrate the end of a hard week. When a fight broke out and I heard gunfire, I ran to the restroom, locked the door and crawled out a window. I stayed in the woods for an hour while the police hauled away rednecks. As I hitchhiked home, I realized I was not cut out for construction and got serious about college.

My career sputtered along until retail caught my attention; it was indoors, clean and air-conditioned. I applied for a job at a Sears store in a mall. The only opening was in men’s underwear. It was humiliating. I tried to quit, but I was given a raise. Evidently, the position was difficult to fill. I asked to be transferred to toys, then to appliances. My bosses said no and gave me another raise.

I became abrupt with customers. Sears has the nicest customers in the world, but I didn’t care. I was rude and surly and I was occasionally watched by spies hired by the company to pose as shoppers. One asked to try on a pair of boxers. I said no, that it was obvious they were much too small for his rather ample rear end. I handed him an extra-large pair. I got written up. I asked for lawn care. They said no, but this time they didn’t offer me a raise. I finally quit.

Halfway through college, and still drifting, I decided to become a high-powered tax lawyer. The plan was sailing along until I took my first course in tax law. I was stunned by its complexity and lunacy, and I barely passed the course.

Around the same time, I was involved in mock-trial classes. I enjoyed the courtroom. A new plan was hatched. I would return to my hometown, hang out my shingle and become a hotshot trial lawyer. Tax law was discarded overnight.

This was 1981; at the time there was no public-defender system in my county. I volunteered for all the indigent work I could get. It was the fastest way to trial, and I learned quickly.

When my law office started to struggle for lack of well-paying work — indigent cases are far from lucrative — I decided to go into yet another low-paying career: in 1983, I was elected to a House seat in the Mississippi State Legislature. The salary was $8,000, which was more than I made during my first year as a lawyer. Each year from January through March I was at the State Capitol in Jackson, wasting serious time, but also listening to great storytellers. I took a lot of notes, not knowing why but feeling that, someday, those tales would come in handy.

Like most small-town lawyers, I dreamed of the big case, and in 1984 it finally arrived. But this time, the case wasn’t mine. As usual, I was loitering around the courtroom, pretending to be busy. But what I was really doing was watching a trial involving a young girl who had been beaten and raped. Her testimony was gut-wrenching, graphic, heartbreaking and riveting. Every juror was crying. I remember staring at the defendant and wishing I had a gun. And like that, a story was born.

Writing was not a childhood dream of mine. I do not recall longing to write as a student. I wasn’t sure how to start. Over the following weeks I refined my plot outline and fleshed out my characters. One night I wrote “Chapter One” at the top of the first page of a legal pad; the novel, “A Time to Kill,” was finished three years later.

The book didn’t sell, and I stuck with my day job, defending criminals, preparing wills and deeds and contracts. Still, something about writing made me spend large hours of my free time at my desk.

I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. It was more difficult than laying asphalt, and at times more frustrating than selling underwear. But it paid off. Eventually, I was able to leave the law and quit politics. Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.

John Grisham is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Confession” and a contributor to the forthcoming collection “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit.”


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Ten of the best religious zealots in literature

Solomon Eagle
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year imagined the Great Plague of 1665 so vividly that the first readers thought it a genuine record. One of the religious “enthusiasts” inspired by the calamity is “the famous Solomon Eagle”, who “went about denouncing the Judgement on the City in a frightful manner; sometimes quite naked, and with a Pan of burning Charcoal on his Head”.

Robert Wringhim
In James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a satire on Calvinism, Robert Wringhim’s religiously dogmatic guardian convinces him that he is one of “the Elect” – those pre-selected by God for salvation. He is then befriended by the charismatic Gil-Martin, who convinces him that they should murder anyone who has strayed from the path of righteousness.

St John Rivers
Rivers is persuasive as well as repellent. The heroine of Jane Eyre is hypnotised by this cold and saintly missionary, who proposes that they marry and go to India together to convert heathens (and perish doing God’s holy work). Jane chooses blind, sensual Rochester, but Charlotte Brontë gives the last words of the novel to the dying Rivers.

Arthur Dimmesdale
The apparent victim in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is the young woman ostracised by her Puritan community for having a child outside wedlock. The true victim is the devout religious minister who is her secret lover who seems to have burnt an “A” (for “Adulterer”) into his own chest. Eventually he publicly confesses his faults and falls dead.

Mr Chadband
The disgusting religious sage in Dickens’s Bleak House is “a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system”. He cultivates circles of admiring old ladies and lives off their largesse.

Amos Starkadder
The hellfire preacher of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm ministers to the congregation at the little-known Sussex-based Church of the Quivering Brethren. “Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand . . wi’ a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Aye. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it . . . Ah but there’ll be no butter in hell!”

Jeanette’s mother
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit gave us the truly memorable character of Jeanette’s Bible-quoting fundamentalist mother. Never has scorn for Darwin been more amusingly phrased. “The family life of snails, it’s an Abomination, it’s like saying we come from monkeys.”

Nathan Price
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible tells how this fanatical Baptist missionary takes his family to the Congo in the 1960s. The women gradually realise that the locals are fine without Jesus, and, as Nathan’s “mission” leads to one disaster after another, they abandon him to his fate.

Henry Zuckerman
In Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman tells several mutually contradictory stories of his brother Henry, a dentist. In one of these Henry has upped sticks to join an ascetic community in Israel, renamed himself Hanoch and become “a real Jew”. Nathan thinks he can talk sense into him . . .

Ahmad Mulloy
John Updike’s post-9/11 novel Terrorist attempted to imagine the formation of an American Islamist suicide bomber. Ahmad is cultivated by a smooth-talking imam and commits himself to religious purity. His one sexual experience convinces him that righteous self-destruction is the best course.


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Contemplating Death From Above

In World War I, it was the trenches that captured the imagination of poets. In World War II, it was aerial combat.

American B-29s bombing Yokohama, Japan, in 1945.

Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of the few poems of World War II to have achieved wide renown. It reads in its entirety: “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. / Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, / I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

As we are reminded in “Bomber County,” Daniel Swift’s eclectic account of World War II in the air and the poetry it inspired, Jarrell was moved by the fetal image of a machine gunner hunched in the belly of a B-17. With brute concision he captured one of the two great ironies of airpower: Airmen don’t fight in a war-scarred battleground but in an untouched cloudscape, and the lucky ones return to home base after each sortie. The remains of the gunner in Jarrell’s poem are washed away by ground personnel—who likely have never heard a shot fired in anger—no doubt while the dead man’s crewmates are off dressing for a meal. The interludes of comfort are incongruous with a combat airman’s life expectancy: a mere six weeks in the European theater during World War II.

The other irony is harsher: that warriors engaged in advanced and skilled air combat were pummeling a helpless (and mostly noncombatant) enemy many miles beneath them. Strategic bombing—aimed at civilian targets more than military ones—is a form of justified massacre. In June 1943, Winston Churchill was shown films of the five-month bombing campaign known as the Battle of the Ruhr, and, in his official biographer’s words, he “suddenly sat bolt upright and said to his neighbour, ‘Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’ ”

It is a question that Mr. Swift asks repeatedly in “Bomber County.” The U.S. and Britain dropped 1.6 million tons of bombs on Germany, causing civilian casualties of more than one million and rendering as many as 7.5 million people homeless. The seven-month B-29 firebombing campaign against Japan organized by Curtis LeMay is estimated to have killed a half-million people and to have left five million more homeless. It was so successful that the Air Force had trouble finding suitable targets for the atomic bombings at the end of the war. The Japanese, it should be noted, had used strategic bombing as early as 1938 in China, and Germany launched its own vast air assault on England in 1940.

Whether World War II’s strategic-bombing campaigns were justified remains a source of profound disagreement. In 1997, the German novelist W.G. Sebald delivered a series of lectures—published in English as “On the Natural History of Destruction” (2002)—about the absence of the Allied blitz from postwar literature and, as he saw it, the absence of a much-needed moral debate. His lectures caused a furor in Germany and elsewhere. While few take the extreme position of Eric Markusen and David Kopf in their 1995 book, “The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing”—that the Allied bombing campaign amounted to genocide—most commentators these days come down against the Allies.

In “Bomber County,” Mr. Swift tries not to takes sides. He is more interested in conveying the influence of airpower—the most glamorous and technologically advanced action of the war—on poetry. Remembering how important verse was to our understanding of World War I, he surveys the ways in which bombing and flying played out in contemporary poetry, both British and American.

Not every “war poet” was himself a soldier or airman. C. Day Lewis, Mr. Swift notes, viewed himself as heir to the trench poets of World War I, yet he did not fight—serving instead in Britain’s ministry of information—and his perception of the bomber war as a new version of World War I’s trenches was not based on personal experience. This is true of Jarrell, too, who served in only marginal roles on stateside bases, inventing the images and events of his bomber poems.

T.S. Eliot, too old for service, was a fire-watcher during the Blitz, scanning from a London rooftop for bomb damage that might spread. What he saw invigorated his last great work: the final of the “Four Quartets.” (“Dust inbreathed was a house— / The walls, the wainscot and the mouse, / The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air.”) Stephen Spender was in the National Fire Service, having failed his medical exam when he tried to enlist at 35. His war poems focus on the destruction of bombing, seeing both poet and bomber similarly bound up together as creator and destroyer.

The American poet John Ciardi, by contrast, was a gunner on B-29s hitting Japan and worried in his diary that he would never reach the 35 missions that made a tour. Three missions before his plane would be shot down, he was reassigned to write official condolence letters—”We need somebody with combat experience who can write,” an officer told him. And so literature saved one life at the expense of another.

James Dickey saw aerial bombing up-close as a pilot. His great (if not well-known) war poem, “Firebombing,” imagines a middle-age suburban householder wondering if he can really be the same man who spread destruction and saw the terrible beauty of napalm igniting beneath him. (“Reflections of houses catch; / Fire shuttles from pond to pond / In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.”)

Though the aerial war and its poetic legacy are Mr. Swift’s central concern, he adds yet another theme to “Bomber County.” The author’s grandfather, who worked in a rubber brokerage before the war, died flying a Lancaster bomber after a raid on Dusseldorf on June 12, 1943. Each of the book’s chapters has episodes of Mr. Swift and his father visiting the sites associated with the dead man’s life and attending reunions where former airmen look back on their experience with a mixture of sadness and longing.

The book’s multiple parts do not to fit together neatly. Mr. Swift’s grandfather was not a poet, and the author’s memoir episodes seem far removed from his passages about poets and their attraction to the aerial war. Yet “Bomber County” is never less than interesting.

Mr. Swift gives W.H. Auden the final word. He was skeptical of the special value of war experience to a poet. In “Memorial for a City”—a poem inspired by a 1945 visit to the bombed out cities of Bavaria—Auden noted how little the modern technology of killing changed the inherent facts of battle: “Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the roar of the waterfall covers / The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers / And the hard bright light composes / A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.” Auden was struck less by the destructiveness of modern war than by the eternal ordinariness of its barbarism. But then he never saw combat.

Mr. Messenger is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard.


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‘Bomber County’

12 June 1943

After the air raid, Virginia Woolf went for a walk.’ The greatest pleasure of town life in winter -rambling the streets of London,’ she had written, a decade before. She called it ‘street haunting’, and in the essay of that title she gives instructions on how this should be done.’ The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,’ she wrote: ‘The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.’ Picture her, then, stepping out into the bombed city. It is perhaps a little earlier in the day than she might have liked, this afternoon in the middle of January 1941, and in less than three months she will be dead, but today she is here to take a quiet pleasure in the ruins.


‘I went to London Bridge,’ she notes in her diary: I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliiff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; a Bank; the Monument erect; tried to get a Bus; but such a block I dismounted; & the second Bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by tube to the Temple; & there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt & broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished & demolished.

She is watching carefully, making her way north and then west, through traffic jams and rubble, and she pauses for a while in ‘my old squares’, the wide and orderly spaces of Bloomsbury where she used to live. But then, quite simply, life interrupts: ‘So to Buzsards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid. 4/- they cost. And so to the L.L. where I collected specimens of Eng. litre [English literature].’ From Bloomsbury, she walked past the Air Ministry on Oxford Street on her way to Buzsards, a café known for its wedding cakes and before the war its tables out on the street. After lunch, she goes on to the London Library in St James’s Square. The fastest route is straight down Regent Street, and she had work to do on a new book.

Woolf’s diaries, as the war begins, tell of a growing fascination. On the Sunday that Britain declared war, she was sewing black-out curtains at Monk’s House, the cottage in Sussex she shared with her husband Leonard, and she wrote:’ I suppose the bombs are falling on rooms like this in Warsaw.’ Three days later: ‘Our first air raid at 8.30 this morning. A warbling that gradually insinuates itself as I lay in bed. So dressed & walked on the terrace with L. Sky clear. All cottages shut. All clear.’ The bombs did not come that morning, but she waits and she watches. ‘No raids yet,’ she recorded on Monday, 11 September, but saw ‘Over London a light spotted veil’ of the silver barrage balloons on steel ropes, to defend the city from low- flying planes. The winter comes, and then the spring; a German bomber flies over Monk’s House; Holland falls, and Belgium, and Chamberlain resigns. She is always looking at the skies. ‘The bomb terror,’ she writes in her diary: ‘Going to London to be bombed.’In May 1940 there are rumours of invasion, and at the end of the month: ‘A great thunderstorm. I was walking on the marsh & thought it was the guns on the channel ports. Then, as they swerved, I conceived a raid on London; turned on the wireless; heard some prattler; & then the guns began to lighten.’ Transformed by her poised imagination, the rain becomes a raid, and then the falling bombs return to rain. ‘I conceived a raid,’ writes Virginia Woolf, the great novelist, thinking bombers where there were none.

Of course, in these fixated times she was at work on a novel. She called it ‘Poyntz Hall’ but it was published after her death as Between the Acts, and it too imagines bombers. After the country-house pageant which is the centre of the novel, the Reverend Streatfield stands on a soap box to address the audience on the subject of funds for ‘the illumination of our dear old church’, and as he begins to speak:

Mr Streatfield paused. He listened. Did he hear some distant music? He continued: ‘But there is still a deficit’ (he consulted his paper) ‘of one hundred and seventy-five pounds odd. So that each of us who has enjoyed this pageant has still an opp . . .’ The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead. That was the music. The audience gaped; the audience gazed. The zoom became drone. The planes had passed. ‘. . . portunity,’ Mr Streatfield continued, ‘to make a contribution.’

The duck-like passing planes gently, ironically interrupt the platitudes of village life, but they are not wholly fictional. Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, Woolf had been watching the fighters scrambling over the downs, to the Battle of Britain, and hearing the distant music as the bombers came and went. Some days that summer, her diary is little more than a war report: ‘Nightly raids on the east & south coast. 6, 3 , 12 people killed nightly.’ And even on the nights when there are no bombers – ‘Listened for another; none came’ – she begins to imagine them, to transform them into something useful. On the last Thursday of May 1940 she went out for a walk and ‘Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvred; took up positions & passed over.’

So much of Woolf ‘s diaries reads as the roughs for so much of her published writing, and the notes on bombing from 1940 find their way into an essay, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. She wrote it in August for an American symposium on women in the war and here she returns to the moment when the bombers are above. As she narrates: ‘The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . the seconds pass.’ Here we are, waiting and watching, as so often she was, and this time, as always before, the bombs do not fall, and she goes on:

But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can only create from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other Augusts – in Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking over the Campagna; in London. Friends’ voices come back. Scraps of poetry return.

In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination – nailed to one hard board – awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry.

Excerpted from ‘Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War’ by Daniel Swift. Published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.


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Ten of the best railway journeys

“Midnight on the Great Western”, by Thomas Hardy Hardy’s poem is a vignette of Victorian public transport, preserved forever. By “the roof-lamp’s oily flame” a boy is seen half asleep in his third-class seat, his ticket stuck in his hat band, “Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going, / Or whence he came”.

Possession, by AS Byatt There comes a crucial moment in Byatt’s tale of two modern-day academics who have discovered the love letters of two famous Victorian poets, when the story suddenly shifts to the 19th century. “The man and the woman sat opposite each other in the railway carriage.” The train is the transport of illicit love.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith Who would an unhappy husband with an unfaithful wife meet on a train? In a Patricia Highsmith novel, a helpful psychopath, naturally. Cuckold Guy gets talking to loopy Bruno and is offered a deal: I’ll kill your wife, if you murder my dad; with no connection between us, the police will never track us down.

Stamboul Train, by Graham Greene On a train from Ostend to Istanbul, assorted characters from Greeneland – an exiled politician, a beautiful woman, a journalist, a fleeing criminal – are thrown together with amorous and violent consequences. There are plot complications in Vienna and desperate dangers at a stop in Serbia, where Greene’s protagonist, the businessman Myatt, finds himself plunged into murderous political rivalries.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie Rather more luxurious than Greene’s Stamboul train, Christie’s express takes its characters down the same tracks to a dénouement that must be reached before the Bosphorus. A murder is committed, and Poirot is on board.

Breakheart Pass, by Alistair Maclean Maclean liked to seal off a group of characters in perilous circumstances and reveal their hidden allegiances. Breakheart Pass takes place on a train travelling through a Nevada winter in the 1870s, with a murderer being escorted to a remote garrison, where disaster has apparently struck. There’s a politician, a doctor, a pretty girl . . . who is the baddie?

Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner Young Emil has been sent by his poor widowed mother on a train from his provincial home to Berlin, with money for his grandmother pinned inside his jacket. In the train he is befriended by Herr Grundeis, who eventually drugs him and steals the money. But in Berlin, the indefatigable Emil and some local boys get on Grundeis’s trail . . .

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling You meet your best friends on trains. From Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, the school train flies off to Hogsmeade. Our young wizard makes many such journeys, but none so memorable as the first, on which he meets his boon companions, Ron and Hermione.

“Night Mail”, by WH Auden Auden’s invocation of the mail train travelling from London to Glasgow was written to fit the famous GPO documentary film. Sometimes close to doggerel on the page, it comes to life in performance, gathering speed as the train descends from the moorlands towards the Clyde. “Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes, / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen”.

“The Whitsun Weddings”, by Philip Larkin Larkin’s poem follows his own common journey from Hull to London, the train dawdling across flatlands, “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone”. The journey presents fleeting snapshots of other lives, and a vision of all those weddings culminating on provincial platforms.


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The Sincerest Form of Ridicule

Henry James, Raymond Chandler, J.K. Rowling—no writer is safe from the literary satirist

Literary parody is often described as verbal caricature. It’s true that both parody and caricature rely on the exaggeration of quirks and idiosyncrasies for satiric purposes. But their differences go deeper. Caricature plays on the monstrous for comic pay-off; it turns earlobes into wind-flaps, lips into gaudy sausages. Parody can be just as crude, but usually it is slinkier, more insinuating; there’s something snugly parasitic in its intimacy. The parodist must inhabit his victim’s voice down to its least inflections—with close and lingering attention to those very flourishes an author is proudest of—only to turn the voice to ridiculous effect. The trick is to yoke the unmistakable manner to a grotesquely disproportionate subject.

Here, for example, is Mark Crick’s take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—not solving a case but preparing a leg of lamb: “I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake.”

This is funny not just because of the incongruity between the tough-guy manner and the task at hand (“I put the squeeze on a lemon and it soon juiced”); it’s also funny, a bit more disturbingly, because it shows us that there’s something inadvertently comical below the surface of Chandler’s hard-boiled prose. “The Long Goodbye” will never read the same again.

Marlowe with his lamb is but one of dozens of such send-ups in John Gross’s latest delightful anthology, “The Oxford Book of Parodies.” In his introduction Mr. Gross notes that “it would be a mistake for anyone writing about parodies to become entangled in a search for exact definitions.” His selections bear him out. As he demonstrates, parody can be as loopy—and as obvious—as the Christmas-carol spoof that begins “While shepherds washed their socks by night” or as subtle as Max Beerbohm’s uncanny imitations of Henry James at his most convoluted. Mr. Gross includes Beerbohm’s famous parody “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” which begins: “It was with a sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it?”

Mr. Gross may be wary of definitions, but he is exuberant in his choices. As he says: “There are mocking parodies and affectionate parodies, parodies which are exquisitely accurate, and parodies which are rough-edged but effective. There are light skits, boisterous send-ups, and savage lampoons.” His anthology abounds with all of these and more.

The anthology is divided into two parts. The first is chronological by parodied author, beginning with Anglo-Saxon doggerel and concluding with J.K. Rowling. It should be said that the Anglo-Saxons seem to offer more to parodists than Harry Potter; strong parodies depend on strong originals. W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman together try their own version of Beowolfian gnarled and snarling alliteration. (“Wonderlich were they enwraged / And wordwar waged.”) Mr. Gross gives five parodies of that medieval chestnut “Summer is icumen in” (“Summer is a-coming in”), of which my own favorite is A.Y. Campbell’s: “Plumber is icumen in; / Bludie big tu-du. / Bloweth lampe and showeth dampe. / And dripth the wud thru. / Bludie hel, boo-hoo!”

The second part of the anthology is thematic; it includes European writers—e.g., Goethe, Hugo, Kafka, Proust—as well as British. (“Le Côté de Chelsea” begins with a 122-word sentence of Proustian complexity describing a visit to a London hotel.) This part of the book includes parodies of nursery rhymes recomposed to match the style of various writers. Old King Cole gets a not-so-merry workout in the manners of Tennyson, Yeats and Browning. As for “Jack and Jill,” the version Walt Whitman might have written begins: “I celebrate the personality of Jack! / I love his dirty hands, his tangled hair, his locomotion blundering.” There are also samples of “the young Jane Austen,” Lewis Carroll and Sherlock Holmes, as well as satirical sallies on everything from politics to the performing arts.

Mr. Gross’s legendary gifts as an editor and critic are much in evidence in this part (though the entire anthology benefits from his discreet running commentary). For example, his section on “James Joyce as Parodist” draws not on “Ulysses,” as one might expect given the novel’s many imitations of literary styles, but on Joyce’s letters and “casual writings,” where, as Mr. Gross says, he “was happy to play the parodist pure and unalloyed.” Joyce sent up T.S. Eliot in a 1925 letter to a friend, turning the famous opening of “The Waste Land” into an account of a family vacation in France (“Rouen is the rainiest place getting / Inside all impermeables, wetting / Damp marrow in drenched bones”). Eliot was in fact much parodied. Mr. Gross even draws attention to a Yiddish parody of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld composed in 1937. Prufrock, now become Mendl Pumshtok, doesn’t “dare to eat a peach” but a prune.

American authors, from Poe to Pynchon, are well represented among the parodied, but only one writer each from Canada (Leonard Cohen) and Australia (Clive James) caught Mr. Gross’s eye. Most of the writers burlesqued or lampooned are British, and since the effect of parody depends on familiarity with the original, the Anglo-emphasis might seem a hindrance for American readers. But Mr. Gross deals with the obstacle rather cunningly. The parodies he includes of such writers as the poet Craig Raine, whose works American readers are unlikely to know, depend less on particular literary mannerisms than on the writers’ self-aggrandizing propensities. Literary pretensions can be parodied as effectively as styles.

In the ancient schools of rhetoric, parody fell under the aegis of irony, but it developed out of what the Romans called imitatio: budding orators imitating the compositions of master stylists not only to learn their tricks but to surpass them. Thus parody pays tribute even as it ridicules.

This quality is discernible in many of Mr. Gross’s selections, where the parodist seems to feel a strange sense of unexpected freedom. When John Updike parodies Jack Kerouac in “On the Sidewalk,” for instance, we sense that Updike is having fun indulging in a manner so drastically unlike his own: “I was just thinking around in my sad backyard, looking at those little drab careless starshaped clumps of crabgrass and beautiful chunks of some old bicycle crying out without words of the American Noon.”

Parody is a form of impersonation, obviously, but also collaboration. What makes it so pleasurable, as Mr. Gross’s anthology shows on every page, is not just the accuracy of the performance, though that’s certainly essential. In the funniest parodies, there is the faint but unmistakable sense of giddy collusion; and in such improbable duets the parodist can’t always be distinguished from the parodied.

Mr. Ornsby is a writer in London.


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The stuff of life

Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel studies the planet, happiness and marriage

Freedom. By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 576 pages; $28. Fourth Estate; £20.

IT WAS John DeForest, a writer of the civil-war period, who defined the Great American Novel in an 1868 essay for the Nation as “painting the American soul within the framework of a novel”. DeForest was arguing over the relative merits of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, two writers who definitely fit the bill. Others have laid claim to the title (or had claim laid to it by their hopeful publishers), including J.D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe and John Updike.

Indeed, there has never been a shortage of candidates for this peculiarly American compulsion, and disagreements over who should wear the laurels are as long as the continent is wide. This year, though, the award may enjoy almost universal acclaim. The novel that America will be talking about in the coming weeks will be “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen.

A mop-haired Midwesterner who looks far younger than 51, Mr Franzen rose to fame a decade ago. This was when his third novel, “The Corrections”, a multigenerational family saga about American yuppies and their square parents, was first selected as a candidate for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and then very publicly dismissed by the television star. (Ms Winfrey did not care for Mr Franzen’s complaint that her book club appealed only to women readers.) The brouhaha did his book no harm. Though largely plotless, uneven in structure and weighed down with sarcastic observation, “The Corrections” went on to spend 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and win the 2001 National Book Award.

Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. “Freedom” has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults.

Young marrieds, Walter and Patty Berglund are middle-class university graduates living in Minnesota (a step away from the Missouri of “The Corrections”), he working for 3M (a mining and manufacturing company), she staying home to bake cakes and bring up a frighteningly obedient daughter, Jessica, and a son, Joey, whose role is to test all the boundaries an American teenager can find. Proud of the ten-year effort they have put into restoring the Victorian town house they bought for a song in rundown old St Paul, the Berglunds see themselves as American pioneers. Or at least, descendants of the hard-working early creators of America rather than the greedy despoilers of its wilderness.

Many novels start well, but peter out before the end. “Freedom” is one of those rare books that starts well and then takes off. Walter resigns from 3M and moves into nature conservation working for a minerals magnate who wants to turn some of his ill-earned millions into saving a small woodland bird, the Cerulean warbler. This very funny, though ultimately catastrophic plot device gives Mr Franzen the opportunity to focus on the price that is exacted for American (for that, read Western) material affluence in terms of our planet, our emotional well-being and our children’s future. For Mr Franzen the central question is whether people really have a right to the pursuit of happiness when much of the rest of the world lives in misery.

But what makes “Freedom” such a joy to read is not the digression into conservation, but the many-layered analysis of the Berglunds’ marriage. Walter and Patty are united in hurt, lies and misunderstandings. Like others, they love intermittently and unevenly. How to be married when one of you loves truly, madly, deeply and the other feels “like I’m being followed around by a really nice, well-trained dog”?

Many such marriages potter along, coping as best they can. Mr Franzen tests the Berglunds’ union with miserable in-laws, half-hearted sex, temptation, alcoholism, noisy neighbours and teenage children who are all-knowing as well as wilfully half-blind. The Berglunds’ battle to win through gives “Freedom” an emotional colouring that points to a new maturity in Mr Franzen’s writing.

Visiting her daughter’s university, Patty observes a stone engraved with the words, “USE WELL THY FREEDOM”. The warning is there throughout. With its all-encompassing world, its flawed heroes and its redemptive ending, “Freedom” has the sweep of a modern “Paradise Lost”.


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‘The Nobel Prize Doesn’t Inhibit Me in My Writing’

In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel Prize-winning German author Günter Grass talks about why he doesn’t fear death, the missed opportunities of German reunification and why he thinks the Brothers Grimm had “oral sex with vowels.”

Grass talks to SPIEGEL editors Volker Hage and Katja Thimm: “At my age, one is surprised if one experiences the next spring,” he says.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Grass, your new book is titled “Grimms Wörter. Eine Liebeserklärung” (“Grimms’ Words. A Declaration of Love”). How did this love for the Brothers Grimm, the German linguists who famously collected fairy tales in the 19th century, begin?

Günter Grass: My relationship with Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm reaches far back into my childhood. I grew up with Grimm’s fairy tales. I even saw a theater production of “Tom Thumb” during Advent at the State Theater in Danzig (editor’s note: present day Gdansk ), which my mother took me to see. Then, later in my life, the brothers influenced my creative work.

SPIEGEL: In what way?

Grass: Well, Tom Thumb lives on in Oskar Matzerath from “The Tin Drum.” Jacob and Wilhelm themselves play a role in many of my manuscripts. In “The Rat,” for example, they are portrayed as a minister and a deputy minister who try to stop forests dying (from acid rain).

SPIEGEL: What do you find appealing about the brothers?

Grass: Their uncompromising nature, most of all. In 1837, they protested in Göttingen against the abolition of the constitution (of the Kingdom of Hanover) and thus against the power of the state. Like the other rebellious professors in the group known as the Göttingen Seven, they lost their positions. And the task they embarked on after that was basically impossible: a German dictionary filled with quotations and example sentences. And they only made it to the sixth letter of the alphabet. Others completed the dictionary.

SPIEGEL: More than 120 years later.

Grass: That lengthy period of time also fascinates me. German studies specialists from both parts of Germany worked on it over the last 15 years. In the middle of the Cold War, they sat quietly at their desks in East Berlin and Göttingen and collected footnotes for a pan-German dictionary. It’s a reflection of the same German history I talk about in “Grimms’ Words.”

SPIEGEL: Just as your own personal history with this country also plays a role in your book.

Grass: I focused on my younger years in the book “Peeling the Onion,” then in “Die Box” (“The Box”) I wrote about my family entanglements and ties. This book is about the political and social side. The life of the Grimms, who lived through a period marked by radical change, just as I did, lends itself to this.

SPIEGEL: You describe the two brothers as “word sleuths,” who are concerned about every single letter. You also write: “On the one hand, words make sense. On the other hand, they’re well suited to creating nonsense. Words can be beneficial or hurtful.” How have the various facets of words shaped your own life?

Grass: I have found that words that are loaded with pathos and create a seductive euphoria are apt to promote nonsense. Adolf Hitler’s “Do you want total war?” is one such example. But the same thing applies to the sentence: “Our freedom is also being defended in the Hindu Kush.” (Editor’s note: The sentence was famously uttered by former German Defense Minister Peter Struck to justify Germany ‘s military mission in Afghanistan .) Such sentences carry a strong meaning, and they are able to exert this meaning because they are not sufficiently questioned. I have heard my fill of hurtful words. I think it’s especially egregious when citizens like me, who point out abuses in their country, are referred to as “do-gooders.” This is how a phrase that can be used to stop an argument dead becomes part of common usage.

SPIEGEL: Which beneficial words do you remember?

Grass: The truly wonderful ones are linked to my childhood. Adebar, another word for stork, reawakens an entire cosmos of memories for me. Another one is Labsal (refreshment), which has been almost completely forgotten. I love the sound of the repeated long “a.” The Brothers Grimm also found it fascinating. They practically had oral sex with vowels in any case. Labsal sounds so comforting. It makes you think of returning home safely after a terrifying experience.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if language signified a feeling of security and home to you.

Grass: That’s certainly true. I wrote my novel “The Tin Drum” in Paris, where I also began working on “Dog Years.” But after four years I noticed how lost I felt, surrounded by a foreign language. I had to go back, back to a German-speaking place. My experience was similar to that of many authors who emigrated to the United States during the Nazi era. Some of them could hardly bear it, even though a brutal dictator was in control at home. They lacked the language they needed to make themselves understood and to understand others.

SPIEGEL: This same experience, though not nearly as severe, can be felt in one’s own country. The youth culture has its own distinctive linguistic style. Do you always understand what your grandchildren are saying?

Grass: Of course. For me, it’s a wonderful gain that I, with the help of my grandchildren, can keep up with the current jargon. In return, expressions like the old Berlin word knorke (“swell”) are no longer in use.

SPIEGEL: Do you regret the loss?

Grass: Fortunately, a word like knorke is preserved in literature. In general, I agree with Jacob Grimm and feel that we ought to permit changes and uncontrolled growth in language. Even though that also allows potentially threatening new words to develop, language needs the chance to constantly renew itself. In France, where the Académie française practically polices the language, we can see that language can become formal and rigid when it’s protected too much.

‘I Would Like to Put a Stop to this Movement Toward Reading on Computers’

SPIEGEL: In “Grimms’ Words,” you even write that you have no objection to modifications of your name.

Grass: I take the liberty of writing Grass with either a double “s” or an “ß” (editor’s note: a German letter equivalent to a double “s”). Before the German spelling reform, the word Hass (hate) was also written with an “ß.” Personally, I like to use the “ß” when signing my name. I like these games, just as I get excited about different fonts or the quality of book paper. Luckily with Gerhard Steidl I have found a publisher who is a bookmaking fanatic and who treats his paper and printing machine with great affection.

SPIEGEL: You are one of the few authors who take charge of designing their own books. You have designed all of the book covers yourself. Why is this so important to you?

Grass: It’s the final touch. It’s just as much a part of it as the first sentence. And it requires the same care that’s needed in writing.

SPIEGEL: What are the characteristics of a good cover?

Grass: It should summarize and simplify the content of the book like an emblem. On the cover of “Dog Years,” this is achieved with the dog’s head, which looks like a finger puppet from a shadow play. For “Local Anesthetic,” I chose a lighter with a finger above it. This time it’s letters. It wouldn’t have made any sense to work with a double portrait of the Brothers Grimm, because it would have conveyed only part of the message. I held the finished book in my hands for the first time a few days ago. It’s a wonderful experience every time.

SPIEGEL: Then you must be filled with dismay over developments in the book market. Sales of electronic books are growing rapidly in the United States.

Grass: I don’t believe that this spells the end of the book. It will assume a different value. Mass production will be reduced, and the book will once again take on the appearance of an object worth keeping and passing on to our children.

SPIEGEL: Can you imagine “Grimms’ Words” on an iPad?

Grass: Hardly. But I’ve also reached an agreement with my publisher that none of my books will be made available for that until a law protecting authors becomes effective. I can only advise every author to develop just as much self-confidence in this relationship.

SPIEGEL: Are you calling for a protest?

Grass: I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I’ve typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I’ve incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.

SPIEGEL: Don’t you feel old-fashioned with your Olivetti?

Grass: No. On the computer, a text always looks somehow finished, even if it’s far from it. That’s tempting. I usually write the first, handwritten version all at once, and when there’s something I don’t like I leave a blank space. I fill these gaps in the Olivetti version, and because of that thoroughness, the text also acquires a certain long-windedness. In the ensuing versions, I try to combine the originality of the first version with the accuracy of the second one. With this slow approach, there’s less of a risk of slickness and arbitrariness creeping in.

SPIEGEL: Has your language changed over the decades nevertheless?

Grass: At first, I tried to pull out all the stops. When I wrote “The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse” and “Dog Years,” it was a time when many older authors felt that the German language should never be allowed to be used to excess again.

SPIEGEL: You mean the representatives of the so-called Kahlschlagliteratur (“clear-cutting literature”) of the postwar period, who were known for their simple and direct language?

Grass: Yes, and those authors had every reason to be cautious. The German language had been damaged in the Nazi period. But we young authors, including Martin Walser and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, didn’t want to feel shackled and refused to condemn the language as a whole. As a result, my writing stemmed from a feeling of wanting to display everything that the language has to offer. Now, in my old age, experience is also part of it. As is writing more consciously.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Grass: To a large degree, the political experiences of my life, which I describe in “Grimms’ Words.” In 1961, for example, I traveled as part of Willy Brandt’s campaign entourage for the first time. (Editor’s note: Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, ran for the office of German chancellor in 1961. He later became chancellor in 1969.) The building of the Berlin Wall was also one of those experiences, as was German reunification in 1989/90 and my many visits to East Germany before that.

‘I Didn’t Volunteer for the Waffen-SS’

SPIEGEL: What prompted you to go there?

Grass: I was a firm believer in the concept of a united cultural nation. As part of it, we authors from the West and the East met in private apartments in East Berlin and read from our manuscripts. I doubt that the informers working for the Stasi (editor’s note: the East German secret police) even understood what I was after. They couldn’t comprehend that someone could be critical toward two different sides. Or at least that was the impression I got when I read my Stasi file.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel when you were reading it?

Grass: Bored, mostly. For a long time I refused to read the stuff at all, and I never filed a request. There are more than 2,000 pages. In the end, Ms. Birthler (editor’s note: Marianne Birthler, the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives) handed them over to me, but I had asked that all the passages where informers are named be blacked out. I didn’t want to know who had spied on me. It’s no longer important today, 20 years after reunification.

SPIEGEL: You argued vehemently against reunification. What’s your verdict today?

Grass: I still believe, as I did in the past, that we shouldn’t have annexed East Germany in that overhasty way. It’s absurd that we missed such a huge opportunity. We should not have stifled that moment, in which, after two dictatorships, democratic self-awareness blossomed in those four famous words: “We are the people!” (Editor’s note: “Wir sind das Volk!” — “we are the people!” — was a slogan chanted by pro-democracy protesters in East Germany in the months before the Berlin Wall fell.) Before long, the country and its industry were liquidated, while the Treuhand (editor’s note: the agency that privatized East Germany’s state-owned enterprises) sold off its assets for next to nothing. During the long postwar period, those 17 million people (in East Germany) had to bear alone the main burden of a war that was waged and lost by all Germans.

SPIEGEL: What would you have done?

Grass: I would have sharply increased taxes and would not have pursued reunification with borrowed funds. There is quite a bit of self-deception in the notion that now, in the year of the 20th anniversary of reunification, we are congratulating ourselves on how wonderfully everything has turned out. The facts say otherwise: the high unemployment, the depopulated areas. And the phenomenon that people call “the Wall in our minds” still exists. The way the Party of Democratic Socialism was handled contributed to this mindset. It was downright showered with praise and made popular, because, despite being the successor party to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (editor’s note: the East German communist party), it was not held accountable (for the actions of the East German state). In fact, it was given a free pass, and this approach harmed the Social Democratic Party.

SPIEGEL: Does the loss of significance of the SPD trouble you? The traditionally left-wing German party has a long and respectable history, but it lost popularity when it moved toward the center in recent years, during the Gerhard Schröder era.

Grass: Well, the Social Democratic Party signifies an element of continuity. That’s the reason I cling to it. We have little continuity in Germany, and the SPD is about to turn 150. It’s made many mistakes and has gone through a lot. But its social principles, which are rooted in the European labor movement of the 19th century, were and still are of fundamental importance to our country. Although many younger Social Democrats are far removed from the history of their party, that’s something the SPD will also outlive.

SPIEGEL: In “Grimms’ Words,” you make no mention of possible mistakes in your political opinions. Haven’t you ever been wrong?

Grass: After reunification, I was afraid that a sort of Greater Germany with a centralized power in Berlin could develop. But fortunately German federalism has been strong enough to offset any such tendencies. As inconvenient as it often is, I believe that the counterbalance through the states is the best option for Germany, after all.

SPIEGEL: Can you think of any other mistakes you have made during your life?

Grass: In my case, as everyone knows, I was seduced by the Hitler Youth in my younger years. I make this abundantly clear in my book “Peeling the Onion.” I suppose I derived a certain immunity to any ideological posturing from that mistake.

SPIEGEL: In “Grimms’ Words,” you address your time with the Waffen-SS once again, and you describe your swearing-in on a clear, cold winter’s night. You were 17 at the time. Do you also count that moment among the mistakes in your life?

Grass: It was not a misdeed on my part. I was drafted, as many thousands of others were. I didn’t volunteer for the Waffen-SS. The end of the war liberated me from the pledge of blind obedience. After that, I knew that I would never take an oath again.

‘The US Shouldn’t Have Been Given the Commanding Role in Afghanistan’

SPIEGEL: You are rooted in German history, but you have always objected to the cult of nationalism in any form. How do you feel about the new patriotic enthusiasm, as we saw during the football World Cup, for example?

Grass: I have always believed that one cannot leave the discussion about nationalism entirely to the right wing. We can only play a responsible role in Europe if we can effectively justify our own sense of national identity — beyond nationalism. But there were also playful aspects to the little German flags that people were waving during the World Cup. I saw women putting black, red and gold pacifiers in their babies’ mouths. That sort of thing offsets any perceived sense of pathos.

SPIEGEL: You aren’t the only writer of your generation who has made political statements again and again. Do you perceive a lack of similar vigor among your young fellow writers?

Grass: I would find it regrettable if they didn’t draw a lesson from this relatively brief tradition. They shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the Weimar Republic and withdraw into their private worlds. Intellectuals contributed greatly to the development of our fledgling democracy in West Germany into a grown-up democracy. Unfortunately, there are signs that this contribution is waning. The financial crisis, child poverty, deportation (of illegal immigrants), the growing gap between rich and poor: These are all issues where younger authors should develop and express an opinion.

SPIEGEL: You yourself are less politically involved than you once were. In an open letter to the chancellor, the author Martin Walser, who is one of your contemporaries, called for Germany’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Don’t you have a position on this war?

Grass: Of course I do. But the Afghanistan war, of all wars, can’t be oversimplified. Unlike the war against Iraq, there is a UN mandate. Our involvement there has proved to be a huge mistake, but it’s difficult to find a responsible way of withdrawing from that responsibility. The United States certainly shouldn’t have been given the commanding role. The Americans are incapable of waging this type of war. They are failing once again, just as they did in Vietnam, and we’re failing with them.

SPIEGEL: If there is no patent remedy, your voice as a Nobel laureate carries more weight today than it would have in the past. Why are you holding back?

Grass: I don’t have the impression that that’s what I’m doing. And besides, I don’t spend the whole day thinking about the fact that I’m a Nobel laureate. I’m reminded of it sometimes, usually when I put my two cents in. It certainly doesn’t help me when I write, although it doesn’t hurt either.

SPIEGEL: Doesn’t it put you under pressure?

Grass: The prize doesn’t inhibit me in my writing at all. That’s probably because I received it at an advanced age. Actually, the prize that the Group 47 (editor’s note: a prestigious postwar association of German writers) gave me in 1958 was more important for me, because I was as poor as a church mouse at the time. And it was awarded by fellow writers, which gave it a completely different meaning. I’m not saying this to belittle the Nobel Prize, but it didn’t have such an influential impact on my life.

SPIEGEL: Now be honest: Hadn’t you been hoping to receive it for a long time?

Grass: Not any more, at least at the end. It went on the same way for 20 years: Every fall, journalists called me to tell me that I was one of the contenders, and wanted to book the first interview with me. And then things would quiet down again for a year.

SPIEGEL: Weren’t you irritated when German author Heinrich Böll received the prize in 1972?

Grass: No, I wasn’t, even if you don’t believe me. I was in the middle of the SPD’s election campaign, sitting in a VW bus on a market square somewhere in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. We were doing these spontaneous events that involved driving to small cities. I was just speaking into the microphone, giving a short speech, when someone handed me a note that said: Böll won the Nobel Prize. I incorporated it into the campaign. We also happened to be supporters of the same political idea.

SPIEGEL: You draw a conclusion in your new book. You write that “working through” things in life never ends, and that “even traditional stories are meant to be retold. And after each ending, I realized that I had more work to do.” What sort of work do you intend to do next?

Grass: After a period of writing that’s lasted many years, I have to change tools and devote myself to printmaking again. I want to create new etchings and drypoint for my novel “Dog Years,” for the 50th anniversary of its first publication. “Grimms’ Words” will certainly mark the end of my autobiographical writings. At my age, one is surprised if one experiences the next spring, and I know how long it can take to complete a book with an epic concept.

SPIEGEL: Do you fear the end of your life?

Grass: No. I’ve realized that, on the one hand, one is ready for it. I also realize that I’ve retained a certain amount of curiosity. What will happen to my grandchildren? What will the weekend football results look like? Of course, there are also some banalities I still want to experience. Jacob Grimm wrote a wonderful piece on aging, and I also found the following sentence in another one of his works: “The last harvest is on the stalk.” It touched me, and of course it immediately prompted me to reflect on my own age. In doing so, I didn’t discover any predominant fear of death.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Grass, thank you for this interview.


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Stuart Clark’s top 10 approachable astronomy books

‘Looking at the stars is a good way to provoke a primal reaction’ … Using a telescope to observe the night sky.

Stuart Clark is the award-winning author of The Sun Kings, 2007. In his new book, The Big Questions: The Universe, he tackles the 20 biggest questions driving modern astronomy, including Are We Made From Stardust? Are There Other Intelligent Beings? Is There Cosmological Evidence for God? His website is

Stuart is the former editor of Astronomy Now. He is also a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a former vice chair of the Association of British Science Writers and in 2000, the Independent placed him alongside Stephen Hawking and the Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, as one of the “stars” of British astrophysics teaching.  He is now senior editor for the European Space Agency and is a contributor to New Scientist and the Economist. 

“Looking at the stars is a good way to provoke a primal reaction. You may experience wonder or awe, maybe even fear about how small you really are. No matter what you feel, the stars have the power to move us and have done so for thousands of years. Understanding the celestial objects and our place within them has been a passion of mine for my whole life. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t consumed with curiosity about the universe. These books span the entire history of mankind’s fascination with space. All of them capture the fascination of astronomy and the human stories behind this most noble of sciences.”

1. The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

Part science, part travel book. Ananthaswamy searches for cosmological truth by visiting the often remote observatories and laboratories studying the universe. Ultimately, this story is an enchanting exploration of the author’s quest to understand not just a little more about the universe, but a little more about his own place within it.

2. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel

The most dramatic retelling of the Galileo story for a generation, and a rather tragic tale to boot. Sobel’s memorable prose relies on letters between Galileo and his oldest daughter, a nun, to shine new light on the iconic astronomer. A masterful blend of history and astronomy.

3. The Book Nobody Read by Owen Gingerich

Gingerich’s compelling narrative illuminates his quest to explore the cultural reception of Copernicus’s revolutionary idea that the Earth orbited the sun and not vice versa. Gingerich also relates the difficulties of being an American researcher during the cold war, knowing that his quarry lay behind the iron curtain.

4. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos by Dennis Overbye

This extended piece of top-class journalism captures astronomy as it is really practised in the corridors of academia and the lecture halls of conferences. Personal rivalries and personalities have as much to do with “progress” as having the right answer. Sprawling, complex and epic, it is also a page-turner.

5. Project Orion by George Dyson

How far will man go to reach the stars? Back in the 1950s, idealism was running high and a group of scientists and engineers gathered at The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. Their goal was to harness nuclear bombs to launch manned spacecraft. Utter madness but beautifully recounted by George Dyson, whose father was one of the misguided idealists.

6. Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough

Manned spaceflight rather than astronomy, but a vivid behind-the-scenes portrayal of America’s participation in Russia’s Mir space station. It strips away the PR gloss and builds a factual story that reads likes a near-future thriller. Gripping, with some genuinely jaw-dropping moments of drama.

7. The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler

Dense and detailed, this is a book you may have to work at, but there are rich rewards for anyone who stays the course. It also grows better with each re-reading. Koestler weaves the greatest history of astronomy up to Newton ever written.

8. Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife

Forget matter and energy, space and time, Seife argues that the most fundamental property of the universe is the information it contains. Until we accept this, we are stymied from further progress, rather like a baby playing with the box instead of the gift inside. Provocative and interesting, it challenges you to think differently.

9. The Very First Light by John C Mather and John Boslough

A thrilling tale of big science within Nasa, this is the story behind the mission that discovered the “seeds” of today’s galaxies in the faint glow of the very first light left over from the creation of the universe.

10. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip S Thorne

A fantastic tale of the consequences of relativity rather than the development of it. Black holes are predicted by relativity and are the weirdest things imaginable, so weird that astronomers tried for decades to wish them away. Even today, they still don’t know what they are. Cracking story, cracking science.


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Poster poems


Down the centuries, English poetry has been infused with fresh vigour by elements from different languages. Now it’s your turn to join the import business.


Portrait of Ovid by Luca Signorelli (1475-1523).
“Poetry”, said Robert Frost, “is what gets lost in translation.” This pearl of wisdom is so often quoted, so widely accepted, so profound-sounding, that it is almost certainly untrue. In fact I’d argue that in the hands of the best practitioners, translation is just another way for poets to make poems in their own language. Equally, it is clear to me that a steady stream of translation has been vital to the continuing good health of English verse over the past 700 years or so.

Ever since Chaucer started working on his lost version of The Romaunt of the Rose, the act of translation has been one of the most important vehicles for expanding the range of technical resources (and subject matter) that is available to English poets. Although we cannot now identify with certainty any lines of Chaucer’s Romaunt, we do have some fine examples of his work in translation, not least of which is his reworking of Boccaccio’s version of the story of Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s poem is a fine example of his application to classical subject matter of the technique he learned from French poetry, to create a poetry that is distinctively English.

Chaucer’s contact with the new learning may have been at second hand, but it does prefigure the revival of classical Greek and Latin poetry that helped form the poetry of Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the first great fruits of this Renaissance was the Scottish poet Gavin Douglas’s rendering of Virgil’s Aeneid into a vigorous vernacular, a poem that did much to establish the rhyming couplet as a narrative verse form in English.

Just as significant, albeit on a more modest scale, were Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, the precursors of a whole tradition of sonnet-making that continues down to today. You could, of course, argue that if Wyatt (and Surrey) hadn’t done it, then someone else would have. Nevertheless, it is unarguably the case that these early translations introduced into English verse what was to fairly rapidly become the short verse form of choice.

Perhaps the finest of all the Renaissance translations is Arthur Golding’s The Fifteen Books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like Douglas, Golding used rhyming couplets for his translation. However, the later work captures much more of the art and atmosphere of its Latin original than Douglas ever tried for. Golding’s Ovid was one of the most influential books of its time, being a favourite of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and a sourcebook for plots for plays and narrative poems like Venus and Adonis.

If Ovid was the presiding spirit of the English Renaissance, then Homer played a similar role in the 18th century. Numerous translations of the Iliad and Odyssey appeared at the time, none more influential than those written by the greatest poet of the time, Alexander Pope. Pope may have set out to prove his classical credentials through these and his other forays into translation, but ultimately they helped provide him with the tools for creating mock epics in which he ridiculed the pretensions of what he came to see as a trivial, mock-Augustan age.

The poets of English high Romanticism were not much given to translation. However, it could be argued that the whole tone of late Victorian poetry was set by one great work that was made possible by that most quintessentially Romantic area of study, comparative linguistics. Edward Fitzgerald’s versions of the Persian Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam captures more completely than any original poem of the time the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites while pointing ahead to the dissipation of the poets of the 1890s.

The American poet Ezra Pound was an admirer of the Rubaiyat, and his early poems are redolent of Pre-Raphaelite twilight. One of the most crucial steps on his, and, as it turned out, English poetry’s, journey into modernism was the work he did on bringing over Chinese poetry into English in a book of translations he called Cathay.

Given that he knew no Chinese but worked from prose cribs, Pound is an example to all of us who would like to be translators but may not possess the linguistic skills to work from originals. Of course, you’re probably all multilingual geniuses, but, thanks to Ezra, you don’t need to be to tackle this August challenge to share your own versions of foreign-language poetry. Your sources range from Norse to Klingon, Malay to the entirely-made-up-on-the-spur-of-the-moment; one way or another, all translations are welcome here.


Ten of the best pigs in literature

Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson

The characters in Jonson’s city comedy are irresistibly drawn to the notorious fair by the prospect of eating pork. Presiding over the pig-booth is Ursula, the “pig-woman”, wise in the ways of human appetite. The puritans rage against Satan’s trickery: “You may know it by the fleshly motion of Pig, be strong against it, and its foul temptations.”

“A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” by Charles Lamb

The Romantic essayist imagines how the Chinese discovered the joys of roast pork with crackling. Once the Chinese ate their meat raw and kept pigs in their houses. Ho-ti leaves his house to be looked after by his lubberly son Bo-bo, who lets it burn to the ground. But there’s something delicious in the ashes. Eureka!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!'” All those angelic choirboys become true primitives when they learn to hunt and kill wild pigs on the idyllic, hellish island. The Lord of the Flies – a rotting pig’s head, stuck on a stick – presides.

“View of a Pig” by Ted Hughes

“The pig lay on the barrow dead. / It weighed, they said, as much as two men.” The “thick pink bulk” of a dead porker sets the poet off on a rumination on mortality, remembering the “greased piglet” he once chased at a fair (no RSPCA meddling then). “Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens.”

The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter

Aunt Pettitoes, a porcine matriarch, sends her troublesome offspring forth into the world. Pigling Bland is accommodated by a friendly farmer, who is scheming to turn him into bacon. Our young hero rumbles his scheme and escapes along with a beautiful sow called Pig-wig. At the end they dance for joy – free pigs in Westmoreland!

Blandings Castle stories by PG Wodehouse

Lord Emsworth cares for nothing more in the world than his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. The pig-keepers employed to tend her by the doting earl are often dodgy types, and the Empress is the target of various kidnapping schemes.

Mr Frumble books by Richard Scarry

Richard Scarry’s classic illustrated book for children is a hilarious rumination on ineptitude. Its protagonist, a pig, embodies the principle of entropy. In natty green suit and hat, he wanders through life, causing accidents everywhere. When he takes his customised “pickle car” on the roads, chaos is assured.

“Fair Chloris in a Pig-sty Lay” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

In the naughty earl’s pastoral parody, a maiden has a kip in a pigpen and dreams of being penetrated by a fellow swineherd. She wakes to find that it is an erotic reverie, “raised by her murmuring pigs”, and that she is both “innocent and pleased”.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Which animals do duty for Stalin and his henchman? Pigs, of course. Snowball and Napoleon lead the animals’ successful revolt, but then fall out. Napoleon triumphs and rules the farm. The other animals become mere labourers, while the pigs drink whisky and become more and more like human beings.

“Moly” by Thom Gunn

Men have become pigs in Gunn’s poem, which inhabits the porcine body of one of Odysseus’s men, transformed into pigs by Circe. “Nightmare of beasthood” indeed. “Into what bulk has method disappeared? / Like ham, streaked. I am gross – grey, gross, flap-eared.” Moly is the sacred herb that will turn him back and, searching for it, “I push my big, grey, wet snout through the green”.


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As Darkness Falls

For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

First published in the Netherlands in 1947, “Comedy in a Minor Key” is only now appearing in English, in an eloquent translation by Damion Searls. “The Death of the Adversary” (skillfully translated by Ivo Jarosy) appeared here in 1962, but has long been out of print. Born in 1909, their author, the centenarian Keilson, lives with his wife in a village near Amsterdam where until recently he practiced medicine, a profession he followed in his native Germany until the Nuremberg laws forced him to flee to the Netherlands. There he was active in the Dutch resistance and later became known for his work with children traumatized by the war.

Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author’s eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for story­telling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name.

This unusual strategy is employed throughout “The Death of the Adversary,” whose narrator, a young man growing up during the ascendance of National Socialism, is at once obsessed with Hitler and unable to speak or even think the name of the Führer, whom he can refer to only as “my enemy” or, occasionally, “B.” The word “Nazi” is never mentioned, and only the most coded allusions are made to the fact that the protagonist is Jewish.

The challenges and rewards of this technique are most striking in a pivotal, devastating scene. Our hero is visiting a young woman with whom he works at a department store, and on whom he has a crush, when their pleasant evening is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of her brother and his friends. Almost instantly, without much being said, the narrator and the reader grasp that the intruders are Nazi thugs, just as it is obvious to the intruders that the narrator is a Jew. After a strained, abstract conversation about the burden of having a conscience and the relief of shedding that burden, the youngest of the goons is encouraged to describe a “secret assignment” in which he has participated. His story is long, gripping and almost unbearably horrific, though no one is hurt in the commission of this crime but a few of its inept perpetrators.

Listening, the narrator analyzes his own reactions with a characteristic detachment that is at once coolly clinical, incantatory and overwrought: “You’re a swine, I thought, not to get up and put an end to this disgusting and disgraceful performance. It did me good to call myself a swine, and at the same time I suffered under it. His story aroused all the fury and hatred hidden within me, I suffered under it and at the same time it did me good to suffer. I could have wept, and at the same time it did me good, like a father who is beating his child with tears in his eyes and experiences the twofold delight of being able to beat it and to suffer under it at the same time.”

With seeming effortlessness, Keilson performs the difficult trick of showing how a single psyche can embrace many contradictory thoughts, and how naturally extreme intelligence and sensitivity can coexist with obtuseness, denial and self-deception. To say that reading this novel makes it impossible not to understand how so many European Jews underestimated the growing menace of ­Nazism is to acknowledge only a fraction of its range. In fact the novel shows us how human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truths of their private lives and their historical moment.

Coded language and circumlocution are also factors in “Comedy in a Minor Key,” but the novel’s tone is lighter and indeed comedic, its subject not violence but the goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence. Wim and Marie, an ordinary Dutch bookkeeper and his wife, have agreed, more from reflexive decency than careful reflection, to hide a Jewish perfume salesman whom they know only as Nico. Unlike the resolute resistance heroes familiar to us from books and films, Wim and Marie are dithery and uncertain, desperately trying to do the right thing beyond the right thing they are doing. Fretting over the serious and trivial problems of sheltering Nico, they seem to have wandered in from a Beckett play or a Katherine Mansfield short story.

Nico dies of natural causes, inspiring a series of elegant plot twists. And Wim, behaving with a typical mixture of tenderness and anxiety, disposes of the body in a nearby park. Only after the corpse has been found, rescued from under a bench, does Marie allow herself thoughts that seem plausible, unexceptional, yet wildly brave in how much they reveal about the secret workings of the heart. Having grown attached to their boarder, she is grief-stricken, but also slightly annoyed at the surprising turn things have taken:

“And then, too, there was a small, all too human disappointment left over: that he had died on them. You don’t get the chance to save someone every day. This unacknowledged thought had often helped them carry on when, a little depressed and full of doubt, they thought they couldn’t bear this complicated situation any longer and their courage failed them. . . . She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. . . . How the neighbors and everyone on the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war. It all had gone up in smoke. It wasn’t even a dream anymore. None of the three of them had any luck. But really, him least of all. Poor Nico!”

That passage should give you some sense of Hans Keilson’s particular and astonishing gifts. Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers.

Francine Prose’s most recent book is “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.”


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Ten of the best wicked uncles in literature


Creon, King of Thebes, is Antigone’s uncle. He decrees that her brother should not, as a rebel, receive the proper rites of burial. In Sophocles’s Antigone, the heroine ignores his edict and secretly buries her brother. Creon sentences her to be buried alive. Antigone kills herself soon after she has been interred in a cave, and Creon’s son (Antigone’s fiancé) and wife follow suit soon after.


There are plenty of these perfidious male relatives in Shakespeare (try As You Like It or The Tempest) but Hamlet father’s brother takes the biscuit. He pours hemlock in King Hamlet’s ear and then swiftly marries his own sister-in-law. He even makes a bid for our sympathy by praying for forgiveness – but he is out to kill the Prince of Denmark.

King Miraz

Another dodgy monarch who has deposed his brother and now looks to get rid of his inconvenient nephew. In CS Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the rightful heir is on the run from nasty uncle Miraz, who has exiled all the talking beasts to the wilds of Narnia. But young Caspian has the Pevensie children to help him.

Ebenezer Balfour

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped tells of the machinations of David Balfour’s evil uncle Ebenezer, who has cheated him of his rightful inheritance. After attempting to arrange his “accidental” death, David’s uncle has him bound and gagged and shipped off to be a slave in the Carolinas.

Ralph Nickleby

In Dickens’s youthful novel, Nicholas Nickleby’s rich uncle Ralph is a thoughtful villain, whose “mental soliloquies” are always wound up “by arriving at the conclusion, that there was nothing like money”. He is the evil genius of the novel, determined to ruin Nicholas, and made more villainous by his soft spot for his nephew’s sister . . .

Colonel Herncastle

In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Rachel Verrinder inherits the eponymous jewel, a huge diamond, from her nasty uncle, the Colonel. Unknown to her, he stole it from an Indian shrine after murdering the priests who guarded it. So a curse and a good deal of trouble are attached.

Uncle Silas

Heiress Maud Ruthyn goes to live with her uncle Silas, a former rake and gambler who is now apparently reformed. Slowly she becomes aware that he is plotting to get at her fortune by marrying her to his dissolute son. The eponymous villain of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel is an opium addict to boot.

Christopher Lilly

Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is modelled on the Victorian “sensation novels” of the likes of Collins and Le Fanu, so it naturally has an heiress called Maud and an evil uncle, who is also her guardian. His wickedness expresses itself through his obsession with pornography, which he forces Maud to collate. She escapes him, but falls into the clutches of even greater villains.

“My Wicked Uncle”

In this poem, Derek Mahon recalls his uncle at his funeral. “The narrative he dispensed was mostly / Wicked avuncular fantasy – / He went in for waistcoats and haircream”. But he is roguishly alluring compared with the coming generation. “His teenage kids are growing horns and claws – / More wicked already than ever my uncle was”.

Sandor Kovacs

Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs features an uncle who is based on the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman. In 1970s London, Vivien Kovaks, the child of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, rediscovers her uncle and (without telling her parents) works as his secretary. She learns the story of his life and the reasons for his supposed wickedness.


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The Pursuit of Laughter

In Britain between the wars, the Mitford girls—Baron Redesdale’s six glamorous, garrulous, gadabout daughters— were a constant source of public amusement and surprise. Readers of the popular press followed Nancy from her early 20s, when she was a founding member of the party-mad socialites known as the Bright Young Things. Jessica made news when she eloped with a communist to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Diana married Brian Guinness, one of Britain’s richest men, at 19; a few years later she divorced him to live as an unmarried helpmeet to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Unity Mitford also fell in with the fascists, finding her way to Germany and the circle surrounding the Führer himself. When the two countries she loved went to war, she shot herself but failed to die and lived on for years as an invalid. Pamela mostly lived quietly, marrying and later divorcing the physicist Derek Jackson. Only Deborah, the youngest, is still living; at 90, she is the current Duchess of Devonshire.

Nancy Mitford (1904-73) became a novelist, drawing deeply from her family and its aristocratic milieu, often treating her siblings with affectionate mockery, most famously in “The Pursuit of Love” (1945). That novel is one of five new editions of her work just published by Vintage. Perhaps most interesting to her fans, however, will be the return to print of a little-known early novel, “Wigs on the Green” (1935), in which the mockery was more over-the-top than in her later fiction.

The novel combines a country-house romantic comedy with scattershot political satire, lampooning Oswald Mosley as “Captain Jack,” the leader of the Union Jackshirts. Eugenia Malmains, a cloistered but charismatic Jackshirt follower based on Nancy’s sister Unity, leads the local membership in staging (of all things) a historical pageant about George III. She sings the Union Jackshirt song—”We will whack / and we will smack / all traitors to the Union Jack”—and eventually does get a chance to whack some pacifists.

“Wigs on the Green,” with its send-up of Mosley’s movement, displeased Unity and caused an immediate breach with Diana. Nancy herself refused to republish the book during her lifetime. (Vintage’s volume is the first stand-alone edition since the 1930s.) Explaining her decision, Nancy said that, given later events, fascism no longer seemed a fit topic for humor.

For us now, the jokes at the expense of the Jackshirts don’t seem in particularly bad taste, but they do seem a bit labored. Perhaps because she had chosen such a large target, the comedy in “Wigs” is much broader than the subtle satire of her other novels. In truth, it is not one of Mitford’s better outings.

Two other Mitford novels from the prewar period—”Highland Fling” (1931), “Christmas Pudding” (1932)—are better, but unfortunately they’re not among the Vintage reissues. These books are light larks that take frivolous young protagonists and force them under some pretense into country houses alongside older, eccentric fuddy-duddies: a Bright Young Woman’s version of a common P.G. Wodehouse conceit. “Pigeon Pie” (1940), written in the early years of World War II, tells how a clueless society wife almost inadvertently saves London from the Nazis.

Yet these amusing novels pale in comparison with the two that followed, in particular “The Pursuit of Love,” the work on which Nancy’s fame as a literary artist now principally rests.

It was “The Pursuit of Love” that enshrined the Mitfords as the Radletts of Alconleigh, a family of idiosyncratic aristocrats ostensibly governed by an erratic, hunting-mad father but actually ruled by its unruly brood of incorrigible daughters.

The novel is a remarkable transmutation—a work of art that blends its satirical observations of its characters with a deep sympathy for them—but it is also a social document. The quirky tics and argot of the Radlett family are the Mitfords’ to a T. We are invited into the children’s clubhouse, where all humanity is separated into “terrific Hons” (not just fellow aristocrats but anyone they liked) and “horrible counter-Hons.” Nancy smuggles in bits of the sisters’ girlish private language and re-creates the game of nicknames and in-jokes that readers would later learn to decode in the sisters’ published letters.

Linda Radlett, the heroine of “The Pursuit of Love,” is a composite of several Mitford sisters. Her gentle disposition is that of Deborah, but like Diana she marries young, foolishly and rich; like Jessica, she runs off to Spain; and, finally, like Nancy, she falls rapturously in love with a French lieutenant just as World War II is beginning.

In her major fiction, most of Mitford’s most beloved characters can be classified as either innocents or sophisticates. The innocents—Polly in “Love in a Cold Climate” (1949), Grace in “The Blessing” (1951)—regard life as melodrama. (Both books are in the Vintage release.) The sophisticates see it as comedy. The innocents often occupy center stage, yet the sophisticates get the best lines.

“Poor Linda, she has an intensely romantic character, which is fatal for a woman,” says Lord Merlin, the eccentric aesthete who is a recurring Mitford character, based on the real-life Lord Berners, a friend of the Mitford family. “Fortunately for her, and for all of us, most women are madly matter of fact, otherwise the world could hardly carry on.”

Mitford had no time for the matter-of-fact; she had a soft spot for those innocents; still, her heart was with the sophisticates. Though her marriage-oriented plots seem to promise something sentimental, she always adds a cynical twist. Those who wed for love, or divorce for cause, tend to come across as romantic fools. “The Pursuit of Love,” for all its froth, is in fact a jarring summary of the rapidity with which women of Mitford’s generation could proceed from debutante, to new bride, to divorcée, to disgrace or death.

“Love in a Cold Climate,” which appeared four years later, hinges on a young woman who has set her heart on the aging homosexual who molested her as a child. The savage quality of the book’s satire makes it Mitford’s most ruthless grilling of the romantic mindset, though the reader casts about in vain for a sympathetic character outside the Radlett circle. The comparatively good-natured “The Blessing,” based on Mitford’s one-sided affair with an aide to De Gaulle, describes an English wife learning to accept her French husband’s philandering. Most of the time Mitford’s point is not merely to mock these women but to wonder at the inscrutability of the human heart.

Mitford’s final novel—”Don’t Tell Alfred” (1960), the fifth of the Vintage reissues—lacks the rich mix of comedy and heartbreak that marks her best work. Dropping any pretense to seriousness, it opts for a string of (admittedly pretty good) jokes about Franco-Britannic diplomacy, postwar tourism and Paris’s pop-music craze. In that sense, the novel was a return to the light comedy of her early books, of which “Wigs on the Green” stands slightly apart because of its political theme.

Yet it was during the middle years—in the immediate aftermath of a wave of cataclysms that shattered the stable society in which she had been reared—that Mitford wrote her most compelling works of fiction. Distracted temporarily from what she saw as life’s essential absurdity and frivolity, she was forced to confront the larger themes that literature at its best can address. During Mitford’s lifetime, the English aristocracy was broken on the rack of the Depression, World War II and the austerity that followed. “The Pursuit of Love,” her finest work, convincingly captures the shock of that process and the speed with which her world—and her own family—were forever changed.

Mr. Propson is an editor at The Week.


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Karl Marlantes’s top 10 war stories

From Homer to Norman Mailer, the novelist and Vietnam veteran chooses books that tell the ‘numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling’ truth about combat

A still from Terrence Malick’s film version of The Thin Red Line

After studying at Yale, Karl Marlantes served as a marine in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals including two Purple Hearts. In 1977 he began writing Matterhorn, a novel about his experience of combat in the jungle. The book ended up taking Marlantes 30 years to write while raising a family of five children and working full-time in energy consultancy.

“It seems to me that a great war book must speak the truth about war; that it is mostly tedious, numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling, filled with love for your comrades, and ultimately leaves you sad. Then, of course, there is the constant authorial challenge to keep the reader turning the pages – a challenge fully met by all of these tales.”

1. The Iliad by Homer

I have to confess I first read this in a Classics Comic Book version. What struck me then – I was about eight or nine – was that the author actually thought that the Trojans weren’t morally any better or worse than the Greeks. Maybe a little better, in fact, but I’m half-Greek so that was hard to swallow. It was only after I’d been in a war myself that I read the actual epic, and I did it in both Robert Fitzgerald’s and Richmond Lattimore’s translations. On those readings I was struck by the changelessness of the experience, no matter the technology, and the utter randomness of it all, in Homer personified by the intervention of the gods.

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Steven Crane

This one I read because it was required in school. I suspect it got on the required list in part because our teachers thought it was short enough to at least encourage us not to reach for the Classic Comic Book. It is of course notable for the understanding of fear, cowardice, and slaughter from a man who wasn’t in combat. This is rare, and I have to admit that I’m highly suspicious of any novel about war that is written by someone who hasn’t experienced it.

3. Egil’s Saga

I was taken by this ancient tale’s authentic celebration of the dark joy of being on the winning side. It’s also just a very good adventure that takes place in a time that tends to get romanticised. Here, by contrast, you get the feeling that it’s a pretty tough way to make a living. Full disclosure, my grandfather was a Norwegian and I was fairly predisposed to overlook some of Egil’s more pathological mental states.

4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve read this twice and am going through it for the third right now with the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. This man’s genius is to handle a huge cast of characters and points of view, from an Olympian historical analysis, to the minds of dictators and generals, to the minds of individual soldiers. When I read how Prince Andre felt when he went down mortally wounded, seeing the concrete nothingness of the sky, I actually had to stand up and take a walk it hit me so profoundly.

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

Here we get the true feeling of senseless mechanised slaughter, the terror of artillery shellings and poison gas that, supported by rail systems and industrial economies, could go on and on until minds broke, and the numbing degradation of life in the trenches. These poems also made it clear that the day of the individual warrior who could significantly influence his odds of survival through skill of arms had truly come to an end.

6. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Graves expressed so clearly the aftermath of combat, the wounds to the mind and soul. And he told of the actual experience in chilling understatement.

7. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This is the first novel I read where “the con” of patriotism was fully revealed. I have nothing against patriotism; it’s a good thing. It’s just that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

8. In Parenthesis by David Jones

This small novel is very close to poetry in its spare and beautiful use of language and its use of symbols. Being a mythology nut, I relished the inclusion of the old Welsh epics and myths in the text. He also captures, as does his title, the way the intensity of combat is bracketed between versions of “normal life”.

9. The Thin Red Line by James Jones

Here is a book written by a soldier with a soldier’s eye and sensibility. I think Jones captured jungle warfare brilliantly. He also captured the nerve-shredding anxiety of nothing happening.

10. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Here is war writing that focuses on a group and the interaction within that group. It is the small unit of friends that provides the meaning of war to most veterans, not the sweeping generalisations of the politicians. This is not to say that some sweeping generalisations aren’t true – it’s fairly easy, for example, to agree that destroying fascism was a good cause. But when my uncles and father and their friends could be persuaded to talk about their experience of the second world war, to a man said they never thought once about “the cause” when they were actually fighting. They thought about their friends.


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Ten of the best dragons in literature

Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes

This Greek epic poem tells the tale of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. The fleece is guarded by an unsleeping dragon; Jason enlists the help of the sorceress Medea, who gives him a magic potion with which to spray the dragon. It falls asleep on the spot. But then our hero has to repay her . . .

Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

 Faustus sells his soul for superhuman powers: “sitting in a chariot burning bright, / Drawn by the strength of yoked dragons’ necks, / He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars”. Dragon-riding is his devilish privilege. “Mounted then upon a dragon’s back, / That with his wings did part the subtle air, / He now is gone to prove cosmography.”

The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

The Red Cross Knight (England) and his fair lady Una (the true church) are travelling through a blighted land, when they find the cause: “That dreadful Dragon they espide, / Where stretcht he lay upon the sunny side, / Of a great hill . . .” Spenser’s knight does battle for three days with the fearsome dragon (Rome? Spain? Satan?) before triumphing.

The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, by William Morris

 Morris’s cod-epic poem features a Norse hero called Sigurd who forges a mighty sword in order to attack the dragon Fafnir, who guards a priceless hoard of gold. “He laughed and smote with the laughter and thrust up over his head. / And smote the venom asunder, and clave the heart of Dread”. He kills the dragon and gets the gold, but there is, of course, a curse upon it.

The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien

 The ancient dragon Smaug lies amidst his wealth in his lair in the lonely mountain. He is not just fierce and fire-breathing, but cunning and witty too. Bilbo visits him with a company of brave but foolish dwarves and learns of the one weak spot on his jewel encrusted body. An archer does for the enraged dragon when he flies out to destroy a nearby town.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by CS Lewis

Grumpy, greedy Eustace Scrubb finds a dead dragon’s lair, with a hoard of gold and jewels. He puts on a beautiful bracelet and finds himself turned into a dragon. Thus transmogrified, he realises the error of his ways and does penance, though not before disgusting himself by eating the carcass of the dead dragon. Aslan forgives him and makes him human again.

Possession, by AS Byatt

 Dragons keep appearing in this novel (Maud, the heroine, has one on her kimono). Randolph Ash writes a poem in which “The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest / Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth / And dozed and waited through eternity / Until the tricksy hero, Heracles, / Came to his dispossession.”

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris

 Francis Dolarhyde, the psychopathic villain of the novel that came before The Silence of the Lambs, is obsessed with William Blake’s scary, apocalyptic paintings of the Great Red Dragon, representative of Satan. He has a huge tattoo of the dragon on his back.

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke

 No more dragon persecution! In Funke’s children’s fantasy the dragons are rather nice and have names such as Firedrake and Sorrel. The problem is horrid humans. But the dragons are befriended by a brave orphan boy called Ben, who gets to become the “dragon rider”.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

 The original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, but the English version takes its title from the heroine, private investigator Lisbeth Salander, a 25-year-old goth with a brilliant mind and a dragon tattooed on her back. What does it mean?


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Ten of the best motorbikes in literature

Setting Free the Bears, by John Irving

 It is the 1960s, and Hannes and Siggy, fellow idealists and dropouts, set out on a picaresque tour of Austria on a 700cc Royal Enfield motorcycle. Siggy is killed in a motorcycle accident, but we get to read his journal, detailing his father’s involvement with a Wehrmacht motorcycle unit. And Hannes meets a gorgeous girl who wants to climb on to the back of his bike.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M Pirsig

 Philosophical disquisition or autobiographical novel? However you define this once-cult classic, no literary motorbiking column could omit it. The narrator introduces you to the main schools of western philosophy via metaphors from motorcycle mechanics, while travelling across the US with his son on the back of his bike.

“On the Move”, by Thom Gunn

 “Man, you gotta go.” Gunn’s poetic meditation on the California bikers he encountered in the 60s finds them exciting in a male way – “the distance throws them forth, their hum / Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh” – but existentially weird.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner

In the odd acoustic bowl of the remote north Wales valley where they are spending their summer holiday, step-siblings Roger and Alison sometimes hear the noise of a motorbike in the distance. It seems incidental at first, but is an echo from the past. We begin to sense the truth about a fatal accident that happened many years earlier.

“A Motorbike”, by Ted Hughes

 Men back from the war are bored and listless, with “England dwindled to the size of a dog-track”. But one of them acquires a motorbike, and life begins again down the open road. “A week later, astride it, before dawn, / A misty frosty morning, / He escaped // Into a telegraph pole / On the long straight west of Swinton.”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling

 The first chapter of the Potter oeuvre features the entrance of Hagrid at Privet Drive on a flying motorbike (with sidecar). In this vehicle (which belongs to Sirius Black) he rescues Harry from Voldemort. In the last book of the sequence Hagrid crashes and destroys the magical motorbike.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières

 A motorbike can be romantic. So it is for benign occupier Captain Antonio Corelli, who squires the beautiful Pelagia around the island of Cephalonia on a motorcycle (when not playing the mandolin). Years later, the elderly Corelli returns to woo her – on a motorbike.

The History Boys, by Alan Bennett

 There was undoubtedly a frisson when Richard Griffiths (as schoolmaster Hector) roared on to the stage of the National Theatre on his trusty motorbike. His fondness for the machine is a sign of his bloody-minded individualism and his sexual proclivities: he is prone to offer his (male) students a lift home that includes a pillion fondle. He is destined to perish on his bike.

“Our Motorbike”, by Elfriede Jelinek

 The poem starts as a weird celebration of the joys of biking – “a leek’s fat body / the red motorbike / our night fire / ravishment of chrome / steel” – but (as is Jelinek’s way) things seem to turn nasty: “the red night squats / pressed against our motorbike // we ride hunting little girls / in the wooden sky”.

Turbulence, by Giles Foden

Young meteorologist Henry Meadows, who has to find out how to forecast the weather for D-day, is sent up to the west of Scotland to enlist the help of a reclusive mathematical genius. He is given a motorbike, though he has never ridden one before, and for the first half of the novel he zooms round the hills and lochs, getting nowhere much with his researches but developing his skills.


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Greg Baxter’s top 10 memento mori

From St Augustine to Nietzche, the author chooses the fearless autobiographical writers who taught him how to write his own, A Preparation for Death

A Damien Hirst print is added to Michael Landy’s Art Bin, is a giant container for disposing of ‘failed’ works of art at the South London Gallery in 2010.

Greg Baxter was born in Texas in 1974, and has lived in Dublin for the past 10 years where he works as a journalist, and runs the Some Blind Alleys creative writing courses. His memoir A Preparation for Death is an unflinchingly honest account of his self-destructive personal decay in his early 30s, and his redemption through writing.

“My interest in autobiography began quite late, relative to my interest in books. I had always assumed heavy lifting in literature could only be accomplished by novels, and I very much wanted to be a heavy lifter. Also, I felt and still feel a natural revulsion toward memoir. Nothing that had ever happened in my life was worth, in itself, a page of published text. But I was sick of my own fiction, and sick of the tired and relentless procession of award-winning novels that all looked the same, and became, through their success, the primary influences of a new generation of fiction writers. The bitterness I felt at not being recognised as a figure in literature almost destroyed me as a writer: I only wrote to be praised, or to avenge, or to insult.

“It was through an intense study of autobiography – beginning with The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate – that I learned how to write without ambition, and for myself. Every great autobiographical work is a private preparation for death: an author hunts down his weaknesses, his delusions, his inherited values, his everyday enslavements, and murders them in plain sight. Below are some of the works – books and essays – that inspired this sort of ruthlessness in me.”

Death of Death: “Asthma” by Seneca

All the best autobiographical writers – those who teach us how to live well and how to die well – are to varying degrees stoics. Fear of death expresses itself most commonly as self-pity, and self-pity does not lead to illuminating or fierce autobiography; it leads to therapy. What is the point, Seneca asks, of fearing death when death is all you knew before you were alive?

Death of Style: The Confessions by St Augustine

A man’s desire to be cherished, to be measured by the standards of other men, leads to the corruption of his understanding of beauty, Augustine writes, speaking of his own early works. Once this corruption takes place, that man no longer wants to tell the truth: he wants to tell lies that please and awe. He has charisma but no character.

Death of Wisdom: Essays by Michel de Montaigne

If aliens ever attack earth, and we have one opportunity to prove that the human species deserves a second chance, we must give them Montaigne, the humblest and most noble thinker and writer who ever lived. His incomparable exploration of the human condition begins with one fearless question: What do I know?

Death of Embarrassment: Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

When your books are misunderstood and dismissed as the desperate and nonsensical ramblings of a lunatic, you can attempt to change your ways, become more acceptable, and please the greatest number of people. Or you can plunge yourself deeper into lunacy, write for the future, and call yourself a destiny. Who but a lunatic allows himself to say: “I am not a man. I am dynamite”?

Death of Forgiveness: “Death” by Lu Xun

What shall we do about our enemies? How can we die without closure? Contemplating, on his deathbed, what to do about all the people who hate him, and whom he hates, the most well-known author in the world – Lu Xun – tells us: “Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them either.”

Death of Power: “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is a writer of unsurpassed beauty and eloquence. Yet beneath the exterior of her text is a violent struggle against an understanding of knowledge and power constructed by men who want to utilise and commandeer the world. To properly observe the world, we must give up our desire for ownership, our desire to seek the usefulness in things, she tells us. “Street Haunting” is not one of her most famous works, but it is among her finest.

Death of Literature: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer is not so much a book as an all-out assault against literature. One does not so much read it as watch it explode. The writers I admire most are not those who seek to publish and please, but who set out to commit an act of heresy towards fine taste. Miller sees literature dying, and stomps on its head to finish the job.

Death of an Elephant: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell

Orwell, working as police officer in Burma, discovers that “when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys” – when he is forced to shoot an elephant for no reason other than to avoid looking like a fool. He is inexperienced, unqualified, and records the slow death of the elephant with horrifying precision.

Death of the Epigone: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” by EM Cioran

In this amazing and unrelenting epistolary essay, the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran urges a young, aspiring author to give up his ambition to write so that he may protect his sicknesses and sins from the healing power of the word. To write is to destroy the grace bestowed upon us by misery and disease and failure. And to become a literary man is to join the age of the epigone – the copycat.

Death of Manipulation: “Equal in Paris” by James Baldwin

Baldwin, a young poor American living in Paris, spends his time sitting in cafés, unable to write. He then spends eight days in a French prison for a minor offence. His whole life, he has used people’s expectations of him as a black man to solve every crisis. He has never had an identity – he has only used the identity society created for him. But this identity is useless in France. He must stop asking himself what he is and start asking himself who he is.


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Ali Shaw’s top 10 transformation stories

Tales of metamorphosis are not only ancient, says Ali Shaw, but tap into the deepest recesses of human consciousness. Here he picks ten of his favourite transformations, from Ted Hughes’s Ovid to Roald Dahl’s Royal Jelly

‘My position is a very strange one’ … Frederic March as Dr Jekyll

Ali Shaw was born in 1982 and grew up in a small town in Dorset. Earlier this year he won the Desmond Elliott prize with his first novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, which he has described as “a love story about a woman who is turning into glass”. Here he chooses his top ten stories of transformation.

“Stories about people transforming, often agonisingly, from one shape to another are not just ancient, they’re primal. They occupied the earliest storytellers and continue to occupy us now. While they may be old, they’re by no means primitive. At their best, they’re an expression of a more invisible change: a person’s progression into someone better, or their degeneration into someone worse. Here are 10 of my favourites.”

1. The Violoncello by Dan Rhodes, from Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love

This is a beautifully paced love story about a student in Vietnam who falls so madly in love with a young violoncellist that he submits himself to a process that will transform him from a human being to a violoncello. The moment when the musician and the newborn instrument are first brought together is masterfully sad and sensual.

2. Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one long catalogue of transformations, and Hughes’s retelling pulls no punches, restoring in verb-rich poetry all of the sex and violence inherent in the stories. There’s a shapeshift or mutation on nearly every page, but a favourite of mine is Echo and Narcissus, who turn into the disembodied voice and woodland flower they lend their names to.

3. The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, from Fairy Tales

This is vintage Andersen, swinging back and forth from optimism to pessimism, light to dark. It concerns the trials of a young girl attempting to reverse the transformation of her brothers into beautiful swans. She’s very nearly successful, but can’t quite dispel the magic in time, leaving her youngest brother forever trapped with a white wing instead of an arm.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F Scott Fitzgerald

Populised by the recent film, but very different indeed, Fitzgerald’s original story is funny and economical. It reminds me of that old riddle that asks what goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening, because it makes infancy and old age look like similar things.

5. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The classic story of a man continuously transforming between good and evil incarnations of himself. It finds time to consider the psychological burden of Jekyll’s condition without slowing down the rip-roaring adventure story at the heart of the book.

6. The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, from Our Ancestors

A dual-nature story following in the tradition of Stevenson. Viscount Medardo is blasted in half on a battlefield, after which the two parts of his body are nursed separately back to life. They both recover and later re-encounter each other, whereupon they learn that they have been transformed from a single Medardo with a conflicting nature into two Medardos, one kind and one spiteful. Can they get along?

7. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The daddy of all transformation stories, and for good reason. The opening sentence is dynamite, and Gregor Samsa’s matter-of-fact handling of his overnight transformation from man to giant insect is as horrifying as the metamorphosis itself. Add to this mix Kafka’s meticulous, paranoid prose and you get one of the greatest bits of writing ever committed to paper.

8. Royal Jelly by Roald Dahl, from Tales of the Unexpected

Roald Dahl was, above all else, a horror writer. In his short stories for adults he throws off the shackles of whatever nominal restraint he was maintaining in his children’s work and really let’s rip. This one is about a man who feeds and then overdoses his new-born baby on a jelly secretion harvested from bees. Almost immediately, the infant begins to transform. You are what you eat, as they say … It will get you looking up the real royal jelly before the end.

9. Hans-My-Hedgehog by the Brothers Grimm, from The Complete Fairy Tales

This fairy story is quite a disturbing affair. Hans is a boy born part-hedgehog, part-man, and grows up into a king of pigs who rides a rooster through the woods, followed by an army of swine. He is a wild beast and not a hero, but, thanks to a flourish of magic at the end of the story, his spiny hide is incinerated and he turns into a man. There are countless other such transformations in fairy tales, but the imagery in this one is distinctive enough to stick.

10. The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter, from The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter ripped away all of the patriarchal rubbish that had saddled fairy tales for centuries and in doing so tapped in to something more raw, more in touch with their dreamy vitality. The Tiger’s Bride could be read as a metaphor for doing just that, but it has much more to offer besides. It’s my favourite from The Bloody Chamber, not just because of the exquisite writing but because of the transformation in which it culminates. As the human narrator changes into a tiger, so too the tiger turns away from his imitation of man. Every sentence oozes atmosphere.


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Patrick Cramsie’s top 10 graphic design books

From the extraordinary visual dexterity of Alan Fletcher to Jan Tschichold’s experiments with typography, Patrick Cramsie picks the books that have shaped our visual culture

Art of seeing … Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways.

Patrick Cramsie studied graphic design at London’s Middlesex University before going on to work in an Anglo-Japanese design company and then later as a freelance designer. His design work has centred on corporate identity and book design, but alongside this he has written book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Tate Etc. His latest book, The Story of Graphic Design, covers 5,500 years of cultural history from the invention of writing to the birth of digital design.

“We live in a world of signs and symbols. Street signs, logos, labels, pictures and words in books, newspapers, magazines and now on our mobiles and computer screens; all these graphic shapes have been designed. They are so commonplace we seldom think of them as a single entity, “graphic design”. Yet taken as a whole they are central to our modern way of life.  Nearly all of these books on graphic design appeal as much to the eye as to the mind, being beautiful as well as useful. In some, this marriage is so complete that they stand as archetypes of their medium; as specimens of perfection in book form.”

1. Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall

Though presented as a practical guide for designing books – how to lay out text and pictures or how to design a cover – this book is much more than that. It is written and designed by one of Britain’s most accomplished book designers and then illustrated with some of the best examples of his work. Because the book practises what it preaches, it is as good to look at as to read; the union of form and content could hardly be bettered. Each spread could be taken and hung in a gallery and appreciated as a work of art. 

2. The Printed Picture by Richard Benson 

A book that sets out to explain each of the different printing techniques that have been developed since the Renaissance sounds potentially dry, worthy and technical. The surprise that it is none of these things is quickly overtaken by the thrill of reading a text that is clear, deeply informed and accompanied by an extraordinary range of beautiful pictures, all of which are (of course) printed with an astonishing quality. We are now living in the age of the image, and this book successfully tells us how we got here.

3. The Encyclopaedia of Type Faces by Jaspert, Berry and Johnson

We all use PCs and mobiles and so, to some extent, we are all now “graphic designers”. Each of us can decide what style and size of font our letters, e-mails and texts should appear in. For those who want to explore the world of fonts beyond that provided on their computers, there is no better place to start than here. Though this book lacks any recently designed fonts, the select range of historically important or practically useful fonts it presents could last us several lifetimes. This book is really a celebration of the flexibility of the Latin alphabet. The fact that each font is put into context by a short description of its design makes this celebration educational.

4. Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography by Christopher Burke

Perhaps as many books have been written about this 20th-century German as any other graphic designer. However, none of these books on Tschichold has unearthed so many previously unseen works, and no text has benefited from such detailed research. Unlike so many writers on design, Burke has done his homework, and the fruits of it are displayed in this treasure trove of designs from Tschichold’s most radical modernist phase. 

5. Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago by Hans Wingler

The influential and much mythologised German art school, the Bauhaus, is made less opaque through this astonishing collection of documents, letters and pictures from its own archive. From the opening line of the school’s manifesto, “The ultimate aim of all the visual arts is the complete building!”, to a description of “the New Bauhaus” in Chicago as having that “sweet sound of a hive humming”, the ability of the personal testament to bring history alive is proven over and over again. The book’s design – its sans-serif text set within a rigid grid and bound between a simple but daringly effective cover (itself something of a design classic) – elevates this into a truly unique and important publication. 

6. Design without Boundaries: Visual Communication in Transition by Rick Poynor

No British writer has done more to promote graphic design as a subject of interest and importance than Rick Poynor. This collection of articles, most of which were written during the 1990s, focuses on many of the ideas and individuals that continue to dominate graphic design today. The clarity of the writing and the author’s evident passion make it an illuminating entry into contemporary graphic design.

7. Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand

Paul Rand is one of only a handful of names that is guaranteed to appear on any list of the greatest graphic designers. The almost magical invention in his work, and the prominence he maintained over five decades, mark him out as the Picasso of graphic design. In this collection of his writing he shows as much clarity and verve in articulating his approach to design as in the wealth of examples that illustrate the text. Both make the book enormously compelling.

8. The Sense of Order: a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art by Ernst Gombrich

“The Story of Art” may have been Gombrich’s most popular book, but the one he considered to be the most original – and which relates to graphic design most directly – was this one. In explaining the biological roots and social importance of decoration he covers an astonishing range of graphic forms: the flourishing letters of medieval scribes, heraldic symbols, the use of pictures as memory aids, and the appearance of the acanthus leaf in print and architecture, to name just a few. Gombrich’s great gift – his ability to express the depth and breadth of his knowledge with simple language – makes this an amazingly rich and rewarding text.

9. The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher

Sometimes, a book can capture the personality of its author much more effectively than any portrait or film footage. Alan Fletcher’s special wit and rigour, his extraordinary visual awareness and above all, perhaps, his humanity, are laid bare in this singular, weighty graphic mélange. Each of the 1,000-odd pages have been individually designed to give graphic expression to a lifetime’s worth of collected quotes, musings, aphorisms, factual curios, jokes and other assorted titbits. Dip into it and it’s impossible to dip out again.

10. The Passport by Saul Steinberg

I could have chosen any number of Steinberg’s books, but this is the first one I owned and so it’s the first I fell in love with. Steinberg was best known as a cartoonist for the New Yorker – his New Yorker’s view of the world showing Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the foreground, a strip of the Hudson River and New Jersey in the middle distance, and then a few rocky outcrops marking China, Russia and Japan will ring a bell with some – but actually he was a truly great artist. Has anybody explored the ideas surrounding individual identity with as much graphic skill, humour and intelligence?


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Ten of the best nameless protagonists in literature

Roxana by Daniel Defoe

Defoe’s “memoir” of an invented 17th-century courtesan has acquired a title that is but one of his anti-heroine’s pseudonyms. “The Fortunate Mistress” (as the novel was originally called) keeps her true name secret, masquerading as a “woman of quality” in order to beguile rich men.

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

The namelessness of James’s narrator seems fitting in a tale of genteel deceit. He tells us of his obsession with a dead poet called Jeffrey Aspern, whose papers may be in the possession of a former lover, now living in Venice. He can only gain these manuscripts by marrying her dowdy niece. What to do?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A doctor has confined his wife to her bedroom, decreeing that she is suffering from some nervous affliction. She keeps a secret journal, whose entries constitute this short story. Her fevered imagination is fed by patterns in the wallpaper. Her namelessness has made her, for some, a representative of 19th-century womanhood.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier’s melodrama is narrated by the most famously unnamed character in 20th-century fiction. She has married rich and charming Maxim de Winter and returned to his estate, ruled by the terrifying housekeeper Mrs Danvers. The story is of course dominated by the personality – and therefore the name – of Maxim’s dead wife.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Greene liked to find unusual names – Bendrix, Querry – for his protagonists, so his refusal to name the alcoholic Mexican priest on the run from the anti-clerical authorities is significant. The protagonist’s discovery of a religious mission through danger and suffering is made a Greenian parable about the need for religious belief.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The African-American narrator of Ellison’s postwar novel considers himself invisible, and the withholding of his name is a sign that he has no social identity. Ironically, having migrated from the south, he has become a political activist in New York, acquiring a “name” as a speech-maker. But his true self remains secret.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

“I can’t believe I’m on this road again.” With her lover, Joe, and two friends, the protagonist of Atwood’s novel returns to a remote island on a lake in Quebec to investigate her father’s disappearance. It becomes a journey into the protagonist’s past and into the wilderness. A name would be too much solace.

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

The child narrator of Freud’s autobiographical novel omits all sorts of information that an adult would provide. Her account of living in Morocco with her sister and hippy mother is minutely observed, yet unsettled by our awareness of the missing facts about her life – which include her name.

Everyman by Philip Roth

The title tells you why the central character in Roth’s frighteningly condensed novel – a man’s whole life has been crammed into these few pages – has to be nameless. We start from his funeral and go back over his life, and the record of failure and illness is a memento mori for every one of us.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

The protagonist of Hage’s novel is a refugee from some war, now living in Montreal, undergoing psychotherapy and working as a waiter. His Kafkaesque conviction is that he often morphs into a cockroach, able to find his way unobserved into people’s lives. “Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.” Thoroughly existentialist.


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Five Best Books on Disgrace

Rachel Cusk on novels that present indelible portraits of disgrace

1. The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton

Scribner’s, 1905

The compromised woman has been a popular constant in the literature of disgrace: By the time Edith Wharton wrote “The House of Mirth,” the Victorian novel had rather gorged itself on this horror. Wharton offers a more modern account of female dependence and vulnerability, one better suited to the social and material aspirations of her time. Wharton’s genius was for showing the way a society processes its moral problems by destroying individuals. The monied New York that is her milieu here is wavering between the Christian propriety of the Old World and the amoral materialism of the New. Lily Bart is the victim, in a sense, of this vacillation. Her journey to disgrace is a brilliantly riddling one: She finds herself unable to marry cynically, and so she tries, feebly, to break through into a new independence in her relationships with men and in her attitude toward money. Half a century later she would have succeeded; as it is, she finds herself cast out and meets an end of singular ignominy and pathos.

2. Babbitt

By Sinclair Lewis

Harcourt, Brace, 1922

George F. Babbitt is a family man, community pillar and real-estate agent with an almost religious zeal for his way of life in the fictitious boom city of Zenith. He is even a member of a club called the Boosters, whose sole purpose is to celebrate and vaunt Zenith’s virtues wherever possible. Yet Babbitt contains a dangerous grain or two of sensitivity, enough for him to wonder occasionally what would happen if he didn’t “boost.” In his most private moments he can admit that he finds his wife dull, his children irritating, his job unfulfilling. And one way or another these thoughts cease to be so private: Babbitt becomes, without ever quite meaning to, something of a dissenter. His consequent rejection by his community is instant and vicious, frightening in its middle-class brutality.

3. Noon Wine

By Katherine Anne Porter

Schuman’s, 1937

“Noon Wine” is a masterpiece of moral and artistic clarity. A simple farmer in Texas named Thompson takes on a hired man, Helton, a saturnine Swede who far surpasses him in hard work and husbandry. As the years pass, the once untidy farm becomes efficient and profitable under the silent stranger’s direction. The Thompson family overcomes its initial suspicion of Helton—but then he becomes the instrument of Thompson’s disgrace. A man arrives to arrest the Swede, who is a wanted criminal, and Thompson, mistakenly thinking that the man is physically harming his friend, kills the visitor. The farmer avoids jail, but his neighbors—as he finds, with mounting desperation—want nothing to do with him. Katherine Anne Porter’s skill is to pitch all this in a middle ground of absolute ordinariness, where notions of good and evil, of beauty and ugliness, of the instincts of self and the requirements of society, have never been consciously examined.

4. Death in Venice

By Thomas Mann

Knopf, 1925

Thomas Mann’s tale of a distinguished writer’s moral decline through his obsession with a young boy is perhaps the most incisive commentary in literature on the meaning—and loss— of reputation. The novel, first published in Germany in 1912, explores Freud’s theory of the death drive as a human motivation that rivals the drive toward success. Just as people are driven to make and to do, so they are compelled to destroy and undo. In the case of Aschenbach, the writer in the story, this undoing involves the dismantling of his whole complex system of life as an acknowledgment of, a preparation for, the death of the body. At a hotel in Venice he is gradually divested of every shred of physical and intellectual dignity while a cholera epidemic devastates the city around him.

5. Sister Carrie

By Theodore Dreiser

Doubleday, 1900

This portrait of late 19th-century America shows a new country’s morality evolving as rapidly and pragmatically as its economy. Society is in flux, magnetized and mesmerized by success. Disgrace, in this climate, takes the unitary form of financial failure. George Hurstwood could have got by on hypocrisy, adultery and lies, but when he loses his position as manager of a prestigious Chicago gentleman’s club he is courting certain doom. Carrie, for love of whom he has made this error, fears that her status as a “kept woman” will bring about her own downfall. But no one has time to care about such niceties when they concern a beautiful woman who is fast finding fame as an actress. Hurstwood is reduced to that disgrace of all disgraces, beggary; Carrie is elevated to those celestial heights where people ask themselves whether money and fame really bring happiness after all.

Ms. Cusk’s latest novel, “The Bradshaw Variations,” was recently published in paperback.


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Five Best Books on Female Adventurers

Frances Osborne says these books about female adventurers offer thrilling rides

1. Rebel Heart

By Mary S. Lovell
Norton, 1995

Pamela Harriman, one of the leading 20th-century seductresses of the great and the good, is said to have been inspired by the adventures of her great-great-aunt, Jane Digby (1807-81). As Mary Lovell recounts in “Rebel Heart” (the title was “A Scandalous Life” in Britain), Digby traveled and romanced her way through Europe and the Middle East at a time when, for a woman alone, even the traveling part was almost unthinkable. Digby had married at 17 (the first of four husbands) and rapidly turned to lovers, including Austrian statesman Felix Schwarzenberg, with whom Digby had two illegitimate children. She had an affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria before marrying an equally Bavarian baron, who was followed by a Greek count (husband no. 3) and a liaison with the king of Greece. Then came the Albanian general whose brigand army lived in mountainous caves; she became their “queen.” Long-term romantic fulfillment eluded her until age 50, when she married a 30-year-old Bedouin sheik and subsumed herself in the desert life. Given the material, Lovell’s book is almost impossible to put down.

2. Mistress of Modernism

By Mary V. Dearborn
Houghton Mifflin, 2004

By taking down New Yorker Benjamin Guggenheim in 1912, the Titanic put his children in line for modest fortunes when they turned 21. To daughter Peggy that meant waiting until 1919—when she was free to run off to Europe and embark on a life marked by a love of both art and sex. Mary Dearborn tracks her through it all in this captivating biography. Guggenheim befriended Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi; she married a Dada artist named Laurence Vail. She had an affair with Samuel Beckett; her second husband was artist Max Ernst. During a week in bed with Beckett, she was persuaded by the writer to start collecting modern art, not just modern artists. Guggenheim opened her first gallery in London in 1938, buying “a picture a day” and amassing a collection that included the work of Picasso, Braque, Miró, Mondrian, Dalí and Calder. Yearning for a museum instead of an ever-changing gallery, Guggenheim eventually installed her collection in a Venetian palazzo, later donating the building and its contents to the museum in New York named for her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim. Dearborn’s narrative of Guggenheim’s life was criticized for the author’s attachment to her subject, but this affection makes the work all the more enjoyable.

3. A Voyage in the Sunbeam

By Annie Allnutt Brassey

In 1873, Annie Brassey and her husband, British railroad heir Thomas Brassey, commissioned a 157-foot masted and funneled steam yacht, the Sunbeam. Its appointments included a 4,000-book library and a schoolroom—useful additions for the nearly year-long trip around the world that the couple undertook in July 1876 with their five children. “A Voyage in the Sunbeam” is her diary of the journey, a combination family seafaring adventure and geographical tour. Annie helped her children collect botanical specimens by day and, on one occasion on a Pacific island, marched them up a volcano to dine with a local chief by night. The book was a world-wide sensation—in the U.S. it was used as a textbook. Annie continued to travel, both on land and on the ocean; she died of malaria in 1887 at age 48 and was buried at sea.

4. To War With Whitaker

By Hermione Ranfurly
Heinemann, 1994

When World War II began, Hermione Ranfurly’s husband, Dan, an earl, was posted to the Middle East. Dan took along his valet, Whitaker, but custom and army rules forced him to leave behind his wife. The couple had been married less than a year, and Hermione, madly in love, followed her husband. When Dan was taken prisoner in 1941, she vowed not to return home until they were reunited. For the next four years, Hermione sought out role after role—including one as confidential secretary in the Special Operations Executive in Cairo—that justified her staying near the war front. “I was prepared to do anything except sleep with people,” she later said. Dan escaped near the end of the war, and the couple was reunited. Her diaries, beautifully and wryly written, give a personal perspective—and a rare female one—on both life at the heart of the war and history’s twists and turns.

5. Gertrude Bell

By Georgina Howell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) fell in love with both the Middle East and its archaeology when visiting an uncle at the British Embassy in Tehran in 1892. A woman of tremendous energy, she began tirelessly crisscrossing the region, learning all that she could—at one point she was dubbed “Daughter of the Desert” by Bedouins who found her camping near the Dead Sea in bad weather. She was so steeped in the Middle East that during World War I British intelligence sought her help. Bell became the only female political officer in the British forces and, together with her friend T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, lit the fuse for the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire; the two were also instrumental in the creation of Iraq, drawing out its borders on a map. Biographer Georgina Howell captures both the personal drama and the historic consequence of an extraordinary life.

Ms. Osborne is the author of “The Bolter,” a biography of Idina Sackville (the “chief seductress” of Kenya’s Happy Valley set beginning in the 1920s) recently published in paperback.


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Five Best Books on Success

Success in its many guises is central to these novels—which are triumphs in themselves, says Tad Friend

1. Of Human Bondage

By W. Somerset Maugham
George H. Doran, 1915

A wrenching tale overdue for a revival. Philip Carey is a prickly, club-footed orphan whose youth in a rural vicarage is sustained by dreams of greatness—he’s a Dickens protagonist with no waiting benefactors. Philip studies in Heidelberg and learns that God is dead. He paints in Paris but learns he lacks talent (God is still dead). He trains as a doctor in London and falls for a waitress named Mildred, whose indifference exerts an uncanny hold on him; she ruins him emotionally and financially (God’s a goner, all right). Yet Mildred, too, engages our pity as she becomes a streetwalker and sinks to her doom; in Maugham’s hands her shabby cruelties become piercingly sad. Philip, stripped of his hope and even his home, surfaces at last as a doctor in prosaic Dorset, engaged to the motherly daughter of a lower-class friend. He is a success not as he’d imagined but as the first existential hero. Maugham writes: “Life was not so horrible if it was meaningless, and he faced it with a strange sense of power.”

2. What Makes Sammy Run?

By Budd Schulberg
Random House, 1941

Sammy Glick, the hustling newsboy who rises with alarming speed to run a Hollywood studio, became a byword for crassness, for insincerity and—often anti-Semitically—for the Jewish dominion at the studios. But in the hands of Budd Schulberg (whose father, B.P. Schulberg, had run Paramount Pictures when Budd was young), Sammy is also a repudiation of Horatio Alger’s plucky heroes and a corrective to Jay Gatsby; he demonstrates the brazen ambition it actually takes to achieve the American dream. The narrator, a former newspaper colleague of Sammy’s turned screenwriter who has watched his rise with appalled wonderment, asks him: “How does it feel? How does it feel to have everything?” Schulberg writes: “He began to smile. It became a smirk, a leer. ‘It makes me feel kinda . . .’ And then it came blurting out of nowhere—’patriotic.’ ”

3. Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis
Doubleday, 1954

The laugh-out-loudest of all novels. Jim Dixon is a lazy, boozy junior lecturer whose sole ambition is to save his post at a provincial British university. But he can’t resist sneak attacks on the neurotics and colossal bores who beset him. He’s a master of guerrilla tactics, from elaborate telephone impersonations to making faces—his “Edith Sitwell face,” or his “Chinese mandarin’s face”—when his nemeses aren’t looking. His achievement consists of remaining stubbornly against what everyone else is stupidly for. When at the end Jim improbably lands a wonderful job in London and secures Christine, the girl of his dreams, “he thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing.” His celebratory plans are limited to drinking: “He would start with an octuple whiskey.”

4. Bang the Drum Slowly

By Mark Harris
Knopf, 1956

Mark Harris wrote “Bang the Drum Slowly” in less than two months, but it’s a jewel—a brisk, poignant, vernacular account of the 1955 season of the fictional New York Mammoths baseball team, narrated by their star pitcher, the free-spirited southpaw Henry “Author” Wiggen. Author will lead the league in wins, but the limelight no longer motivates him because his dim, underachieving roommate and backup catcher, Bruce Pearson, is dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Harris is remarkably subtle in his treatment of how Author labors to stop his teammates from teasing Bruce without betraying his friend’s confidence about his illness. After the secret leaks, the chastened Mammoths turn their focus from winning to cheering up Bruce, without ever letting on that they know. When Bruce begins to shine, playing inspired baseball in his final days, Author explains: “He has more friends. He never had any before.”

5. True Grit

By Charles Portis
Simon & Schuster, 1968

“True Grit” calls to mind Cormac McCarthy’s sanguinary meditations on the border, but Charles Portis details the savagery of the 1870s frontier through an astonishing narrative voice: that of the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a flinty, skeptical, Bible-thumping scourge. Mattie hires a federal marshal and rides into the Oklahoma territory to find the coward who shot her father, and her outrage brings order to the wilderness—an order predicated on the deaths of half a dozen outlaws, some of them guilty of rather little. The book is dryly hilarious yet gradually mournful, for Mattie is recalling these events years later, as a well-to-do but cranky spinster. Her readers know how much she had to offer, but no suitor ever saw it. For Mattie—and, Portis suggests, for the country—once the West was won, the rest was afterglow.

Mr. Friend is the author of “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor,” just published in paperback.


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Great Books About the Beach

Mention beach books, and most people think of the same thing: the latest political thriller or pulp romance that’s meant to be read beneath umbrellas near the sun and surf.

But this summer, I’ve found myself turning once again to another kind of beach reading. What I mean are books about the beach, a small but lively genre of American literature that’s too often overlooked in a nation that is, after all, defined by coasts from sea to shining sea.

My affection for beach writing began several summers ago, when I came across a copy of Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” during a vacation trip to coastal New England.

First published in 1928, and reprinted many times since, Beston’s book chronicles a year he spent in a tiny house on the shore of Cape Cod. Like the beachcomber who holds a seashell to his ear and hears the hum of the universe, Beston embraced Cape Cod as a compact portal into creation at large.

‘A compact portal into creation at large.’

For Beston, the beach wasn’t merely a postcard image. It was an intricate pageant of wonder, including the surf “aswarm with creatures,” waves that shake one awake in the depth of night, and the sea “plucked up and kneaded by the sun and the moon.”

Beston was an almost reflexive rhapsodist, and his penchant for finding epiphany in every scrap of driftwood or incoming tide can get cloying. But at just the point when “The Outermost House” begins to sound like warmed-over Walt Whitman, Beston throws in the darker shadings of Herman Melville, as in his brooding account of a gruesome shipwreck near his cabin that kills five, “the fifth this winter and the worst.”

Henry David Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” perhaps America’s first great beach book, also begins with a shipwreck scene that includes multiple victims, underscoring how complicated the meeting of commerce and coastline has always been.

In a passage that seems to anticipate the coming carnage of the Civil War, Thoreau observes that as it enlarges, loss tends to grow into an abstraction: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more . . . It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”

That sense of intimacy informs “Gift from the Sea,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s extended reflection, inspired by time on Captiva Island, Fla., of how a sandy shore might spark personal renewal. Publishing her book in 1955, after American beaches had come into their own as tourist attractions, Lindbergh knew that equating trips to the shore with deep thought was a risky business.

“The Beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think,” Lindbergh says from the start, but of course, she doesn’t mean it.

In Lindbergh’s narrative, the lapping waves, shifting and improvising on a moment’s notice, come to be a kind of corollary to thought itself, a testament to why beaches have such a hold over us in the first place.

The best beach books are what all good writing should be—a call to attention; a sense of mystery; a raised alertness to what is permanent…and what is transitory. The beach books on my vacation reading list have at least one other virtue: They travel well into other seasons of the year. Readers can crack them open, even in the depth of December, and revisit the shoreline long after the beach towels and summer sandals are back on the shelf.

Mr. Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”


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Coming of Age in Hell

In “Siberian Education,” Nicolai Lilin remembers growing-up in a violent criminal underworld. Even if only one-tenth of it is true, says reviewer Toby Lichtig, the book still achieves something impressive.

Nicolai Lilin’s “Siberian Education” depicts the author’s early life growing up in Transnistria, a breakaway enclave of the Soviet Union, on the border of Ukraine and Moldova.

This “memoir” has been causing quite a storm, and not just because of its outlandish brutality. For some, it is a too violent, terrifying account of a lawless and neglected corner of the Soviet Union as the fracturing empire struggles to emerge from communism; for others it hints at the continued legacy of Russian gangsterism and corruption.

And then there are its critics: the book has been accused of outright mendacity. In the “Literary Review,” Professor Donald Rayfield described its contents as “a fantasist’s ravings” and mocked its “gullible” admirers.

Certainly, “Siberian Education” should not be taken at face value. Nicolai Lilin’s tale of life is filled with historical implausibility and statistical impossibility. But rethought as a piece of semi-fictional anthropology and the story springs to life. Even if only one-tenth of it is true, the book remains a chilling portrait of the viciousness that comes from political disenfranchisement.

Mr. Lilin, who now lives in Italy, brilliantly depicts a criminal underworld of strict mores, arcane logic and brutal justice. Politicians are a natural enemy; policemen their servile dogs. Jail is a rite of passage; criminality an ethos. But the community is not without its morality. Above all, Mr. Lilin’s Urkas venerate humility, freedom and anti-materialism (a strange feature given all the thieving). They revel in their ethnic solidarity: “How wonderful it is to be Siberian.”

The Urka community in Bender was supposedly deported there from Siberia by Stalin in the 1930s (another questionable piece of history). As such, it is bound up in the myths of the old country. Russian Orthodoxy is central but mingled with derivatives of Shamanism and cult symbols of the outlaw. Guns are placed next to Orthodox icons and ritualistically blessed; weapons exist in a complex taxonomy and can be used for deeds both “good” and “evil.”

As a toddler, Mr. Lilin “didn’t care about toys.” His main fascination was with the “pike,” a traditional knife. When he is given his own by an aging godfather, he becomes a kindergarten celebrity. As he grows into a delinquent, he learns how to slice the knee ligaments of his enemies. He drinks hard, fights harder and is tried for attempted murder. He isn’t yet 13.

But young Lilin is also polite to his mother, a gifted raconteur and trainee body artist. The depictions of the “codes of tattoos” are fascinating. Tattoos chart the trajectory of a criminal’s life; those who know how to decipher them can tell the life story of their bearer by a glance. The oral folk tradition is also fundamental. With so much time spent in prison, storytelling is a precious entertainment.

And so Mr. Lilin recounts various episodes of the bizarre and the grotesque. An abused dog gets his own back; a neglected TB victim gains a minor victory; a Rasputin-esque robber survives an execution.

Lilin delights in the argot of the underworld (adeptly rendered in English translation by Jonathan Hunt). His upbringing is replete with sardonic maxims and wry imprecations: “Death and damnation to all cops and informers”; “The only thing a worthy criminal takes from the cops is a beating, and even that he gives back.” “Writing” is slang for a knife wound; a good thrashing will make an adversary’s “shadow bleed.”

Lilin also narrates with his tongue firmly in cheek. Describing a terrifying ex-con “completely covered in tattoos, and with iron teeth,” he concludes: “he seemed a normal kind of guy.”

Ever open to distraction, “Siberian Education” meanders like a shaggy dog story. We are told Mr. Lilin enjoys Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle; there are Pushkinesque moments of ribald monstrosity. But the literary forebear that best comes to mind is Maxim Gorky in “My Childhood.” It is through a child’s eyes that we view this fiendish adult world; and it is through a child’s eyes that we accept it.

Mr. Lilin’s Urkas are always in the right, whether wreaking awesome vengeance for a rape in the community or opining on the perfidy of other criminal communities. Even when he dismisses the idea of human “justice,” Mr. Lilin can never quite condemn his own. This is a life of us and them—to see nuance would mean weakness.

When Mr. Lilin goes to juvenile prison, he forms bonds with the Armenians, Belorussians and Cossacks; the Ukrainians and Georgians are despised. A hideous story of gang violence unfolds, of rapes and routine tortures. Worst of all are the prison guards. The pack mentality is vital. Stray from the flock and you risk being picked off.

Mr. Lilin delights in the “egalitarian” nature of his criminal world, where valor and loyalty count for more than wealth or family connection. However “violent and brutal” his mentors, there is “no place for lies and pretence, cant and dissembling.”

This is the Russian gangland recast as a medieval Romance. Now, we are told, things have changed: post-Soviet materialism and treachery have infected the integrity of the neighborhood. Once again, we should take this with a large dose of Siberian salt. But Mr. Lilin still achieves something impressive. Amid the depravity of its anti-heroes, “Siberian Education” paints a memorable world of anarchism, devotion, humor and respect. It is not one in which any sane-minded person would choose to live; but it is one that we could learn from.

Mr. Lichtig is a freelance writer, editor and producer. His criticism regularly appears in the Times Literary Supplement, among other places.


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Richard Francis’s top 10 pubs in literature

After setting his latest novel in an English pub, Richard Francis drops in on his favourite literary drinking dens, from the Tabard in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

The Old Spot in Dursley, Gloucestershire
Plenty of drink, convivial company, proactive landlord, telling of tales … The Old Spot in Dursley, Gloucestershire.
Richard Francis is the author of nine previous novels and three non-fiction books, and is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University.

His latest novel, The Old Spring, out this month, tells the story of a day in the life of an English pub. He chooses his top 10 literary drinking dens.

1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)

Chaucer spends the night at the Tabard in Southwark before setting off on his pilgrimage to Canterbury. A company of nine-and-twenty sundry folk join him, and by the time the sun goes down, he has a good idea of what makes each of them tick. The landlord is a large man, bold of speech, who suggests the pilgrims have a story-telling competition on their way; he will go with them and be their judge. The pub scenario is already in place: plenty of wine, convivial company, proactive landlord, telling of tales.

2. Henry lV, Parts One and Two, by William Shakespeare (late 1590s)

The Boar’s Head tavern is a rougher dive altogether, frequented by Falstaff and his gang of reprobates. The landlady, Mistress Quickly, has a clear philosophy: “I will bar no honest man in my house, nor no cheater; but I do not love swaggering.” Falstaff’s bar tab is a sight to behold, “but one half penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” Prince Hal exclaims. He himself frequents the place so he can get to know his subjects – “When I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap,” adding: “They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet.”

3. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (1864-5)

Another redoubtable landlady, Miss Abbey Potterson of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Limehouse (giving upon the river), reigns “supreme upon her throne, the Bar”, and is more than a match for the villainous Rogue Riderhood. She serves delectable “Purl, Flip, and Dog’s Nose”, but can draw the line when she has to. “I am the law here, my man,” she tells a protesting customer, “and I’ll soon convince you of that, if you doubt it at all.” But later in the novel she takes care of Jenny Wren, combining, as a good landlady should, a firm hand and a warm heart.

4. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy (1874)

Two watering holes for the price of one here. The first is not a pub exactly but the front room belonging to a maltster – Hardy’s nod towards the proto-pubs of medieval England, where the village brewer (often a woman) sold her wares to the locals in her own cottage. “‘Tis gape and swaller with us,” Warren tells Gabriel Oak frankly, offering him a two-handled tall mug called a “God-forgive-me”. Later in the novel Joseph Poorgrass parks the hearse he is driving outside the Buck’s Head Inn, and succumbs to temptation inside even though he has to admit “I’ve been drinky once this month already”.

5. The History of Mr Polly, by HG Wells (1910)

The aptly named Potwell Inn is situated in pleasant countryside by a river. It has a “sun-blistered green bench and tables … shapely white windows” and a “row of upshooting hollyhock plants”. Mr Polly admires the setting but his principal interest is “Provinder … Cold sirloin for choice. And nutbrown brew and wheaten bread”. Finally, he has arrived at utopia after a series of travails, which include what he describes in his abrupt way as “Bit of Arson”. The landlady takes this confession in her stride: “So long as you haven’t the habit,” she tells him. Her “plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome”, and her “jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning Madonna”.

6. The Waste Land by TS Eliot (1922)

EastEnders meets the avant garde in the second section of Eliot’s poem, where a cockney woman tells of the woes of her friend Lil, while in the background an impatient landlord keeps calling out “Hurry up please it’s time”. Lil is only 31 but has lost all her teeth because of taking abortion pills. We are just getting to the point of the story – Sunday lunch, a hot gammon, the narrator invited to join Lil and her husband Albert – when the landlord finally succeeds in clearing them out. The tone is lifted as the farewells modulate into Ophelia’s words from Hamlet: “Good night, ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night, good night.”

7. The Mulliner Stories of PG Wodehouse (from 1927 onwards)

The Angler’s Rest is presided over by Miss Postlethwaite, the “courteous and efficient barmaid” who is addicted to going to the cinema (awkward hobby for a barmaid) where she raptly watches the sort of films that feature mad professors trying to turn girls into lobsters. The conversation in the bar tends to be similarly wide-ranging: “In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving the juiciness of bacon fat.” Mr Mulliner, tale-teller extraordinaire, presides, though most of the regulars are known simply by the name of their favourite tipple: a Pint of Bitter, a Lemon Sour, a Small Bass, and so on.

8. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929, 1932, 1934)

The three novels that make up Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky probably constitute the most exhaustive and profound study of pub culture ever made. In the Midnight Bell, a pub on the Euston Road, we encounter every type of drunkenness: “talking drunk and confidential drunk and laughing drunk and leering drunk and secretive drunk and dignified drunk”. Ella the barmaid, “bright and pert and neat”, copes with the boozers and the bores, and is the recipient of “half the confidences, half the jokes, half the leers”. She’s in love with the self-destructive Bob, who in turn falls for the prostitute Jenny when she fatefully comes into the saloon bar for a gin and pop.

9. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (1936)

When the coach driver hears young Mary Yellan is on her way to Jamaica Inn, he is stunned. “That’s no place for a girl. You must have made a mistake, surely.” She perseveres, however, as does her author, becoming one of the few women writers to give sustained treatment to a pub. The driver was right: Jamaica Inn is a hellish establishment, standing bleak and alone in the rain and mist of the rough moorland. Hardly a local then, but it gets its regulars of a Saturday night. “They say the shouting and the singing can be heard as far down as the farms below Roughtor,” the gorilla-like landlord Joss Merlyn tells Mary. Still, he can handle it. “They’re all afraid of me,” he explains, adding “My father was hanged at Exeter”, rather as though it’s an item on his CV.

10. Last Orders by Graham Swift (1996)

We end where we began, with a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Actually, the destination is Margate pier, where a group of regulars from the Coach and Horses in Bermondsey is heading with the ashes of their friend Jack Arthur Dodds, who asked to be buried at sea, or at least at the seaside. But the journey takes in Canterbury en route, where the travellers are impressed that the cathedral is 14 centuries old, six more than in Chaucer’s day. The Coach is a daft name for a pub “when it aint ever moved”, one of its regulars joked at the outset; but by the end of the novel these pilgrims have covered plenty of ground, like so many of their literary predecessors.


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Robin Ince’s top 10 truly bad books

From Sign of the Speculum to How to Marry the Man of your Choice, Robin Ince picks the best of the truly bad books he’s salvaged from jumble sales and skips up and down the country

Terry Major-Ball

Renowned gnome fan and author, Terry Major-Ball, who died in 2007.
Robin Ince is one of the UK’s most accomplished, versatile comedians with a string of awards and media appearances to his name. He was the Chortle award winner in 2009 and won the Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy for his show The Book Club, which was also nominated for a British Comedy award and hailed by the Observer as “the outstanding literary event of the Edinburgh Festival”. 

“Life on the road has taken me the length and breadth of the country and has allowed me to spend many an afternoon scouring second-hand bookshops, turning the yellowed pages of classics such as What would Jesus Eat?, rummaging through jumble sales, and even the odd skip, constantly on the search for the best of the truly bad. Over the last five years, my love of misguided guides and peripheral poetry pamphlets has bordered on obsession, in fact my tattered collection of “killer crab” novels currently stands taller than my child. This is my top 10 today, tomorrow it might include Mills & Boon’s Rash Intruder or God is for Real, Man.” 

1. Sign of the Speculum by Jessica Russell Gaver

First, this is one of the most enigmatic titles on my bookshelf, at first suggesting a sequel to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Actually, it is a romantic fiction that is also an ethical guide. What should you do if you are a Christian in love with your gynaecologist? The gynaecologist love story is one of the smaller genres in the broad world of romantic fiction. 

2. Temptation in a Private Zoo by Anthony Dekker

This goes in the top 10 predominantly for its fantastic title. It is a spy thriller with a little bit of bear-baiting and a brief critique on how to spoil a dinner party by offering after-dinner mints. It was found in the compendium Man’s Book – books especially compiled for “the rugged reading tastes of men”. 

3. Major Major by Terry Major-Ball

This is the delightful autobiography of John Major’s older brother. It is an image of an England seen predominantly in Ealing films. Terry fears women and Butlins, though comes to like them both. He knows how to make a cooked breakfast in the microwave too and he’ll tell you how. Remember to prick the egg yolk before microwaving though, or it will explode. 

4. The Twentieth Plane: A Psychic Revelation by Albert Durrant Watson

An early 20th-century psychic, with the help of his deceased mother, has some conversations with Edgar Allan Poe, Byron, Shelley and other dead notables. This is non-fiction. 

5. Crabs on the Rampage (and the other five) by Guy N Smith

Guy N Smith has written many horror books, but he is best known for his crabs series, chronicling the pipe-smoking crustacean adventures of Cliff Davenport, on the Welsh coast. A lurid mix of gore, some sex and moral lessons. 

Moral lesson number one, don’t go swimming with your mistress: your adultery will lead to death by claw. 

6. The Book of the Netherland Dwarf by Denise Cumpsty

A petcare guide book which has the reputation of a mystical tome created by HP Lovecraft that may open a portal to hell, populated by very small rabbits. Contains the most idiosyncratic drawings of the human hand holding scared rabbits. 

7. Elvis: His Life and Times in Poetry and Lines by Joan B West

Who couldn’t love a slim collection of poems about Elvis from one of his brethren? What it lacks in traditional poetic skill it more than makes up for in passion for its subject. A strange beauty, enhanced by the delightful painting of Elvis on the cover. 

8. Godless by Ann Coulter

If you want to know just how misguided anti-evolutionists can be and how determined to be stupid they are, Ann is a good start as she mulls on why, if evolution does exist, a worm doesn’t evolve into a beagle and how there aren’t any transitional fossils (apart from the ever-increasing collection of them). A magnificent view of what happens to your mind if you never let facts get in the way of it. 

9. The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls by ??

A guide for the frustrated man who just can’t seem to pick up a sexy girl. Find out the advantages and disadvantages of rutting in a railway siding, why lesbians and OAPs are the same thing, how to spot a wig and why bras are bad. 

10. How to Marry the Man of your Choice by Margaret Kent

The other side of The Secrets of Picking up Sexy Girls, Margaret will help women find a man to marry by persuading them to work in shoe sales or boat repair and reminding us that long fingernails “do not appeal to men”. Long fingernails suggest to a man that the woman is “unwilling to do household chores and is unavailable for recreational activities”. 


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Michael Stanley’s top 10 African crime novels

The African crime writing duo pick the best books in their field, from established greats Agatha Christie and John Le Carré to newer names on the scene such as Kwei Quartey and Deon Meyer

Weekly Hyena

Spotted Hyena: body disposal expert?
Ever since we started writing detective stories set in Africa (A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade), we’ve paid more attention to the many wonderful mysteries set on the continent. Some of the writers were born in Africa, others not. Some are oldies, but others are contemporary, reflecting the surge of mystery writers interested in Africa. The 10 books we’ve chosen all capture some aspect of African culture or location. All but one relate to sub-Saharan Africa – the lands of colonies and colonial masters; of newly democratic countries and post-independence struggles. Reading these books will introduce you to areas with which you may be unfamiliar and perhaps give you new insights into some of the oldest cultures in the world.”

Michael Stanley is the writing team of native Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Research for their books has taken the friends tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, surviving a charging elephant and losing their navigation maps while flying over the Kalahari.

Their new novel, A Deadly Trade, is published in paperback by Headline.

1. Murder at Government House by Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley is best known for The Flame Trees of Thika, in which she recalls her childhood years growing up in Kenya. She wrote a total of 30 books, including three mysteries, Murder at Government House, The African Poison Murders, and Murder on Safari. The first of these mysteries, Murder at Government House (1935), is set in the colonial town of Chania, where the governor is found strangled at his desk after a dinner party. Canadian-born Superintendent Vachel of the CID is called in to investigate. He finds himself in a web of colonial intrigue and dubious business dealings. From a personal perspective, our book, A Carrion Death, opens with a scene in which a hyena is used to dispose of a body. It was amusing to read that Huxley used a similar same device 70 years earlier. These mysteries give the reader an excellent overview of British colonialism, often very funny to today’s mind, and an alluring taste of African geography and culture, including the pervasive influence of witchdoctors. The descriptions of the bush and animals are delightful.

2. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile (1937) was published around the same time as Elspeth Huxley’s mysteries, but is very different from them. Despite being one of the first mysteries set in Africa – but not sub-Saharan Africa – it has very little local colour. In many ways it could take place anywhere. However, this Hercule Poirot mystery is full of intrigue and plot twists. Every other page causes readers to change their minds as to whom to suspect. The passengers on the Nile cruiser are wonderfully eccentric, with a basketful of motivations for murder. It takes the skill of Poirot to see through the misdirections to solve the case.

3. Song Dog by James McClure

James McClure is the father of South African crime writing and the winner of both Gold and Silver Dagger awards from the Crime Writers Association (CWA). He is best known for his Kramer and Zondi series, set in the midst of the apartheid era, in which a white detective, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Trekkersburg police, partners with black Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. Song Dog (1991), set in 1962, was the last written of the series, but is actually a prequel to the first book, Steam Pig. It is in Song Dog that the two protagonists meet for the first time, bumping into each other in a remote place in Zululand while investigating different cases. Song Dog, as with the other books in the series, is a wonderful depiction of the complexities and unpleasantness of life in apartheid South Africa. The interactions between people of different races and the tensions between the English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites are realistically portrayed. But what I like best is the relationship between Kramer and Zondi – they develop a fondness and respect for each other that has to exist within the confines of apartheid and often has to be concealed from others. Add to this good plots and wry humour, and all the books in the series are delightful reads. A word of caution: in today’s world some of the language in the books would be regarded as very derogatory, but its presence is necessary for the accurate depiction of the era.

4. Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson is best known for books set outside Africa – in particular A Small Death in Lisbon which won the CWA gold dagger. But he has an excellent series of books set in West Africa around a dubious hero operating in a dubious environment. In the first book in the series – Instruments of Darkness (1996) – set in Benin, we meet English ex-pat Bruce Medway as he buys and sells and fixes, pretty much at the edge of the law. But then no one cares about that there anyway. A deal that goes wrong leads him to a search for a murdered man. Along the way he meets Bagado, a smart and able policeman, whose skills aren’t valued in a country where corruption is the currency of officialdom. As he tries to solve the crime, the detective worries if he’ll be paid his salary at all and whether he can live on it if he is. The plot is gripping, the characters alive, and the backdrop the shabbiness of a collapsing system.

5. The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

Unity Dow was the first female High Court judge in Botswana and participated in the landmark case concerning Bushmen rights. She is the author of four books. The Screaming of the Innocent (2002) is a powerful and disturbing book. A young girl vanishes; the police guess that she has been eaten by a lion, but the reader knows that she has been ritually murdered for body parts reputed to bestow great power. Years later a female student doing national service in the community comes across a box of clothing which seems to belong to the missing girl. But after she draws attention to it, the box vanishes. She seeks out a friend – now a lawyer – and the two young women pursue the matter together. The book is good not only because of the intriguing characters and plot, but because the reader finds the premise completely believable because the perspective is purely African. To westerners, witchcraft has become almost flippant superstition, like avoiding a black cat. But in many African cultures, it is not only respected and feared, but deeply believed. It is this that Dow manages to capture so well in her novel. The heroine follows the twists and turns and seems to be taking us to a successful resolution. But Africa is often not like that.

6. The Mission Song by John Le Carré

The Mission Song (2006) revolves around its narrator, Salvo, illegitimate son of a white Catholic missionary and a Congolese mother. Salvo is a professional translator specialising in the languages of the Congo region. Salvo’s linguistic abilities lead him into a vipers’ nest of business men, civil servants and mercenaries apparently intent on freeing his home province of Kivu. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that actually what is planned is a coup followed by a puppet government to oversee the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth. African crime fiction? Little of the book takes place in Africa. But the key characters are African through and through and their needs and desires drive the story. Le Carré mentions that he made only a brief research trip to the eastern Congo, but he is careful and his settings ring true. While the backdrop of the book is the exploitation of Africa by unscrupulous westerners, the development of Salvo as a thinking person and as an African is the real story.

7. Devils Peak by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is the best known contemporary South African crime writer. His six books have won a number of awards, and he was the first to honestly reflect the current realities of the new South Africa in his books. Devils Peak (2007) opens with a high-class prostitute confessing to the minister of a small-town church. The story switches to a black man, once a special agent for the old regime but now grasping for a new life, watching his young son being killed by thugs. The system fails him and the perpetrators are released. He decides to settle the score himself, with vicious murderers who prey on the weak. If you think the vigilante theme is clichéd, read this book. Meyer’s detective – Benny Griessel – has to end the killing. But Benny has his own battle with the alcohol he uses as an escape. The book is a page-turning thriller, with one of the scariest parts being where Benny buys a bottle of brandy.

8. Blood Rose by Margie Orford

Margie Orford returned to South Africa in 2001 after 13 years of living overseas and in Namibia. Her work as a crime reporter made her want to complete the fragmented stories on which she worked, leading to her heroine Clare Hart. Like her creator, Hart is an investigative journalist. Her partner is a captain in the South African police. In Blood Rose (2007) it seems that a vicious psychopath is at work in Walvis Bay, a sad desert-locked, fishing port in Namibia, fallen on hard times. Street boys are being killed and mutilated. Clare sometimes works as a profiler for the police and gets involved. But is there another motive for the killings? Clare finds a thread leading back to the days of the South African occupation. And other people are looking for the answers, too. The race develops into a tense thriller with surprising twists.

9. Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

2009 saw the debut of a talented Ghanian crime writer who lives in the United States. Inspector Darko Dawson is a detective in Accra, a moody and potentially violent man. He is asked to investigate a murder in the rural village of Ketanu where he has relatives. Soon he is embroiled with traditional beliefs and fetish priests juxtaposed with modern doctors and AIDS concerns. Kwei reveals the cultural conflicts of an African country trying to become a modern nation; many of the issues remind us of similar tensions in Botswana. Darko ponders these issues as he lights a joint, and slowly, with clever intuition and careful police work, homes in on the solution to the case. A solution he would rather not have found.

10. Zulu by Caryl Férey

Caryl Férey was born in France, grew up in England, and has travelled the world. His writing includes thrillers, mysteries, travelogues, and children’s books. He won the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008 for Zulu, published in English in 2010. Zulu’s protagonist is a Zulu by the name of Ali Neuman, a survivor of inter-tribal brutality when Xhosas and Zulus were fighting for dominance as South Africa moved towards democracy. As his last name suggests (Neuman = new man), Ali has left his past behind. He is now chief of the homicide division of the South African police in Cape Town. One of his staff is Brian Epkeen, a white man. Together they have to deal with crime that inevitably exists in sprawling areas of un- and under-employed people – crime exacerbated by gangs, both local and from other parts of Africa. Investigating the death of several young women, Neuman encounters a new drug on the scene – one that is so potent that it can cause people to kill without remorse. Then he discovers that the drug likely found its origins in the old apartheid secret service and is being manufactured and sold by ex-apartheid supporters. The world that Neuman and Epkeen work in is incessantly terrifying. Readers of Zulu will find little respite, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a fine tale.


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Jennie Rooney’s top 10 women travellers in fiction

From eccentric spinster aunts to Alice in Wonderland, the novelist traces the steps of fiction’s most engaging female adventurers

Helena Bonham Carter Lucy Honeychurch Room with a view
 Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View.
Jennie Rooney’s new novel The Opposite of Falling, in which Ursula Bridgewater takes Thomas Cook’s famous new tour of America after her engagement is broken off, is out now. Her first novel, Inside the Whale, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award in 2008.

“The Victorian era saw a surge in the popularity of women travellers, with adventurers such as Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell publishing travelogues, and inspiring others to follow in their hobnailed footsteps. Women travellers in fiction appear in many forms. First there are the more traditional travellers: the unconventional spinster, the ingénue flung into a foreign setting, the formidable chaperone – each of these provides some of the most engaging female characters in fiction. Then there are the interior journeys, where the character does not travel physically but is somehow transformed. Finally there is that unforgettable trio of young girls who cornered the market in early fantasy travel: Alice’s tumble into Wonderland, Dorothy’s trip to Oz and, of course, Wendy Darling’s night-flight across London to Neverland. Here are a few to get us started …”

1. Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

So often the sidekick, the aunt is a crucial figure in the travelling fiction genre. In this wonderful novel, Graham Greene places the aunt centre stage, allowing her to drag Henry Pulling out of suburbia and on to the Orient Express to Paris, Istanbul and South America; and showing him, on the way, just how much fun aunts can have.

2. Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The ultimate female traveller, Alice wanders away from a picnic, falls down a rabbit hole, and is whisked away to a fantasy land where things just get curiouser and curiouser. There is a white rabbit who is always late, a smile without a cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and an endless array of creatures and tales.

3. Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View by EM Forster

Armed with her Baedeker guidebook, Lucy travels to Italy with her cousin and chaperone, the rather snippy Miss Bartlett. Upon arriving at the Pensione Bertolini, they swap rooms with a father and son whose rooms both have views (“Am I to conclude,” asks Miss Bartlett upon receiving the offer, “that he is a socialist?”). Lucy’s experiences in Italy open her up to the possibility of love – even if it is with a socialist.

4. The Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Gap-toothed and gossipy, the Wife of Bath travels to Canterbury with Chaucer’s rabble of pilgrims. She is unreserved in her discussion of her five marriages, and is particularly gleeful in the descriptions of her sexual activity and the ways in which she liked to exploit this with her various husbands.

5. Hortense in Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hortense knows everything there is to know about England: she has read Shakespeare, uses words such as “perchance”, and makes perfect fairy cakes. But when she finally travels there in 1948, she finds that England does not know so very much about her. A fabulous, richly comic voice, exploring the realities of postwar immigration.

6. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Fearing that marriage will stifle her independence, young American Isabel Archer takes up the offer of a trip to Europe with (of course) her aunt. While in Europe she inherits a fortune, bequeathed to her for the purpose of securing her freedom, but which causes her to become the object of scheming bounty-hunters. Dark and goose-bumpingly sinister.

7. The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Inspired by Arthurian legend, Tennyson’s poem recounts the curse of the Lady of Shalott, forced forever to weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. However, upon glimpsing Lancelot in her mirror, she turns to the window, bringing the curse upon her, so that she dies on her subsequent boat journey to Camelot (cue Lancelot, with one of literature’s oddest consolations: “she had a lovely face”).

8. Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

An interior journey, this one. Told through a stream-of-consciousness narrative, it is the story of Mrs Dalloway’s preparations for a party that evening, and takes place over a single day in June. The action is mainly restricted to flashbacks, but by the end of the book, it is clear that this day has been a journey through Clarissa’s mind.

9. Orleanna Price and her daughters in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Married to a Baptist missionary, Orleanna Price accompanies her husband from America to the Belgian Congo with their four daughters. The novel is narrated by the girls and their mother, each witnessing and responding to their father’s actions in different ways. A deeply woven study of misogyny, misplaced religion and the blight of colonial occupation.

10. Wendy Darling in Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie

After sewing Peter Pan’s shadow back on in the Kensington nursery, Wendy is recruited by Peter to be his “mother” and he asks her to come back to Neverland with him. She flies out of the window with her brothers, following Peter’s somewhat unhelpful travel directions: “Second to the right and then straight on ’til morning!”


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Melvin Burgess’s top 10 books written for teenagers

From supernatural big-hitters Pullman and Meyer to thrillers from Kevin Brooks and unforgettable imagery from David Almond, the author of Junk lists his favourite teen fiction

Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight

Game-changer … Robert Pattinson, who plays a vampire in the films of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
The author Melvin Burgess published his first book, The Cry of the Wolf, in 1990, but is best known for Junk, his 1996 novel dealing with the tricky and controversial subject of heroin addiction in teenagers. His latest novel, Nicholas Dane, a punchy modern-day adaptation of Oliver Twist, is out now.

“Fiction for teenagers is a comparatively new affair. When I was in my teens no one wrote any at all. You had to go straight from children’s books to adult books without a pause. Even when I started writing in the 1990s, what was called teen fiction was really only for the first two or three years at high school at the most, with one or two honourable exceptions.

“Today, teenage fiction still covers a multitude of sins. It can range from books really written for children, which publishers call ‘teen’ for sales reasons, through books aimed at high-school students up to the age of 14 or so, to books for people nearing the end of their school careers. So here’s a list of the top 10 writers who write (or wrote) especially for people of at least 14. It contains the most influential, the most popular, and in some cases simply the best.”

1. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier

Cormier was writing quality fiction for teenagers way back in the 1970s, which makes him officially the granddaddy of us all. He conquered that most difficult of tricks: writing brilliant thrillers with beautiful prose and startling but believable characters. If he was writing for adults, he’d have won every prize going.

2. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Chambers’s teen tales were the first that aimed to be really serious literature. His books aren’t for everyone – his dialogue, in particular, clanks alarmingly – but these are intellectually and emotionally challenging books that examine the deeper things that affect teenage lives. It’s not about the girl next door, or how well you’re going to do in the exams. It’s about who are you, why you’re here – and what are you going to do about it anyway?

3. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is famous for its theological mirroring of Paradise Lost, but Pullman’s reputation stands on his storytelling. Setting up the heavenly hordes as an enemy of life got him into trouble, but the imaginative range and wealth of characters, especially in this first book, is wonderful.

4. Junk by Melvin Burgess

My novel Junk was the first truly teenage book to attract a wide readership and deal with serious social issues upfront and honestly. There was a tremendous hue and cry when it first came out. At the time, no one really knew about teenage fiction, and the press were appalled and fascinated that a book talking knowledgeably about drugs and addiction should be awarded a children’s book prize. Is it any good? I can’t say, since I wrote it myself.

5. Skellig by David Almond

Almond’s books contain stories of great beauty and hope – magical realism for young people, written in graceful, accessible prose. There are images in them you will never forget, and Skellig is one of his finest.

6. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Blackman passes the test on all counts: first black woman to sell more than a million books; an OBE; and a huge following. Plus, she manages about the best plotting of anyone writing for young people today. The trilogy of Noughts and Crosses books are thrillers, but with a sharp eye for social, personal and racial politics. No one does it better.

7. Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Brooks is another thriller writer, the natural successor to Cormier. His books don’t touch on society in the way Cormier’s do, but they are beautifully written and stylish. His young male protagonists are at once touchingly innocent and knowing, quirky and very sexy.

8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This book, published for teenagers, became a bestseller with all ages. Like many great teen books, it is the voice of the narrator that makes it work so well. Christopher is autistic, and when he feels things aren’t as they seem, he has to find out about them in his own way. Partly because we know more than him, partly because he is so brave and determined, the story makes a fascinating, funny and memorable read.

9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff’s debut spawned a host of copycat efforts, but it remains ahead of the game. Daisy’s voice is the key: you’ll rarely meet a character with so many facets, so lucidly written. Some find Rosoff’s mucking around with punctuation an irritant, but the book will be read for years to come. 

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Meyer is a game-changer. For years, publishers have been looking for mass-market teen fiction, and she’s the first to have broken through. There’s nothing new here: Meyer is no stylist; her characters are predictable; this is really just good old-fashioned romance with a supernatural twist. But if your brain is mashed from too much studying, curl up with a Twilight and she’ll do the rest.


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Mihir Bose’s top 10 football books

From Arthur Hopcraft to Nick Hornby, the award-winning journalist chooses the books that have improved our understanding of the beautiful game

Colin Firth Fever Pitch

Gunning for it … Colin Firth in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch 

Mihir Bose is an award-winning sports journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years as a sports writer for the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. He was the BBC’s sports editor until last year. The 2010 World Cup will be the sixth consecutive tournament he has covered.

“Bill Shankly’s famous comment that football is more important than life and death was, I am sure, never meant to be taken literally. I have always seen it as meaning that football can reach many levels of society, far beyond the mere physical contest of 22 men and a round ball. It is this aspect of the game that has always fascinated me.

“Not long after my marriage, I took my wife to a match. She is not a football fan but had been eager to know why so many followed the game with such devotion. At the match she realised that followers of a team are really part of a family.

“Outside of football there may be enough evidence to prove the politicians right, that society has indeed broken down. But those who follow the game know it can bring people together. The supporters of a team may or may not meet physically on match days, but the bond that ties them together is their team’s fortunes. The communal joy that spreads through followers when their team wins is matched by a sense of desolation when it loses, emotions not that different from communal family occasions.

“I know groups of fans who only meet to go to away matches. They never go to each other’s homes, do not even exchange Christmas cards, but the journey they make every other week is a bond as strong as anything that ties family members together. The books I have chosen, which are listed in the order I first read them, deal with this phenomenon of the game.”

1. The Football Man: People and Passions in Soccer by Arthur Hopcraft

In a sense, the literary fruit of England winning the 1966 World Cup. First published in 1968, it spoke of football being “inherent in the people”, and launched this genre of writing.

2. Soccer Syndrome: From the Primaeval Forties by John Moynihan

John, one of our finest football reporters, always had an eye for things beyond football and his description of trying to watch the 1958 World Cup while consoling a woman friend is a classic.

3. The Glory Game by Hunter Davies

The first book to take us inside the dressing room – that of the 1972 Tottenham team still basking in the glory days of the 60s. Hunter, who was not a sports writer, had fallen in love with Tottenham when he moved down south. He used his acute eye for detail to paint a picture of a dressing room of a big club that made the reader aware of what top footballers were like as human beings: little details such as the papers they read and how politically rightwing they all were.

4. All Played Out: The full story of Italia ’90 by Pete Davies

A marvellous reportage of the 1990 World Cup. Davis followed England’s campaign right from the start. Not being part of the football reporters’ world he could take a detached view of the increasing media interest, although at times he did get under the skin of some of the travelling pack. He could not have chosen his period better. English clubs were coming out from under their European ban imposed after Heysel and the book marks the moment when football changed, both in England and round the world.   

5. Among The Thugs by Bill Buford

It required an American to tell us how vile and racist English football had become in the 70s and 80s. I empathise with this book as, while reporting football, I was often subject to racist abuse and attack and had to work hard to convince my mainly white colleagues how bad it was.

6. Only a Game?: The Diary of a Professional Footballer by Eamon Dunphy

The first footballer to show he could do more than kick a ball. He both understands and explains the game. Before Dunphy the idea that a footballer could write an articulate, readable book would have seemed extraordinary. Dunphy proved some footballers not only have brains, but they harbour thoughts beyond tweaked muscles and the next lay.

7. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

A classic which brought into British sports reporting some of the style and verve already part of American sports writing. Scott Fitzgerald had rebuked Ring Lardner for wasting his time writing about baseball. Brian Glanville had always found it difficult to be taken seriously as a novelist because he wrote on football. Hornby used football to display his literary skills. 

8. Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football by Tom Bower

I have particular affection for this book. Not only is this a book from a very fine investigative reporter who has a knack for uncovering the filth hidden under stones, but I, in a small way, was able to help Tom find his way round football. Just before Tom started on his project he asked for my assistance in understanding a game that he did not know much about.

9. The Last Game: Love, Death and Football by Jason Cowley

Taking as its pivotal point the May 1989 Liverpool v Arsenal match, which also features in Hornby’s book, this is a graphic study of how English football has changed since then. The period is seminal. Many predicted the changes would bring disaster and Cowley explains why they have not.

10. The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt

A classic history of the game that knits together the story with superb skill and should appeal to even those who may not care about football. It is a history that goes far beyond the playing field.


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Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s top 10 20th-century gothic novels

From Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Carlos Ruiz Zafón chooses his favourite works in a fast-evolving genre

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona and is the author of The Shadow of the Wind, the most successful novel in Spanish publishing history after Don Quixote. Translated into more than 35 languages, it has been read by over 12m readers worldwide. The Prince of Mist, a children’s book and the first work Ruiz Zafón published, is now available in English for the first time.

“Mention the gothic and many readers will probably picture gloomy castles and an assortment of sinister Victoriana. However, the truth is that the gothic genre has continued to flourish and evolve since the days of Bram Stoker, producing some of its most interesting and accomplished examples in the 20th century – in literature, film and beyond. Ours is a time with a dark heart, ripe for the noir, the gothic and the baroque. A basic list of great 20th-century gothic novels could include at least 100 but, since space is limited, here are a few places to begin your explorations. As always, try to get out of your comfort zone and ignore conventional wisdom on what is good or bad. ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow …'”

 1. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

One of the very best ghost stories ever written. Shirley Jackson’s writings are a must for aficionados of the gothic and of good literature. Take this as a first step and discover one of the most unusual and underrated writers of the last century.

2. Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve long considered Oates to be one of the greatest living authors, and certainly the undisputed queen of gothic literary fiction. This book is part of her grand Victorian cycle which begins with Bellefleur. Mysteries of Winterthurn is one of the least-known works in her vast oeuvre but it’s my personal favourite. Oates is an extremely prolific writer who has been able to sustain an extraordinary level of quality in her output. Life is short, so kill your TV now and start exploring her universe.

3. Sanctuary by William Faulkner

A very interesting gothic novel set in the American south – and one that will be surprisingly easy to read even for those who tremble in fear at the mention of Faulkner. This was supposed to be his attempt at commercial fiction; perhaps because of this it has always been regarded suspiciously and considered a minor work. It is not.

4.  Double Indemnity by James M Cain

Lean, mean and dazzling. This is one of the great LA gothics, with all the best echoes of classic noir and a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Most people have seen the great Billy Wilder adaptation of this novel and therefore bypass the book. Big mistake. As glorious as Wilder’s film is, this novel has a rare, dark beauty that deserves to be savoured on its own terms.

5. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

If you ask me, this novel is the best mystery thriller ever written. It has the classic elements of a Chandler novel combined with the solid tradition of the 1970s supernatural thrillers à la Rosemary’s Baby. The writing, plotting and characterisation are superb. This is a hard title to find, but do yourself a favour and go looking.

6. The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake

Dark, dense, baroque and hauntingly beautiful. Peake’s lush prose and imagery are a pleasure to any lover of the beauty of the written word. A word of warning, however: this one takes its time. Most readers are used to more watery offerings – this is thick, creamy and extra-rich.

7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

China Miéville, poster boy for the so-called “new weird”, is one of the most interesting and promising writers to appear in the last few years in any genre. This is a fantastic yarn that follows the roads set by M John Harrison in his Viriconium world and brings an enormous energy and creativity to the table. A reinvention of modern fantasy with guts, brains and plenty of glory. Plunge in.

8. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter

A treasure chest of wonderfully wicked stories from the late grand-dame of the modern English gothic. Take one at a time and enjoy them as you would a good red wine. Eventually, it’ll go to your head. In a good way.

9. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

A modern-day Dickens with a popular voice and a genius for storytelling in any genre, Stephen King has written many wonderful books. Perhaps none of them are as scary or creepy as this one. Some people write King off because of his enormous success or the rather weak movie adaptations of his novels, but he is a fantastic writer with tremendous powers of characterisation and a talent for driving a narrative that other authors dream of. Don’t let the hype or the snobbery blind you. The man is truly a king.

10. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

A notable hit in Lindqvist’s native Sweden a few years ago, Let the Right One In was adapted into a film that didn’t even begin to do justice to this fresh, powerful and brutally honest reinvention of the vampire novel. This is very effective storytelling with a chilled, Scandinavian, noirish element. White snow never looked so dark.


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Tony Parsons’ top 10 troubled males in fiction

From Peter Pan to James Bond, via The Man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and JG Ballard’s alter ego, Jim, Tony Parsons chooses his favourite literary troubled males

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

 ‘Every fear and anxiety of the modern father … ‘ Viggo Mortensen, playing The Man in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.Tony Parsons’ new novel, Men From The Boys, is the final instalment of his Harry Silver trilogy, which began with Man and Boy, and developed in Man and Wife. In it, he returns to the question of what it means to be a man in contemporary Britain, which has underpinned all three of the novels.

“My love of reading comes from my mother.

“My parents got married when they were teenagers, but for almost 10 years they tried to have a baby without success. They had given up hope of ever being parents – which was devastating for both of them, as they were both from huge families (my mum had six brothers, and my dad had eight sisters and two brothers).

“My parents were bikers – they had a Norton, a classic old English motorbike. My dad wore all black leather and my mum wore all white. They were going to ride their Norton from one end of Italy to the other – their compensation for being childless. My dad loved Italy, and could speak fluent Italian because he was there in the war from the invasion of Sicily to just before the liberation of Rome. Then I came along.

“They sold the Norton and my mum put me on her lap. Then she read to me. Endlessly. Rupert the Bear, mostly. And I fell in love with reading, and books, and stories on my mother’s lap.

“Troubled males have always fascinated me. Nothing gets under my skin quite like a boy or a man – or a male bear, like Rupert – who is working through his problems, and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. Troubled males just ring some inner bell. We all like to read about what we know.”

 1. Peter Pan in Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie

Wild, love-starved and cursed with eternal youth, the boy who can never grow up is now 100 years old, yet somehow becomes more relevant with each passing year. Forget Disney; forget grinning boys in green tights with American accents. Peter Pan is infinitely more complex than that. When he flashes his milk teeth at Mrs Darling, they are snarling fangs.

2. Magwitch in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

From the moment he grabs Pip by the throat in a graveyard until the time he sneaks back from Botany Bay to reveal himself as the young man’s secret benefactor, Magwitch is one of the great tormented souls in literature. Violent, uneducated, blundering, yet full of love and desperate to do one good thing in his life.

3. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in The Rye by JD Salinger

Holden is the original crazy, mixed-up kid and anyone who can recall the agonies and ecstasies and endless yearning of adolescence will see themselves in him. But you have to read him at 16. Come to Holden later, and it’s like trying to hula-hoop for the first time when you are 40. You just can’t get it.

4. Dean Moriarty in On The Road by Jack Kerouac

Dean – Neal Cassady’s fictional alter ego – is the friend we all want; the great enabler of adventures, leaving love and home behind to answer the call of the wild. We love this restless, reckless boy even more when we see him all forlorn with empty pockets at the end of the rainbow. His fall somehow gives us permission to go home in time for our tea.

5. Jake in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Hemingway hero with the most undiluted Hemingway in him. A hard, hairy nut with a soft, sentimental centre, Jake travels from Paris to Spain and never wavers from his credo of two-fisted machismo and profound feelings of sexual inadequacy. His platonic love for Lady Brett Ashley and his total lack of self-pity make him Hemingway’s most likeable hero.

6. James Bond in You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

007 at his most suicidal. This is the mission in Japan when Bond is recovering from the death of his wife. He is shattered physically, spiritually and emotionally. Fleming’s greatest book sees James as less of a killing machine, more of a nervous wreck, sedating himself with murder, hard booze and mechanical sex. He was never more tortured, and never less like Roger Moore.

7. Jim in Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Ballard’s memoir of invasion and internment in war-time Shanghai has young Jim at its centre. Unlike the real-life Ballard, Jim has to get through the second world war without his parents. Somehow, this stroke of the fictional brush makes an already incredible story even more compelling. Jim is a typical English schoolboy waking up one day to discover that he is in hell, and totally alone.

8. The Man in The Road by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy pours every fear and anxiety of the modern father into The Man, who must make his way through a wrecked world with his son. He is the measure of our inability to protect our children from all that is rotten in the world, and you can hear his soul weeping.

9. “You” in Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

McInerney’s second-person masterpiece follows the modern male from drug-crazed hedonism all the way to his mother’s deathbed. A coke-addled clown on a journey to the end of the night, and the outer suburbs of his youth.

10. Frank Delsa in Mr Paradise by Elmore Leonard

Detective Delsa has a dead wife and the hots for a good-time girl who may possibly be involved in a murder. He knows it’s not the right move, but he just can’t stop wanting to spend the rest of his life with her. Even when she tells him she’s going out on a date. Like a lot of troubled males, at the very centre of Frank Delsa’s world is a hole in the shape of a woman.


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Rachel Trezise’s top 10 Welsh underground novels

From stories of snakebite and black on the south Wales coast to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll at university in Aberystwyth, Rachel Trezise selects the best of the new guard of Welsh writers – plus a couple of golden oldies, for good measure

Rachel Trezise’s picks are a long way from ‘the mawkish, rose-tinted How Green Was My Valley’ … Ferndale in the Rhondda valleys, south Wales.
Welsh author Rachel Trezise won the inaugural Dylan Thomas prize, a £60,000 literary award for work by writers under 30, for her short story collection Fresh Apples. Her new novel, Sixteen Shades of Crazy, which launches at the Guardian Hay festival later this month, is based in a small Welsh town and tells the story of three women whose lives are upturned after the local police chief puts a ban on recreational drugs.

“Books that could be described as ‘Welsh underground novels for the Skins generation’ were once scarce as chicken lips. Remember that there was no such thing as a teenager until the 50s, and that everything comes across the Severn bridge 20 years late. Add the huge hole left in Welsh literature by aspiring writers boarding trains to London and putting memories of the principality firmly behind them from the early 80s onward. Then you’ll understand why some of these entries aren’t strictly underground, Welsh, or aimed at the Skins generation. But you’ll notice too that some of them are. These are the new guard, the brave, hip inkslingers who began cropping up with an extraordinary force in the early noughties.”

1. Luggage from Elsewhere by Aneurin Gareth Thomas

A dazzling and devastating account of a bittersweet old south Wales childhood and adolescence, ripe with discotheques and pints of snakebite and blackcurrant. A group of friends grow up and experiment with sex, drugs and political action in a society coming to terms with loss of work and power. “We lived on the coast but only ever knew how to eat fish fingers.”

2. One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard

Devastating poverty, perversion and homicidal violence run happily alongside idyllic scenes of bilberry picking and choral singing in this child’s narration of rural life in north Wales in the early 1900s. Originally published in Welsh in 1961, the English translation by Philip Mitchell conveys the original and reads a little like Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, but better – a novel as complex as Wales itself, thoroughly unsettling and upsetting.

3. Gold by Dan Rhodes

Nobody treads the tragic-comic tightrope like Dan Rhodes. He’s not Welsh, sadly, but this novel is set in Pembrokeshire, where Miyuki has retreated for a break from her girlfriend. This would be the annual break with which she reminds herself not to take her girlfriend for granted. Her evenings are spent in the pub with a cast of amusing characters: tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and Septic Barry and his Children from Previous Relationships. Elegant, delicate and intricate all in one bundle.

4. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate is obsessed with his virginity, in love with his own intellect, and, like all good teenagers, packed with self-righteousness about his parents’ failings as he comes of age somewhere between Port Talbot and Swansea. Dunthorne thrusts poetry into the observational and is unflinching about the business of being a teenage boy, so Tate is a mostly believable and likeable narrator. Wordy, dirty and only occasionally infuriating.

5. Random Deaths and Custard by Catrin Dafydd

A heart-warming little novel about 18-year-old valley girl Sam Jones who works at the local custard factory. Dad is fresh out of clink, Mam is pregnant by the new boyfriend and squaddie brother Gareth is suffering a bout of PTSD brought on by a tour of Iraq. This is Dafydd’s first English-language work, having previously only written in Welsh. She, and it, have flawlessly bridged the culture gap.

6. The Suicide Club by Rhys Thomas

Not a grim analysis of teenage suicide clusters à la Bridgend but a fizzy first person narration from 15-year-old emo Richard Harper, a precocious teenager seeking affirmation of his uniqueness. The lure of the charismatic new kid at his posh school sees him becoming part of a suicide pact, with tragic consequences. It hints at The Catcher in the Rye of course, but brilliantly crafted nonetheless.

7. So Long Hector Bebb by Ron Berry

By day Hector Bebb drives a brewery lorry, by night he’s a boxer training for the big fight. Originally published in 1970, this was reissued recently in the Library of Wales collection with a foreword by an admiring Niall Griffiths. Less concerned with politics and religion than any Welsh writer who went before, Berry’s characters are working class and influenced by pop culture. They live in the industrialised “American Wales” talked about by Gwyn Thomas, and delight in all the fighting, boozing and fornicating which got left out of the mawkish, rose-tinted How Green Was My Valley.

8. Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub by John Williams

An introductory note on these interweaving short stories explains that “the Cardiff that appears in this book is an imaginary place that should not be confused with the actual city of the same name”. Or, a Cardiff that no longer exists. The Butetown here is home to Britain’s oldest black community, full of grungy pubs, sailors, immigrants and captivating fiction-worthy characters, fashioned from a stint as the world’s busiest port. Now Tiger Bay is Cardiff Bay, an identikit maritime quarter occupied by slick hotels, restaurants and flash apartment blocks. Visitors are unlikely to hear a Docks accent.

9. Grits by Niall Griffiths

Drifters from all over the UK and Ireland meet in a small coastal village in west Wales, trying to escape various addictions (drugs, alcohol, crime, promiscuity). The phonetic dialogue is trying; each character has their own in a book of 500 pages. But this novel resulted in a flourishing career for Griffiths, as well as a mini literary revolution in Wales, opening doors for new writers unworried by farming, non-conformism, coal or slate mining.

10. Freshers by Joanna Davies

Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll amidst the ivory towers of academia in the early 90s. Possibly Wales’s first “university” novel, set in Aberystwyth where three students embark on a journey punctuated by “bad boys”, chemicals and an affair with a married professor. Originally published in Welsh, the English language translation is out now.


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Lesley Glaister’s top 10 books about incarceration

From the fictional horrors of Stephen King’s Misery to the real-life nightmare of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the novelist picks out her favourite stories of imprisonment – and wonders if a short spell in jail might just help her finish her new novel

prison window

‘There seems to be a natural link between incarceration and story telling’ … Bars on the window of a prison cell on French Guiana.The award-winning Lesley Glaister was “discovered” by Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel while taking a creative writing course in 1989; Mantel was so impressed with her writing that she recommended Glaister to a literary agent. Now the author of 13 novels, her first, Honour Thy Father, won both the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham prizes; her latest, Chosen, delves into the world of religious cults as Dodie tries to rescue her brother Seth from the mysterious Soul Life Centre.

“There seems to be a natural link between incarceration and story telling. A person forcibly removed from the comfort and distractions of the familiar, and shut up in a cell (or hospital, hostage situation, madman’s cellar or the prison of their own failing body) will be forced to travel inwards to the place where memories twist and loop and spin themselves into story. Incarceration may be a primal human dread, but it also has its fascination, even a peculiar attraction. Freedom may be taken away but with it responsibility, and perhaps deep within our psyches there’s an urge to be contained? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, writers are very often drawn to explore the experiences of characters challenged by this particular conflict – whether or not they have suffered it themselves. And I’m sure I’m not the only law-abiding writer who has occasionally wondered whether a short prison sentence might provide just the necessary discipline to finish that novel…”

1. Rumpelstiltskin (originally collected by the Brothers Grimm)

Fairy stories are full of people being locked up, needing to be rescued or, more satisfyingly, to find the magic key for their own escape. In this strange story a miller’s daughter is imprisoned by the king, after her father has told the boastful lie that she can spin gold from straw. She’s helped by a dwarf to complete the magical task but, in return, she must promise the dwarf her first-born child. Once she’s married to the king and expecting a baby she begs to be released from her side of the bargain. The dwarf agrees – on the condition that she guess his name. By trickery – not magic – she does this, which so amazes and enrages Rumpelstiltskin that he stamps hard enough on the ground to split it open, falls into the chasm and is never seen again. Oddly, as a child, my sympathies were with him.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Like many children, I found the idea of being an orphan extremely appealing and identified to a ridiculous degree with poor orphaned Jane Eyre, who as a child is bullied by her cousin until she retaliates. Her punishment for this is to be locked into the “red-room” in which her uncle, Mr Reed, recently died. She tries to be brave, but as it gets dark thinks she sees her uncle’s ghost, panics, screams and faints. (And, of course, as an adult, Jane is brought into opposition with another incarcerated female, the tragic and frightening Bertha, Rochester’s first – mad – wife, secretly imprisoned in the attic.)

3. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

The teenage narrator of this perfect book is desperate for her father Mortmain, a one-time experimental novelist with terrible writer’s block, to begin writing again – for the sake of his sanity as well as the family coffers. She hatches a plan to lock him into the dungeon of their castle home, and, with the help of her brother, traps him there in a sort of enforced writer’s retreat. The place is stocked with reams of fresh stationery, and delicious food, wine and cigars are lowered down at intervals. At first Mortmain rages and tries to trick his way out – but by the time he’s rescued by his wife, the incarceration has worked and he’s successfully embarked upon another strange, eccentric work. (Will somebody please do this to me?)

4. Misery by Stephen King

There’s a less appealing version of the enforced writer’s retreat in this terrifying novel – terrifying particularly, perhaps, for a writer. In a remote part of Maine, a popular novelist crashes his car and his life is saved by a mad fan. She’s mortified to discover that he’s killed off Misery, her favourite character, and keeps him prisoner, insisting that he write a novel resurrecting Misery. She’s the most fanatically particular and violent editor/jailer one can imagine. It’s an intense book, with just these two central characters locked in a close and claustrophobic tangle of mind-games, combat and downright gruesome nastiness.

5. The Collector by John Fowles

Frederick, a butterfly collector, decides to augment his collection with Miranda, a beautiful young art student. The novel is brilliantly structured so that first of all the reader experiences the “collection” – the capture and imprisonment of Miranda from Frederick’s point of view. His almost heroic self-delusion as he goes about trying to win her love and trust makes for excruciating reading. The second part of the book switches to Miranda’s narrative, in the form of the diary she’s kept secretly during her ordeal in Frederick’s basement. And in the last section, we’re back with Frederick again as he makes us aware of Miranda’s fate and prepares for the capture of another specimen. This adds up to a truly chilling and horribly plausible story.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Most people find it hard enough to write a book at all, but this one was written against extraordinary odds by Bauby, former editor-in chief of Elle magazine, after he suffered a stroke which left him comatose. Twenty days later, he regained consciousness to find himself entirely paralysed, except for the ability to blink his eyes. This condition is known as locked-in syndrome – the most frighteningly complete manner of incarceration I can imagine. Amazingly, by laboriously blinking his left eyelid to indicate letters of the alphabet, Bauby managed to “write” his devastatingly elegant and moving memoir. Each word took him an average of two minutes to spell out, and the whole process over ten months – truly a triumph of the human spirit and enough to make anyone complaining of writer’s block ashamed.

7. Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Another example of physiological incarceration, this time caused by an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica – sleeping sickness – in the 1920’s. Oliver Sacks tells the story of some of these “locked in” patients, who were studied and cared for in a small hospital in the Bronx. In 1969, it was discovered – almost by chance – that treatment with L-DOPA would reawaken the sufferers, and it’s wonderfully moving to see them warm and thaw and regain movement and personality. However, the effect proves not to be permanent and these poor people, having experienced a brief period of freedom, gradually become locked in again.

8. Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Janet Frame spent eight years of her life in prison having been wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and true to her calling as a writer transformed her ordeal into a powerful novel. This gives us a visceral insight into the feelings of being mad, terrified, humiliated, and zombified by drugs and electric shock treatment. Frame’s main character, Estina, both refuses to and is unable to behave “normally”, and thus is scheduled for the ultimate treatment (or punishment) – a lobotomy. Fiction comes to Estina’s rescue (just as it did Frame’s own) when one perceptive doctor discovers her talent for writing and she is released, with her lobes entire, back into the world.

9. The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

My childhood was dominated by the tension surrounding a silence, only subsequently recognised as a sort of smothered trauma – that of my father’s never spoken about experience as a POW in Burma. It was only when I came to research my own novel, Easy Peasy, that I was brought face to face with some of what he must have suffered. Central to my research was Eric Lomax’s book The Railway Man. Like my own father, Lomax was captured in Singapore by the Japanese army in 1942 and assigned to a prison camp, where he suffered years of filth, vermin, starvation, disease and the brutality of the prison guards. The men were forced to toil naked in the sun, and to endure beatings, torture and the agony of seeing their mates perish around them. Movingly, this book ends on an optimistic note as, half a century later, Lomax meets and is able to shake hands with a young Japanese interpreter who had been present at his torture, and is now a contrite and dedicated anti-war campaigner.

10. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This list would not be complete without the inclusion of this great classic of prison writing. As a warm, well-fed child (and before I knew anything about my father’s own terrible experience) I got a masochistic thrill from reading this, and imagined myself subjected to main character Shukov’s deprivations. Because the treatment in the freezing gulag was so extremely cruel, the work so terribly hard, there’s an intense, visceral pleasure in reading about the scraps of food, warmth and kindness Shukov manages to glean in just one day of the 3,653 that he has yet to endure. Strikingly, with his existence pared down to a few simple needs – warmth, a bit of sausage, a kind word – and having to some extent fulfilled these needs, Shukov ends the day feeling almost happy.


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Hilary Spurling’s top 10 unputdownable Chinese books

From painting and poetry to picture books and Pearl Buck, the biographer chooses the Chinese books that have gripped her

A father sees his seven-year-old son off at a railway station in Hefei, China

A father sees his seven-year-old son off at a railway station in Hefei, China.

Hilary Spurling is the award-winning biographer of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, George Orwell’s wife, Sonia Orwell, and painter Henri Matisse. The second volume in her life of the painter, Matisse the Master: The Conquest of Colour 1909-1954, won the 2005 Whitbread book of the year award.

1. Chinese Children at Play written and illustrated by Yui Shufang (Methuen, 1939)

This was the picture book that transfixed me as a child. I was entranced by these cool, neat, nifty children rolling marbles, whipping tops, kicking little feathered missiles called Chientse, and trying to beat one another with fighting crickets, where we only had conkers on strings. When I finally reached China, I was transfixed all over again. Not this time by the children (the one child policy means that you hardly ever see them or hear their voices), but by the whirlwind of creation and destruction smothering every small town or village you come to in a dense white cloud of cement dust or chemical pollution. Violent, physical, in-your-face and up-your-nose political and social change on this scale is as exhilarating as it is alarming.

2. The Chinese Children Next Door by Pearl Buck (Methuen, 1944)

My mother read me this story before I could read myself, and it became inextricably mixed in my mind with Yui’s pictures. It tells the story of six little girls who longed so hard for a baby brother that at last their wish came true. The family’s seventh child was a boy, the answer to his parents’ prayers, the pet and plaything of his big sisters. Re-reading this captivating book as an adult, I realised that it mirrored much harsher stories my mother told me about her own childhood when she, too, was the last of six unwanted daughters born to parents whose seventh child was the son they had dreamed of having all along. It was only after I started work on my own Chinese book, that I realised it was Buck who wrote the story I used to know by heart as a child.

3. Chinese Painting by James Cahill (Skira, 1960)

For 1000 years and more the Chinese painted the same few things with infinite subtlety and in inexhaustible variety: rocks, water, clouds, bamboo, plum blossom, trees, their leaves and – almost more important – the spaces between the leaves. This book was my passport to that magical world of mountains and rivers. Long afterwards, on a visit to Zhenjiang museum, I asked my Chinese companion to translate the delicate lines of calligraphy suspended in a V-shaped patch of sky between a soaring peak at the top of a tall scroll painting, and the single tiny figure of a fisherman almost invisible on his boat far below. I was intoxicated by the sense of boundless space and ambiguity projected by this disembodied, almost abstract landscape. My interpreter was a student, a pragmatic child of communist China who had clearly never looked at a painting before. “The man in the boat is dead drunk,” she read out flatly. “He’s been knocking it back hard for four days, and now he’s run out of liquor money.”

4. Madly Singing in the Mountains by Arthur Waley, edited by Ivan Morris (Allen & Unwin, 1970)

This excellent anthology gave me my first taste of Chinese poetry and its many flavours, as rich, complex and surprising as the same country’s painting or cooking. Waley’s musical translations incorporate the pure, high, heady sound of flutes and also somehow convey the suppressed belly laugh so often lurking between the lines or in the far corner of a Chinese poem or picture.

5. The Warrior Woman: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (Picador, 1981, originally published US 1975)

This account of growing up as a Chinese American combines the harsh raucous energy of US street life, seen from in and outside a Chinese laundry, with the violence and hardship of life in a Chinese village plagued by wild and recklessly inventive ancestral phantoms. I would rank this fabulous book with the best of Nabokov, Bellow or Roth.

6. River Town by Peter Hessler (John Murray, 2002)

Another brilliant book by a young American confronting a China beginning for the first time to open its doors to the West in the 1990s. Hessler spent two years teaching English in a nondescript small town on the Yangtze, and used it as a base from which to explore the country’s enigmatic past, inscrutable present and unpredictable future. A spellbinding account of a moment that will never come again.

7. The Fighting Angel by Pearl Buck (John Day, 1936)

This was the first of Buck’s books that I read as an adult, and I would never have heard of it if it hadn’t been for Henri Matisse who urged his children to read it, insisting at the same time that he was nothing like the man in it. The book turned out to be Buck’s fictional biography of her missionary father, who sacrificed himself, his wife and his children in a hopeless attempt to convert the entire Chinese nation to a bleak Calvinist version of Christianity. The book is a classic study of obsession, perceptive, humorous and grim. It explained much about Matisse (whose biography I was writing at the time), and made me pick Buck as my next subject.

8. Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (Michael Joseph, 1997)

Gripping account of childhood neglect and rejection redeemed on every page by the writer’s courage, intelligence and humanity. Her family history spans the whole of the last century, a time of public turmoil, revolution, war and institutional communist brutality that echoes her private disruption. Historically, culturally and emotionally speaking, this was an education for me.

9. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran (Vintage, 2003)

Xinran compered China’s first ever radio phone-in programme for woman whose male-dominated culture had never permitted them to talk about themselves and their problems before. Of all the life stories currently pouring out of contemporary China, these are, for me, among the most astonishing and hard to forget.

10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Vintage, 2002)

Funny, lively and startling story of two doctors’ sons exiled to a course of punitive labour in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. What saves them is an illicit passion for 19th-century European literature, which provides an escape route to a weird alien world as exotic to them as China itself has always been to me.


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Jim Bob’s top 10 illustrated books for adults

The Carter USM frontman explains how OCD led him to books with pictures, and reveals the ones he’s stolen from to write his new book

The Little Prince
Idées pix … Hampstead Theatre’s 2008 adaptation of The Little Prince.
Jim Bob began his career as the singing half of indie stalwarts Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Since the band split up in 1997, he has released some eight albums, the most recent two being “concept” accounts of a struggling comprehensive school and a crime-gripped city desperate for superhero help.

His rock’n’roll memoirs, Goodnight Jim Bob, were published by Cherry Red Books in 2004, and a “mini-novel” was included with his 2007 solo album A Humpty Dumpty Thing. Storage Stories, his “comic fictional autobiographical novel and collection of short stories”, is published this week.

“I have mild OCD. One of the symptoms is that when I read a book I often have to read each sentence two or even four times before I feel I can move onto the next one without thinking one of my loved ones will die in a plane crash. Big fat doorstops of text are a daunting prospect. The 560,000 words in your copy of War and Peace could be as many as two-and-a-half million for me. I like short chapters, big titles and even gaps of empty page. I think this might be one of the reasons why I like books with illustrations. A picture between chapters, mid-paragraph or even -sentence takes my OCD-addled mind off all the re-reading nonsense and I can get to the end of a book a lot more efficiently. As Telly Savalas so memorably said, “A picture paints a thousand words.” That’s two or three pages closer to the end of War and Peace.

“I always wanted to have illustrations in my own novel. Maybe just a couple of graphs and a picture of the building where the book is set, and I knew there’d be a drawing of a job ad at the start of the book. Then I added more and more pictures and they became an integral part of the story and the way it’s told – I couldn’t imagine the book now without them. My drawing skills are pretty limited, but luckily the main character in my novel – the one who’s drawing the pictures in the story – turned out to be somebody with limited drawing skills too.”

1. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s ridiculous of me to place it at number one, or to even call it illustrated. There’s only one drawing of a tombstone that appears a few times in the book. It’s not even a particularly good drawing of a tombstone. It’s at the top of my chart though, because when the picture appears at the end of the story it’s as the punchline to my favourite ending to any book ever. I won’t ruin the book by saying what it is.

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I may have stolen the idea of actually making the illustrations part of the text in my novel from this book. For example, the way its young hero will say something like “there was a date on the postmark and it was quite difficult to read, but it said” and then instead of telling us what the postmark says, there’ll be a picture of the postmark.

3. The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith

I bought this book largely based on the way it looked: its unconventional size and its hardback jacket over a paperback book. I judged it by its cover. Then I read it and it’s excellent. Like the images in The Curious Incident, Michael Smith’s simple drawings form an actual part of the text. Perhaps it was actually here I stole that idea from. The writing reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s, if he’d come from Hartlepool.

4. Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

I was originally going to compile a Top 10 of Musicians Who’ve Written Novels but I’ve only read five: three of those are by Willy Vlautin. It would have been more like Top 10 Books by Willy Vlautin. The Motel Life is the first of his novels. It’s the story of two brothers from Reno who skip town to avoid the consequences of a hit-and-run accident. Told in a heartbreaking matter-of-fact way, with illustrations mainly of motel signs, gun shops and trashed cars. Like snapshots from a Greyhound bus window.

5. Life After God by Douglas Coupland

A book of short stories, with a connecting theme of a generation brought up without religion. Different to Coupland’s other stuff – which I also love – this is more of an introspective book. The book’s simple sketches are in the same league as those drawn by the character in my novel – perhaps Coupland drew them on the bus on the way to his publishers to deliver the finished book.

6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The story of a pilot who crash lands in the desert, where he befriends a little prince from another planet who tells him about his journeys and of his love for a self-centred rose back on his own planet. The illustrations once again are incorporated within the body of the text. Is this where I nicked the idea from? Technically not a book for adults but I imagine that’s when a lot of people read it, me included. I’d like to tell you that I read the original French version. But I’d be lying, as I can’t speak French.

7. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

In this book, letters and numbers are used to form the pictures. I don’t know how it was done, it looks like it must have taken a long time. There’s a series of shark pictures towards the end of the book that are constructed from words and grow in size with each page so the shark appears to approach the reader. This is novel as flick book.

8. Shorty Loves Wing Wong by Michael Smith & Jim Medway

In Michael Smith’s second book, he writes about his return to Hartlepool and memories of his childhood there. The illustrations of cats in the pub, cats in school uniform, cats eating fish and chips, cat prostitutes etc are wonderful. My favourite is the cat in the Inspiral Carpets t-shirt.

9. The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern with illustrations by Scott McKowen

Philip Van Doren Stern wrote this story and had it printed as a Christmas card for his friends in the 1940s. An illustrated version of the book was published in 1996 to mark the 50th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, the film that was based on the story. It’s my favourite film of all time. I don’t know if I would have liked the book so much if that weren’t the case, but it is a very lovely story.

10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This is Illustrated Book for Adults Extreme. The story’s about a nine-year-old whose dad is killed in the 9/11 attacks. The book is full of photographs, doodles, colour text, blank pages and a 15-page flick book. OCD-tastic.


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Esther Freud’s top 10 love stories

From Boris Pasternak to Nancy Mitford, the novelist lines up the stories that have broken her heart

Dr Zhivago
Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in the film version of Dr Zhivago.

Esther Freud was named by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Her books include Hideous Kinky (1992), Peerless Flats (1993) and Gaglow (1997). Her most recent novel is Love Falls (2007).

She is a judge of the 2010 Le Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories. The shortlist for this year’s prize is East of the Sun by Julia Gregson; Small Wars by Sadie Jones and Whatever Makes you Happy by William Sutcliffe. The winner will be announced in Mauritius on 5 June, 2010.

“The love stories that have stayed with me are the ones that broke my heart. Novels that managed to create the unbearable longing of two people to be together as well as the misunderstandings, disenchantment and lost hope when love slips beyond their reach.”

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This was the first book I read that took me on that journey. Rhett Butler’s slow, cool devotion to Scarlett through so much of the novel, and the terrible moment when he stops loving her, and she realises she does, in fact, love him, had me feverishly begging fate, or Margaret Mitchell to intervene. My copy was battered and tear-stained by the time the book was finished.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre was responsible for a misguided belief in the power of romance that complicated my teenage years. The idea that you could lean out of your window and whisper your lover’s name, and that he might actually hear you, appealed to me too much.

3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Who can ever forget the moment when Tess fails to find the letter that has been pushed under her door? The scene is seared into the hearts of millions of readers across the world.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Possibly the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy captures the rollercoaster arc of Anna’s passion for Vronsky, and shows us the impossibility of her love ever being a match for what she’s lost. The scenes between her and her small son whom she must abandon, are heartbreaking in their restraint, and it is these moments you remember, when Vronsky’s ardour begins to fade.

5. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

It’s hard to beat a Russian love story, especially this epic tale, set against the backdrop of war, but Zhivago’s love for Lara and the unexpected chance they have to re-ignite their passion when fate throws them together in exile, is hard to resist.

6. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Like consuming the most delicious treat. An acutely funny novel, it is told from the point of view of Fanny whose mother “The Bolter”, has left her to be brought up by an aunt. She spends much of her time with her cousins, the eccentric, glamorous Radletts, and it is Linda Radlett – a composite of Mitford and her sisters – whose search for the perfect companion is at the heart of this wonderful book.

7. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

First published in 1936, this was years ahead of its time in its description of a young woman’s affair with a married man. Lehmann takes you on her journey – the waiting, the bright moments of hope – without ever allowing you to lose sympathy for any of the characters. Passionate and brutally honest in its portrayal of how love can overwhelm your life.

8. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this collection of stories, Lahiri gives us three linked stories. Hema and Kaushik are two Bengali Americans whose parents were friends when they were young and who meet by chance in Rome. They are drawn to each other, irresistibly, even though Hema is about to be married. As the feelings between them intensify, you are consumed with longing for them to take courage and alter the course of their lives. But then fate – or nature – intervenes, and the pain of the ending had me gasping in physical pain.

9. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

A many stranded novel about loneliness and the chances missed in love. Alma, a 15-year-old girl attempts to make sense of her life after her father’s death by unravelling the story of the novel her mother is translating. This beautiful, funny and mysterious story draws its characters together in the most unlikely but life-affirming way.

10. One Day by David Nicholls

Following the story of Emma and Dexter through 20 years of friendship, infatuation, missed opportunities, misguided marriages and eventual coming together, this is a brilliantly structured, hysterical and ultimately heartbreaking book.


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Michael Foley’s top 10 absurd classics

From Beckett to the Bible, and Flann O’Brien to Flaubert, the author selects the books that best express the absurdity of the human condition

Waiting for Godot

Hanging on … Johnny Murphy (Estragon) and Barry McGovern (Vladimir) in Waiting For Godot at the Barbican in London.
Michael Foley has published four novels (most recently Beyond, 2002) and four collections of poetry (most recently Autumn Beguiles the Fatalist, 2006). A New and Selected Poems will appear in 2011. The Age of Absurdity is his first non-fiction prose book.

“I seem to have emerged from the womb believing that the human condition is essentially absurd and this belief has been reinforced both by literary and philosophical expressions of the idea and many developments in the contemporary world.

“Eventually the pressure from these two sources compelled me to make my own absurd contribution, The Age of Absurdity. The following classics, listed in reverse chronological order, were all important influences.”

1. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

This survey of contemporary absurdity reveals that the UK government, seeking ways to improve inner-city council estates, hired a feng shui consultant called Renuka Wickmaratne who said: “Red and orange flowers would reduce crime and introducing a water feature would reduce poverty. I was brought up with this ancient knowledge.” Also revealed, along with much else – that, as a presidential aide put it, “virtually every major move and decision” made by Ronald Reagan, including the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, was first cleared by a San Francisco astrologer called Joan Quigley; and that 48% of Americans believe in UFOs, 27% in alien visits to earth, while 2% (3.7 million people) actually claim to have been the victims of alien abduction.

2. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

This hilarious and terrifying account of a Caribbean Luxury Cruise is scrupulous documentary realism but also a contemporary fable. The perfect symbol of the age is a cruise liner – a gigantic mobile pleasure palace conveying outsize infants in pastel leisurewear round a series of shopping venues. Wallace reports, in amazement: “I have heard upscale adult US citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkelling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”

3. The Magic Christian by Terry Southern

This is the story of the ultimate prankster Guy Grand, a fabulously wealthy financial genius who amuses himself by buying into different enterprises and subverting them, for instance taking over Vanity Cosmetics and launching a shampoo called Downy, supposedly based on a formula that had been “Cleopatra’s secret”, but actually designed to destroy hair. But Grand’s greatest coup is when he lures celebrities and socialites onto a cruise ship, the SS Magic Christian, and, proceeds, with demonic ingenuity, to drive them mad throughout the cruise.

4. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Kafka gave the quest saga a modern twist by having unexceptional seekers who are always frustrated – the quest story without a hero or a conclusion. Beckett took this a stage further. Godot is a quest saga without even a quest. The two tramps, thoroughly modern men, can’t be bothered to embark on a quest and just wait around for meaning to come to them.

5. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

This is the finest theoretical work on absurdity. Camus compares the human condition to the fate of Sisyphus, eternally condemned to push a rock up a hill, a fable that will resonate with all those obliged to work for a living. But Camus argues, convincingly, that Sisyphus can be happy with his rock. The book is short, exquisitely well-written, and full of sentences that should be on coffee mugs, T-shirts and fridge magnets everywhere.

6. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

This is another vision of life as absurd repetition – but eerie, nightmarish, totally black. In the key scene Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen take the narrator on a visit to eternity (up an Irish country lane and deep underground) and tell him he can order whatever he wants. After some thought the narrator requests, and is given, 50 cubes of gold, a bottle of whiskey, precious stones to the value of £200,000, some bananas, a fountain pen and writing materials, a serge suit of blue with silk lining and a weapon capable of exterminating all adversaries. But as he is about to enter the lift on the way out he is informed that he must exit with the same weight as he came in. Obliged to abandon his treasures, he weeps silent bitter tears – excruciatingly funny and also strangely moving.

7. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The stroke of genius here is that, when Gregor Samsa wakes up as a gigantic insect, he himself experiences only “slight annoyance”. It is other people who are disgusted, especially his family. Only the old cleaning woman is unaffected, chatting familiarly to Gregor as he scuttles happily across the ceiling.

8. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain

Twain is generally remembered as a sunny, genial humorist but his late works are invigoratingly savage and dark. In his best late story, the town of Hadleyburg, renowned for incorruptible rectitude, offends a passing stranger so deeply that the man spends a year devising a perfect plan for exposing the hypocrisy of all the town’s leading citizens. This plan, involving of course a sack of gold, reaches its diabolical climax in a sublimely funny town hall meeting scene that combines the manic zest of Twain’s early writing with the vindictive ferocity of his later vision.

9. Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard and Pécuchet are humble copy clerks until Bouvard unexpectedly inherits money and the two friends decide to give up work and devote themselves to acquiring knowledge. They attempt to master in turn farming, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, geology, gymnastics, spiritualism, philosophy, religion and phrenology, in each case following the best contemporary expertise, but always ending in disaster and disillusionment. In their education phase they take in the children of a convict and subject them to the latest pedagogic techniques. Resolutely resisting improvement, the children wreck the garden, smash dishes in the kitchen, steal food and money, attack their philanthropic teachers and finally boil a pet cat alive in a cooking pot.

10. Ecclesiastes

This short work expresses, in the most beautiful language, everything important about the absurdity of the human condition. No more literature or philosophy was needed but, as the author, perceptive in this too, acknowledges, “of making many books there is no end”.


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Carsten Jensen’s top 10 seafaring tales

From Homer to Hans Christian Andersen, the novelist trawls the canon for the the saltiest stories of life on board ship

Gregory Peck in Moby Dick

Whale of a tale … Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in John Huston’s 1956 film of Moby Dick.
Carsten Jensen was born 1952. He first made his name as a columnist and literary critic for the Copenhagen daily Politiken, and has written novels, essays and travel books. Jensen was awarded the Golden Laurels for I Have Seen the World Begin; the Danske Banks Litteraturpris, Denmark’s most prestigious literary award; and, most recently, the Palme prize.

“Given that men have sailed the seas for thousands of years, it’s perhaps surprising how few great works of literature have been inspired by the seafaring life. Sailing may have promised adventure, but in reality it was a dangerous profession that attracted only the toughest, few of whom were equipped with a talent for writing. Their yarns remained fixed in the oral tradition, and in general, writers directed their attention elsewhere. But the exceptions are majestic.”

1. The Odyssey by Homer

Written in an era when the world believed in magic, and that the unmapped seas contained both marvels and monsters, The Odyssey is the greatest seafaring epic of all. Homer’s storytelling skills are so deft that readers tend to overlook the shortcomings of his hero on the seamanship front: not only does it take Odysseus 20 years to cover the relatively short distance between Troy and his beloved island of Ithaca [see footnote], but during that time, he also manages to lose his entire fleet of 12 ships. When he finally arrives home, not a single one of his crew remains alive. Hardly a great role-model for would-be captains.

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Melville’s masterpiece tells the tale of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for a whale whose terrifying whiteness comes to embody evil itself. I doubt that any contemporary publisher would take on such a vast, eccentric, anarchic work if it crossed their desk today. Reading it, you realise what a free and wide-ranging genre the novel once was, and how much has been wrecked by a book industry catering to the most conventional taste. Not only does Melville forget all about his main character, Ishmael, for hundreds of pages, but he also allows himself to indulge in endless speculations about the nature of whales, before reaching the conclusion that they’re not mammals, but fish. What to do in the presence of such artistic nerve, but salute?

3. The Narrative of Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

This is the only novel Poe wrote, and what a strange piece of work it is: a seafaring adventure by a writer who specialised in claustrophobia. Here, Poe explores its opposite: his protagonist, approaching the South Pole, encounters a vast world of menace and shrouded monsters. The story’s abrupt end, complete with unsolved mysteries, sucks you in like a maelstrom. But where better to be stuck than inside one of western literature’s most fertile and weird imaginations?

4. The Shadowline by Joseph Conrad

The Polish-born Conrad stepped into world literature more or less from nowhere; despite English not being his native tongue, his writing is the most sophisticated I’ve ever come across. Of his many extraordinary novels, this classic rite-of-passage story remains my favourite. When the ship of a young, untested captain is becalmed, he is faced with his first big challenge – and despite the odds, rises to it. For, Conrad the deck was a microcosm of the wider world. His novels are all about ethics and honour. Those were the days.

5. A Footnote to History by Robert Louis Stevenson

This short journalistic report, which Stevenson wrote during his final stay in Samoa, provides great insight into Samoan culture – along with a wonderfully ironic dissection of the follies of imperialism. Three colonial powers – Great Britain, the US and Germany – prepare to pitch into battle over the spoils of Samoa when a hurricane strikes and wrecks their men-of-war. Stevenson could have called it The Revenge of the South Seas.

6. The South Sea Tales by Jack London

When I read the novel Ulf Larsen as a boy I didn’t understand the Nietzschean rantings of London’s tyrannical captain, but his South Sea Tales still left a lasting impression on me. His depictions of the brutal life of the Pacific are forthright and disillusioned, especially when the representatives of higher civilisation show up.

7. The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

The story takes place on the island of Guernsey, but its drama is definitely more French than British, concentrating as it does on the fickleness of women’s love and the futility of men’s heroism. There’s a great underwater scene in which a man fights a giant octopus armed with only a knife. And all this happened before Freud, so the sea could carry all the freight of the subconscious without waving symbolism in anyone’s face.

8. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

The Little Mermaid isn’t strictly a seafaring story, but it does involve a lot of swimming. And fish-tails, too. Readers outside Scandinavia tend to think of Andersen as a precursor of Disney, but read The Little Mermaid in its original version, and you’ll discover he was anything but. The prince and the mermaid don’t end up in each other’s arms, and love doesn’t prevail: it brings pain and doom. The Denmark of Andersen’s era was not as idyllic as we’d like to believe. It was a narrow-minded, intolerant and deeply divided society. Andersen, who came from the bottom rung of the social ladder, was never allowed to forget his humble origins. But he cunningly used his fairytales to tell his tormentors harsh truths in a seemingly inoffensive way.

9. August by Knut Hamsun

Despite being a bestseller in Germany, the Norwegian Nobel laureate never had the popularity he craved in Britain. Some claim this is what drove him into the arms of the Nazis. But a better explanation lies in his loathing of modernity, coupled with his passion for the tough, untamed, tradition-loving Nordland region north of the Polar Circle that was his native landscape. This makes Hamsun’s choice of August as the novel’s eponymous hero a surprising one, since August represents the rootless cosmopolitanism and “Americanisation of life” that the author so loathed. But August is unquestionably a sympathetic character, and an endless source of fun, inventiveness, tall tales and generosity. In sidelining his own prejudices Hamsun shows an awareness that the requirements of art supersede those of politics, and herein lies his greatness. Hamsun’s sprawling, entertaining novel with its vivid portrait of a small town on the shore of a big ocean remains immensely readable to this day.

10. The Fishermen by Hans Kirk

In spite of Denmark´s history as a seafaring nation, surprisingly few of its novels describe life at sea. Hans Kirk´s 1928 masterpiece is the understated, tightly-crafted story of a deeply religious fishing community which decides to uproot from the harsh shores of the North Sea and seek a more comfortable existence on the banks of an inland fjord. But the fishermen fail to adapt to their new surroundings. Increasingly isolating themselves to safeguard their puritan belief in a punishing God, the community gradually falls apart. Although almost a century has passed since it was written, The Fishermen still provides a striking psychological insight into the workings of the fundamentalist mind.

• This footnote was added on 15 April 2010 to clarify that Odysseus was indeed away from Ithaca for a total of 20 years, but 10 of those years was spent at war with Troy and 10 on the journey home.


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Jonathan Kellerman’s top 10 LA noir novels

The novelist patrols California’s meanest streets for its hardest boiled storytellers, picking up some very unusual suspects

Los Angeles skyline

Los Angeles, where ‘nice weather abounds, a chasm yawns between the haves and the have-nots, and delusional blind ambition is habitually confused with work ethic and wisdom’.
Jonathan Kellerman writes tales of crime and detection which expose the shadowy side of glittering Los Angeles. After a career in child psychology, he turned to writing full time. He lives in southern California with his wife, the novelist Faye Kellerman, and their four children.

“I tend to avoid lists, as I don’t like reductionism in general, have never viewed writing fiction as a competitive sport and, let’s face it, someone good is always going to be excluded. There are many fine contemporary writers covering the LA scene — Robert Crais’s latest novel is first rate. But I’m going to concentrate on older books, because it was the previous generation of noir which inspired me to begin the Delaware series over a quarter of a century ago. I’m also going to expand the parameters from Los Angeles proper to southern California: LA isn’t a city, it’s a concept which applies anywhere in the Golden State where nice weather abounds, a chasm yawns between the haves and the have-nots, and delusional blind ambition is habitually confused with work ethic and wisdom. Given that preamble, here are a few standouts.”

1. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Not a crime novel per se, this book remains the finest account of Hollywood heartbreak ever written. If it’s noir you’re looking for, this one’s saturated with nuclear fatalism. And would-be starlets.

2. Any novel by Ross MacDonald

When contemporary reviewers search for a noir icon they inevitably come up with Raymond Chandler. But although Chandler’s work was seminal and his alcohol-fuelled chronic depression generated a helluva lot of witty metaphors, his plotting skills never advanced very far. Ross MacDonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), on the other hand, was a master of structure and story, as well as a writer of immense grace, sensitivity and insight. To my mind, MacDonald was easily the better of the two, and many crime novelists concur. His stories sometimes descend to LA and its environs, but his primary locale is 90 miles to the north in Santa Barbara, which he called Santa Theresa (a conceit adopted by the ever-witty, skillful Sue Grafton.) The Chill stands out as the ultimate Freudian crime novel and a later book, The Underground Man, melds natural disaster, in this case a forest fire, with grisly killings in a way that expands the novel beyond whodunit and whydunit but never lapses into pretentiousness. But really, any Macdonald will do.

3. Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer

A creepy, evocative gem which has sunk, unfortunately, into obscurity. Latimer’s take on the psychology of fanaticism is as fresh as today’s headlines. The sense of place is powerful, the language tough and funny. Latimer, like many novelists who failed to achieve prominence as such, ended up writing for film and TV — a noir story in itself.

4. and 5. The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

Thirty years on, James Ellroy’s early books remain fresh: he was writing about the monstrous psychopaths who later became familiarised as serial killers back when no else could even imagine people like that existed. (I’ll take some partial credit here: my fourth novel, The Butcher’s Theatre, covered the same grisly ground because my background in psychology led me to explore the darkest aspects of human behaviour. I set the book in Jerusalem, but there are some LA scenes. Butcher was written in 1985; Ellroy and I were hanging out regularly back then and I’ve come to realize that the gore level of Butcher may be related to some of our more “interesting” conversations.) Ellroy’s first works — Brown’s Requiem, Clandestine, Blood on the Moon and the other Lloyd Hopkins police procedurals — are great reads; The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere stand out to me as masterpieces. The first uses a famous unsolved true crime as a springboard for beautiful writing and the best type of social commentary — that which masquerades as entertainment. The second is, literally and figuratively, a bigger book, and is, in my opinion, Ellroy’s magnum opus.

6. The Lady In The Lake by Raymond Chandler

My initial comments about Chandler notwithstanding, The Lady In The Lake is a great read and you can’t quibble with Ol’ Ray’s .45 caliber cynicism and stunningly accurate feel for Los Angeles.

7. The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm

A gorgeously taut bit of nastiness.

8. The Kinsey Milhone books by Sue Grafton

Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books, though sometimes mistaken for lighthearted when compared to all the testosterone-laden stuff out there, really do belong in the SoCal noir tradition. Sue’s writing chops are at virtuoso level — she makes it look easy when it’s not — and her feel for the region is second to none.

9. Frederick Brown, Horace McCoy, Charles Bukowski

Two other relatively unsung hardboiled novelists who deserve attention. Bukowski’s poetry, meanwhile, is a perfect adjunct to murky nights immersed in hardboiled fiction and good — or bad — booze. 

10. The Resnick novels by John Harvey

Finally, I’m going to go out on a huge geographic limb and say that John Harvey’s Nottingham-based Resnick series has always struck me as more LA noir than many books actually set in the city. In any event, they’re a blast to read.


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Theresa Breslin’s top 10 books about the Spanish inquisition

One of the darkest periods in Spain’s history provides rich pickings for writers, says the children’s author, inspiring novelists from Jean Plaidy to Philippa Gregory

Don Carlos
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip ll and Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House.
Scottish author and librarian Theresa Breslin has written over 30 books for children. Ranging from historical fiction to tales of modern life and from fantasy and science fiction to school stories, Breslin’s books for young adults include the Carnegie medal-winning Whispers in the Graveyard, starring a dyslexic main character, and Divided City. Her titles for younger readers include Bullies at School and The Magic Factory series.

Her new novel Prisoner of the Inquisition, set during the Spanish inquisition and following the story of the pampered daughter of the town magistrate Zarita, and a boy who swears revenge after his father is hanged for an assault on Zarita he didn’t commit, is out on 1 April.

1. Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition by Rafael Sabatini

If you’re looking for factual background to the subject of the Spanish inquisition, Sabatini would be a good first port of call. This is a colourful and dramatic biography of the monk who became the first Grand Inquisitor of Spain, and whose name has come down to us through the ages associated with torture and terror.

2. The Rise, The Growth and The End of the Spanish Inquisition by Jean Plaidy

A three volume non-fiction work which attempts to cover the whole history of the Spanish inquisition. Although sparing of consideration of any aspect of contemporary brutality and comparison with the times, it’s still a good introduction and gives conversational style detail as well as an insight into the workings of the inquisition in Spain.

3. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages: Its Organisation and Operation, and A History of the Inquisition of Spain by Henry Charles Lea

If you want to cover the vast scope of the subject, go ahead and knock yourself out with the whole shebang in these titles. Accused of prejudice, exaggerations and inaccuracies, these still remain the seminal texts on the subject. They don’t flinch from detail, however, so are not for the fainthearted.

4. Torquemada by Howard Fast

With such a compelling subject and dramatic characters, it’s not surprising that a great many novelists have covered the period of history encompassed by the Spanish inquisition. Most books focus on the early years — the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand and the dreaded but fascinating Tomas de Torquemada. Fast’s novel is a chilling psychological study of the relationship between two men: one a Spanish nobleman, the other the monk newly elected as Grand Inquisitor of Spain during the reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. A tale of obsession, of righteous conviction which obliterates compassion and the effect this has upon the psyche of each man, Torquemada explores the inner truths of the human soul. Utterly compelling.

5.The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Brilliant portrayal of Katherine of Aragon from a magnificent historical novelist, this book skilfully uses flashback to tell of Katherine’s life in Spain as a pampered princess of the Spanish monarchs. Worth reading too for an insight into the difficulties of the life of Queen Isabella. Gregory’s use of language made me feel as though I was walking with Katherine on slippered feet through the halls of the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

6. Castile for Isabella and 7. Spain for the Sovereigns by Jean Plaidy

It’s great to see Jean Plaidy’s work being reissued with classy covers. I’m sure I owe a lot of my love of history to Ms Plaidy, as I gobbled her books up as teenager. She might be considered a little old-fashioned in style now, but her well-researched historical settings give her scenes authenticity, while her dialogue develops character and enlists the sympathy of the reader. Without avoiding the ravages of the inquisition, these books personalise the life stories of the great monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, who unified Spain, brought law to an unruly land and had the foresight to finance the expedition of a little known explorer-mariner called Christopher Columbus.

8. The Last Queen: a Novel of Juana La Loca by Christopher Gortner

A highly readable account of the fascinating life of one of the daughters of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Juana was sister to Katherine of Aragon who married Henry VIII of England, and like her sister Katherine, Juana’s life was one of many trials. Always mercurial in temperament, she was driven to madness by the death of her much-loved husband. So besotted was she, and so unable to accept the fact he had passed on, that she carted her husband’s corpse around with her on her travels for months after he died. The book is a sympathetic treatment of the main character, Juana, and the tragic life of a woman who perhaps lived and loved too intensely.

9. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus edited and translated by JM Cohen

Gives extracts from the log books and diaries Columbus kept while on his voyage, and includes material from the biography written by his son as well as from the letters of some of the officers who voyaged with him. This book allows the reader an intimate glimpse of the compulsion which drove the explorer, the movement in the minds of his contemporaries and the times that shaped him.

10. The Mysterious Lost Book

I know, I know. In addition to being a writer I’m a librarian — professionally trained and everything. I should have all my stock catalogued and key-worded and arranged alphabetically with index cards for each one in little drawers, but I didn’t, I didn’t. And I’m really very sorry that I didn’t. So now I’ve got a book I can’t find. I don’t know the title and I can’t remember the author (his first name may have been Frank). My edition had a racy cover showing a voluptuous female falling out of the front of her (red?) dress. In that respect the book promised more than it delivered, but it did have a riveting plot and was very revealing on the complexities of religious tension in Europe, relating that the upright Calvinists were not averse to devious plotting and burning a few folks when they felt like it. Oh how I used to adore people who came into my library and asked me to find a book with such scant information. But now I’m offering a prize — a signed copy of the first hardback edition of Prisoner of the Inquisition to anyone who tracks this one down for me. So, go for it, all you interested-in-the-inquisition bibliophiles out there, and let me know if you can track that one down. I’m waiting to hear from you.


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Paul Murray’s top 10 wicked clerics

Murder, rape, incest, blackmail — literary priests just don’t know when to stop. Novelist Paul Murray selects the best of the worst fictional clergymen


The ultimate evil cleric? Russian monk Rasputin.

Former bookseller Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize in 2003. The Irish writer has just published his second novel, Skippy Dies, the story of death and a doughnut-eating competition at a Dublin Catholic boarding school where French teacher Father Green (known as Père Vert) holds sway.

1. Archbishop Roger degli Ubaldini in Dante’s Inferno

Dante finds the archbishop in the ice of Lake of Cocytus — the innermost circle of hell, reserved for traitors. Frozen beside him, apparently eating his head, is Count Ugolin della Gherardesca, who pauses from his meal to tell the pilgrim how he formed an alliance with the archbishop to get rid of his grandson, Nino, head of a rival Guelf party in Pisa. After Nino was driven out, the archbishop turned on Ugolin and imprisoned him and his four sons and grandsons in a tower. The gate was nailed shut: Ugolin describes watching the children starve to death. Now the count and archbishop are locked together in the ice, and Ugolin feasts perpetually on Roger’s head and brain.

2. Friar Hubert in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

Devoted to the principles of Francis of Assisi, the friars, who arrived in England in 1221, lived without possessions, travelling the country teaching, preaching and begging. Their graphic depictions of hell proved very effective in separating the laity from their cash, to the fury of the established church, who also accused them of being lenient in confession with criminal types, again for their own financial gain. Hubert is a kind of summary of the common gripes about supposed mendicants who rode fine horses and looked suspiciously well fed; friars also come off badly in The Summoner’s Tale and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, leading some critics to suggest that Chaucer must have had a personal run-in.

3. Tartuffe in Tartuffe by Molière

Probably the most famous hypocrite in literature, Tartuffe is an impoverished conman who wangles his way into the home of the well-to-do Orgon. Bewitched by Tartuffe’s ersatz religiosity, Orgon arranges for him to marry his daughter; Tartuffe meanwhile is doing his best to seduce Orgon’s wife. The play scandalised the church fathers, and was banned before Molière had even finished writing it following a performance of three acts at Versailles in 1664. When it reappeared disguised as L’Imposteur three years later, the archbishop threatened anyone who so much as read the play with immediate excommunication.

4. Abbot Ambrosio in The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Written in ten weeks largely to support his mother, who was in dire financial straits after running off with a music teacher, Lewis’s Monk gleefully details the downward spiral of the initially upright Abbot Ambrosio into lust, Faustian pacts, rape (of his sister) and murder (of his mother). This most gothic of all gothic novels also features a vengeful mother superior and a ghostly bleeding nun. First published anonymously, on the second edition Lewis, then an MP, included his name: Coleridge was only one of many who was scandalised to see that “the author of The Monk signs himself — a legislator!”

5. William Collins in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Mr Collins is one of Austen’s most brilliant creations, and his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet is a comic tour de force. After setting out his reasons — good example to his flock; vague sense of altruism; really though because his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has told him to — he assures Elizabeth of the violence of his affections. When she refuses him, he refuses, in turn, to believe her, pointing out that this is probably the only chance she will get. Two days later, he proposes to, and is accepted by, her more calculating friend Charlotte.

6. Reverend Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch by George Eliot

The character of Casaubon surely strikes a chord, whether of fear or sympathy, in many writers and academics. A sere, remote clergyman, he has spent his life lost in research for his impossible Key to All Mythologies. At first he appears merely aloof and alienated; after marrying Dorothea, he reveals a more venomous side. He forbids her to see his young cousin, Ladislaw, and threatens to disinherit her should she ever marry him; then he tries to compel her to finish his great work in the event of his death — which follows a few pages later. A blackly humorous portrait of a wasted life.

7. The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This “unwritten poem”, which nihilistic Ivan Karamazov relates to his saintly brother Alyosha, is set in 16th-century Seville at the height of the Inquisition. Christ has made a brief reappearance to boost the flagging faith of his people. Witnessing him resurrect a little girl, the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested, and that night in his cell reveals that the church has long abandoned his teachings. Christ’s insistence on man’s freedom led to moral and social chaos, the Inquisitor argues. Man is weak; freedom makes him unhappy; he not only needs but actively wants to be ruled by force, and the church has made a pact with the devil to do just that. Dostoevsky’s depiction of the totalitarian state in which the oppressed people effectively collude proved chillingly prophetic.

8. The preacher in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

At a supposed spiritual retreat, an unnamed preacher subjects the boys of Belvedere College to a 15-page description of the tortures of hell. The walls “four thousand miles thick”, the rivers of effluent, the agonising flames and the terrifying image of eternity send Stephen Dedalus first into a fantasy of his own death and torment, and then into a prolonged period of unbearable religious zeal. The original of this supremely creepy preacher was one Father James Cullen, of whom Joyce’s schoolmate said, “he had a distinct trace of sadism … He found it humorous to shake hands with young boys and then squeeze their hands until they yelled with pain.”

9. The Bad Priest in V by Thomas Pynchon

In war-torn Valletta, poet Fausto Maijstral first encounters the Bad Priest when he tries to persuade Fausto’s lover to get rid of their child. Loaded with guilt and shame, Elena only escapes through a chance meeting with a good priest, Father Avalanche. During “the Day of Thirteen Raids”, when the Luftwaffe repeatedly bomb the city, Fausto witnesses the Bad Priest trapped under a beam: stripped and tortured by local children, the priest is revealed to be a woman — none other than the final incarnation of V, the mysterious, shape-shifting, demonical-mechanical take on the eternal feminine which dances in and out of Pynchon’s mesmeric first novel.

10. Brother Leon in The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Set in an American high school and revolving around a charity chocolate sale, Cormier’s outstanding nove