Showing posts from November, 2014

The Great Elizabeth Taylor - writer

In 1948, at the age of thirty-six, Elizabeth Taylor penned a letter to the writer Robert Liddell after she had read his novel The Last Enchantments. She was already the author of three novels, and had been championed by many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, among them. According to Liddell, who had left England for Egypt, and later settled in Greece, she didn’t say much in her letter, other than that “the book might have been written for her, and that she had laughed and cried in all the right places.” For Taylor, who lived in a village in Buckinghamshire, with her husband and two kids, and kept literary life in London largely at bay, the letter was the beginning of a twenty-two-year correspondence, one of her most intimate friendships. To the great disappointment of her readers and biographers, Liddell destroyed nearly all her letters, respecting Taylor’s wishes “most scrupulously” after her death. “And yet she was (I think) the best letter-writer of the centur…

Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington

In 1739, a diminutive woman, identified as "an ingenious Lady" from Dublin, took up lodgings directly opposite White's Chocolate House in London. As a female, Laetitia Pilkington was, naturally, not permitted to join the exclusive club that met there, particularly as she had recently been notoriously cast off by her husband on the grounds of adultery. But as a renowned poet, raconteur and wit, as well as a figure of scandal and gossip, she was almost as much of an attraction to the fashionable gentlemen who frequented White's as was the club itself. Her latest satirical poems were discussed there, whereupon the men would visit her or admire her at her window. As Norma Clarke comments, despite Mrs Pilkington's apparent exclusion from literary society, she "became part of the conversation". The complexity of Laetitia Pilkington's situation depicted here is typical of the colourful yet deeply troubled life presented in Clarke's new biography of the …

Lady Chatterly's Lover

This fine novel of D. H. Lawrence’s has been privately printed in Florence, and it is difficult and expensive to buy. This is a pity, because it is probably one of Lawrence’s best books. About the erotic and unconventional aspects of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which have made it impossible for the book to be circulated except in this subterranean fashion, I shall have something to say in a moment. But “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is far more than the story of a love affair: it is a parable of post-war England.

Lady Chatterley is the daughter of a Scotch R. A., a robust and intelligent girl, who has married an English landowner from the Midlands coal-mining country. Sir Clifford is crippled in the War, and returns to his family estate, amid the decay and unemployment of the Industrial towns. At first, he occupies himself with literature, mixes with the London literary people, and publishes short stories, “clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless”; then later, h…

P.D. James and Ruth Rendell on crime writing after Agatha Christie

JAMES: I suppose the question we get asked most often by other people is ‘Why crime?’, and in a way that ties up with when we began writing. Was your first book crime? You wrote some short stories before you were published, didn’t you?

RENDELL: You remember correctly. I wrote a lot of short stories, and I sent them to magazines and they were not accepted. Then I began to write full-length fiction. Some I didn’t finish, some I did. I wrote three, one of which – after some years of this – I sent to a publisher. It was not  a crime novel – it wasn’t even particularly suspenseful: I suppose you would call it a comedy of matters. They did not take it, but they quite liked it, and they asked me if I’d done anything else, and I had: I’d done the first Wexford. I’d done it without any serious intent – and I just thought well, I want to see if I can do this, for fun. I’d read a lot of crime fiction, and I had an idea which I think was very daring for the time, and they took it and it was publi…

Gods and monsters - P.D. James

Editor's Note, 27 November 2014: PD James has died aged 94. This article first appeared in the New Statesman in July 2013.

What makes us human is the brain which enables us to ask just this question. We are aware how much we share with the animal kingdom and how close our DNA is to that of the higher mammals. We increasingly hear how much we all have in common with animals. Animals often show at least an equal concern with looking after their young. We know that elephants can grieve, that chimpanzees and other apes learn to use tools and even to share them, so there is the beginning of what we think of as unselfish sharing for mutual benefit. But animals, even those whose DNA is closest to ours, cannot make or control fire. One wonders how this powerful tool was first discovered, perhaps by primitive man constantly rubbing two dry sticks together in a moment of boredom and producing a spark that lighted a pile of dry leaves. With this apparent miracle a significant step in the long …

How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope

One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

 If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the p…

Stefan Zweig: the tragedy of a great bad writer

Stefan Zweig wasn’t, to be honest, a very good writer. This delicious fact was hugged to themselves by most of the intellectuals of the German speaking world during the decades before 1940, in which Zweig gathered a colossal and adoring public both in German and in multiple translations. It was like a password among the sophisticated. Zweig might please the simple reader; but a true intellectual would recognise his own peers by a shared contempt for this middlebrow bestseller. The novelist Kurt Tucholsky has a devastating sketch of a German equivalent of E.F. Benson’s Lucia: Mrs Steiner was from Frankfurt, not terribly young, alone and with black hair. She wore a different dress each night and sat quietly to read cultured books. She was a devoted follower of Stefan Zweig. With that, everything has been said. Some modern-day readers might find themselves agreeing with Zweig’s sniggering colleagues. His prose is apt to sink into the embarrassing commonplace. In his autobiography about the…

Dubliners at one hundred

It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of  Transition Year, in June 1991.
Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke …

Defoe As Novelist

Defoe was nearly sixty when his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, appeared. He had been known to his contemporaries as a journalist and pamphleteer, however, long before he took overtly to fiction. The first work which brought him fame was The True-Born Englishman (1701), probably the most influential verse satire in English after Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. It was a defence of William III against those who thought that it was intolerable for a Dutch king to govern 'true-born Englishmen'. Defoe retorted that there was no such thing: We have been Europe's sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.He was no poet, although his crude vigour was undeniable. It is further evidenced in such couplets as: But English gratitude is always such
To hate the hand which doth oblige too much,and the famous opening: Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there:
And 'twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregatio…

Virginia Woolf: The Movies and Reality

People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how, for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed, naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangor a foretaste of the music of Mozart.

The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savors seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up, and seems about to hau…

How Toni Morrison fostered a generation of black writers

No. 2245 Elyria Avenue in Lorain, Ohio, is a two-story frame house surrounded by look-alikes. Its small front porch is littered with the discards of former tenants: a banged-up bicycle wheel, a plastic patio chair, a garden hose. Most of its windows are boarded up. Behind the house, which is painted lettuce green, there’s a patch of weedy earth and a heap of rusting car parts. Seventy-two years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison was born here, in this small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, which most citydwellers would consider “out there.” The air is redolent of nearby Lake Erie and new-mown grass.

From Morrison’s birthplace it’s a couple of miles to Broadway, where there’s a pizzeria, a bar with sagging seats, and a brown building that sells dingy and dilapidated secondhand furniture. This is the building Morrison imagined when she described the house of the doomed Breedlove family in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast co…

Virginia Woolf: Life Itself

One could wish that the psychoanalysts would go into the question of diary-keeping. For often it is the one mysterious fact in a life otherwise as clear as the sky and as candid as the dawn. Parson Woodforde is a case in point—his diary is the only mystery about him. For forty-three years he sat down almost daily to record what he did on Monday and what he had for dinner on Tuesday, but for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say. He does not unburden his soul in his diary; yet it is no mere record of engagements and expenses. As for literary fame, there is no sign that he even thought of it, and, finally, though the man himself is peaceable above all things, there are little indiscretions and criticisms which would have got him into trouble and hurt the feelings of his friends had they read them. What purpose, then, did the sixty-eight little books fulfill? Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his little manuscript books, he entered…

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love

James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.

The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective …