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Showing posts from January, 2014

What She Was and What She Felt Like - Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter died at the age of 90. She had one of those very long lives the sickly, with their bronchial troubles and early threats of tuberculosis, achieve as a surprise to us and perhaps to themselves. It was just two years ago, in September 1980, that she died and now we have a biography devoted to this long life.

Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict and make in this way a sort of completed picturepuzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together. They also make a consistent fiction, the fiction being the arrangement, artful or clumsy, of the documents.

Biography cast a chill over the late years of some writers and, perhaps from their reading the lives of those they had known in the toosolid flesh, provoked the insistent wish that no life be written. Among those who wished for no life after life were W.H. Auden, George Orwell and T.S. Eliot. The result has been two lives alrea…

Hanif Kureishi interview: 'Every 10 years you become someone else'

The first time I met Hanif Kureishi it was the mid-80s, and we talked about writing fiction for Faber and Faber whose list I was directing. Kureishi came into my office like a rock star and I remember thinking that he did not seem in need of a career move. He was already riding high on the international success of his screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette.

In fact, Kureishi was cannily pondering his next step. He was on the lookout for a means of self-expression that might sustain a way of life and over which he could have some control. Movies, he said, were chancy, a gold-rush business. There was money in novels and a mood of great expectations as a new generation of writers, especially from the Commonwealth, came through. I had just published Caryl Phillips's first novel, The Final Passage, and Kureishi expressed a quite competitive desire to outdo his Caribbean rival. Four years later, he completed The Buddha of Suburbia in which, as a sly nod to my role in its gestation, I got a …

Chick noir: a thoroughly modern Victorian marriage thriller

The "marriage thriller" is taking over the world, sprawling across bookshop tables and muscling into the multiplex. But maybe our new-found love of "chick noir" is not so new after all. The darker side of matrimony has been fuelling powerful plots of passion and betrayal since the dawn of time – from Othello to Bluebeard and from Medea to Ford Madox Ford's modernist masterpiece The Good Soldier – but in this era of austerity the new wave of domestic thrillers looks back to the golden age of marriage noir: the 19th century.

Sensation fiction exploded on to the mid-Victorian literary scene after the huge success of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859), credited by Henry James with "having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors". The Victorians were fascinated by the notion of hypocrisy amongst the new middle class, a fascination which sensation fiction answered by domesticating the c…

Privileged or Imprisoned in the Anglo-Irish Big House?

The Anglo-Irish Big House is a historical structure that has been employed for various purposes in the literature of a variety of Irish authors. In reality, an Anglo-Irish Big House was big only in comparison to the peasant cottages and hovels dotting the Irish countryside; a Big House was a far cry from a castle or a palace, for example. And yet the Big House represented in a very concrete way the comparative wealth and power of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy as a class as they spraddled the chasm between the colonized, impoverished, predominantly Catholic, Gaelic Irish and their colonizers, the imperialistic English. Due, no doubt, to the fascinating identity conflicts and unique social predicaments of the figurative space the Anglo-Irish occupied in Ireland, Irish authors have long been interested in depicting the literal space, the Big House, within which the Anglo-Irish lived. Perhaps the most intriguing conflicts and predicaments in both the historical and the literary Big Houses in…

Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

It only makes sense that a novelist of such long tenure, one so preoccupied with the slippery nature of time, should actually write a novel on the subject of “prolepsis”—the anticipation of future events. Drabble uses the adjectival form of the word frequently in her new novel, beginning with the first sentence: “What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.” When one notices its insistent reuse, by a writer of such verbal precision, consulting the dictionary seems a good idea.

It turns out that prolepsis has several meanings, a cluster of meanings, some of them overlapping, which form a suggestive arrangement of ideas. As well as “anticipatory,” proleptic can also mean (in an apparent reversal of the first meaning) “anachronistic.” In rhetoric, prolepsis occurs when one preemptively raises objections to one’s own argument and then refutes them. Used in a medical context, it may refer to a series of “proleptic seizures,” in which …

Anne Brontë: the unsung sister, who turned the gaze on men

She's part of a literary dynasty that has dominated English literature for nearly 200 years, her sisters' books are on the national curriculum and hardly a Christmas goes by without a Brontë adaption. So why has Anne Brontë been forgotten? I know, I know, you haven't forgotten her, you read her all the time, you've got Agnes Grey in your hand right now. But in comparison to her sisters, Anne is not read. Her books aren't on the curriculum, she only shows up in must-read lists in combination with her famous siblings and most people would struggle to name her other book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

The problem with Anne was that she refused to glamorise violent, oppressive men. While Charlotte and Emily were embracing the concept of the brooding, abusive byronic hero, Anne preferred quiet, supportive men. Her heroes are curates and farmers, men who look after their mothers and resist the temptation to imprison or exile unwanted wives..

The contrast between Anne and h…

What Is It About Middlemarch?

The most scathing piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read is an essay, published in 1856, called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” It begins like this:
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these—a composite order of feminine fatuity—that produces the largest class.The author then describes the many literary offenses these fatuous females commit. They are incompetent at verisimilitude: “Their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” They are as unoriginal, stylewise, as teenage girls cozily wearing one another’s clothes: “The lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow.” They have the audacity to pronounce on important matters, as if “an amazing…

Jerk Reaction - Walter Benjamin

It is hard to write a biography about a person who hides. Walter Benjamin really hid. The great critic and philosopher hid, often enough, right there in his writings. They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations sin…

A singular woman - Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner, who is 80, came late to writing. She was 53, a teacher at the Courtauld Institute with a distinguished academic career, when she published her first book, in 1981, the aptly titled A Start in Life. Three years later she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Hotel du Lac. For a long time afterwards Brookner produced a novel a year with clockwork regularity – the first glimmer of summer, a new Brookner – the fruits of what she wrily calls 'displacement activity'. But in recent years her productivity has slowed. Her new novel, Strangers, is the first in four years. Friends, lunch companions, see less of her. There is the unspoken sense that she is withdrawing. Brookner, who once described her ambition as 'to be unnoticed', rarely gives interviews – has not given one, as far as I can tell, for some 12 years.

Everything I had heard about her made her sound formidable. An old acquaintance talked about her intense privacy, and her 'fierce intelligence&…

The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

The desk at which Hilary Mantel writes is pushed up against a window with a view out to sea. The sea isn’t in the distance, spotted between hills. It’s there, almost at her doorstep, the shingle beach just across the road. To write, she sits at her computer facing the large window and the sea can fill her vision. It’s the kind of view that swallows time. There is no sign of human life; nothing except waves and clouds. On her computer desktop, Mantel has put an image: a photograph of the view from her window. “It reminds me to actually look up from the screen,” she says.

Every summer, there is a music festival in Bud­leigh Salterton, Devon. From the flat where she lives with her husband, Gerald McEwen, Mantel can walk along the beach into town in ten minutes or so. Last year, once she’d realised that she was writing not one, not two, but three books about Thomas Cromwell, once she’d realised that the second was going to end with Anne Boleyn’s beheading, once the title – Bring Up the Bod…

Notes from Underground - Ivan Klima

Ivan Klíma, the prolific and irrepressible Czech novelist, essayist, and playwright, belongs to the remarkable cohort of Czech writers and artists who came to the world’s attention in the 1960s and went on to produce some of their best work in the following two decades, either in exile or in conditions of heavy repression at home. They included people of formidable talent but wildly different temperaments, among them Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and many others not as well known abroad but of no less importance in the revival of culture and politics they helped to bring about.

In retrospect, there is something improbable and even astonishing about the very existence of this group. Its appearance coincided with the brutal imposition on Czechoslovakia of Soviet communism, a system not known for encouraging free expression in the arts or anywhere else. Yet in the first two decades of communism, from 1948 to 1968…

Doris Lessing's London diary

An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive …

The reluctant patriot: how George Orwell reconciled himself with England

Since whoever we are (save for a few sad Leninists) we all agree with George Orwell, it usually follows that Orwell must agree with us. Whatever our 21st-century predilections, Tory or leftist, conservative or progressive, we discover blessings and endorsements somewhere in Orwell’s words. We grab him for ourselves.

In English Rebel, Professor Robert Colls grabs Orwell for an idea of national affiliation. Colls offsets his attempt by disclaiming any such ambition. “There is no ‘key’ to Orwell,” he writes at the end of his introduction, “any more than he is a ‘box’ to open. His Englishness, though, is worth following through.” A modest grab, then – and, as we shall see, a good grab. But a grab nonetheless.

George Orwell was, argues Colls, “deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of soc…

Julian Barnes on the late, great Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald liked to begin her late novels with quiet acts of indirection. The first sentence of The Blue Flower contains a disrupting double negative; The Beginning of Spring opens with a character leaving the very city where most of the book's action is going to take place. We are being put on our guard, politely warned not to take things for granted. But neither of these novels begins in as apparently wrong-footing a way as Innocence. Though the novel is to be set in Florence in 1955, its first chapter plants us back in mid-16th-century Italy, at the Villa Ricordanza, inhabited by the Ridolfis, a family of aristocratic midgets. The Ridolfis dote on their young daughter, and so practise many kindly deceptions to convince her that her genetic condition, far from being a handicap, is not even an aberration. She is surrounded only by those the same size as herself, and is never allowed to leave the villa to discover the truths of the outside world. She is also provided with…

Happy Birthday, “O Pioneers!” - Willa Cather

In the old days, women writers tended to start their careers late, and I’ll bet that, on average, they still do. When I was young, people trying to encourage us held up the example of George Eliot, whose first novel, “Adam Bede,” was published when she was almost forty. Later, we learned a more amazing story, that of Penelope Fitzgerald, who started publishing fiction at the age of nearly sixty and, before dying at eighty-three, brought out nine novels and had a brilliant career. She won the Man Booker Prize.

Another member of this group was Willa Cather (1873-1947), from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the daughter of a small-time insurance agent with five children and no money. Somehow Cather managed to go to college, and to become a writer, of small things: reviews, stories. By her thirties, she had acquired a very good job, as the managing editor of McClure’s, an important New York magazine. She got to go to Europe and meet famous writers. But secretly she herself wanted to be a writer. She w…