The Land of Zog

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Owen Pearson, a former prep school master, is eighty-seven this year. One of the last of a small band of Britons whose active fascination with all things Albanian was born before the Second World War, he is also now the author of a remarkable modern history: a study of Albania in the twentieth century that […]

The Battle for Budapest

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Of all the capitals of Central Europe, Budapest exudes the most powerful sense of history. Take a stroll through the Belvaros – the downtown area – at night, and it’s easy to imagine the rumble of tanks, or the ghosts of sharpshooters and street-fighters from 1956 flitting across the roofs. Fine old Habsburg apartment buildings […]

Finest Hour

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

John Betjeman put it succinctly: Keep our Empire undismembered Guide our Forces by Thy Hand, Gallant blacks from far Jamaica, Honduras and Togoland; Protect them Lord in all their fights, And, even more, protect the whites. (From ‘In Westminster Abbey’) Historians of the Second World War have increasingly seen it as a gigantic showdown between […]

Bismarck’s Bastion

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Prussia: the word evokes immediate stereotypical images. The ramrod-straight Junker, his head rectangular, a monocle screwed into his eye, an ornate Pickelhaube topping him off. There is probably also a waxed moustache, and highly polished boots whose heels wait to click. Yet Prussia is also, unlike most states and nations whose histories come to be […]

A Marmoreal Mind

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1992 Peter Owen published an excellent life of Anna Kavan by David Callard. That he should now so soon publish another by Jeremy Reed is an indication of his enthusiasm for this demanding but infinitely rewarding author. The two biographies differ in that Callard excels as a chronicler of the life and Jeremy Reed […]

The Dark Prince of Providence

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

H P Lovecraft, the American horror writer and master of ‘weird fiction’, lived in poverty and died in obscurity. This homage was published in Paris in 1991, when Michel Houellebecq was relatively unknown himself and establishing himself as a poet. It would be another three years before he brought out his first novel, Whatever, and […]

Kierkegaard & Chocolate

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Byron Rogers begins this charming and deftly written book about R S Thomas with a meditation on the question which ought to keep literary biographers awake at night: Why bother? Thomas himself put the matter succinctly in conversation with Rogers when he said that all we need to know about a writer’s life is in […]

Playmates

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One is tempted to say of Stanley Wells’s lucid, learned and somewhat paradoxical new book, Shakespeare and Co: if you know nothing about Shakespeare, start your reading here. Wells does a valiant job of trying to rescue the real writer from his own posthumous publicity. We all think we know the slightly rakish chap with […]

Poesy & Apostasy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Almost everyone knows the name of Robert Southey, though few of us can recall a single line of his poetry. Much admired in his lifetime, he is now rarely read. He is remembered largely as the associate of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a fact that would probably have astonished and certainly have enraged […]

A Notable Disliker Of Milk and Martyrdom

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is the details that delight. Donne hated milk. Mortally sick, about to celebrate his death by sitting for his portrait in a shroud, he was urged by his doctor that ‘by Cordials, and drinking milk twenty days together, there was a probability of his restoration to health’. Donne would have none of it. The […]

A Date with History

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Does the current publishing craze for history books stem from the fact that History is well taught as a subject in our schools, or badly? Are Britons buying so many history books and watching so many history programmes today because their interest in the subject was stimulated at a young age by inspirational teachers, or […]

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Dzhamshid Karimov

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Karimov senior creams off the cotton and gold revenues, has many palaces and a retinue. His nephew Karimov who has been taken off into custody far from being the residue that his uncle may presume is, as a journalist and human rights defender, fighting for freedom of expression. I ask you who is being more […]

In Byron’s Shadow

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the summer of 1816, when Byron and the Shelleys, stranded by heavy rain beside Lake Geneva, decided to amuse themselves by composing ghost stories (a diversion that led to Mary Shelley’s writing Frankenstein), they were accompanied by Byron’s physician, John Polidori, who joined the competition and began a supernatural tale of his own. The […]

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Friends, Fame, and War

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Javier Cercas’s first novel, Soldiers of Salamis, addressed the moral confusion of the Spanish Civil War and how it scarred a generation for life. The book was a deserved success and went on to become an international bestseller. His second novel, The Speed of Light, tackles a different conflict, the Vietnam War, and how it […]

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Friends and Lovers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Justin Cartwright has peculiar timing. As the cameraphone footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution diffuses over the Internet, he releases a novel that turns on a filmed hanging. Here, it is Nazi resistor Count Axel von Gottberg who has the noose placed around his neck and the camera trained on him, executed for his part in […]

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Delhi Mix

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

During the 40th anniversary of Indian independence in 1987, I interviewed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Delhi for The Independent. I admit to giving him an easy ride without reference to the breaking Bofors corruption scandal, which would for ever dog his name. For I lacked the confidence, and frankly the commitment, to enter the […]

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Guilt & Culpability

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As if to answer those who failed to see the preoccupations of her Booker Prize-nominated first novel, The Dark Room, as universal, rather than specifically German, Rachel Seiffert has returned to the same themes – culpability, guilt and accountability – in a second novel set largely in modern Britain. The novel tells the love story […]

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DT and the Maestro

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Unless I have drastically misunderstood his latest novel, I’m forced to conclude that, in his ninth decade, Norman Mailer has completely dropped his conkers. The Castle in the Forest is a preposterous book; a bafflingly preposterous book. It is, at least ostensibly, trying to tell us something about Adolf Hitler. But what on earth is […]

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