At the Ballot Box

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is an ambitious work. Professor Jefferys’s goal is to write history from the bottom up. He shuns the doings of politicians climbing the greasy pole, with their battles over policies and personalities. At first sight it seems odd for a study of twentieth-century politics to have an index that contains no reference to George […]

‘My Soul Is Scorched’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Saul Friedländer was born in Prague in 1932 into a German-oriented Jewish middle-class home. The family emigrated to France in 1939 ahead of the Nazi occupation, but their security was short-lived. After the Germans conquered France, Friedländer’s parents put him in a Catholic seminary where he was soon on track for the priesthood. They later […]

On the Stein Trail

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Good question: how did two Jewish lesbians survive in Nazi-occupied France? Janet Malcolm addresses the mystery. Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B Toklas, both from Jewish-American business families, refused all suggestions that they return to the United States or steal quietly into neutral Switzerland. Instead they stayed put, mainly at Bilignin, their village in […]

Lady of Letters

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Harriet Martineau (1802–76) is clearly an important figure, being the first Englishwoman to write systematically and powerfully on economics and politics. Her output in books, newspapers and magazine articles was enormous, and she won the respect of a vast range of figures, from Dickens and Carlyle to Melbourne and Gladstone. But she is a difficult […]

Love’s Lodgings Lost

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1909, sifting through bundles of unindexed papers in the Public Record Office, an American scholar called Charles William Wallace came across the twenty-six depositions that make up the Belott–Mountjoy case. These concern a man who in 1612 was prosecuting his father-in-law for an unpaid dowry in the Jacobean equivalent of a small claims court. […]

Indian Inspiration

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Nearly forty years ago I used sometimes to encounter Rudyard Kipling’s only surviving child, Mrs Elsie Bambridge, while walking along the path in front of her stately home, Wimpole Hall, near Cambridge. A solid lady in tweeds, occasionally carrying a shotgun, she would emerge from the red-brick pile (which now belongs to the National Trust) […]

The Dorset Proust

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is not hard to understand why John Cowper Powys has never had the recognition he deserves as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable novelists. Until he was nearly sixty he earned his living as an itinerant lecturer, much of the time in America, where he thrilled his audiences by his seeming ability to […]

The Hound of Heaven

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When I was young, someone for whom I forgot about writing for a long time gave me, with irresistible irony, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. I loved it from the start, and go back to it regularly, both when I’m writing and when I’m not. It’s a glorious companion in both conditions. The enemies of […]

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Lydia Cacho

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In October 2005, Lydia Cacho, a Mexican writer and investigative journalist, was charged with ‘defamation’ and calumny. She had published a book entitled Los Demonios del Edén: El poder detrás de la pornografía (‘The Demons of Eden: The Power Behind Pornography’), an exposé of a Mexican child pornography ring which produced videos for sale in […]

A Recipe For Disaster

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The End of Mr Y is bit of a cracker. That it achieves this read-it-in-a-weekend status in spite of its rather drab prose and cringeworthy dialogue is testament to Scarlett Thomas’s innate storytelling skills. However far-fetched this tale of self-abuse, alternative dimensions and, occasionally, self-abuse in alternative dimensions becomes, it remains believable on its own […]

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Aural Antics

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

A sound knowledge of the works of J S Bach would be an asset in approaching Peter Høeg’s new literary thriller. Its protagonist, Kaspar Krone, is a famous circus clown with a special gift: an ability to hear people’s auras and hence to deduce all kinds of things about them, from illness to abuse. Sometimes […]

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Trouble For Tony

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Robert Harris’s bullet-paced thriller, The Ghost, traces the downfall of a charismatic former Labour prime minister whose political stardom is shattered for being too closely associated with some of the more morally repugnant decisions done in the name of the War on Terror. It will make particularly uncomfortable reading for Tony Blair. Indeed, Harris’s statesman […]

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Dirty Dwight

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

India is the setting for this short-fiction triptych from inveterate traveller Paul Theroux. And indeed, in its focus on the tales of tourists puzzling over quirks and mysteries of a foreign land, one might easily take it to be another of his travelogues. Might, that is, if it weren’t for all the sex. The first […]

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Wild Justice

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill’s novel of the same title, is now one of the longest-running plays in the West End. It has made the author a wealthy woman in a way that nobody who read her handful of striking early novels could have predicted. Two of these, Strange Meeting (about the […]

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A Grizzly Wake

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is odd to read a novel one simultaneously admires and loathes. The admiration is for the book’s intelligence, lack of sentimentality and often extraordinary phrase-making: the loathing is for the relentless navel-gazing, intensity and bleakness of the narrator, Veronica Hegarty, as she drags us along on her journey around her parents, grandparents and brother […]

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A Russian Doll

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The publicity materials accompanying Douglas Coupland’s eleventh novel, The Gum Thief, claim that he ‘is fast becoming an icon for the modern age’. This sounds more like a punishment than an achievement, and it’s easy to find parallels between Coupland and Roger Thorpe, the divorced, middle-aged wannabe novelist protagonist of his latest book.

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The Horror

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Alice Sebold is a master of openings. Who can forget the beginning of The Lovely Bones: ‘After I was dead, I thought about how there had been the light scent of cologne in the air…’. And now: ‘After all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ It’s not mere sensationalism: The Lovely Bones […]

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The Young and the Old

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fire in the Blood was probably written during the two years Irène Némirovsky lived with her family in Issy-l’Evêque, a small village in southern Burgundy, before her deportation to Auschwitz in July 1942 and subsequent death from typhoid. Like Suite Française (winner of France’s prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2004), the manuscript for the novel – […]

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Darkness Falls

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sándor Márai’s third novel to appear in English is a tale of four young men, neither quite boys nor yet adults, fearful of what is to come, clinging to the last vestiges of childhood. Written well before Embers and Casanova in Bolzano, The Rebels explores, as they did, the ways in which people imagine their […]

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