Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Cet Homme?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Houellebecq remains a very difficult writer to assess: a giant amongst pygmies, or a sensationalist fraud? He combines the misanthropy of Céline with the dystopian futurism of J G Ballard and the bad-tempered sex of Philip Roth. He is often lacking in subtlety, but can sometimes, as in the breathtaking epilogue to his last translated […]

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We Are Amused

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Over 800 pages long, this novel is impressive for the unflagging energy with which it covers stage after stage of a marathon in which it all too deliberately competes with the shades of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It is also impressive for the candour, denied to those two master storytellers, with which it illuminates the […]

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Pattern of a Shawl

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In a passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace the Countess Natasha Rostova performs an impromptu dance to a folk melody, in which her movements display an ‘inimitable and unteachable’ Russian spirit. This telling episode provides a starting point for a thrilling, occasionally dizzying exploration of the ‘Russian-nes’ of Russian culture, in which Orlando Figes guides […]

They had such a Good Time in the Olden Days

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Anne Smith has been annoying me, and I’m sure many other fiction lovers, for nearly a decade now. In 1981 she published a brilliant first novel called The Magic Glass which was a hilarious but touching story about a working class Scottish girl trying to get to grips with those three adolescent mysteries: sex, politics […]

Her Wise Voice and Her Eye for the Sad Truth

Posted on by Tom Fleming

I admire Mary Gordon extremely: I think she has written some of the strongest American novels of domestic and religious feelings in the last dozen years. But The Other Side, I am very sorry to say, is not one of them. It has some brilliantly painful scenes. One or two characters well up to Gordonian […]

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Did You Get Black Truffles on the Nose?

Posted on by Tom Fleming

On 14 June, Christie’s auctioned the cellar of a well-known wine authority and burnt Lloyd’s name. At the heart of the sale were two ‘super-lots’ of 195 and 197 cases, for each of which the reserve was a trifling £200,000-300,000. One sold for £200,000, the other for £340,000. Elsewhere, reserves were exceeded to such an […]

Not Everyone Agreed

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Frieda von Richthofen was fond of telling people that she was as interesting and important as her husband, D H Lawrence. Not everyone agreed. To the unconverted, the most extraordinary thing about her – putting aside her loud voice and immense capacity for smoking – was what might be called her freedom from sexual inhibitions. […]

Jungle Book

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Isabel Allende’s first novel for a younger audience, City of the Beasts, begins from a distinctly modern point of crisis. Alexander Cold’s mother is dying of cancer and her illness is tearing the family apart. Unable to cope, Alex’s father sends him to New York to stay with his grandmother, Kate. The older woman turns […]

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Self Portrait

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a retelling of many stories: the Faust and Doppelgänger myths, several Irish folk legends, and tales by Poe, Huysmans and Balzac. It is fitting, then, that Wilde’s story has itself been retold on many occasions: Max Beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite (1897) was the first adaptation, and Will […]

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A Gesture of Defiance

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Joseph Heller was once told that he had never written anything as good as Catch-22; he replied tersely, ‘Who has?’ Donna Tartt, too, has experienced the curse of an immensely successful first novel, which set an unwanted benchmark for future work. Her stylish debut, The Secret History, an icy portrayal of an elite group of […]

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It is Good She Has Gone to America

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

By chance the book world’s agitation over The Autograph Man coincided with the death of a friend of mine. William Cooper (the pseudonym of Harry Summerfield Hoff) died on 5 September at the advanced age of ninety-two. While his name may not mean very much to the crowd of young people lining up to offer […]

In Italy, He Could Live like a Lord

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Is there anything more to be written about Byron? Yes: plenty. Fiona MacCarthy has been given the run of the immense Murray archive and has come up with interesting discoveries. She is a pertinacious researcher, with a good nose for the telling detail. This is the best and certainly the most readable Byron biography since […]

A Flower That Had Grown in Darkness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like all Milan Kundera’s recent books, Ignorance was first written in French. Kundera refuses to write in Czech or to translate his work into his native language, claiming that it takes him a year to find the exact words and that no other words will do. Behind this seemingly professional attitude to the written word […]

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Funny Old America

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the course of his ramble through the derivations in the American dictionary, Bill Bryson dismantles most of the clichés of the making of America. The Pilgrim Fathers were a bedraggled collection of incompetents who landed far from Plymouth Rock. Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree. The Liberty Bell did not sound on […]

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All in Rancour, Envy And Tendentiousness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When the Independent was launched in 1986 one of its better ideas was to resist the temptation to cover its pages with articles and ‘exclusives’ about the lives and loves of members of the Royal Family. At the time this may have been due to a desire to differentiate itself from The Times, where, if […]

Sheer Heaven

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It’s hardly a likely setting for an epiphany, a party full of the rich, the richer and the richest, all ghastly, in a marquee shrouded in ‘wastes of grey velvet’. Not exactly where you’d expect a person to begin to pull himself out of the ‘malarial swamp’ of his self-disgust. But Some Hope is the […]

A Nation Insulted

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When Francis Fukuyama’s End of History was published a few years ago, it received some well-merited drubbings for its many theoretical shortcomings. It did, however, contain a piece of argument which was overlooked. Drawing on Hegel and Nietzsche, Fukuyama maintained that a prime motive for human struggle and political sacrifice was the need for recognition. […]

Shaken and Stirred

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The protagonists in Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories are united in one belief: that there is something indefinable missing from their lives, or, more precisely, from within themselves. We meet Komura, the initially contented hi-fi salesman whose self-image is shattered when his wife walks out leaving a note describing him as ‘a chunk of […]

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