Author Archives: David Gelber

Germaine Greer Talks to Primo Levi

Posted on by David Gelber

Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919 into a family that he describes as being of the media borghesia. He graduated with honours in chemistry shortly before the racial laws prohibited Jews from taking academic degrees. In 1943, after the German occupation of northern Italy, he joined a group of partisans in the Val […]

He Sought Honour Amongst Thieves

Posted on by David Gelber

‘The whole human position is no longer tenable,’ announces a character early in William S Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. The story that Burroughs’s biographer Ted Morgan – whose previous subjects include Winston S Churchill, W Somerset Maugham and Franklin D Roosevelt – tells in Literary Outlaw is that of someone who has spent an […]

The Government Inspector

Posted on by David Gelber

This book is Gorbachev’s attempt to explain two phenomena; the economic restructuring of the USSR and the pressing need for a drastic reassessment in superpower relations. It is divided into two parts of exactly equal length and is written with a vitality and enthusiasm now taken as characteristic of the Genera l Secretary. Unfortunately the […]

Roget Gets it in the Neck

Posted on by David Gelber

The New Collins Dictionary (‘concordance, encyclopaedia, glossary, lexicon, vocabulary, wordbook’) and Thesaurus proves beyond all measure of doubt that the simplest ideas arc always the best. Why, one wonders, has no one ever thought o f putting these two together before’ This is one of the most useful books I’ve ever possessed. My yellowing Roget’s […]

They’ve Got Their Little Lists

Posted on by David Gelber

I pick up a new novel by Lucy Ellmann with high hopes, expecting to be entertained and savaged in equal measure. On the strength of two previous novels – Sweet Desserts and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness – she has established herself as a novelist with lots to say and a uniquely personal way of saying […]

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Maybe It’s Because He Was a Londoner

Posted on by David Gelber

Europe is a culture with an ancient wound, a fault line which has divided it since the sixteenth-century Reformation. The division between Catholic and Protestant Europe still runs deep even where religious practice has become a marginal activity: wretched news from Belfast picks at the scab every morning when we turn on Radio Four. In […]

Tough On Her Dad

Posted on by David Gelber

At first sight, Swede Levov is an unlikely protagonist for Philip Roth’s new novel. Ever since Alexander Portnoy’s celebrated complaint of 1969 ‘put the id back into yid’, Roth has specialised in transgressors – discontented trashers of Jewish, American and Jewish-American decencies. And this speciality reached a high point with his last novel, Sabbath’s Theater, […]

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Mix between Xenophobia and Health Fanaticism

Posted on by David Gelber

Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University, could not have chosen a better moment for the publication of Silent Travellers: Germs, Genes and the ‘Immigrant Menace’, for it coincides nicely with two trends in the United States. One is a morbid fascination with contagion, especially involving exotic, ‘killer’ strains like Ebola or the […]

Sad Genius Who Missed His Children Dreadfully

Posted on by David Gelber

Do great artists have a divine right to behave piggishly in the unswerving pursuit of their art? Do they have a divine right to take advantage of their friends’ affections, their cash, even their homes? Do they have a divine right to subjugate all personal relationships to their own personal karma? In most people’s eyes, […]

Zywny’s Pupil

Posted on by David Gelber

After their separation, George Sand asked for news of Chopin from their mutual friend Pauline Viardot, and said that she was unable ‘to repay his furor and hate. I think of him often as a sick child, embittered and lost.’ Jeremy Siepmann’s subtitle, The Reluctant Romantic, is the theme of his biography, in which he […]

A Blue Robe For Poor Henry

Posted on by David Gelber

Alison Weir has taken some splendid leading characters, a large cast, the shifting alliances and fortunes of the Wars of the Roses, and turned them into an exhilarating book. The first half of Lancaster & York explains the tangled background. The Lancastrian Henry IV usurped his cousin Richard II’s throne, leaving the way open for […]

Eastern Sage

Posted on by David Gelber

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) has been the subject of two different sets of misconceptions. After early literary success in the West his reputation dwindled almost to nothing. He had earlier won plaudits from poets as various as Eliot, Pound, Bridges, Owen and Yeats, but most of these quondam champions deserted him, until in the end only […]

Privacy Was an Obsession

Posted on by David Gelber

Elizabeth Bishop’s life, forever moving from place to place, unhappy in love, struggling with depression and alcoholism even when she was already recognised as one of America’s finest poets, has all the ingredients necessary for a sensational biography. How pleasing, therefore, to report that this is an ‘oral biography’, still an unusual form, in which […]

His Architecture Soaked in his Personality

Posted on by David Gelber

Dr Johnson dismissed Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy on the grounds that nothing odd would stand the test of time. The same could have been said about Sir John Soane, that unique and unclassifiable genius of British architecture. Although he received many honours and many public commissions (his forty years’ service as architect to the Bank […]

Brian Appleyard Talks To Tom Stoppard

Posted on by David Gelber

His lisp cannot easily be transliterated. The letter ‘R’ starts somewhere at the back of his throat and stays there. Words containing the letter are, therefore, afflicted with a strange hiatus, an unresolved gurgle. The effect is dandyish and childish at the same time: a paradox, in fact. One of many. ‘I want it to […]

He Knew What He Liked

Posted on by David Gelber

By the time I registered as a postgraduate student at the Warburg Institute in 1977, its former Director, Sir Ernst Gombrich, had already retired some years before and was a slightly mysterious figure, occasionally to be spotted shuffling through the bookstacks, and rumoured to be working on a history of attitudes towards primitivism. In the […]

Men or Supermen

Posted on by David Gelber

Advances in biotechnology are so rapid that within a decade reproductive scientists will be able to engineer the human germline not just to free fetuses from inherited disease, but to influence various aspects of normal fetuses so that the resulting individual will be genetically enhanced. This is not science fiction but science fact; it is […]

A Realist With Wings

Posted on by David Gelber

In Margaret Atwood’s brilliant new novel of nineteenth-century Canada there is a character called Jeremiah, a pedlar, whose diverse and enticing wares are welcomed in almost any house. Some of his linens and ribbons are new, and some are what is now known as  ‘previously owned’, but all are crisp, fresh and desirable. The pedlar […]

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In the Bullring

Posted on by David Gelber

Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters. The Sun Also Rises I went to Spain last summer to research a biography of Hemingway and to interview Antonio Ordónez and Luis Miguel Dominguin, the two greatest bullfighters since the death of Manolete in 1947. The nature of Hemingway’s relationship with these two […]

The Magic Wheel

Posted on by David Gelber

When asked why he never drank water, WC Fields replied, ‘Fish fuck in it’. The thought of water generally brings to mind fish. After the pursuit of women, the pursuit of fish is one of man’s oldest activities, the fish-hook one of his first inventions, and works on fishing among the very earliest in the […]

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