Author Archives: David Gelber

Huck Finn as a Female – All in a Good Cause

Posted on by David Gelber

To understand the full impact of Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley’s latest book, you need to look back to January 1996, when Smiley published ‘Say It Ain’t So, Huck’, an essay in Harper’s Magazine on classic American literature that infuriated many readers. Smiley sharply criticised Mark Twain, praised Harriet Beecher Stowe, and argued that ‘the canonisation […]

Tales of Derring-Do

Posted on by David Gelber

John Barrow has been called the father of Arctic exploration. ‘In fact,’ says Fergus Fleming firmly in his jolly new book, ‘he was the father of global exploration.’ Barrow was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty in 1804, and except for a brief hiatus between 1806 and 1807, he remained at his post until 1845. […]

America’s Delusion

Posted on by David Gelber

In his superb American Pastoral, Philip Roth displayed signs of wanting to examine his kind of people in greater philosophic depth: Swede Lermontov, a Newark Jew who has moved to the mink-and-manure belt, finds that his attempts to become an American, freed from his immigrant antecedents and his religion, are tragically foiled. The agent of […]

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Lost Her Strangeness

Posted on by David Gelber

All animals are now effectively domesticated. Thanks to mass illustration, Disney, and half a century of TV zoologists, it is virtually impossible to be stunned or awed by beast or bird: intrigued, surprised, amused, occasionally shit-scared; impressed by their organisation, tickled by their tricks; but not stunned or awed. Perhaps this emotional absence explains the […]

An Unknown Author Who Put God in His Place

Posted on by David Gelber

‘The patience of Job’ is a popular nineteenth-century concept. I know of no serious or studious reader of Job since, and including, the poet Shelley who ever thought of Job as a patient man. Professor Scheindlin attacks the concept without need. That apart, he has given us a beautiful new translation and a profound commentary […]

A Pleasant Collection of Bits and Pieces

Posted on by David Gelber

The Oxford Book of English Prose, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, appeared in November 1925, exactly twenty-five years after The Oxford Book of English Verse. The immense success of the latter, although it was far from being the first or the best of verse anthologies, explains why the editor was already Sir Arthur. Deservedly, no doubt. […]

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Burma Discovered through a Shapely Basket

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1988 Rory MacLean got on the wrong plane in Hong Kong and went to Burma by accident. The year after that, the dictators put down a popular uprising by killing more than five thousand people, and the State Law and Order Restoration Council switched the country’s official English name to Myanmar in an attempt […]

Monster of Superhuman Energy and Moral Vigour

Posted on by David Gelber

Before settling on the idea of writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy nurtured a project of writing an historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great. For several years he conducted extensive research in archives and published works, and eventually became proficient in understanding both the political events and the men and manners […]

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In the End, She Preferred Sartre

Posted on by David Gelber

It started with ardour and ended in bitterness, this affair which Simone de Beauvoir described as ‘the only truly passionate love in my life’. Documented in more than three hundred letters, her affair with the American writer Nelson Algren introduced her to the physical pleasure she had never found with Jean-Paul Sartre – and threatened […]

Initiation into Despair

Posted on by David Gelber

There is a recurrent grumble that ‘colonial’ writers are unfairly over-represented on every short-list of every literary prize. It arises from the belief that novels from overseas (and particularly from India) are overrated. Novels like this one, however, suggest that any over-representation is perfectly justified. The quality of the writing in The God of Small […]

Nobody Loves Them, Nobody Cares

Posted on by David Gelber

In the new boastful atmosphere being encouraged by Tony Blair, where Britons are supposed to take pride in the notion that we make the best vacuum cleaners, the best pop music, design the best cushions, nobody has had much to say about the nation’s writers. In fact, it was noticeable that once again in this […]

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When Neutrality Becomes a Cause for Scandal

Posted on by David Gelber

Fort anyone who has ever worked for an international humanitarian, human rights or development organisation, Caroline Moorehead’s engrossing history of the Red Cross describes familiar problems: the internal political wrangling; the clash of strong-willed personalities; the tensions between international headquarters and local branches; the perpetual disagreements over strategy and message. All these appeared during the […]

Secrets of the Oxford English Dictionary

Posted on by David Gelber

No doubt I will not be the last to remark that this is the most fascinating book Patrick McGrath did not write. It has all the ingredients of one of McGrath’s icily stylish novels: madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of po-faced, high neo-Gothic. The geographical span […]

How Two Great Americans See One Garbage Dump

Posted on by David Gelber

Suddenly and unprecedently, there are writers in the US displaying peak form in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. This really isn’t supposed to happen: the American novelist’s destiny is to burn himself out young like a sports star or drown his talent in booze. Books about oldies are consequently rare – even the émigré […]

Even So, He Had No Right to Beat Up Bibbles

Posted on by David Gelber

One man lived D H Lawrence’s life; it has taken three to write it. John Worthen covered D H Lawrence: The Early Years 1885–1912; Mark Kinkead-Weekes was responsible for the middle stretch, D H Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912–1922. Now David Ellis, to whom the home straight was assigned, has carried the story to the […]

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Woe be Unto Thee, O Moab!

Posted on by David Gelber

My December sermon from the pulpit, as a few people may remember, ended with a paean of praise and thanks to Stephen Fry, who kindly agreed to present the prizes at the Literary Review’s annual award for Bad Sex in Fiction – won this year by Nicholas Royle, whose original and stimulating novel The Matter […]

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No Literary Mafia in This House

Posted on by David Gelber

Several people have enquired why we carried no review of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is my Washpot (Hutchinson £16.99), in a magazine which boasts of its efforts to cover all the month’s worthwhile books at the beginning of the month they are due to appear. They will be puzzled to see no review even in […]

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How Britain’s European Future was Compromised

Posted on by David Gelber

This year’s Conservative Party Conference at Blackpool resembled a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous or a gathering of the pre-war Oxford Group, when participants made public confessions of their sins to all their fellow members. Former Ministers queued up to confess to faults of harshness, intolerance, sleaze and all the other political sins. There was one […]

Still Writing Fiction, All Those Seatons Later

Posted on by David Gelber

There is something almost touching about the fact that Alan Sillitoe is still writing fiction. It is thirty-nine years since he ambled on to the scene with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, accompanied by a cluster of aggressive young writers who briskly switched the focus of the novel from the cosy delusions of the middle […]

An Actress, perhaps, but Granny was not a Tart

Posted on by David Gelber

Valerie Susie Langdon was born in the gutter – and stayed there – until the night in 1878 when she walked into the bar of the Horseshoe Tavern in Tottenham Court Road and met Henry Meux, the feckless, dissipated and weak-willed heir to a brewery across the street. The two married, in haste and in […]

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