Author Archives: Jonathan Beckman

Love in the Time of Crisis

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sally Rooney’s new novel, her third in four years, is a passionate, earnest, vulnerable, often affecting and above all dysfunctional piece of work. It’s at once another instalment in her serial portrait of the bookish, fidgety, sexually avid Irishwoman born circa 1990 and a reckoning of sorts with doubts about Rooney-mania – her own as well as those expressed in what the narrator, describing the reception handed out to the not un-Rooney-like heroine, a superstar novelist

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Mental Bonfire

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Long before Freud, dreams occupied a uniquely problematic position in literature. They have traditionally been seen as embodying the raw unmediated material of literary creation, the pure clay of inspiration before words – too base or too sophisticated – mould the affective charge out of it. Dreams recounted in writing demonstrate the irreducible opposition between […]

Here Be Barbarians

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The wind was blowing, the sky was overcast, and I felt homesick on the day I first saw the Black Sea. I had arrived in Odessa that morning, after three months of travel; my companion, the only person I knew in the city, was a native Russian-speaker with Ukrainian nationality, German ancestry and a Polish […]

Infectious Bravado

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There’s a conversation in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools in which Jenny Brown (one of several women characters in the novel with a strong resemblance to Porter) rhapsodises to her unresponsive lover, David, about her memories of Veracruz. David protested this memory coldly, doubtfully. ‘You never told me this before’, he said. ‘I hope […]

A Good Way to Die

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This book is a magnificent achievement. By examining the lives of four women caught up in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, Professor Preston casts a fresh light on the bitter struggle between the Nationalist rebels and the defenders of the legal, democratic Republic, and also on the domestic faction fights that bedevilled each side. […]

David Profumo drops in on Martin Amis  

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

On the first occasion I met Martin Amis I was impelled to thrust a single upturned finger in his direction. He was out, leg before, victim of a googly delivered by a coke-crazed Australian clad in luminescent jeans. It was a dubious decision, and the author of Money gave me a disdainful leer. More recently, […]

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The Swabbling of Auden

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the narrator is a maniac named Kinbote who, in the guise of providing scholarly notes to a poem, ignores the poet’s obvious intentions and manages feverishly to recount his own demented autobiography – to hilarious effect. Since life imitates art, our greatest poet of public life, WH Auden, has found […]

The Great American Novelist?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Among the dozen or so figures who dominated American writing in the half-century following the war, Philip Roth stands as the great defier of his times, and of time itself. Author of The Counterlife, a novel built on realising parallel possibilities, as well as the counterfactual The Plot Against America, he was a chronology scrambler, a walking

The Great Leap Backward

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Commenting on an argument in the Labour Party some years ago as to who should write the manifesto Frank Johnson once asked: ‘who should read it?’ It was a good question, since nothing written by human hand is quite as dull as a British Party political manifesto. Many months ago, as a duty to the […]

Interview with Alice Munro

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Alice Munro is one of Canada’s leading writers. Her work is popular throughout North America, she is a regular contributor to the New Yorker, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and compared – favourably – with Henry James and Proust. It would be reasonable to expect such a woman to display more than a […]

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Splendid – but What About that Husband?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Most of us still talk of “Mrs Gaskell”,’ writes Jenny Uglow at the beginning of her splendid new biography. Like Samuel Johnson, Elizabeth Gaskell has long been saddled with a cumbersome, misleading (and, in Gaskell’s case, vaguely demeaning) handle; and so before even opening Uglow’s life, we can take heart at its apt and promising […]

Runaway Train

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Slavenka Drakulić is a Croat. ‘Two years ago, if you mentioned that you came from Croatia (which you probably wouldn’t mention anyway, because you knew it wouldn’t make sense to a foreigner) people would look at you in bewilderment repeating the unknown name with a question mark…’ Things are completely different now. ‘…whereas before, I […]

Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Among contemporary American writers, Pynchon is the chief practitioner of what Gore Vidal calls the R&D Novel, as distinguished from the R&R Novel. (For those unfamiliar with this sort of terminology, I should explain that R&D is corporate shorthand for Research and Development, R&R Bilko-ese for Rest and Recreation. Vidal takes, or took, a stern […]

Coming of Age

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Surely even the literary world’s most sagacious commentators couldn’t have anticipated a Booker Prize shortlist quite like the one we have this year: six books, four of them debuts and, for good or ill, only one written by a UK citizen. That book is Shuggie Bain, the gritty first novel by Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart. […]

Missing Links

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When I was five years old, my oldest half-brother came one evening to say goodnight. With him was the most beautiful person I have ever seen. She leaned over my bed to kiss me and said ‘Shane and I are going to get married’. I decided at once she was a princess and asked if […]

With Sensitivity

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I have not watched a single screen second of the BBC’s adaptation of Tender is the Night and have not the slightest intention of ever doing so. Nor, if you are half the reader I take you for, will you. I understand from some friends that the piece is, in fact, excellently done: beautifully filmed, […]

Discretion, C’est Tout

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Political wives and husbands do not have an enviable lot, and Prime Ministers’ consorts are no exception. Theirs is a thankless task – whether they forget their own identity and faithfully support their spouse as the other half, or try and retain a semblance of independence by doing their own thing. Either way it’s a […]

Written in Blood

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library begins with a question. ‘Which books’, he wonders, ‘would inhabit the shelves of the greatest library of literary curiosities, put together by a collector unhindered by space, time and budget?’ It’s a rather flimsy peg on which to hang this ragbag of bibliographical oddities, but no matter. There are enough […]

Go With the Floe

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Britain the North Pole no longer enjoys the iconic status of its southern counterpart. We celebrate the men who slogged their way across the bloodless Antarctic ice fields, battling fathomless crevasses, withering blizzards and pesky Norwegians to plant the Union Jack at the South Pole. Yet in the nineteenth century, and at the beginning […]

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