Author Archives: Jonathan Beckman

Take it Rafting

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Traditional university teaching in the United States used to include a compulsory course on the history of Western civilisation, starting with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and proceeding by weekly instalments to the most recent technological triumphs of American genius. This was the staple food of first–year students. Felipe Fernández–Armesto, an Oxford academic with an appetite […]

The Decline and Fall of a Friendship

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Just occasionally, a book is published that transports the reader through time and space to another world. The world in question here is that of Habsburg Mitteleuropa: a place of duels and balls, opera and cafés. It is a rickety, multinational empire of ten languages, and at least twice as many minorities, all ruled over […]

Wang Dejia

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Beijing’s successful bid for the Olympics in 2001 caused consternation amongst campaign groups who believed China’s appalling human rights record did not merit her winning this opportunity. However, there were many who argued that the international platform would encourage the Chinese authorities to be more responsive to pressure from other countries. If anything, though, China’s […]

Wine and Sympathy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In our fickle world, thank goodness for Joanna Trollope! Every year or two for the last twenty she has reliably produced one of her engaging, yet grittily perceptive, contemporary dramas about problems facing ordinary people. Granted, they are often quite genteel ordinary people, which perspective crowned her queen of the ‘Aga saga’ in the early […]

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Sweet and Sour

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Many years ago in Taiwan I used to drink the juice of the suanmei, the sour plum. It was bitter, sweet, sour and astringent. The six stories in The Budding Tree are rather like that. Their six central characters are career women: they teach, make hairpins, paint, run restaurants and are famous singers. They are […]

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Media Madness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Of the handful of novels written solely in dialogue, such as Losing Battles by Eudora Welty, JR by William Gaddis or Deception by Philip Roth, the most successful have been the books that have to be told in dialogue alone, such as Nicholson Baker’s Vox. A book-length conversation between two people on a sex-line, Baker’s […]

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Loving Lily

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Perpetual Orgy is the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s non-fiction tribute to Madame Bovary. ‘The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy’, wrote Flaubert. Vargas Llosa has been making love to Flaubert for most of his life and here the orgy continues. The Bad Girl […]

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Odi et Amo

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Latinity is in vogue, with an abundance of classically situated novels for children, novels for adults, historical constructions, feminist deconstructions, historical re-appraisals, horticultural treatises, and even, whisper it, do-it-yourself language manuals, drawn up in colourful array along the bookshop shelves, although that language remains sadly absent from the nation’s classrooms. And so, timely and pleasurable […]

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Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is a bravura to Peter Carey’s new novel, an in-your-face energy that reminds one of – well, other novels by Peter Carey. He establishes a voice so fast, and with such assurance, that the reader is swept into the story without a moment’s doubt: ‘There were no photographs of the boy’s father in the […]

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From Camden to the Taliban

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

James Meek’s novel follows his hugely acclaimed The People’s Act of Love (2005), a historical epic set in northern Russia in 1919. Here, by contrast, is a novel set in recent years, in which the hero-in-crisis, Adam Kellas, is a liberal, left-wing foreign correspondent and novelist who has enough in common with the author to […]

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A Pause in Dying

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Gulliver’s Travels Swift presented such aberrations of nature as people the size of mice, giants towering like steeples and ancients doomed to immortality. This novel by the Portuguese writer and 1998 Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is based, as were two of its predecessors, on similar subversions of the natural order, with fantasy becoming, […]

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Hidden Treasure

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

You wouldn’t have thought it possible for great works of Holocaust literature to continue to emerge, over six decades after the event. But it is. In 2006 we had Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, famously hidden in a suitcase for sixty years. In 2004 we had Béla Zsolt’s Nine Suitcases, written in 1946-7 and first published […]

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Caught Red-Handed

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon on us,’ wrote Keats, and the same could be said about novels that tackle the big questions of our day. Will the characters be too on-message? Will the author lecture us? Maggie Gee’s novels show this doesn’t have to be the case. Although contemporary issues abound […]

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Becoming Brother Suleyman

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

American writer John Wray’s fifth novel, a work of steady-handed literary chutzpah, is about a white Westerner who, beguiled by Islamic culture, travels across the world to protect a ‘Muslim state against its enemies’. For most of the early part of the 20th century, the common image of this sort of character was the dashing […]

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End of the Affair

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It takes skill as a writer to give away your book’s ending in its opening pages and still leave your reader hooked. In the prologue to Slack-Tide, the narrator, Elizabeth, recalls first meeting Robert, the man who would become her lover. ‘I was unprepared for what was to come,’ she writes. ‘By midsummer the thing […]

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Spectator Sport

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

BERTRAND RUSSELL pointed out a time ago that men’s aims were determined by their passions, the role of the intellect being limited to finding the means of implementing them. The behaviour and utterances of our intellectual leaders worshiping totalitarian regimes or regarding them as ‘interesting experiments’ confirm the truth of this observation. But our respect […]

Another King Alfred

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

IN THE early nineteenth century the Tennysons were an utterly undistinguished family trying to struggle up from minor to less minor gentry status in the middle of Lincolnshire. Their affairs were complicated by hypochondria, hot temper and drugs – alcohol, opium and nicotine. It also happened that one of them, unknown to the rest, was […]

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