From Treasure Island to Neverland

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It was always an annoyance that while Robert Louis Stevenson’s side of his correspondence with J M Barrie was available in the canonical Booth and Mehew edition of his letters, Barrie’s replies were presumed lost. It now turns out that they were, like Poe’s purloined letter, concealed in plain view, in the Beinecke Library at […]

Poet of Procrastination

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1957 John Berryman nursed high hopes of picking up a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award for his long poem Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, before being beaten to both those honours by the young Richard Wilbur. In his disappointment, he fired off a telegram to Wilbur at Columbia, only to learn from the […]


Posted on by Tom Fleming

Dear Sir, I find it rather hard to understand what you are trying to say from the Pulpit in the January edition. You inform us that N Tolstoy is a brave man and acted out of principle. This may be true, but bravery is sometimes indistinguishable from stupidity, and Tolstoy allied himself with another whose […]

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Off His Pedestal

Posted on by Tom Fleming

There are elements to the tragedy of Mozart’s life that touch us even if we are in that taxing minority who remain unmoved by his music. Here was a man of prodigious talent, dead at thirty-five, worn out by the effort of constantly performing -and constantly exercising his genius. He had the strain of supporting […]

Plath’s Passions

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Letters can be the most ordinary of documents, but a skilled letter-writer can adopt many guises. Faber’s second published volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters provides more evidence that much of the delight of writing letters for Plath was the opportunity to practise tones and registers, voices and attitudes, political and private personae. From the age […]

Instead of a Book

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Patrick Leigh Fermor had the most famous case of writer’s block of the last century. Before he died, aged ninety-six, in 2011, he spent years in agony, trying to finish the third volume about his ‘Great Trudge’ across Europe in the early 1930s. He never did finish it. In the end, the last volume, The […]

Yours, Mr President

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It’s good to admit when you get things wrong. For a start, I assumed I’d hate this book. Jeanne Marie Laskas has combed through the letters sent to Barack Obama in the White House, plus his answers, to compile a history of his administration through the eyes of ordinary people. Yuck. The pitch made me […]

Fascination Frantic

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Dear Sir, No doubt I am the one millionth reader to write to you on the subject, but nevertheless: ‘There’s a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic’ is not from a popular 1930s song (review by Christopher Woodward of Antiquarians, May LR). It is from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Act II. KO-KO and […]

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Deaf To Fowler

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Dear Sir, When I picked up the Dec 2003 / Jan 2004 issue of LR from the wharf- the packet-steamer from London had just docked – I heaved a sigh of despair. Amanda Craig misused ‘eke out’ on page 67: ‘Jack Smollett . . . ekes out a living as a teacher.’ As Fowler chides, […]

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‘I Am in My Element And I Defy You…’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘I’ve never enjoyed writing letters,’ admits Saul Bellow to Ralph Ellison in an undated letter from the mid-1950s. ‘There is some wickedness here and I ought to root it up’, he continues, ‘even if it should mean going to an analyst.’ For a man who hated writing letters and who seems to have dreaded looking […]

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In For A Penny

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

If your idea of a poet is, say, John Keats, and your idea of a poet’s letters something like Keats’s magnificent digressions on Shakespeare and the life of allegory, or on the power of negative capability, then this admirably edited slab of letters from Ezra Pound to his parents may disappoint. Their content is seldom […]

A Duke Abroad

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Britain, or more specifically England, is a tricky country for foreigners to enjoy. The food, at least since the sixteenth century when travellers began to comment on such things, has been a continuing problem. Too greasy, say some, too stodgy, say others, and too lacking in imagination, says everybody, with regard to our various ways […]

Not Yet I

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Samuel Beckett changed the ways we see the world. He did so by transforming the genres we use to represent it, remaking them in the light of his grand inquisitorial playfulness. Despite his endlessly self-effacing way of writing, plays like Endgame, novels like Molloy, and a host of inscrutable poems, essays and prose fragments, bear […]

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The Cosy Philosopher

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Isaiah Berlin used to say that people were his landscape. In the first volume of his letters, Flourishing, edited by Henry Hardy and covering the years 1928 to 1946, he went so far as to declare a positive dislike of nature, suggesting that love of sublime landscapes was linked with reactionary romanticism. It is true […]

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Precious Compost

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘It always horrifies me to realize that people keep letters,’ the American writer Martha Gellhorn told one of her legion of correspondents in her later years. Horrifying for her, perhaps, but it is not difficult to see why anyone would keep – and treasure – a letter signed ‘Martha’, ‘Marty’, ‘M’, or simply ‘Gellhorn’, the […]

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A Knotty Composer

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The centenary of Michael Tippett’s birth this year has prompted many concerts, revivals of at least three of his operas, and grumbling attempts by some critics at a reassessment of his music. It is far too soon for this, since Tippett died only in 1998 and was still active until a couple of years before […]

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The Heart or the Head?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘If there’s an afterlife,’ Robert Lowell wrote in 1975 (within two years of finding out), ‘I think I’d spend it living and rereading everything written to me.’ The claim is sincere, and it is in keeping with the doggedly retentive attitude to friendship everywhere evident in his own correspondence. Even so, a reader of this […]

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Antic Roadshow

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

I only met Kurt Vonnegut once, but his vivid, impish glance spoke volumes. He was a humane and shrewd character who held bold opinions that he expressed with humour and grace throughout his life. There was an antic quality in him that animates his best fiction, including his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). That ironic, episodic, experimental, time-travelling […]

The Frugality Cipher

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The grandest club in the world is undoubtedly the Roxburghe. Founded in 1812 and made up of 41 bibliophiles, many of whom own superb libraries, it numbers three dukes, two marquesses, three earls and a prince among its members, along with ten Deputy Lieutenants, six Fellows of the British Academy, two Privy Counsellors, a Knight […]

His Master’s Voice

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Mikhail Bulgakov, most readers and critics would concur, is the most widely loved and perhaps the greatest Russian writer in the Soviet period of fictional prose and drama. Some might be more deeply affected by Andrei Platonov’s harrowing prose, others impressed by the elegance of Vladimir Nabokov or the prophetic fantasy of Yevgeny Zamyatin, but […]

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