No Books Please, We’re Publishers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

By coincidence, just before Richard Charkin’s book arrived I was reading Jeremy Lewis’s Kindred Spirits, a wonderfully funny account of his career in publishing. Subtitled ‘Adrift in Literary London’, Lewis’s book charts his progress from Geoffrey Bles, via Collins and André Deutsch, to Chatto & Windus, where he meets his nemesis in the form of […]

The Pen & the Handkerchief

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Hilary Mantel is worth reading on anything. I have no special interest in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, but Mantel’s observations about Glenn Close as Alex, whose ‘fashionable, photogenic face is made up of intersecting hatchet blades’ and who has ‘won the most important battle in life – that with her hairdresser’, and her description […]

The Spy Novelist Who Loved Me

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Adam Sisman presents this new book on John le Carré as a ‘secret annexe’ to his earlier biography of the author. Its subject is the women in le Carré’s life – the ones the novelist didn’t marry, that is, but to whom he repeatedly offered the secret parts of himself, which the ones he did marry almost never got to see. It’s only a slim volume, but, as we are so often told, size doesn’t matter if a fellow knows what he is doing. As one of le Carré’s women myself, I feel in a position to take a

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Feminism vs Big Brother

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Orwell is having another moment in the age of Trump, Putin and #MeToo. Aside from the two books under review, five major works of non-fiction on Orwell and one novel inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four have been published in this calendar year alone. Anna Funder intends Wifedom to upset the dominant interpretive trends in non-fiction studies […]

Ladies in Lemon

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘“Let us be unconventional or we die!” is the unspoken, yet very evident, aspiration of the Modern Woman,’ fulminated the artist and travel writer Charles George Harper in Revolted Woman: Past, Present, and to Come (1894). Women like Ménie Muriel Dowie were donning knickerbockers, he sneered. They were cycling, smoking, shooting wild beasts, adventuring in […]

Burdens of a Nobel Laureate

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘He wasn’t very linear’, Seamus Heaney’s hero Osip Mandelstam says of himself in a mocking late self-portrait. Was there ever, by contrast, a more straightforwardly linear life than Seamus Heaney’s? Two major events occur at the start of this book: the acceptance of Death of a Naturalist by Faber and Faber and his marriage to […]

Becoming James Bond

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Anthony Powell, two and a half years older than Ian Fleming, remembered him as ‘one of the few persons I have met to announce that he was going to make a lot of money out of writing novels, and actually contrive to do so’. Fleming and his older brother, Peter, turn up in Faces in My Time (1980), the third volume of Powell’s memoirs, in connection with the short-lived 1930s magazine Night and Day, with Peter filing editorial notes and Ian raising money for the magazine in the City. Coming across a bound volume half a century later, Powell was immediately struck by what he called the ‘Fleming impact’. One of the signature marks of Nicholas Shakespeare’s new biography is its terrific sense of clannishness. Rarely has there been a collective unit whose members looked out for, supported, interfered with and privately disparaged each

Et in Ulster Ego

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was Michael Longley who said that he and the generation of poets who emerged in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s did not want to be branded as ‘Ulster poets’: ‘There was no group, there was no school, there was no manifesto.’ Alexander Poots accepts the reluctance of Northern Irish poets to be treated […]

Hold the Back Page

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

NB by JC is a selection from James Campbell’s NB columns, which he wrote each week for the Times Literary Supplement from 1997, when he inherited it from David Sexton, until his departure in 2020. By turns entertaining and vexatious, NB presents a different tone from the remainder of the paper while sharing its underlying […]

Equally Fluent in Gaelic & Greek

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

For two decades before I learned his name, I was fascinated by the Reverend James Fraser. All I knew was that an anonymous ‘Highland gentleman’ of wide education had contributed two detailed pieces on Highland beliefs, especially beliefs about prophecy and second sight, to John Aubrey’s collection of essays on the supernatural, Miscellanies, published in […]

A Battery of Bookmen

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Book collecting, whatever book collectors may plead to the contrary, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Accumulating a vast quantity of printed matter simply for the pleasure of owning it may rightly be called a kind of madness, at least in its extreme form. I am not prepared to call Denise Gigante a bibliomaniac, […]

Thoughts on Ordinariness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It may be that only no-account novelists such as myself will appreciate this extraordinary book. I no longer think I’m the bee’s knees or wish to write a bestseller. The notebooks containing my invaluable pensées have long since hit the bin, as have the manuscripts that some American university was certain to pay a large […]

Notes on Nothing & Everything

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll states that ‘everything, recorded in books, must have once been in some mind’. In its successor, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, one of the characters gives the following forecast: ‘The day must come – if the world lasts long enough – when every possible tune will have been composed – […]

Vita Brevis

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Katherine Mansfield’s exquisite short stories stretched the possibilities of the form into wondrous new shapes; they are fragments that are nonetheless satisfyingly whole. She sought, as she put it, to ‘intensify the so-called small things, so that truly everything is significant’. In a Mansfield story, the materiality of life – things and smells and physical […]

The End of the Affair

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Some books have the capacity not only to define a generation of readers but also to shape a new generation of writers. Annie Ernaux’s Passion simple, published originally in France in 1991 and in English in 2021 as Simple Passion, is no doubt one of them just as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and […]

Travels & Tribulations

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1998, when Jan Morris was in her early seventies, she was asked how she would like to be remembered. ‘As a merry and loving writer,’ she replied. Although her remark made light of her formidable body of work, it was indeed as many people would later think of her: ebullient, full of curiosity and […]

Yours Chastely, Tom

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Men and women should beware if a poet starts sending them love letters. They can be sure that the poet is using them to hone their technique rather than valuing them as individuals. The displays of emotion in their letters will be self-regarding contrivances; most of the promises will prove false. ‘The epistolary form,’ as […]

Sense & Insolvency

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Porter sisters, Jane (1775–1850) and Anna Maria (1778–1832), pioneered the historical novel that Walter Scott was later credited with inventing. Their innovative fictions combined historical figures with invented characters and imagined events. Jane’s four-volume Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) was a literary phenomenon and her five-volume The Scottish Chiefs (1810) was said to be Queen […]

I Have Wedded Fyve!

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

How does an Oxford academic follow up a prize-winning trade book, a newly researched biography of Geoffrey Chaucer? And, moreover, in lockdown, when archives and libraries are largely inaccessible? Marion Turner, the newly elected J R R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford, has avoided ‘second-book syndrome’ with a breathtakingly simple idea: a biography of Chaucer’s most famous character, Dame Alison (or Alice), weaver

Time Well Spent

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To the multitudinous descriptions of the experience of reading Proust, and the difficulties thereof, one might add ‘enchanted intoxication’. He so loads every rift with ore that he makes it impossible to move on, impelling one to return and return to the passage – or paragraph, or even sentence – in question. Reading Proust straight […]

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