Carrot Top Speaks

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It puzzles me that in my forty years of toiling in the vineyard of French literature, I should have managed to sidestep, until now, the work of Jules Renard. To be sure, I had seen copies of his Journal frequently in bookshops, and in various battered Pléiade editions at the bouquinistes stalls along the Seine, […]

A Romantic Jigsaw

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Within the pages of this biography, I discovered that Sybille Bedford had an affair with the sister of my father’s first wife and another with the stepfather of my mother’s stepsister. You are likely to find the same, for in matters of the heart Bedford did not stint. ‘I wish I’d written more books and spent less time

The Impulse to Believe

Posted on by David Gelber

‘He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed of his friend, neighbour and fellow novelist, Herman Melville, ‘and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.’ For Melville, human experience was ruled by contraries. ‘There is no quality in this world that […]

A Thunderous Recipe for Salad Dressing

Posted on by David Gelber

This is the final volume (of twelve) in the Oxford University Press’s heroic effort to bring order and printed form to what Charles Dickens himself called ‘the hurry and confusion of an enormous correspondence’. It contains 1,151 letters, 427 published for the first time, plus a further 235 belonging to earlier volumes which have since […]

First Among Realists

Posted on by David Gelber

This book is the abridged English translation of two volumes that originally appeared in Norwegian, the first in 2006 – the centenary of Ibsen’s death – and the second in 2007. It is the fourth major biography of Ibsen to appear in English since 1931. All four are quite hefty volumes, de Figueiredo’s not least, […]

The Poet of Everything

Posted on by David Gelber

With close to five hundred records relating to his life surviving and the prospect of still more being found, Geoffrey Chaucer remains one of the best-documented premodern Britons. The commanding size and actuarial precision of the surviving Chaucer archive speaks volumes about the dedication of medieval society to tallying, record keeping and categorising: we know […]

Thinkers & Drinkers

Posted on by David Gelber

If you had been in the vicinity of the Turk’s Head Tavern on Soho’s Gerrard Street on a Friday evening in the second half of the 18th century, you might have recognised a number of famous men disappearing up the stairs to a private room. The Club, as Leo Damrosch explains in this group biography of

Falling in Love at Fifty-Two

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This proved a difficult book to read: put down for a moment it was appropriated by someone else and thereafter continued to journey furtively about the house, pursued by frustrated readers. Treat it like a bar of chocolate or an unjustifiable cream bun and hide it until you have finished it. Since Penelope Lively’s Moon […]

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Why I Think

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Books on Orwell keep coming. Alex Woloch’s Or Orwell (2016) examined the writing. Thomas Ricks’s Churchill & Orwell (2017) examined what it called ‘The Fight for Freedom’. John Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose (2016) examined, well, Orwell’s nose. In 2014 James Kenworth’s ‘hoodie’ version of Animal Farm played to packed outdoor audiences at Newham City Farm. Now […]

Toad Revisited

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s most enduring work, continues to have a powerful hold on our imaginations, presenting a compelling image of a rural idyll. Until now, though, there have been only two full-length biographies of Grahame: a doorstopper by the classicist Peter Green, published in 1959, and one by the children’s author […]

Hilltop Thoughts

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Historians used to say that Petrarch was the first post-classical person to do a literary climb of a mountain, toiling up Mont Ventoux in 1350 or so and then writing an elegant epistle about it, though I gather it is now doubted whether he ever really stirred from his chair. In his account, Petrarch states […]

Bard of Chicago

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Saul Bellow had what one of his characters in Ravelstein calls ‘a gift for reading reality – the impulse to put your loving face to it and press your hands against it’. Bellow seems to outstrip other novelists in his unembarrassed wish to get as close as possible to the reality of people – their faces, clothes, bodies, speech, gestures. If Bellow’s love for his characters was often contentious and double-edged, well what is love if not the highest form of contention?

Bellow was a personality worthy of his own fictions, a lively, inspired troublemaker, as Zachary Leader shows in the second volume of his magisterial biography. He was ‘a great chain-yanker’ during arguments, his son Daniel said, adding, ‘He liked to dig a pit and cover it with branches so you’d come walking along, whistling away, and fall right in it. Then he would stand at the edge and watch you as you sort of thrashed around. He liked that.’

A Woman Sitting Alone

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Like the roll of flame-coloured silk given to Olivia Curtis on her seventeenth birthday and soon after transformed into a dress for her first dance, Rosamond Lehmann’s novel Invitation to the Waltz is high-keyed and intense. It charts a rite of passage. Although confined to only one week, the book ends with Olivia replete with […]

But What Was It?

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This provoking short book about aspects of George Orwell – provoking in both senses, as its author might say – sits somewhat uneasily in the territory between polemic, personal memoir, thesis and biography. It is not helped by a mysterious title. What exactly is Orwell’s Victory? Christopher Hitchens never tells us in so many words. […]

From the Scrapbook

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Most readers have a vague idea of Emily Dickinson (1830–86) as a reclusive mid-19th-century New England spinster who wrote much verse but published almost nothing. Previous modern editions have presented her work in chronological order. This new collection, edited by Cristanne Miller, a professor of English at the University of Buffalo in New York, mirrors […]

Lolita’s Lepidopterist

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Well, I have never in my life spent so long looking at genitalia. Let me clarify that: I’m talking about butterfly genitalia, as viewed through the microscope, drawn in large numbers by the considerable lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov and reproduced (mostly for the first time) in this magnificent book. Some 148 of Nabokov’s scientific drawings

Kiss Kiss

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The whole world knows Roald Dahl as the creator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and the unspeakably disgusting Twits. His characters are marked by a wickedly mocking view of the adult world (a sine qua non for any children’s writer of worth), an imagination that knows no rules and at times a distinct whiff of cruelly funny misanthropy

The Unpoetical Poet

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I WELL REMEMBER the shock of excitement and the odd feeling of recognition I felt when I encountered Robert Browning half a century ago. When you are trying on different selves in adolescence, Browning is the perfect poet, and his impersonations – the rebellious, erotic, intellectually arrogant, paradoxical voices in Men and Women, Dramatic Romances […]

Less Is Moore

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

CRITICS IN SEARCH of a distinctively female literary voice tend to divide their models into martyrs and warriors. We can all think of examples. Marianne Moore foreshadows the distinction in two stanzas of a wonderful early poem called ‘And Shall Life Pass an Old Maid By?’ It copies to the life, some freak Of sentiment in […]

A Great Writer Revealed

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

ALMOST NO WRITER starts from nowhere. The writer nearly always has a godparent, sometimes several, who guides his early work, helps him find a voice. Lesser writers, of course, never find a voice. They begin by imitation, and then end in nonentity. It is not with them that we are concerned. V S Naipaul is a […]

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