John Sutherland’s exceptionally nasty review of Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels (LRB, 6 October) condescends to nearly everyone concerned with the Booker selection: to the judges, to Martyn Goff, to the British reading public, to Ms Walsh’s publicity and literary agents, to writers of children’s books, to American taste in fiction and, of course, to the novelist herself. But why is Professor Sutherland more to be trusted than the Booker judges? And why expend so many words attacking Mrs Walsh’s attractive novel while sparing others on the list? Are we supposed to be too grown-up these days to enjoy romantic parables? Or does this reviewer believe that to be of our time we should instead endorse ‘adult’ novels more committed to show-off voyeurism and squirming flesh?
At the time of writing, none of the six titles on the Booker shortlist has made it onto the bestseller list; which has never happened before. There’s no mystery about why, of course, since the overall standard of the shortlist is so low. Only two of the six books (The Folding Star and How late it was, How late) deserve to be considered as plausible candidates for the prize. One of the other novels (Reef) is worthy but dull; each of the other three books is, it seems to me and to the other members of our reading circle, a bore.
Even making allowances for Ronan Bennett’s ignorance of politics in this republic (for instance, Conor Cruise O’Brien was not the architect of the 1976 Criminal Law Bill, principally because there was no such Bill), his calumniation of Conor Cruise O’Brien and exaltation of Gerry Adams are contemptible (LRB, 22 September). Bennett says that ‘for nearly ten years, Adams has been … working to take the gun out of Irish politics.’ In fact, for much of that time, Adams, following the explicit policy of Sinn Fein, was committed to ‘unambiguous support for the armed struggle’ of the IRA. Bennett sneers at the British media for portraying Adams as ‘a cunning devious liar’, but if Adams was saying one thing and believing another he wasn’t, you know, telling the truth. Some of the simpler lads who took him at his word might take a dim view of that in their prison cells. As for Bennett’s slurs on Conor Cruise O’Brien, all that needs to be said is that for twenty-five years Dr O’Brien has spoken out against political murder and urged the reconciliation of Nationalists and Unionists on this island. There are no innocent people dead here or in your country as the result of what Bennett calls Dr O’Brien’s ‘self-promoted wisdom’, but Adams has blood, if not literally on his hands, then certainly on his conscience.
Killiney, Co Dublin
Ronan Bennett’s Diary is a good example of the way left-wing papers give a hearing to the voice of terrorism. With all due respect for the genuine grievances of the Catholics in Northern Ireland and of the Protestants in Ireland and of the Irish in the British Isles (and with all due contempt for the rulers who have oppressed them and the crooks who have swindled them and the media who have humiliated them), the great majorities of all these groups have not employed or supported violence when they have had other means of expression, and the political parties representing terrorist organisations have received only small minorities of the votes from their respective communities. Yet we are now asked to take seriously one of the terrorist parties because it says it is going to stop terrorism. We are even told: ‘For nearly ten years, Adams has been saying to anyone who would listen that he was working to take the gun out of Irish politics.’ That is nice, but who put the gun back into Irish politics and kept it there for twenty-five years? What about all the people in Northern Ireland who are still being intimidated by the protection rackets and the armed gangs of the terrorist parties? By all means welcome the peace process, and expose those trying to exploit it, but don’t pretend that terrorists are part of it.
I am grateful to Ronan Bennett for his Ceasefire Diary and would be intrigued to read a piece by him on the argument that the violence that ushered in Irish independence was less justified than the campaign now ended.
St Léonard, France
Kettle of Fish
I read Frank Kermode’s review of Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (LRB, 22 September), and his excursion into Aristotle, with some amazement. The professor appears not to know the difference between metaphor and simile. The majority of what he calls ‘conceits’ in history are similes – a vastly different kettle of fish from, say, ‘His delights/Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above/The element they lived in’, which starts up the burners with a simile and then soars off into imaginative space. Memorable recent metaphors would include Salman Rushdie’s jars of chutney and their leaking flavours, and Ted Hughes’s demon materialising into a tractor. Aristotle would have cheered. Similes, on the other hand, are within reach of us all, even if we’re not so good at them as Craig Raine.
The motto of the Royal Society hardly supports Keith Thomas’s belief that its founders subscribed to the ‘absurdity’ of holding ‘that we should doubt everything except what we have established single-handedly for ourselves’ (LRB, 22 September). Nullius in verba is not about the non-acceptance of another’s testimony (‘On no man’s word’), but a statement that the Society was not committed to the doctrines of any one thinker, or as Horace put it (Epistles 1.1.14), ‘not bound to swear allegiance in the words laid down by any master’ (nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri).
The Yale Man
It’s curious that Christopher Hitchens (Letters, 8 September) should accuse me of being ‘so literal’ about a story by Mary McCarthy, whose major limitations as a writer of fiction were regularly attributed to her excessive literalism – ‘she provides everything but the real names and telephone numbers of her characters,’ as was said of her more than once. ‘The Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’ was meant to portray a man who had sold out, in the expression common in those days, contrasted with someone who hadn’t, based on McCarthy herself, with whom the sell-out had once had a brief affair. Dwight Macdonald’s career, most starkly by the early Forties when the story was written, had followed a directly opposite course. Another of Hitchens’s cases of McCarthy’s ‘lampooning’ of Macdonald was a remark in a private letter quoted by McCarthy’s biographer, which leaves standing only one authentic case of his ‘good things that come in trios’.
I didn’t say that Hitchens had ignored Macdonald’s anti-Communism, just that he had failed to mention its most active and influential manifestations at a time in the late Forties and early Fifties when anti-Stalinism really was a measure at least of someone’s political intelligence and morality. Of course it ceased to be that after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech at the very latest.
‘Memorable is as memorable does,’ to paraphrase Forrest Gump. The piece Hitchens likes was included in none of Macdonald’s collections of his writings and is mentioned neither by his biographer nor by any of the reviews, most of them favourable, that Wreszin’s biography has received.
Princeton, New Jersey
I would like to correct a misleading sentence in Lorna Sage’s review of my book The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (LRB, 22 September). She writes: ‘Castle takes issue … with queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick, “lesbians who enjoy writing about male-male eros”, but who seem captive to the “privilege of unknowing” when it comes to libido.’ Nowhere in my book do I suggest (as this sentence does) that Professor Sedgwick is a lesbian. What I was taking issue with in the passage Sage has misread were ‘queer theorists’ (of whom Sedgwick is one) who are more comfortable with lesbian writers, such as Willa Cather and Mary Renault, ‘who enjoy writing about male-male eros’, than with lesbian writers who enjoy writing about female-female eros.
Stanford University, California
Jenny Turner’s felicitous description of your typical ‘literary evening’ in Camden’s Compendium bookshop didn’t – you know – make one want to rupture the old breathing equipment trying to hold out for their next Caliguan bash (LRB, 6 October). Though headily tiptoeing between ‘refugees and survivors from the many literary-artistic “scenes” of London’s recent subterranean past’ must be some sort of joy, I wonder if Turner is right in saying that ‘this is the environment out of which Iain Sinclair’s writing comes.’ Is it? Sinclairworld had always seemed like a place of oval-eyed, necrophiliac bootboys, razor-thin Skins, savage dogs, the occasional dark sky, moneyless tart or scuzzy old trickster ripe from the East. Delicate types, who tend to find the typical bookshop environment a little choking. Much as I’d thrill to see a row of coughing Rottweilers tied to the railings around Compendium each time the shop is aglow after dark, I’ve not noticed one yet.
Neither Bernard McCabe nor Freddy Hurdis-Jones seriously disputes my contention that the limerick is an exclusively English form of doggerel verse. To state this as a fact is in no way insular, any more than it is cock-crowing to say that the contrepèterie, at a low level, and the alexandrine, at a high one, are peculiarly French. Bernard McCabe cannot expect us to take the reported Joyce limericks on trust: they sound unlikely, and, if they exist, are probably excruciating.
I have in the meantime traced Wendy Doniger’s example to the preface by Norman Douglas to his collection of limericks. He does not present it as a French limerick, but only claims that it would shock a hypothetical Frenchman, which obviously it would not.
It surprises me that Bernard McCabe sees urgings in Théophile Gautier’s factual account of canine behaviour. I see none, and have no need of the jaw-breaking incantation of Thomas Aquinas: limerick indeed!
Freddy Hurdis-Jones achieves his rhyme scheme by breaking in half what one might call a country alexandrine that has a jarring internal rhyme. The verse is printed in Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France (1843) as the quatrain it properly is.
Being born in Paris does not make you French. The DNB says that George du Maurier’s father, Louis Mathurin, married an Englishwoman, and became a naturalised Englishman. The Britannica (11th edition) says that George was British, but whatever he was, he could not import the limerick into French. The nearest anyone can get to it is the charming example of the young man of Boolong,
Who sang a most topical song;
It wasn’t the words
That frightened the birds,
But the horrible dooble-ongtong.
I have followed with interest the correspondence on the subject of French limericks, and remember having the same discussion as long ago as the Fifties, when my family was living in France. At that time, my father, who had been asked to help in arranging an exchange visit for the grandson of an acquaintance, produced the following specimen by way of a letter to the party of the second part:
Un peintre, qui s’appelle H. Matisse,
II paraît, a un jeune petit-fils;
Et, si cela vous arrange,
II propose un échange
Pour au moins cinq semaines – peut-être six.
The visit was made.
H. Harvey Wood
Literature Department, British Council,
I’m surprised Gerald Long hasn’t met this one:
Voici un gendarme à Nanteuil,
Qui n’avait qu’une dent et qu’un oeil,
Mais cet oeil solitaire
Etait plein de mystère,
Et cette dent d’importance et d’orgueil.
Needless to say I cannot remember the source, but I assume it would have been British.
My high-school French is many decades behind me, but I think I can follow a discrete set of words well enough to determine a rhyme scheme. In the example given by Freddy Hurdis-Jones the line-ending words – chat/rendra/Lustucru/répondu/perdu – constitute an aabbb pattern, which is not the limerick’s aabba pattern.
At considerable risk, given my years away from any formal work in French, I’ll offer my best memory of what I always supposed was a Gallic example of the quintessentially English verse form. Corrections will be gratefully accepted.
Il y a un jeune homme, un émir,
Il a laissé le trône à ces dires:
‘Qui vaut des alarmes,
Des regrets et leurs larmes,
Comme le khan à la tête de l’empire?’
In my review of Michael Wood’s book The Magician’s Doubts (LRB, 6 October) I seem to have forgotten to mention its subtitle: ‘Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction’.