I used to have a pet theory – outlined in the LRB in 2007 – to explain why John le Carré’s later stuff didn’t have, as I saw it, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been wrongfooted by social change. More specifically, the declining pay and prestige of most kinds of public service meant that intelligence bureaucracies could no longer serve in the same way as a microcosm of the dark heart of the British establishment. Plummy chaps who, pre-Thatcher, would have made their way from prep schools, public schools and Oxbridge to the higher reaches of the BBC, the Civil Service or MI6 – the chaps whose speech and behaviour le Carré had observed with an outsider-insider’s intentness when he was starting out – were overwhelmingly concentrated now in financial services and commercial law.
A circle of sycamore trees had appeared overnight in Camden Square on Saturday morning. Across the road, outside the Irish Centre, a queue had formed by 10 a.m. Some of the men wore FBI badges. Some of the women wore magenta wigs, and many wore skirts or tops in a black-and-white zigzag pattern, accessorised with something red. My next-door neighbour, who’s retired but still helps out at the Irish Centre, shook her head when I met her on the street. ‘They’re saying they’ll be having real owls going around the place,’ she said. ‘It’s about some show I haven’t even heard of.’ I showed her my ticket for the Ninth Official Twin Peaks UK Festival. Like Lindsey Bowden, the former actor and events manager who organises the festival, I was 14 when Twin Peaks came to BBC2 in October 1990.
A couple of years ago, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were statistically certified, by Forbes magazine, as the most addictive novels in commercial fiction. The key finding was that ‘Child carries more readers with him from book to book than any other bestselling author.’ Perhaps I’m too weak-kneed to be a proper Reacher fan: the ones I’ve read I found hard to put down, but I didn’t feel compelled to go out and buy the lot. The airport-thriller page counts and twitchy plotting sometimes left me feeling jangled and strung out, as though I’d been bingeing on espressos and Haribo Tangfastics while playing a frenetic computer game. That wasn’t the case with another series about a laconic tough guy with a name ending in ‘-er’, a series that’s put together with more artistry than you’d expect and which has, for me, greater addictive properties: the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008).
Publicity materials for The Room, an independently financed ‘emotional drama’, began to appear in Los Angeles in the spring of 2003. Postcards turned up in restaurant toilets, there were late-night TV ads, and on 1 April a poster featuring a giant mugshot of Tommy Wiseau – the film’s writer, director, producer and star – went up on a billboard on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, where it stayed for five years.
Legal sanctions were in place against the talking cure in Ireland when Samuel Beckett decided to give it a shot. He'd been having panic attacks since his father’s death in 1933. So in 1934, aged 27, he moved to London, a place he didn’t much like but that at least wasn’t Dublin (where, he wrote in a letter, ‘you ask for a fish & they give you a piece of bog oak’). In addition to not believing that the Irish public ‘ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever’, he was on the run from his mother, who was, as he put it, ‘alertly bereaved’ and also prone to unlettered bourgeois notions concerning salaried employment. When not discussing her with his analyst, Wilfred Bion, a future pioneer of group therapy, Beckett read widely, moped in galleries and parks, visited a doctor friend working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and generally gathered the material that went into Murphy, his first published novel.
It’s been George Saunders week in the US, with an adulatory profile by Joel Lovell in the New York Times Magazine, Saunders’s new preface to his first book in the Paris Review and excitement even on websites that often greet lit biz news with a ‘meh’. Interesting titbits thrown out by the flurry – occasioned by Tenth of December, his new story collection – include the information that Saunders and his wife ‘devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism’, and that, among the pictures on his shelves, there’s ‘a great one from his jazz-fusion days of him playing a Fender Telecaster, with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders'.
From Sviatoslav Richter's music listening notebooks, in Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon, translated by Stewart Spencer (2001): Kate Klausner, Beethoven, Concerto in C major op. 15. It was either at the opera or at a concert that we met this middle-aged and very cultured woman. She was sitting beside us in the stalls and struck up a conversation. Quite repulsive in appearance (like a witch) and eccentrically coiffed in the Spanish style. But our conversation wasn't uninteresting and more than once she said how friendly she was with Karajan, even giving us the impression she was to appear with him on the concert platform. As a result we met her from time to time at the Salzburg Festival.
Haywards Heath in West Sussex is probably best known for being followed by the words ‘where this train will then divide’ in announcements on the London-to-Brighton line. A commuter town more or less from the beginning (it sprang up around the railway station, which opened in 1841), it’s a boxy settlement with a determinedly dowdy high street and a giant Sainsbury’s on a former cattle market site to serve the socially atomised exurbia surrounding it. Once it had a certain reputation locally on account of the Sussex County Asylum, later known as St Francis Hospital, on Colwell Road. Robert Hounsome, a Brighton-born journalist, writes electrifyingly in his autobiography:
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland compares events in and around the Murdoch empire – with ‘around’ including Westminster and New Scotland Yard – to the Danish crime series The Killing. I applaud the in-your-face Guardian-ness of Freedland’s analogy, but it seems to me that James Ellroy has a stronger claim than Søren Sveistrup to have pre-scripted Wapping Confidential. It’s partly a matter of the strongly noir-ish overtones to the Murdochs’ performances in front of the select committee on Tuesday, with James’s eerie mid-Atlantic/Pacific voice giving him the air of an Australian actor channelling Kevin Spacey as a serial killer, and Rupert evoking John Huston in Chinatown by way of Clive James. But there are similarities of plot and motif as well.
The Social Animal by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and right-wing talking head, combines fictional narrative, studies-have-shown pop psychology and conservative social satire in unusual ways. Thomas Nagel calls it 'a moral and social tract... hung on the life stories of two imaginary people, Harold and Erica'. Here are ten of its weirdest sentences: