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.
I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’
Philip Roth died yesterday at the age of 85. The LRB published nearly twenty pieces on his work, from Michael Mason on The Ghost Writer in 1979 to Tim Parks on Nemesis in 2010, and Roth himself made four contributions to the paper in the mid-1980s. Nicholas Spice on Everyman (2006): Reading Roth, when he is in the groove, is exhilarating because of the way one feels caught up in the swing and drive of the prose as it sweeps forward into the future of the text. His great interest has been in states of extreme mental and emotional excitation – notably rage and lust – and his writing has found a way to embody these states, whether in impassioned speech or wild interior monologue, with an intensity unrivalled in modern fiction.
'The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us and about history's dirt than we do ourselves.' These lines from Tomas Venclova's poem 'In the Lake Region' often came to my mind as I read Magnetic North, a series of conversations between Ellen Hinsey and Venclova, in which the Lithuanian poet, essayist and scholar remembers his life.
‘There is a variable delicate friction between the interests of wives, husbands and children, and between human beings and nature,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in a piece about her friend Stevie Smith, published in the LRB in 1981. ‘One might say between the seaside and the sea.’ She would know. The years of Fitzgerald’s life that she drew on for The Bookshop (1978) and Offshore (1979) combined complicated family dynamics with precarious physical circumstances, waving/drowning halfway between the shoreline and the water.
Short fiction isn’t really something that the LRB publishes, except when it does. In the latest issue, for example, there’s a 274-word work by Diane Williams, the 99th item that we’ve tagged in our online archive as a story, though it could just as well be categorised as prose poetry. The same goes for Anne Carson’s ‘Euripides to the Audience’ (2002). In 1980 we carried an extract from an unpublished play by Noël Coward.
The Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali is described by his editor, May Hawas, as ‘a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives.’ The American University in Cairo Press is bringing out his diaries in two volumes, 1964-66 and 1966-68. Ghali’s wonderful (and only) novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, was published by André Deutsch in 1964. He had a job of some kind with the British Army Corps, which he loathed, just as he loathed the town of Rheydt in West Germany where he lived a ‘colourless and middle class and unadventurous’ life. He had reached this relatively safe harbour after years of hardship: the details are fuzzy, but he seems to have run into trouble with the Nasser regime (which he disliked) and from 1954 travelled through Europe, working in factories and docks, and living, as he writes, ‘in the gutter’.
‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek. The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked 'unverified' report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump's team in Prague (home of the Golem).
It seems a category error to expose a pseudonymous novelist as if you were acting in the public interest; to adopt the tools and language of investigative journalism, go through someone’s financial records and harass their family in order to ruin an authorial position that has been almost as interesting as the author’s novels themselves. There’s no value in revealing Elena Ferrante’s ‘true identity’ (as Claudio Gatti claimed to have done yesterday). What’s interesting about her anonymity depends on its being sustained; it’s a creation, as well as a political proposition, that has engendered a conversation about literary making rather than dismantlement and confession. In an age of autofiction, when so many protagonists take their authors’ names, the idea that the author, too, is a literary creation extends the fictiveness out of the books and into the world. Why ruin the fun?
A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.
In André Maurois's 1930 children's novel Patapoufs et Filifers (translated by Rosemary Benét as Fattypuffs and Thinifers in 1940), Terry and Edmund are the children of Mr and Mrs Double. Terry, like his father, is thin; Edmund, like his mother, isn't. One day, the inseparable brothers descend into an underworld where you're either a Fattypuff or a Thinifer. The brothers are therefore divided, one packed off to Thiniville, the other to Fattyborough.
Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, 'set up after the fall of the dictator', to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are 'stranger, crueller and more crazy' than everyone else's. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may 'turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire'.
There are two types of fear, the fear that bites and the fear that creeps. Nathan Bland, the teenage protagonist of the horror story that David Mitchell recently published on Twitter, has had a strong dose of the first. He’s been mauled by a bull mastiff, which ‘pulled skin off my cheek like skin off roast chicken' and 'shook me like a doll, my own blood blinding me'. The dog still stalks his dreams. When Nathan and his mother arrive at the house of Lady Briggs, an aristo his mother is keen to impress, a dog barks and he feels a pang of terror - ‘my lungs fill with dark’ – before he realises that it’s ‘only a little yappy thing’. Later, Nathan plays a game of ‘Fox and Hounds’ with Lady Briggs’s creepy son Jonah. He’s running, trying to catch Jonah up, when he hears the mastiff behind him. Suddenly it appears with Jonah’s bloody head dangling from its jaws. Nathan runs into Lady Briggs’s house, slams the door and blames the apparition on the Valium he took earlier.
Liberty Island is a website for conservative ‘literature’ set up by Adam Bellow, son of Saul. A disproportionate number of the stories on the site’s front page are classified as ‘dystopia’ or ‘horror’, which suggests that the Islanders may be just the teensiest bit paranoid. Conservative values triumph, by turns, over a pandemic, an invasive social service sector, a genetic disorder that turns babies gay – beneath that one someone’s commented ‘a real thinker’ – full employment, and a Lovecraftian tentacular monster. There are no romance stories or nature writing because they are for the weak; ‘military’ stories have their own replete section. One writer, Lari Vine, contributes a weekly send-up of Hillary Clinton’s campaign diary to the ‘humor’ section, in which she cracks jokes such as 'It's my day to babysit a recovering Chris Matthews. The other day he got his nose too far up Obama’s ass and he strained something.’ Guffaw.
As a well-behaved only child I spent time arranging, and rearranging, a set of woodblock buildings, mostly houses, red roofed, white walled: a little German village that I suspect the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood would give their eye teeth for, had I still got it. A lot of grown-ups have been arranging garden cities on the carpet recently. Following Ebbsfleet’s green light, come the five proposals shortlisted for the Wolfson Economics Prize (in answer to the question: 'How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable and popular?'). The proposals touch on complex variations of sites, strung out necklace-like, or attached barnacle-like to existing conurbations, and follow various planning and financial models, more or less interventionist. Shelter's adapts Ebenezer Howard's original Garden City ideals, according to which the increased value of the developed site accrues to the town and its residents.
Peter Campbell on Adrian Mole (LRB, 5 December 1985): Children take to the books partly, I gather, because the disgusting details of Adrian’s spots, the mention of his wet dreams and of his regular measuring of his ‘thing’, break taboos. But more because – despite his hypochondria, his naff intellectual ambitions, his deeply untrendy tastes – he is a hero who suffers as they suffer.
From Zoë Heller's 1998 review of Bridget Jones' Diary (and two other novels in the same mould): Over the last ten years, in Britain and America, there has been a significant proliferation of a certain kind of feminine first-person narrative. The author is almost always a young(ish), single, middle-class woman, and the narrative a jaunty record of a frisky personal life... The feminine first-person narrative is unabashedly self-involved. It is knowing and urbane, but it is also showily neurotic and self-derogatory... Judging by the grim sameness of these three novels, the FFPN has already hardened into a new literary orthodoxy, a new correctness.
Tacita Dean’s film JG, showing at Frith Street Gallery until 26 October, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500-foot earthwork built into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat it as a mystery that your film will solve’. He sent her a piece he’d written on Smithson for a gallery, ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (1997), and briefed her on his reading of Spiral Jetty:
I prefer to see what happened as a great fire, which many shared in starting, some out of negligence and stupidity, some out of revenge, some of out greed and some out of inattention. Everyone thought his own actions explained the fire's outbreak, but the truth, God knows, is they all joined in starting it... And what matters is that they started it, and the army came to power claiming to put it out. I underlined this passage, earlier this summer, in Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s novel Bab El Khoroug, ('The Way Out'). Choukri Fishere is a former Egyptian diplomat, a professor of political science and the author of several previous novels. He published Bab El Khoroug in instalments in the Egyptian newspaper El Tahrir last year. The novel, set in the year 2020, looks back on a military takeover, a complete breakdown of government and security, the rise of an unlikely dictator and the massacres he oversees, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, and yet another military coup.
From William Gibson's Spook Country (2006): The reason Americans weren't freaking out over this NSA thing, Milgrim assumed, was that they'd already been taking it for granted, since at least the 1960s, that the CIA was tapping everybody's phone. It was the stuff of bad episodic television. It was something little kids knew to be true.
A French tribunal decreed in February that all copies of Marcela Iacub’s latest book, Belle et Bête, carry a notice ‘informant le lecteur de ce que le livre porte atteinte à la vie privée de Dominique STRAUSS-KAHN’. Belle et Bête is written entirely in the second person, addressed to an unnamed man whose presidential aspirations had been brought to an end by a series of scandalous revelations starting with the accusations of a New York chambermaid. It begins ‘Tu étais vieux, tu étais gros, tu étais petit et tu étais moche,’ and continues in the same vein, recounting the narrator’s affair with the man, ‘le roi des cochons’, who likes to lick off her eye make-up and pour oil into her right ear so he can tongue it out. In another scene he asks her to suck his thumb while he talks on the phone with his wife. She ends their liaison, which does not involve more canonical forms of sexual intercourse, after he bites off her left ear and swallows it.
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'.
A very long trailer for the very long film version of David Mitchell's very long novel Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, and starring multiple Tom Hankses and Halle Berrys, is propagating across the internet, with Warner Bros' lawyers in hot pursuit. It would be nice to think they're trying to repress the trailer because it makes the film look utterly terrible: lots of dreary CGI, clunking explicatory voice overs, bombastic score, intertitles announcing the themes as 'death life birth future present past love hope courage everything is connected'. 'You've saved me twice,' one of the Berrys says to one of the Hankses. 'You fall, I'll catch you,' he replies. Barf.
The late Antonio Tabucchi's novel Sostiene Pereira is set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938. The protagonist, Pereira, is a journalist, a veteran reporter on a national daily who now edits the culture page of Lisboa. The paper describes itself as 'apolitical' (which means it doesn't cover the Spanish Civil War) and 'independent' (it prints what the Salazar regime would like it to without having to be asked). Pereira is a widower; his closest confidant is the portrait of his wife that hangs in his hallway. He's overweight, and has a heart condition, not helped by his fondness for omelettes and sugary lemonade. His semi-retired routine is disturbed when he hires a young man, Monteiro Rossi, to prepare obituaries of famous writers. Rossi's pieces – either attacking Fascist writers or praising left-wing ones – are all unpublishable. But Pereira pays Rossi for them anyway and puts them away in a folder. Eventually he gets drawn into helping hide Rossi's cousin, who's in Portugal recruiting for the Republican cause in Spain, and as one thing leads to another Pereira soon finds himself in serious trouble with the authorities.
I sort of find it heart warming. Bored mother of two teenage boys has midlife crisis and instead of buying a car, moving to Oaxaca or having an affair, she writes raunchy Twilight fan fiction for two years. When she’s finished she changes the names from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian and a small Australian e-book publisher puts it out: success enough for anyone with a midlife crisis novel, especially someone who wrote under the unlikely handle ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’. But that’s not all.
'Fury at no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,' according to Australian radio. 'Pulitzer Prize board has shirked its duty,' the Telegraph says. The board couldn’t decide between the three finalists put forward by the judges (it's a scrupulous two-tier selection process): Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
Elif Shafak’s novel Iskender, published in English as Honour this week, came out in Turkey last August. Like her previous books, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Within days of its appearance, however, a blogger accused Shafak of ‘lifting’ themes and characters from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The blog post quickly went viral. Smith’s Turkish translator said that Shafak had used White Teeth as a ‘template’ which didn’t really fit with the Kurdish characters in her novel. One journalist suggested the book should be moved to the foreign fiction shelves of Turkish bookshops.
Apocalypses aren't what they used to be. Thirty years ago, science fiction stories about sentient computers taking over the world tended to imagine them trying to wipe us all out using nuclear bombs (The Terminator, War Games). These days, if Robert Harris's new novel, The Fear Index, is anything to go by, the rogue AI's weapon of choice is the financial markets. 'Tales of computers out of control are a well-worn fictional theme,' Donald MacKenzie wrote in the LRB earlier this year,
Georgette Heyer's advice for novelists, from Jennifer Kloester's forthcoming biography: 1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as The Little Woman Act. 2. Think out a snappy title. This deceives the publisher into thinking (a) that he is getting the Book of the Year; and (b) that you have the whole plot already mapped out. The only drawback lies in the fact that having announced a title you will be slightly handicapped when it comes to hanging some kind of story on to it.
Novels that mention the LRB, an occasional series: no.17, The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus. William Mendez, the ever more evasive and ever less sane writer of a novel within the novel, is looking for someone else to pose as its author. His agent suggests a journalist called Leo Benedictus. Mendez replies, by email: Leo sounds perfect! I’m actually punching the air with my left hand and typing this with my right. (A tough trick. Try it.) I’ve had a look at his stuff online... He’s a different type of writer from me, in some ways, but not too different to be believed.
As a young novelist who writes almost exclusively about young people (specifically, his friends and himself), Tao Lin has unsurprisingly been tagged – or burdened – with the ‘voice of his generation’ label, and said to resemble such writers as Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. But the ‘voice of his generation’ who came to mind while I was reading Lin’s books was Jack Kerouac. It’s not the most obvious comparison, perhaps: their prose styles are very different, and one of the few other people to have seen some resemblance points out that ‘entire Lin paragraphs could be housed in a single Kerouac sentence.’ More obliquely, Lin has been included in a loose collection of writers one critic has called the ‘Offbeat Generation’.
I have to admit that I felt deeply irritated by the website for Bret Easton Ellis's novel Imperial Bedrooms, by its very existence. (It's a casting-couch choose-your-own-adventure game.) If you listen closely, you can hear every exhausted literary writer in American saying, very quietly to themselves: 'So this is how it's gonna be now? I have to code my own flash game?' One half expects to find action figures of the novel's characters at Wal-Mart. But of course then I played the thing and, like most people, I'd imagine, immediately started trying to get the actress high, naked and into bed.
At some point in the early 1980s the father of one of my friends took a small gang of us to the Farnborough Airshow. I don't remember much about it, apart from a vague sense of the thrill of seeing the actual-size, actually flying originals of the shakily-painted plastic models of Second World War planes, pocked with dried glue, that hung from strings sellotaped to my bedroom ceiling and occasionally fell to the carpet with a feeble rip, crack and splinter in the middle of the night.
Since writing about E.O. Wilson's novel Anthill, with its allegations that there are fundamental similarities between people and hive insects, I've spent quite a lot of time over the past couple of weeks looking at ants. I was on holiday, on one of the less salubrious but more convenient stretches of the Italian seaside, and as the beach was off-limits for much of the time – bad things can happen to five-month-old babies in the midday sun – spent several hours each day in the shade of a mimosa tree, reading books by Maile Meloy (review forthcoming) and watching the lines of ants scurrying across the yard between their nests and such scavengeables as a breadcrumb or a dead wasp, pausing occasionally to exchange pheromones with their colleagues going the other way.
'They laughed over the Harvardian eccentricities all around them. Visiting professors from the University of Oxford speaking with Oxford accents and publishing in the New York Review of Books, and American professors also speaking with Oxford accents but publishing in the London Review of Books.' – E.O. Wilson's Anthill.
Reviewers in the UK seem to have quite liked Invisible, Paul Auster's latest novel, and I was starting to wonder if it might be worth checking out – I haven’t read a book of his since The Book of Illusions (2002) – when
James Ellroy comes across as being a difficult man to interview. It’s not that he clams up – he seems to love doing interviews – or only says boring stuff. But his schtick-to-vaguely-serious-answer ratio is highly variable, depending on what kind of mood he’s in, how much press he’s been doing lately and so on, and is in any case quite hard to judge. Choose the wrong day, or press the wrong button, and you’ll get something like this (from a 2006 New York Times Magazine interview): I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime writer who ever lived.
One of my wisdom teeth is coming in, and my dentist is on holiday. It’s my own fault: he’d warned me to have them taken out, and I hadn’t listened. On Monday, while waiting until I could take the next ibuprofen, I emailed intelligentdesign.org: ‘How do you account for wisdom teeth?’ The blessings of suffering?
I looked for mentions of wisdom teeth in fiction. Up came the novels of Ian McEwan: a wisdom tooth extraction provides a suspected criminal with an alibi in Saturday, and in On Chesil Beach, when the boy kisses the girl, ‘he probed the fleshy floor of her mouth, then moved around inside the teeth of her lower jaw to the empty place where three years ago a wisdom tooth had crookedly grown until removed under general anaesthesia.’