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Dear Poochums

Michael Wood: Letters to Véra, 23 October 2014

Letters to Véra 
by Vladimir Nabokov, edited and translated by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd.
Penguin, 798 pp., £30, September 2014, 978 0 14 119223 9
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... There are difficult decisions to make, moments when tempers get ruffled. But mainly it’s bliss, and we are tempted to sit back and admire the couple’s grace and luck and long years together. Well, we do admire these things, it would be foolish and unkind not to. But uninterrupted admiration can’t be good for anyone, and fortunately the letters ...

Flights of the Enchanter

Noël Annan, 4 April 1991

A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs 
by Steven Runciman.
Thames and Hudson, 214 pp., £16.95, February 1991, 9780500015049
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... for corresponding with her brother the Kaiser: ‘a sad fate for someone whose whole idea of bliss had been to spend a week or two at Eastbourne’. His favourite was Queen Marie of Romania. She wrote the best of all royal memoirs and, remembering Disraeli, he used to murmur to her: ‘We historians, Ma’am ... ’ She once sent for him to her ...

The Wrong Sex

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, 7 October 1993

Isabel the Queen: Life and Times 
by Peggy Liss.
Oxford, 398 pp., £19.95, January 1993, 0 19 507356 8
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... appear as united equals. The iconography is strewn with knots and yokes, images of connubial bliss and perfect union. ‘Each to the other equal,’ sings the motto, ‘stand Isabel and Ferdinand.’ The sources conspire to frustrate historians who want to distinguish the royal pair from each other, in terms of power and policy. The cosy image was a ...

Love the eater

Deborah Friedell: Lionel Shriver, 20 June 2013

Big Brother 
by Lionel Shriver.
HarperCollins, 373 pp., £16.99, May 2013, 978 0 00 727109 2
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... into the practices of Big Food (‘The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food’, by Michael Moss) shows the largest food conglomerates engaged in a ‘hyper-engineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for “stomach share”’. Forget the cupcakes: yoghurt and spaghetti sauces, packaged to look like healthy options, often have just ...

Fire Down Below

Keith Hopkins, 10 November 1994

The Formation of Hell 
by Alan Bernstein.
UCL, 392 pp., £25, December 1993, 1 85728 225 6
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... a neutral holding zone, where the punishment consists in deprivation: sinners cannot share in the bliss of uniting with God in paradise. Such theological debates have a long history. In the third century, Origen, who castrated himself in the hope of frustrating temptation, kindly thought that, at the end of time, all God’s creatures would be saved. So ...

Just a Devil

Michael Wood: Kristeva on Dosto, 3 December 2020

by Julia Kristeva.
Buchet/Chastel, 256 pp., €14, March, 978 2 283 03040 0
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At the Risk of Thinking: An Intellectual Biography of Julia Kristeva 
by Alice Jardine.
Bloomsbury, 400 pp., £19.99, January, 978 1 5013 4133 5
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... in The Double, Kristeva became captivated, she says, by what she now calls the ‘irrefragable bliss of writing’. In 1963 the second edition of Bahktin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics appeared in Russian, and Kristeva and her friend Tzvetan Stoyanov were able to ‘plunge again, Bakhtin’s book in hand, into the novels of Dostoevsky himself … I ...

Sympathy for the Devil

Michael Wood, 16 October 1997

The Master and Margarita 
by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor.
Picador, 367 pp., £20, August 1997, 0 330 35133 8
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The Master and Margarita 
by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Penguin, 412 pp., £7.99, May 1997, 0 14 118014 5
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... defines hell as deprivation of the sight of the face of God – which is to say, a memory of bliss and the knowledge of its loss. Similarly, The Master and Margarita suggests, the devil may be a figure of permanent, murderous revolt, the liege-lord of those who rebel (in vain) against the divine order, and who cannot accept the torment of their ...

The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Nick Richardson: Jakob Wassermann, 7 March 2013

My First Wife 
by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hofmann.
Penguin, 275 pp., £16.99, August 2012, 978 0 14 138935 6
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... her of being out of touch with reality, her litigious skill far surpasses his. On the back flap of Michael Hofmann’s new edition, My First Wife is pitched as ‘a lightly fictionalised account of Wassermann’s own troubled marriage’. In 1898, Wassermann, a German Jew with a difficult childhood behind him (his father was a failed businessman who could ...

Bumming and Booing

John Mullan: William Wordsworth, 5 April 2001

Wordsworth: A Life 
by Juliet Barker.
Viking, 971 pp., £25, October 2000, 9780670872138
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The Hidden Wordsworth 
by Kenneth Johnston.
Pimlico, 690 pp., £15, September 2000, 0 7126 6752 0
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Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry of the 1790s 
by David Bromwich.
Chicago, 186 pp., £9.50, April 2000, 0 226 07556 7
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... in doing so to become no longer young. You can hear this in the most famous lines of The Prelude: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! I remember being woken to the rightness of their hyperbole when I found them misquoted in Paul Foot’s Red Shelley, where they become, even in ‘corrected’ editions, ...


John Sutherland, 5 November 1992

Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography 
by Ian Hamilton.
Hutchinson, 344 pp., £18.99, October 1992, 0 09 174263 3
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Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy 
by Michael Millgate.
Oxford, 273 pp., £27.50, June 1992, 0 19 811276 9
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The Last Laugh 
by Michael Holroyd.
Chatto, 131 pp., £10.99, December 1991, 0 7011 4583 8
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by Victoria Glendinning.
Hutchinson, 551 pp., £20, September 1992, 0 09 173896 2
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... keepers of the flame, while pocketing the revenue for the estate, have no intention of satisfying. Michael Millgate has – quite fortuitously – written a book on exactly the same subject as Ian Hamilton, using the same case-study method. Whereas Hamilton burned his fingers trying to steal Salinger’s flame, Millgate – Hardy’s biographer and the editor ...

Hurt in the Guts

Joe Dunthorne: A Masterpiece and a Disaster, 1 April 2021

Michael Kohlhaas 
by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Michael Hofmann.
New Directions, 112 pp., £11.99, April 2020, 978 0 8112 2834 3
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... am dying a death such as few mortals have enjoyed … exchanging earthly happiness for eternal bliss.’ Having sent their letters by express post, they picnicked on the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee, wrote each other love poems, drank wine, rum and, according to newspaper reports, ‘about sixteen cups of coffee’, before Kleist shot Vogel through the ...

Bogey’s Clean Sweep

Michael Holroyd, 22 May 1980

The Life of Katherine Mansfield 
by Antony Alpers.
Cape, 466 pp., £9.50, May 1980, 0 224 01625 3
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... During her life she had published only three volumes of short stories: In a German Pension (1911), Bliss (1920) and The Garden Party (1922). But posthumously, under Murry’s supervision, she grew miraculously prolific. He brought out two more volumes, The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924), which included unfinished fiction and brought her ...

Understanding Forwards

Michael Wood: William James, 20 September 2007

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism 
by Robert Richardson.
Mariner, 622 pp., £15, September 2007, 978 0 618 43325 4
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... knew what it meant to manage to ignore them. He knew too that such practised ignorance is neither bliss nor denial but at times a virtue and at times a disaster. The trick is to know which times are ...

How the sanity of poets can be edited away

Arnold Rattenbury: The Sanity of Ivor Gurney, 14 October 1999

‘Severn and Somme’ and ‘War’s Embers’ 
by Ivor Gurney, edited by R.K.R. Thornton.
Carcanet, 152 pp., £7.95, September 1997, 1 85754 348 3
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80 Poems or So 
by Ivor Gurney, edited by George Walter and R.K.R. Thornton.
Carcanet, 148 pp., £9.95, January 1997, 1 85754 344 0
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... advocate. My own hunch is that other Gurney personae usually written off as lunatic fictions – Michael Flood, Frederick Saxby, Valentine Fane, Griffiths Davies and so on: there were many – may yet turn out to be comrades from the trenches, those other persons he so loved. Although writing of place-names rather than people, P.J. Kavanagh puts the matter ...

Illuminating, horrible etc

Jenny Turner: David Foster Wallace, 14 April 2011

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace 
by David Lipsky.
Broadway, 320 pp., $16.99, 9780307592439
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The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel 
by David Foster Wallace.
Hamish Hamilton, 547 pp., £20, April 2011, 978 0 241 14480 0
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... And now, here’s The Pale King, this book-shaped version of the ‘long thing’, assembled by Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor on Infinite Jest, from ‘a neat stack of manuscript, 12 chapters totalling nearly 250 pages’ discovered by Wallace’s agent on the desk in his home office, augmented by a selection from ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of less ...

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