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9 June 1994
Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn 
by Joan Hardwick.
Deutsch, 306 pp., £20, June 1994, 0 233 98866 1
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Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jane Francesca Wilde 
by Joy Melville.
Murray, 308 pp., £19.99, June 1994, 0 7195 5102 1
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... of such a society was no more than a threat by Lord Ilchester to deter the grassing over of the giant’s vital parts. Another flamboyant, scandal-lapped, self-dramatising monstre sacrée surfaces in JoyMelville’s Mother of Oscar, a life of Lady Wilde, once famous as ‘Speranza’, the seditious Dublin belle of the potato famine. Born Jane Elgee, she too ran amok in the Classics and fantasised ...
8 March 2001
The Loss of the Ship ‘Essex’, Sunk by a Whale 
by Thomas Nickerson and Owen Chase, edited by Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick et al.
Penguin, 231 pp., £7.99, June 2000, 0 14 043796 7
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... near the Pacific island of Juan Fernández (Alexander Selkirk’s lonely home during the years 1704-9), off the coast of Chile. One of the Acushnet’s fo’c’sle crew was the young Herman Melville. The two ships hove to for a few hours while their masters visited each other, and the 22-year-old Melville caught sight of the Wirt’s captain. He was impressed: ‘He was a large, powerful, well ...

Coaxing and Seducing

Richard Jenkyns: Lucretius

3 September 1998
Lucretius: ‘On the Nature of the Universe’ 
translated by Ronald Melville.
Oxford, 275 pp., £45, November 1998, 0 19 815097 0
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... no rational grounds for considering anyone’s pleasure but my own; indeed, I ought not even to be moved by the suffering of others, as Lucretius explains in a famous passage. In this translation, A joy it is, when the strong winds of storm Stir up the waters of a mighty sea, To watch from the shore the troubles of another – not, as the poet explains in the next lines, from sadism, but because ...

Whose Body?

Charles Glass: ‘Operation Mincemeat’

22 July 2010
Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War Two 
by Ben Macintyre.
Bloomsbury, 400 pp., £16.99, January 2010, 978 0 7475 9868 8
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... I could have ballsed up Husky,’ he wrote. When Husky succeeded, he lamented: ‘I’m never going to be allowed to do anything of the kind again.’ Yet he was pleased with his handiwork: ‘Joy of joys to anyone, and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing that they had directly and specifically fooled that monster.’ He estimated the cost of Operation Mincemeat, which saved ...
20 January 2005
... the live veil,              elongated grammar of muscle, this moment’s agreement of light on the pure actual. (No such thing as the body,) Fact of a wrist. Vein troubling a forehead. Melville: How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? *                                     (By the waterfountain in the gym) On the huge man ...

On Darwin’s Trouble with the Finches

Andrew Berry: The genius of Charles Darwin

7 March 2002
Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands 
by Edward Larson.
Penguin, 320 pp., £8.99, February 2002, 0 14 100503 3
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... Islands. The Beagle had been at sea for nearly four years, and, as he wrote to his Cambridge mentor, John Henslow, Charles Darwin was increasingly anxious to get home: ‘I look forward with joy and interest to [visiting the Galapagos], both as being somewhat nearer to England, & for the sake of having a good look at an active Volcano.’ He had cause to expect some pyrotechnics as the ...

Anticipatory Plagiarism

Paul Grimstad: Oulipo

6 December 2012
Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature 
by Daniel Levin Becker.
Harvard, 338 pp., £19.95, May 2012, 978 0 674 06577 2
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... chessic fantasias; and Raymond Roussel, whom Queneau praised for ‘uniting the precision of the poet with the madness of the mathematician’. Perec in particular constantly invokes Herman Melville: W’s narrator identifies not with ‘Ahab’s boiling fury’ but with the sober and scrupulous Ishmael; the puzzle-making central figure in La Vie mode d’emploi is named ‘Bartlebooth ...

Heat in a Mild Climate

James Wood: Baron Britain of Aldeburgh

19 December 2013
Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century 
by Paul Kildea.
Allen Lane, 635 pp., £30, January 2013, 978 1 84614 232 1
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Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music 
by Neil Powell.
Hutchinson, 512 pp., £25, January 2013, 978 0 09 193123 0
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... Budd and Death in Venice. Both operas work hard to replace actual same-sex desire with Platonised, Christian or otherwise slightly sexless versions of it (Vere’s chaste love for Billy replaces what Melville called Claggart’s ‘natural depravity’). And curiously, this very repression then effects a release: Vere’s relation to Billy is more tenderly realised than anything in Melville’s novella ...
9 May 1996
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness 
by Kay Redfield Jamison.
Picador, 220 pp., £15.99, April 1996, 0 330 34650 4
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Touched with Fire 
by Kay Redfield Jamison.
Free Press, 250 pp., £19.95, December 1994, 0 02 916030 8
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Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Medness 
by Lauren Slater.
Hamish Hamilton, 199 pp., £16, April 1996, 0 241 13638 5
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... she insists that talent, as well as manic depression, is necessary for great art, she nonetheless equates the ‘possession’ poets speak of with manic states. Byron, Blake, Coleridge, the Jameses, Melville, Van Gogh and, of course, Virginia Woolf are all tested, by their works and their known heredities, for bipolar illness and the findings are positive. While Jamison acknowledges that ‘there are ...

Diary

Tim Dee: Derek Walcott’s Birthday Party

21 May 2014
... wings and deep-cut tail. An ‘idling pivot’, a Walcott poem calls it, ‘that weighs this world exactly as it pleases’. Columbus was impressed by the frigatebird and described it in his log; Melville made a poem from one, and the ‘black hawk’ that lifts Ahab’s hat from his head and ominously drops it, far from the Pequod, into the sea, is most likely a frigatebird too. It is not a raptor ...

Stop It and Act

Tim Parks: Pavese’s Road to Suicide

11 February 2010
This Business of Living: Diaries 1935-50 
by Cesare Pavese, translated by A.E. Murch.
Transaction, 350 pp., £24.50, March 2009, 978 1 4128 1019 7
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... That some of the recent poems carry conviction doesn’t make it any less true that I compose them more and more reluctantly. Nor does it matter much that I sometimes have a powerful sense of the joy of invention. The two things seen together can be explained by an acquired facility with metrics that takes away the thrill of digging out the work from a formless mass, and on the other hand by ...

What Life Says to Us

Stephanie Burt: Robert Creeley

21 February 2008
The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-75 
California, 681 pp., £12.55, October 2006, 0 520 24158 4Show More
The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1975-2005 
California, 662 pp., £29.95, October 2006, 0 520 24159 2Show More
On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay 
by Robert Creeley.
California, 89 pp., £12.95, April 2006, 0 520 24791 4
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Selected Poems: 1945-2005 
by Robert Creeley, edited by Benjamin Friedlander.
California, 339 pp., $21.95, January 2008, 978 0 520 25196 0
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... with Pound and Williams.’ Olson and Creeley began corresponding in 1950 – Williams seems to have put them in touch. Olson was then a former federal official, the author of a vivid book about Melville, not yet the theorist, impresario and cult figure of The Maximus Poems. The Olson-Creeley letters now comprise ten published volumes; Olson’s most famous formulation, ‘Form is never more than an ...

Brown Goo like Marmite

Neal Ascherson: Memories of the Fog

7 October 2015
London Fog: The Biography 
by Christine Corton.
Harvard, 408 pp., £22.95, November 2015, 978 0 674 08835 1
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... above the fire and smoke of the Blitz. ‘Sandbagging in the Fog’ by George Sims (c.1900) Names for the fog evolved during the 19th century. ‘Pea-souper’ is sometimes attributed to Melville, who wrote in 1850 of encountering ‘the old-fashioned pea soup London fog – of a gamboge colour’. This suggests that the expression was already well-worn. (Corton, given to rather engaging fits ...

Post-its, push pins, pencils

Jenny Diski: In the Stationery Cupboard

30 July 2014
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace 
by Nikil Saval.
Doubleday, 288 pp., £20, June 2014, 978 0 385 53657 8
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... the dream and the reality, the word still triggers a promise of delight. Occasionally, when I was allowed to accompany my father to an office that was once or twice his place of work, I went with joy as to Santa’s grotto. The office had so much more to engage with than mere roundabouts and swings. The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one ...

Diary

Alan Bennett: Allelujah!

3 January 2019
... Maybe he did do that in public – the Derek and Clive dialogues with Peter Cook left very little to the imagination, so it’s not unlikely.23 March. Barry Cryer brings a good deal of old-fashioned joy into my life, as I’m sure he does for many others. His phone calls always begin, ‘It’s your stalker,’ after which without introduction he tells his latest joke. This morning’s was told ...

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