The real deal

29 January 2011
We Had It So Good Linda Grant

Virago, pp.352, 17.99

‘“We weren’t phoney,” Stephen said. “Our whole point was to live an authentic life, to challenge the bourgeois conventions of our parents’ generation. We wanted to make it real.”’ Such… Read more


A novel approach

15 January 2011

An interesting phenomenon of recent years is the novel about a real-life novelist. Of course, writers have often included fictitious members of their trade within their work — one thinks… Read more

Bad enemy, worse lover

11 December 2010
Saul Bellow: Letters Benjamin Taylor (ed)

Penguin Classics, pp.608, 30

Five years after his death, Saul Bellow’s literary reputation has yet to suffer the usual post-mortem slump, and publication of these lively letters should help sustain his standing. Five years… Read more

Under the skin

27 November 2010
Perfect Lives Polly Samson

Virago, pp.223, 15.99

Why do so many aspiring writers think it best to begin with the short story and graduate to the novel? It’s madness. The short story is infinitely harder to write… Read more


The man and the myth

13 November 2010
Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett

Profile, pp.352, 25

Tolstoy’s legend is not what it was; but sometimes the world needs idealised versions of ordinary men, argues Philip Hensher The truism that Tolstoy was the greatest of novelists hasn’t… Read more

How are you today?

7 July 2010
Teach Us To Sit Still Tim Parks

Harvill Secker, pp.335, 12.99

How am I? Very well, thank you. Actually, now you ask, I do have this stubborn pain in the small of my back, and my right knee isn’t what it… Read more


A man after his time

30 June 2010
BB, A Symposium: A Life in Words Bryan Holden (editor)

Roseworld, pp.286, 30

Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990) illustrated dozens of books under his double-barrel and wrote at least 60 of his own under the two initials ‘BB’. Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990) illustrated dozens of books… Read more


Not as sweet as he seemed

16 June 2010
E. M. Forster: A New Life Wendy Moffat

Bloomsbury, pp.404, 25

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than… Read more


Odd men out

16 June 2010
Peter Pan’s First XIWG’s Birthday Party Kevin Tefler

Sceptre, pp.344, 16.99

The first game played by the Allahakbarries Cricket Club at Albury in Surrey in September 1887 did not bode well for the club’s future. The first game played by the… Read more


On the brink

2 June 2010
Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt Anthony Sattin

Hutchinson, pp.316, 20

Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship contains a celebrated tip for writers who want to ensure good reviews. Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship contains a celebrated tip for writers who want to ensure good reviews.… Read more


Refusing to play the game

31 March 2010
J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High Kenneth Slawenski

Pomona Books, pp.423, 20

What sort of person would you expect to be bringing out a life of J. D. Salinger two months after his death, bearing in mind that Salinger was more obsessive… Read more


Her own best invention

17 March 2010
Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores Anne Boston

John Murray, pp.364, 25

Lesley Blanch, who died in 2007 aged almost 103, did not want this book written. Having spent her whole life spinning a web of romantic tales around herself, the last… Read more


The reality behind the novels

10 March 2010
The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942 Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, translated by Euan Cameron

Chatto, pp.466, 25

‘I never knew peaceful times’, Irène Némirovsky once said, ‘I’ve always lived in anxiety and often in danger’. ‘I never knew peaceful times’, Irène Némirovsky once said, ‘I’ve always lived… Read more


The greatest rogue in Europe

24 February 2010
Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped A. Roger Ekirch

WW Norton, pp.258, 17.99

On 11 November 1743, the most sensational trial of the 18th century opened in the Four Courts in Dublin. The plaintiff, James Annesley, claimed that his uncle, Richard Annesley, the… Read more


What a difference a gay makes

20 January 2010
City Boy Edmund White

Bloomsbury, pp.297, 18.99

Edmund White is among the most admired of living authors, his oeuvre consisting of 20-odd books of various forms — novels, stories, essays and biographies — though each one is… Read more

Squeaks and squawks

14 December 2009
The Bloomsbury Group The British Library

The British Library, pp.2 CDs, 131 minutes, 15.50

How often, when listening to announcers or weather forecasters or politicians on the radio, do I think, ‘That’s an ugly voice’! This seldom applies to speakers with educated regional accents,… Read more

A great novelist

14 December 2009
Pastors and Masters Ivy Compton-Burnett

Hesperus, pp.100, 8.99

In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909. In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy… Read more

A long journey

14 December 2009
Concerning E. M. Forster Frank Kermode

Weidenfeld, pp.180, 14.99

I never liked E. M. Forster much. He was too preachy and prissy, too snobbish about the suburbs, too contemptuous of the lower classes. I know this is not how… Read more

All Paris at her feet

25 November 2009
Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini Peter Webb

Vendome, pp.304, 60

In what was intended as the opening line of a 1951 catalogue essay to an exhibition by the painter Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau wrote: ‘There is always, at the margin… Read more

A literary gypsy

4 November 2009
J.G. Farrell in his Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries Lavinia Greacen (editor)

Cork University Press, pp.480, 39 Euros

When Lavinia Greacen undertook her magisterial yet intimately sympathetic biography of James Gordon Farrell, she gained access to his diaries and many of his letters, especially love letters and letters… Read more

Cheering satanism

4 November 2009
The Devil is a Gentleman Phil Baker

Dedalus, pp.699, 25

‘For my generation of Essex teenagers, Dennis Wheatley’s novels represented the essential primer in diabolism,’ Ronald Hutton, the historian and expert on paganism, recalls. ‘For my generation of Essex teenagers,… Read more

Nothing succeeds like excess

4 November 2009
Cheever: A Life Blake Bailey

Picador, pp.770, 25

‘Why are you laughing?’ they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children. What his… Read more