The Questing-Vole

Life and letters | 12 February 2005

Why you should judge a book by its cover

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Russian bandit capitalism — sorry, the joys of the free market — is reaching beyond the grave. Latest victim: Fyodor Dostoevsky. The novelist’s great-grandson Dmitri has called foul on the lottery company Chestnaya Igra (‘Fair Play’), and is suing for £5,000 damages after images of his ancestor started appearing on its lottery tickets. As he points out, it is not in the best of taste to use the image of a notorious problem gambler to promote a lottery. Why not use Turgenev instead, he wonders: ‘The guy gambled more, spent more, lost more and had much more spare money anyway.’ Devils! Idiots! As well have the Russian prison service adopt as its mascot the image of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ... Dmitri — who has now registered great-grand- pappy as a trademark — is further exercised by the behaviour of the Dostoevsky Hotel in St Petersburg. ‘They have a bed with the great writer’s name written on the bed,’ he complains. ‘This is plain dirty, and far too low to be tolerated.’

A thought occurs about Blink, the widely hyped new book by the frizzy-haired New Yorker wunderkind Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s thesis is that the unconscious mind arrives much faster and more effectively at the right conclusion than the conscious mind. If we learn to trust our snap judgments, he argues, we’ll all be much better off than if we waste time and confuse ourselves weighing evidence, following arguments, and thinking things through. Why, then, are his publishers bothering to send out review copies of Blink, and why are we bothering to read the reviews? Trust Mr Gladwell’s advice. Judge his book by its cover.

Authors, keep your minds open ... Such, at least, seems to be the moral to be gleaned from the story of one lady writer whose agent had been beavering away to sell her book in South American territories. At last, flushed with success, the agent in question sent her an email whose subject line reported, ‘Brazilian offer.’ The agent waited to receive back a missive of delighted congratulation. And waited. And waited. Eventually, he called. It turned out that she had summarily deleted his email after a glance at the subject line, assuming it to be some sort of bikini-line-related junk email promotion.

A rather touching valediction to Susan Sontag from the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick appears in the New York Review of Books. Sontag, though not a martyr to false modesty, was capable of self-deprecation. Hardwick recalls an encounter after a literary happening in New York. ‘Once, after one of those occasions in Town Hall with a panel of writers and the crowd that gathered in the lobby later, a young man came up to her and asked, “What are you noted for?”Her answer: “For the white streak in my black hair”’.

A few years back, the publication of Graham Greene’s dream diary gave admirers an illuminating peek into the unconscious of the man who gave us Brighton Rock. (Result? We learned that, genius though he may have been, he, like the rest of us, dreamed about meeting the Queen and finding yourself in public having forgotten to put your trousers on.) Now, Arete magazine does the same for William Golding. The latest issue reproduces a number of entries from the 1971 journal in which Golding kept a detailed dream diary, complete with Jungian self- analysis. His recurrent nightmare is a dozy doozy. He finds himself in some sort of building at twilight. ‘Perhaps 50 yards away in the building is a large cupboard or small room. In it is the body of a woman aged about 30 who I have strangled. The tone of this is dread and apprehension. I wonder when I shall be found out, but hear that a sergeant or corporal and six, seven, or eight men have been billeted in the room next to the body. They know then, I think, and I realise I shall be arrested in the morning.’

Is this dream common to anxious writers? Compare the end of John Berryman’s Dream Song 29: ‘But never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up, / and hide the pieces, where they may be found. / He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. / Nobody is ever missing.’ William Golding’s dream at least had a happy ending. ‘I remark to Ann [his wife],’ he writes, ‘that we are surrounded by the girls of St Trinians. I wake up with usual great sense of relief.’

The coveted Peter Preston Award for the ingenious use of metaphor, this week, goes to one of the Master’s colleagues on the Observer. The paper’s Victoria Coren weighed in recently to defend Sky Sports commentator Rodney Marsh, who had been fired for his amusing joke about David Beckham refusing to join Newcastle football club out of disapproval at ‘what the Toon Army did in Asia’. ‘The freedom of speech debate is dangerously blunt and clumsy at the moment,’ she warned. ‘A big broom is reaching down and sweeping anything vaguely questionable under the carpet. We need to take a closer look at the bristles, before anyone else gets it in the eye.’

For those of us who spent wide-eyed childhoods goggling at the naughty bits in Wilbur Smith novels, it will come as a surprise to learn that the old rogue has a prudish side. Interviewed about the publication of his new novel, he admitted that he advises his elderly mother to skip certain pages to spare both of their blushes. He adds, new-mannishly, that the women in his books ‘are not just there for the hero to boff’.

Finally, a very unlikely pair indeed appear as finalists for the biography section of this year’s National Critics’ Book Circle Awards. In one corner, Stephen Greenblatt, the American Renaissance scholar and pioneer of the New Historicism, competing with his critically panned new biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. In the other, Bob Dylan, up for the prize for Chronicles, his biography of, um, himself. Bob in the Village, you might say. One is the sometime best-paid literary academic in the world. The other is a zillionaire rock star. Neither will be much bothered that there’s no cash prize at stake.