Lead book review

Jorge Luis Borges and his ‘bitch’

When Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986, at the age of 87, he left behind 100-odd slender fictions and as many poems, but no novels. Compared with the blockbusting authors of our age, this was a small (if perfectly formed) output. Many of Borges’s glittering ficciones are mere ironic fragments, at best notebook jottings. To

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A cult of inspired amateurishness that seized the 60s

The Exploding Galaxy flashed brightly in the black-and-white world that was just coming to an end as I was growing up. When I first met them, my opinion of art was fixed firmly against what I thought of as amateur. I came from a theatrical family, dedicated to extreme professionalism and mockery of anything less.

Half-poetry, half-prose, half-Belgian – and not half bad

Patrick McGuinness’s prose trembles on the edge of poetry, occasionally indeed tipping gently over into it. This is thoroughly characteristic of a book that does sometimes feel as though it might be an abandoned sequence of poems, reconfigured in often spell-binding prose. The title itself is poetic: who the ‘other people’ are and which ‘countries’

It’s not nice being used and abused

The term ‘psychological thriller’ is an elastic one these days, tagged liberally on to any story of suspense that explores motivations while keeping blood and chainsaws to a minimum. In many cases, the line between a thriller and a crime novel has become too blurred to be useful. In the novels of Nicci French, however,

Bitchiness gets in the way of the Gielgoodies

In the summer of 1955 a group of finals students trooped into a classroom at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. We had come to hear Ernest Milton talk about theatre. It was exciting to be in contact with a famous actor, even though Milton had not worked for some time. But better him than

Gavrilo Princip – history’s ultimate teenage tearaway

Amid the vast tonnage of recent books about the first world war this must be the most unusual — and one of the most interesting. The ‘Trigger’ of the title is Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old student dropout who shot the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street corner on 28 June 1914 and began

John Crace digested – twice

Fiction ‘So how come we’re in the same book?’ Paul from The Stranger’s Child asked Florence from On Chesil Beach. ‘Apparently,’ replied Florence looking up from the introduction to The 21st Century Digested, ‘the parodies of new books that John Crace has been doing in the Guardian since 2000 are now so popular that 131

What would Raymond Chandler do?

If the inclusion of the erstwhile master of the genre, Raymond Chandler, as a fictonalised character in a pastiche 1930s detective novel is a bit of a gimmick, it is a nice gimmick. In The Kept Girl it keeps us guessing whether the author, Kim Cooper, believes Chandler’s greatest invention, Philip Marlowe, was a self-portrait,

Who’s raiding the fridge?

There is a problem with describing what happens in Nagasaki: impossible to reveal much of the plot without flagging up serious spoiler alerts. The story demands an innocent eye; the gaining of knowledge should come page by page, and not be hurried. To set the scene: Shimura-san, a bachelor of 56, set in his ways,

Shooting prize-dispensing fish in literary barrels

Edward St Aubyn’s new novel is a jauntily malicious satire on literary prizes in general, the Man Booker Prize in particular and, it may be presumed, the 2011 Man Booker Prize in especial particular. That was the year of the great ‘readability’ brouhaha in which — as every reviewer will point out — among many

How seriously should we take Ruskin as an artist?

This stout and well-designed volume nicely complements Tim Hilton’s classic biography of John Ruskin. It is the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (till 11 May) and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (4 July–28 September). A Scottish venue is especially appropriate. Ruskin (1819–1900) was a Londoner but proudly Scots by

The book that brought out the Lady Bracknell in me

I’ve always said that speech is my second language, so naturally I’m somewhat slang-shy; I love words all written down properly and punctuated to within an inch of their lives. Not so Jonathon Green, who has the same relationship with slang as Jordan does with eating wedding cake in a thong; five books about it

For God, King and Country

Flags and flowers: three bloody years worked in silk. At the needle’s eye stand easy, ghost, slip through my fingers your blue, indelible, weightless kisses for the children. Tell Charlie, Min, time is short now. Up to the firing line for night operations — a ‘fabrication française’ where threads unravel, unvarnished truths must be embroidered

To be topp at lat., throw your Cambridge Latin Course away

The wisest words about learning Latin were said by that gifted prep-school boy, Nigel Molesworth: ‘Actually, it is quite easy to be topp in lat. You just have to work.’ But things have changed since Molesworth learnt Latin at St Custard’s in the 1950s. Over the last half-century, the work has been extracted from Latin