Lead book review

Behind the fringe

‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,’ Philip Larkin famously announced in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.’ But the key line is a far more private confession, caught in parentheses like a gloomy thought bubble: ‘(which was rather late for me)’. Few of

More from Books

A study in alienation

Looking for the Outsider is the biography of a novel, from conception through publication to critical reception. Alice Kaplan’s life-story of L’Étranger (The Outsider in English translations, The Stranger in American) is a lovely work, lucid and thought-provoking. It makes one feel afresh the sheer strangeness of Albert Camus’s imagination. All genius is, perhaps, freakish;

Courting the Iron Lady

This is a strange book. Peter Stothard, the editor of the TLS, is packing up his office. It is a year after Margaret Thatcher’s death, and Murdoch’s Wapping site is being destroyed to make way for new, expensive flats. As the national memory of Thatcher fades, and transmutes into myth and caricature, so the physical

A parable of good and evil

It is difficult to write well about slavery. As with the Holocaust, the subject’s horrific nature lends itself too easily to mawkishness. This tendency is one that Colson White-head consummately avoids in this impressive novel. The Underground Railroad, set before the American civil war, tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton

England’s unloved king

Aethelred the Unready (c.968—1016) has not, as Levi Roach acknowledges, enjoyed a good press. In recent times there may have been some attempt in academic circles to take a more measured view of his calamitous reign, but the fact remains that if most us would have trouble saying quite what he did or did not

His and her healthcare

When I started this book, I have to admit, I did not think it would be as absolutely fascinating as it turned out to be. It’s by a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, and it’s about the medical differences between men and women. There are lots of medical differences between men and women — something

Too good to be true

The McNulty family in the novels of Sebastian Barry have a definite claim to be one of the unluckiest in all fiction. After serving with the Brits in the first world war, the main character in The Where-abouts of Eneas McNulty is branded a traitor to Ireland, and spends the rest of his days in

He blew his mind out in a car

There was a touch of Raymond Radiguet, the young literary sensation of 1920s Paris, about Tara Browne. In life poetically beautiful, poetry-imbued, tender and trusting, deliciously precocious and eerily presumptive, androgenous in looks but not desires, Tara died —‘without knowing it’, as Cocteau said of Radiguet — tragically, but given his penchant for very fast

Paintbrushes at the ready

When the old curmudgeon Edgar Degas died in 1917, a stunning trove of works by Edouard Manet — eight paintings, 14 drawings and 60 prints — was discovered in his studio. There, too, was a portrait of Manet and his wife Suzanne, painted by Degas 50 years earlier. But its right-hand third was missing —

The world in limbo

In 1919 the economist and sometime prophet John Maynard Keynes left the glittering ballroom of Versailles feeling profoundly despondent. The treaty that determined the political geography of a postwar world inspired in him a fearful sense of inevitability. The punitive conditions imposed on Germany would be too harsh for the country to tolerate for long.

And the answer is…

Doorstoppers, slim volumes, loose leaves stacked in a box, bound pages fretworked with holes, epistolary exchanges, online postings, palimpsests…. Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes — and that’s just the format, before you get to the content, which might include fractured grammar, reversed chronology, parallel plots, contradictory footnotes, dead or unborn narrators and labyrinthine