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Sam Leith

Hero of his own drama

Sam Leith is enthralled by the larger-than-life genius, August Strindberg — playwright, horticulturalist, painter, alchemist and father of modern literature When I’m reading a book for review, it’s my habit to jot an exclamation mark in the margin alongside anything that strikes me as particularly unexpected, funny or alarming. I embarked on Strindberg: A Life

Lest we forget | 17 March 2012

It was not possible, as Primo Levi memorably wrote, to convey the full horror of the Nazi extermination camps because no one had survived to describe death in the gas chambers. There were no ‘sommersi’ (drowned) left alive to speak for the men, women and children driven in naked to die.  Apart from Levi himself,

Inflated dreams

When almost every tale about the Arctic has been told, when the major explorers have been assessed and re-assessed, when even the most obscure bit-players have been drawn into the light, what is a polar-minded author to do? Publishers can be such tiresome sticklers for novelty, always hankering after books to fire off into some

Deviation and double entendre

If there’s anything full-time novelists hate more than a celebrity muscling in on their turf, it’s the celebrity doing such a good job that it seems as if anybody could write fiction. Happily for the pros, this isn’t a problem with Briefs Encountered. Not only is the book full of obvious flaws, but it also

Enigma variations

This is a novel full of hints and mysteries.  Why does the Dutch woman rent a house in rural Wales, bringing with her a mattress, some bedding and a portrait of Emily Dickinson? What is the matter with her — at times she seems energetic, at others obscurely suffering. And what is she escaping from?

Joy to the world

Patrick Gale’s new novel could be read as a companion work to his hugely successful Notes from an Exhibition, and in fact, in a satisfying twist, some characters and even objects slip from the latter into this novel. Notes from an Exhibition centred around the character of Rachel Kelly, whose mental instability and solipsistic devotion

Agreeing to differ

‘Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts; Lordie, how they could love.’ The ballad has many variant versions but the denouement is always the same; he was her man and he did her wrong. Rooty-toot-toot three times she shoot, and Johnny ended up in a coffin. Thatcher and Reagan were sweethearts; Lordie, how they could love. But

Last of the swagmen

I have hitherto resisted my wife’s frequent recommendations that I should read a daily blog about the life of the denizens of Spitalfields, but, now that they have been published in book form, I can see why she is such an enthusiast. The Gentle Author is deliberately anonymous and bases his style on a combination

Here be monsters | 17 March 2012

The lovely title of this book comes from the philosopher David Hume. The question he posed was this: if a man grew up familiar with every shade of blue but one, would he be able to recognise the hue in a chart of blues, or would it register only as a blank? In other words,

Abiding inspiration

In 1971 looking back over his life, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) declared himself surprised at being referred to as a critic. Certainly his plan when young had been the pursuit of the literary life, ‘but what it envisaged was the career of the novelist. To this intention, criticism, when eventually I began to practise it, was

Africa’s excesses

There are an awful lot of prostitutes in Africa and most of them seem to pass through the pages of Richard Grant’s book at one time or another. All this puts him in a terrible lather — ‘I had been so long without a woman’, he moans at one point, this while weighing up the

Bookends: A life of gay abandon

Sometimes, only the purest smut will do. Scotty Bowers’s memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove Press, £16.99) is 24 carat, 100 per cent proof. Now rising 89, Scotty (pictured above in his youth) was for years the go-to guy in Tinseltown for sexual favours. Black,