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Books of the Year | 24 November 2007

William Trevor Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, £8.99). This is a classic biography, gracefully written, driven by a perception that never falters. The contradictions and lingering mysteries in Hardy’s life, both as a man and a novelist, are investigated fruitfully but gently, without gratuitous or prurient curiosity. Speculation is offered with

The volcano’s resonant rumble

In the cartoonist Martin Rowson’s comic strip critique-cum-spoof of The Waste Land, Ezra Pound appeared in cameo as ‘Idaho Ez’ — a sort of demented janitor shuffling through the middle of the action, muttering to himself and pushing a broom. This captures, albeit cruelly, a version of the way his reputation survives: opaque, marginal, bonkers

Lives less ordinary

Peter Gay opens his survey of the culture of Modernism with a discussion of Baudelaire’s call to artists to draw their inspiration from contemporary urban realities, and closes it with some sort of ironic ne plus ultra, as Damien Hirst roars with laughter after a ‘pile of organised chaos representing the detritus of a painter’s

Portrait of a lady

Clarissa Eden’s father was the younger brother of Winston Churchill. Her mother was the daughter of the seventh Earl of Abingdon. She was born into an upper-class society which still, as in Trollope’s novels, was organised to bring daughters into contact with eligible husbands at summer balls. A beauty, with her mother’s blue eyes, she

Inscrutable lords of the deep

The sperm whale, more than any other whale, has captured the public’s imagination, to the point that when the average person envisions a whale, it is the sperm whale that they most often see. As a child I definitely saw, in my mind’s eye, the whale that swallowed Jonah as a sperm whale (although I

No simple solutions

The epidemic of Aids among heterosexuals of which we were once warned by public health officials is now almost as forgotten as the global freezing of which the environmentalists in the 1970s also warned us. Only in Africa has Aids spread through the general population, reducing the already low life expectancies of several countries still

Borders of the possible

The original title for this novel was Jews with Swords, which perfectly captures its spirit as well as its subject. It also, incidentally, suggests a good literary parlour game, in which classic works are simplistically renamed to reflect their content: Day Out in Dublin, for Ulysses, or Beautiful Child Abuse, for Lolita, perhaps. In any

A choice of crime novels | 24 November 2007

Name to a Face (Bantam, £14.99) is Robert Goddard’s 19th novel. With characteristic brio, he combines the Black Death, the wreck of Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s flagship off Scilly in 1707 and the theft of an 18th-century ring with adulterous shenanigans in modern Monaco, a drowned journalist, near-identical twins and major-league EU fraud. Tim Harding, a

A one off

Late in My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, Phil Ockerman, the main narrator, goes to Diamond Heart in Scotland, ‘a centre of dynamic calm in which mind and spirit gather energy for the next forward move’. He is the stand-in writer to teach a course on ‘The Search For Page One’. If Russell Hoban finds it


Adjustment So much for the ineffectual sandbags: we were put in touch with the loss adjuster, who came when the ‘black water’ had retired. They would indeed replace the white goods (for which we’d better find the lost receipts) but, with a droll glance at the furniture, he let us know that didn’t mean what

His own man

What little most of us know about Omar Khayyam can be summarised in two words: the Rubaiyat, a collection of his free-spirited quatrains made famous around the world by the translations of the 19th-century poet Edward Fitzgerald. It has been said that these immensely popular books, first published in 1859 and running into numerous editions,

Recent gardening books | 24 November 2007

Celebrity gardeners are what publishers are banking on this year. The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, known in New York as ‘the high priestess of historic garden design’, has given us her gardening autobiography. A Gardener’s Life (Frances Lincoln, £35) is illustrated by another aristocrat, Derry Moore — in private life Lord Drogheda. The book looks

Urge to be first

It’s an alien species. Its habitat is scorching deserts or polar wastes, its diet Smash potato reconstituted with snow melt, and a concoction called ‘pre-stress’ drunk from a bottle that is also used to collect its own urine. Its pastimes include running marathons, writing books and climbing mountains. This is the Sir Ranulph Twistleton Wykeham

Norman at the Ritz

Andrew O’Hagan wrote a very nice piece about Norman Mailer in the Daily Telegraph last week. Affectionate and admiring, it was just the sort of tribute a young writer should pay to a senior one, and it was pleasant to learn how encouraging Mailer had been to O’Hagan and indeed to other young writers. This