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Sam Leith

Let me not be Mad

I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.’ Few epigraphs to fiction have been so widely disregarded as the disclaimer with which Evelyn Waugh presaged Brideshead Revisited. Immediately it was published, as Waugh’s great friend Nancy Mitford wrote to him, the general view was simply: ‘It is the Lygon

Mixing memory with desire

Rick Gekoski is an expatriate American, long established as one of the leading antiquarian book-dealers in Britain. As one might expect, books have been his passion for as long as he can remember, his reading as integral a part of his development as anything experienced in the world outside. ‘Every reading experience vibrates subtly across

Life of a cave dweller

All literature, but especially literature of the weird and the fantastic, is a cave where both readers and writers hide from life. (Which is exactly why so many parents and teachers, spotting a teenager with a collection of stories by Lovecraft, Bloch or Clark Ashton Smith, are apt to cry, ‘Why are you reading that

From Russia with love

In the last couple of decades or so, a plenitude of biographers have provided us with studies of 20th-century literary celebrities, from Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw to Evelyn Waugh and T. S. Eliot. Roland Chambers now treats the life and works of Arthur Ransome, a lesser mortal than these grandees. Ransome was born

Daily grind

This vast novel, well-plotted and gripping throughout, is the first that Sebastian Faulks has set in our time. It is a state of the nation book, and what a state we seem to be in: if Faulks is less kind to the contemporary than he has been to the past, we cannot blame him, for

Prelude to Waterloo

Napoleon has humbugged me, by God. He has gained 24 hours’ march on me!’ The Duke of Wellington’s exclamation was at least honest; he made only a show of calmness when told at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15 June 1815 that the French were across the border. His reputation stood in the balance,

An indisputable masterpiece

Of how many novelists can it be said that they have never written a bad sentence? Well, it can be said of William Trevor, as it could of his fellow countryman John McGahern, and of many another Irish novelist. What was it that so formed them, to write such elegant, flexible, lucid, beautiful but serviceable

Ticking the boxes

How do you describe novels written by a Fellow of All Souls, laced with extreme post-modern self-consciousness and lavish with cultural references, but revolving almost entirely around graphic permutations of the sexual act? As a genre, it can surely only be called clever-dick-lit. This is Adam Thirlwell’s second foray into this exclusive terrain. His first

Rhyme and reason

On the face of it, Nicholson Baker’s books are a varied bunch. His fiction ranges from the ultra close-up observations of daily life in the early novels to the hard-core sex of Fermata and Vox (a copy of which Monica Lewinsky famously gave to Bill Clinton). His non-fiction includes a tribute to John Updike, a