The lonely passions of Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, the poem that made T.S. Eliot famous. His story is familiar and yet still surprising. What is well known: Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape, it was published in The Dial and then The Criterion, and it was quickly recognised as a poem of great importance. Eliot emerged as the poet of his age and his views on the ‘impersonality’ of poetry would dominate the next several decades of poetry and criticism. What is less well known is how Eliot’s work was shaped and influenced by a few key women. This dynamic is what Lyndall Gordon’s

Ian McEwan’s capacity for reinvention is astonishing

McEwanesque. What would that even mean? The dark psychological instability of The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love? The gleeful comedy of Solar and Nutshell? The smart social realism of Saturday and The Children Act? The metafictional games of Atonement and Sweet Tooth? Ian McEwan’s brilliant capacity for reinvention is a hallmark of his literary career. It’s simpler to say what McEwanesque is not: baggy, meandering, plotless, long. Yet all of these adjectives could be applied to his surprising new novel, Lessons. This cradle-to-grave (well, seven-ish to seventy-something) narrative concerns the life and times of Roland Baines, born, like McEwan, in 1948. Roland shares more than just a birth date

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

The unfamiliar Orwell: the writer as passionate gardener

This is a book about George Orwell’s recognition that desire and joy can be forces of opposition to the authoritarian state and its intrusions. To explore the theme, Rebecca Solnit has produced a sequence of loosely linked essays around the roses and fruit bushes the author of Animal Farm planted in 1936 in the garden of his modest Hertfordshire house. A Californian with more than 20 books behind her, Solnit opens this latest with a pilgrimage to Wallington, where Orwell’s Albertine roses have endured. The blooms instigate a reconsideration of the man ‘most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism’, which in turn invites the author ‘to dig deeper’ and

The stuff of everyday life: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy, reviewed

Real Estate is the third and concluding volume of Deborah Levy’s ground-breaking ‘Living Autobiography’. Fans of Levy’s alluring, highly allusive fiction will appreciate the insights into her life; moreover, anyone with an ounce of curiosity will be fascinated by her compelling tour of city streets, island rocks and meandering diversions into ideas from a wealth of writers and artists. We begin the book with the author buying a plant from a flower stall. (Our modern-day Mrs Dalloway purchases a banana tree in Shoreditch rather than cut flowers in Westminster.) Levy then steps from this familiar act of flower-buying into the world of Georgia O’Keeffe, and we accompany her ‘from the

Transport to Australia was the saving of Carmen Callil’s family

If 2020 has given us something to talk about other than Covid, it’s been history — and, more precisely, to whom history belongs and how we’ve chosen to define it. Well into the modern era, the philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s definition of the subject as ‘the biography of great men’, seems to endure. Most remember their school history lessons as a force-fed diet of monarchs’ names, battles and key dates, or as a narrative about palace-dwelling elites whose experiences seemed utterly removed from reality. It is undoubtedly why the subject in its most uncut Victorian form can seem so unpalatable to the general public. Conversely, it also goes a long way

No one ‘got’ the Sixties better than David Bailey

What caught my eye towards the end of Look Again was this conversation between David Bailey and the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They are talking about a brief golden age, a perfect moment in their lives: Blahnik: So sometimes I just have to sit down and say: ‘God, did all this happen?’ All the excitement, it doesn’t exist any more, maybe because I’m old.Bailey: It’s not because you’re old. It doesn’t exist. This is the autobiography of David Bailey, as told to James Fox (‘my collaborator’). It starts with Bailey as a child in the East End, and ends with Bailey returning there as an old man. But the real

Barack Obama was decidedly a man of action as well as words

Well, it’s quite the title, isn’t it? It tends to invite comparisons. The first one that occurred to me, though, was that the original Promised Land guy managed to get all the important stuff down on two stone tablets. His would-be successor doesn’t have quite that gift for compression. As he semi-apologises in the opening pages (he feels bad about it, but not bad enough to do a ruthless edit), this memoir was originally envisioned as a 500-pager. A Promised Land is just north of 700 pages, and there’s another volume to come. That speaks of a certain self-regard. Then again, Barack Obama has a good bit to be self-regarding

Helen Macdonald could charm the birds out of the trees

When Helen Macdonald was a child, she had a way of calming herself during moments of stress: closing her eyes, she would imagine and count through the layers of the earth that lay beneath her, and then the layers of atmosphere above her. ‘It had something of the power of incantation,’ she writes in Vesper Flights, an essay originally published in the New York Times Magazine and now the title piece in this new collection of essays. Much like her previous book H Is for Hawk, this volume sees Macdonald weave together personal reflections, natural and human histories and fragments of autobiography to create nature writing that is at once

Is this the last round in the great celebrity Punch and Judy show?

It’s been tough recently being Woody Allen, something that didn’t look too easy to begin with. Last year Amazon breached his four-film contract, preferring to settle out of court. Actors have lodged their public regret at working with him. He is one of Hollywood’s notable sinking stars. In March, following a demonstration by staff, Hachette pulped this book. ‘Everybody should take responsibility for their actions,’ one protesting employee told the Guardian — anonymously, and apparently without irony. The New York Times called him ‘a monster’. And if you think that’s social rock bottom, in 2016 the Clinton campaign refused his donation. Imagine that: money so tainted that not even the