Essays

Reading pulp fiction taught me how to write, said S.J. Perelman

This volume of short essays – originally written for the New Yorker in the 1940s and 1950s but never before assembled – provides ample evidence that the great S.J. Perelman could misspend his youth with the best of them. It’s also the closest thing to an autobiography he ever completed: a series of comic reflections on the awful, absorbing books and movies which entertained him when he should have been attending his classes at Brown University (from which he eventually dropped out), or keeping a steady job. Recollected in the tranquillity (or complacency) of being a well-established, middle-aged family man, these guilty pleasures prove less absorbing to him the second

What became of Thomas Becket’s bones?

The St Brice’s Day Massacre? I must admit I hadn’t heard of this ‘most just extermination’ of Danes in Oxford at the instigation of King Aethelred the Unready in 1002, perhaps because the teaching of history in this country tends to kick off in 1066. You certainly don’t think of Oxford as a place that pioneered techniques of ethnic cleansing. Crypt is a collection of seven essays that unearth details about how certain people lived and died in the past. If you didn’t already know Alice Roberts’s background as an anatomist and biological anthropologist, you’d have a good chance of deducing it from this book. The old jibe that archaeology

Flaubert, snow, poverty, rhythm … the random musings of Anne Carson

Anne Carson, the celebrated Canadian-American poet, essayist and classical translator, is notoriously reticent about her work. She agreed to just these three sentences appearing on the cover of her first book in eight years: Wrong Norma is a collection of writings about different things, like Joseph Conrad, Guantanamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my dad, Saturday night. The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong. Not only does this suggest the range of subjects explored but also Carson’s idiosyncratic, playful humour. Of course there are links between the pieces, and of course they are anything but wrong. Wrong-footed by the blurb, it’s thrillingly difficult to find one’s

Artistic achievements that changed the world

‘Astonish me!’ was the celebrated demand that the impresario Sergei Diaghilev made of Jean Cocteau when he was devising Erik Satie’s ballet Parade. Dominic Dromgoole has taken it as the title for a collection of essays on a series of seismic first nights, ranging across different public art forms. It is a celebration of the artistic achievements that overcame the odds to change the story of culture, and whose effects rippled out to change the world. The author is a distinguished theatre director, and his focus is on performance. He is at pains to reject the notion of the solitary artist and argues that, from the dawn of history, the

Why Ronald Blythe is so revered

Ronald Blythe, the celebrated author of Akenfield, is to turn 100 next month, and to mark his centenary a beguiling calendrical selection has been made of his ruminations for the Church Times, for which as a lay reader he penned a weekly ‘Word from Wormingford’. It is distilled from 25 years of musings that chase the months from first ghostly intimations of snow at New Year to the blaze of the fire at Wood Hall’s mid-winter supper, while outside ‘the trees crack and the moon is made of ice’. Coming full circle and anticipating the ever-repeating rhythms of the year, they glance between past and present, sacred and secular and

The deathly malaise that’s crippling Russia

Now is a difficult time to empathise with Russians – which is why we need Maxim Osipov. We need him to bring alive to us what it means to live in Putin’s Russia – how the system finds ways to crush all but a very few. Even more, we need him to remind us of the kaleidoscope of qualities that a country like Russia inevitably contains – the humanity and generosity as well as the stupidity and cruelty. An author of great subtlety, Osipov would no doubt wince at such grandiose claims for his writing. Yet when the world is deciding how to deal with the aftermath of Putin’s (eventual,

A translator’s responsibilities are as formidable as a transplant surgeon’s

When asked what it is we do, translators often resort to metaphors. We liken the act of translation to performing a piece of music, taking on a role in a play, kissing a bride through a veil or building bridges between cultures. But as the peerless Norwegian translator Damion Searls has said, when we sit down to work ‘there’s no metaphor at all really. The metaphors are just for interviews, or for talking with people about what translators do’. In this series of passionate, thoughtful essays, Jhumpa Lahiri uses metaphors, and more especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to explore the nebulous, almost ineffable nature of living between languages. The book is also

At last, a book about James Joyce that makes you laugh

I do not think I am alone in confessing that I had read critical works on James Joyce before I got around to reading him. As a schoolboy I drew up my own private curriculum, and one influential book was Malcolm Bradbury’s The Modern World, where I first encountered Joyce; and then moved on to Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. Eventually I did read the actual work. All my teachers told me Ulysses was ‘mucky’. When they said that Finnegans Wake was even muckier, it slightly fritzed my brain when I finally got a copy. This year being the centenary of

Michel Houellebecq may be honoured by the French establishment, but he’s no fan of Europe

For many years, Michel Houellebecq was patronised by the French literary establishment as an upstart, what with his background in agronomy rather than literature, his miserable demeanour, his predilection for science fiction and his gift for unyieldingly saying the unsayable, especially about relations between the sexes. That’s all changed now. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for The Map and the Territory and in 2019 was elevated to the Légion d’Honneur. The Nobel cannot be long delayed, the committee after all having honoured the equally ornery V.S. Naipaul and J.M. Coetzee. Houellebecq’s new novel Anéantir, published in January in a luxury edition of 300,000 copies, was a quasi-official event

Lydia Davis masters the art of translating without a dictionary

‘Read slowly, word by word, if you wish to understand what I am saying.’ Despite appearing in Essays Two, the latest non-fiction collection from Lydia Davis, this exhortation is by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad; yet the approach is apt for Davis’s work. This is not because Davis, a feted translator and writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, is incomprehensible but because her work is often so short — a couple of lines or a couple of pages. It demands to be savoured slowly. Even when she writes at length, as she does in this hefty volume spanning 19 essays, her thoughts on literature and language

Jan Morris’s last book is a vade mecum to treasure

Jan Morris, in all her incarnations, was always able to evoke a place and a moment like no other. As James Morris, the only journalist to cover the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953, he described Edmund Hillary returning from the summit as huge and cheerful, his movement not so much graceful as unshakably assured, his energy almost demonic… It was a moment so thrilling, so vibrant, that hot tears sprang to the eyes of most of us. Morris, who died last year, was married to Elizabeth Tuckniss for 71 years and had five children, one of whom died in infancy. She transitioned to live as a woman in

Compassion and a gift for friendship are touchingly evident in Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days

It has to be one of the most extraordinary stories of lockdown — how Tom Hanks’s assistant Sooki Raphael, undergoing treatment for recurrent pancreatic cancer, came to be living in the basement of the American novelist Ann Patchett and her husband Dr Karl VanDevender. How it happened is told in the title story of These Precious Days, Patchett’s second collection of essays. Asked to endorse Hanks’s short story collection, Uncommon Type, and then to interview him on stage during his tour, Patchett first meets Sooki in the wings of a Washington theatre. Hanks, by way of reciprocation, agrees to do the audio recording of Patchett’s eighth novel, The Dutch House,

Don’t ask a historian what history is

E.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? has cast a long shadow over the discipline. I recall being assigned to read it as a teen-ager, and it has prompted multiple reconsiderations over the years — as acknowledged by the editors in their introduction to this book. Reappraisals and conferences on ‘What is History?’ are launched with regularity. (One of the editors of this volume is Carr’s great-granddaughter.) Aside from the reappraisal of Carr’s original work, the fact that books like this continue to be produced in academic history says something about the slipperiness of defining it in the first place — and the discipline’s own anxieties. Over the past century

The AI future looks positively rosy

In the future, men enjoying illicit private pleasures with their intelligent sexbots might be surprised to find that even women made from latex and circuitry can learn to talk back and say no. Or, alternatively, that their ‘love dolls’ — in the current marketing-speak — have been hacked by anarchist feminist programmers. Please enjoy the next, cyborg-mediated stage of the war of the sexes. Some men, of course, still believe that women are inherently no good with computers, a dumb prejudice that Jeanette Winterson ably rebuts in this collection of interlinked essays, with stories from early computing history and several outbursts of amusing ire. Today’s tech-bro coders might be surprised

Lucy Ellmann is angry about everything, especially men

Is Lucy Ellmann serious? On the one hand, yes, very. The novel she published before this collection of essays was the Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, which relayed the internal life of an Ohioan mother of four via a single sentence across 1,000 pages. Her publisher tells me that between the proof and final publication of Things Are Against Us, Ellman made 1,700 changes. She is, in short, an undoubted paragon of highbrow meticulousness. Then again and on the other hand, no, Ellmann is not being serious at all here. Things consists mostly of pieces written before the pandemic but is nonetheless influenced by the plague world into which it emerges, reacting

As circus gets serious, is all the fun of the fair lost?

What’s so serious about a red nose? How should we analyse the ‘specific socio-historical relations’ and ‘aesthetic trends particular to geographic context’ of the circus? How can we ‘codify’ equestrian performance in the ring? With the publication of The Cambridge Companion to the Circus, this artform has tumbled out of the Big Top and into the library and lecture hall. It’s a recent arrival to lofty, learned spaces. When Vanessa Toulmin of Sheffield University, widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on circus and fairground history, first ventured into academia, she did so under the guise of an ‘early film historian’, as circus wasn’t regarded as worthy of study. Now

Richard Dawkins delights in his own invective

The late Derek Ratcliffe, arguably Britain’s greatest naturalist since Charles Darwin, once explained how he cultivated a technique for finding golden plovers’ nests. As he walked across the featureless moor, ‘the gaze’, he wrote, had to be ‘concentrated as far ahead as possible, not in one place, but scanning continuously over a wide arc from one side to the other and back’. Should you look down at your feet, or allow yourself to be distracted for a second, chances were that this elusive wader would slip off its eggs and you would never work out whenceit came. Reading Richard Dawkins strikes me as requiring a similar kind of disciplined attention.

Salman Rushdie’s self-importance is entirely forgivable

I have the habit, when reading a collection of essays, of not reading them in order. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. So, as it happened, I had read nearly all of Languages of Truth before I arrived at the second piece in the book, ‘Proteus’, and came across the Salman Rushdie I had been looking forward to: the worst Rushdie, the infuriating, humble-bragging, know-all, preposterous and tone-deaf Rushdie. Up until then I had been going through the book, pencilling marginal notes which were saying, essentially, ‘oh, this is rather good’, ‘excellent point’, or ‘very well put’. It was all getting a bit too chummy between Salman and

Despotic laws can — even should — be ignored, says Jonathan Sumption

Jonathan Sumption has developed ‘many strange habits over the years’, he tells us disarmingly, and one of these is to read the international press. ‘I read the French and German press most days, and sometimes the Italian and Spanish press as well.’ Some might think the retired Supreme Court justice was showing off. But these remarks were addressed to a group of German judges at the end of 2019. His message to them was that the British people might have been wrong to vote for Brexit — but they were not, as reported in the continental press, ‘at best naive and at worst mad’. That’s good to know. But readers

Joan Didion’s needle-sharp eye never fails

Most collections of journalism are bad. There are two reasons for this: one is that they are usually incoherent and the other is that they are, perversely, far too coherent. The pieces are pulled from their original contexts — newspapers, magazines — and thrown together with others they have no relation to beyond a common author. But (the too-coherent problem) most authors only have one or maybe two ideas to work through, so you end up doing the intellectual equivalent of walking a dozen rounds of the garden when you had hoped to be hiking off into a grand new landscape. I don’t know what Joan Didion’s one or maybe