Henry james

How do authors’ gardens inspire them?

When Henry James moved to Lamb House in the Sussex coastal town of Rye, he admitted that he could hardly tell a dahlia from a mignonette: ‘I am hopeless about the garden, which I don’t know what to do with and shall never, never know – I am densely ignorant.’ He sought advice from the artist and designer Alfred Parsons and fortunately Lamb House already had a gardener, George Gammon, to do all the work. When Gammon won prizes at local horticultural shows, James was delighted: he was a vicarious gardener, more comfortable at his desk in the Garden Room than with his hands in the soil. Thomas Hardy was

Two sinister siblings: The Mountain Lion, by Jean Stafford, reviewed

Many of the best literary children – think the creations of Henry James or Elizabeth Bowen – have something creepy about them. These are girls and boys who see through the hypocrisy of adults, and there’s going to be something unnerving about their precocity. Jean Stafford’s Mollie and Ralph took their place in a lineage with James’s Flora and Miles and Bowen’s Henrietta and Leopold when she flung them, bespectacled and prone to nosebleeds, into the world in 1946. Stafford was the first wife of Robert Lowell, and it’s the main thing most people know about her now – unsurprisingly. Lowell was a man who made his mark on his

Life’s dark side: the catastrophic world of Stephen Crane

Long before Ernest Hemingway wasted his late career playing the he-man on battlefields and in fishing boats, or Norman Mailer wasted an entire career playing Hemingway, Stephen Crane was the most world-striding combative male intelligence in literature. And while he created the template for every ‘manly’ novelist who came after, from Jack London to Robert Ruark, he never sought attention as a man but only as a writer; and he certainly never issued many advertisements for himself. Instead, he almost surreptitiously explored the world’s most violent places with inexhaustible intrepidity. Living both privately and intensely, he wrote some of the most powerful prose of his generation, and died too young

To the brownstone born: WASPS, by Michael Knox Beran, reviewed

It was only in 1948 that the term WASP was coined — by a Florida folklorist, Stetson Kennedy. Yet White Anglo-Saxon Protestant never satisfactorily defined this all-but-extinct breed of American Brahmin. In his sweeping, teeming study of the WASP, Michael Knox Beran concedes that the acronym fumbles its origins. For one thing, it excludes the Celts and Anglo-Dutch Patroons, several of whom lent gravitas and grit to the term and tribe. For this reason too, ‘Wealthy English Episcopalians’ does not work. It may extract the sting but it is belittling, so why tinkle with it? It is sufficient to say that to be a WASP one should have been descended

That’s no lady

Did I enjoy this novel? Yes! Nevertheless, it dismayed me. How could John Banville, whom I’ve admired so much ever since he published his first short stories, whose great novel The Sea deservedly won the Booker and whose thrillers, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, so hauntingly evoke 1950s Dublin, have wasted however long it took to write it? The answer, perhaps, was given some years ago, in an interview with a journalist, when he confessed: ‘The guiding light has always been Henry James.’ Probably all serious novelists in our language revere James beyond idolatry. He calls us to raise the craft of fiction to the level of art. And

… trailing strands in all directions

Letters of Intent — letters of the intense. Keen readers of Cynthia Ozick (are there any other kind?) will of course already have copies of the books from which these often fiery essays have been selected. There’s a broad range of work represented here, from personal essays through to Ozick’s often rather profound philosophical enquiries into the meaning of art and religion — though the inclusion of no fewer than five essays on Henry James, two on Kafka, two on Virginia Woolf and two on Saul Bellow might make one wish for a little more breathing room, a little more room to roam. But this is a quibble. This is

The dark side of creativity

In Eureka, Anthony Quinn gives us all the enjoyable froth we could hope for in a novel about making a film in the 1960s — champagne, drugs, threesomes, gangsters, a Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, hula-hooping girls and Pucci scarves flung over smears of vomit. Underneath, however, lies an intellectual question. The film is an adaptation of Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, a story about obsessively trying to understand the secret key that unlocks an author’s work: ‘The idea that governs the whole and gives it meaning… a string that my pearls were strung on.’ (Ought I admit that I enjoyed Quinn’s saucy 1960s screenplay, spliced between chapters of the

Ivory towers

Great novels rarely make great movies, but for half a century one director has been showing all the others how it’s done. James Ivory has worked his magic on all sorts of authors, from Kazuo Ishiguro to Henry James, and this week the finest of all his adaptations returns to the big screen. ‘A film that’s almost two and a half hours long, non-stop talking, set in the Edwardian era — who would have thought that would be such a huge success?’ says Ivory, on the phone from his home in upstate New York. Yet somehow, this taciturn director turned a wordy novel by E.M. Forster into a gripping drama.

A man with an agenda

What’s this? An autobiography by Stuart Hall? Wasn’t he one of the guys who put the Eng. Lit. departments out to grass by arguing that it was senseless to talk about fictional characters as if they were real people when the truth was that real people were fictional constructs? Indeed he was; but don’t go thinking that just because Hall embarked, shortly before his death in 2014, on writing his life story, that he’d given up on the decentred subject. As he remarks early on in Familiar Stranger, despite our need to grasp our inner being, ‘we’ll never be ourselves’. It’s a nice line. It’s also a rare moment of


Some say Genoa takes its name from Janus, the two-faced god of time and doorways. Perhaps. What’s certain is the city has two aspects: the vast industrial port, its docks the bared teeth of the Italian Riviera; and, in the ruched strip of land between the Ligurian Sea and the hills, a bewildering network of alleys, stairways, and irregular little squares. ‘Genoa is the tightest topographic tangle in the world,’ wrote Henry James, ‘which even a second visit helps you little to straighten out. In the wonderful crooked, twisting, climbing, soaring, burrowing Genoese alleys the traveller is really up to his neck in the old Italian sketchability.’ The port has

Stuck on stucco

Whenever the words ‘stucco house’ appear in the newspapers, you can be certain the occupiers have been up to no good. The Russian kleptocrat in his stucco palace in Mayfair. The shamefaced prime minister seeking refuge in the stucco mansion of a party-donor chum. The disgraced wife-throttler with a stucco terrace in Eaton Square. In each case, it is miscreant stucco, offshore-trust stucco, stucco hiding corruption and foul play behind whiter-than-white, butter-wouldn’t-melt façades. Almost from the moment the first stucco suburbs — Belgravia, Pimlico, Bayswater, Paddington, Notting Hill, North Kensington — went up in the 19th century, modelled more or less devotedly on John Nash’s Regent’s Park scheme, ‘Stuccovia’, as

Between pony club and the altar

If you were to take a large dragnet and scoop up all the shoppers in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones in Sloane Square, your catch would be a group of women of the kind given voice in this marvellous little book. Readers old enough to remember Joyce Grenfell will know the type. Ysenda Maxtone Graham characterises them as people who sleep with the window open in all weather; who know how to cast on and off in knitting; are thrilled by the arrival of a parcel, even if it’s just some Hoover bags bought on Amazon. They haven’t done up their kitchens since the early 1970s and they always

The elegiac and the exuberant

Discussions about the short story too often fall into a false dichotomy that can be characterised, in essence, by a quibble over a consonant. Carver or Carter? On the surface, it would be easy to present Philip Hensher as the Raymond Carver-like elegiac naturalist, giving glimpses of disappointed lives and misunderstood epiphanies, and Helen Oyeyemi as the Angela Carter-ish exuberant fabulist, all giddy metamorphoses and yarns within tales within stories. It would be a disservice to both collections to read them in such a manner. All the stories in Tales of Persuasion have an exquisitely tweezer-y feel to them. The psychologies of the principal characters — an arts administrator realising


Like Black Rod and the Poet Laureate, screenwriter Andrew Davies occupies one of the most colourful and arcane offices in public life. He is Pornographer-in-Chief, a title that was first bestowed by the journalist Paul Johnson on the boss of Channel 4, Sir Michael Grade. Davies has assumed the mantle by virtue (or vice) of sexing up cherished texts from the literary canon for the gratification of television producers. His adaptation of War and Peace has taken critical grapeshot for including incestuous romps that do not strictly feature in the novel. Simon Schama, who bashfully admits he has made his way to the end of the book only eight times,

That Force of Destiny isn’t a great evening is the fault of Verdi not ENO

The Force of Destiny, ENO’s latest offering to its ‘stakeholders’, as its audiences are now called thanks to Cressida Pollock, the new CEO, is perhaps Verdi’s most interesting failure. It’s an opera with too much fine, even magnificent, music to be neglected, but it doesn’t add up to a satisfactory experience. Even epics, which Force is routinely categorised as, have their limits of accommodation. Henry James described War and Peace as ‘a loose, baggy monster’, but what would he have called Force if he had had the least interest in opera or music? There are times when we are longing for the central story of vengeance and fate to get

Idolising Ida

Jonathan Galassi is an American publisher, poet and translator. In his debut novel Muse, his passion for the ‘good old days’ of the publishing industry is palpable: a time when books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell … their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose, were liquor, perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees. The halcyon days of print publishing were not, in fact, so very long ago, with the first e-reader going on sale only in 2004 and Amazon’s Kindle in 2007; it is astonishing that the digital revolution has

The rich are a different species

The scene: a funeral parlour in New York. Doors clang as a family relative, the ‘black sheep’, saunters in halfway through his brother’s eulogy and brazenly strolls down to the front pew, ignoring the scandalised glances. He’s late, a whisper spreads, because he had a meeting with director James Toback. Wait. James Toback? Lame! The hearse leaves, and the congregants assemble on the street. An attractive brunette in her late forties weeps desolately. Did she know the deceased well? Not at all: she has discovered that someone at the service walked off with her Christian Dior trench and left her with a shabbier coat from a chainstore. All this happened

‘Another terrible thing…’: a novel of pain and grief with courage and style

Nobody Is Ever Missing takes its title from John Berryman’s ‘Dream Song 29’, a poem which I’d always thought related to Berryman’s strange sense of guilt over his father’s suicide. At the heart of Catherine Lacey’s novel there is another suicide that brings with it enormous pain and grief, that of the heroine Elyria’s adopted sister Ruby, six years earlier. This is a novel of extremes — to put it mildly — charting Elyria’s slide into a derelict state. It is a witty, knowing and lyrical work that takes as its subject the thoughts and feelings of a woman who has suffered more misery than most humans can take. The

Frieze Art Fair: where great refinement meets harrowing vulgarity

If you wanted to find a middle-aged man in a bright orange suit, matching tie and sneakers, Frieze is a good place to start looking. I found one. Or maybe he was a limited edition existing in several reproductions. Certainly, he was frequently spotted: conspiratorial of aspect, he was stooped and crouched over a mobile with body language saying ‘serious business’. I overheard: ‘Ah, Corinna. Va bene? How are prices in Zurigo?’ Long before you reach Frieze’s vast tented sites in Regent’s Park there are signs of danger. Extraordinary shoes and statement hair and rucked-up skinny trousers start appearing in a fall-out zone about half a mile away from the

Look! Shakespeare! Wow! George Eliot! Criminy! Jane Austen!

Among the precursors to this breezy little book are, in form, the likes of The Story of Art, Our Island Story and A Brief History of Time and, in content, Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature and Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Other notable precursors are How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland, How to be Well Read by John Sutherland, 50 Literature Ideas You Need To Know by John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland and more in that vein. The tireless and compendious Dr Johnson — ‘the first great critic of English literature’ — deserves and receives a chapter to himself here, and it’s no