History of literature

Method in the madness

Have you heard of the Oulipo? The long-running Parisian workshop for experimental writing? Even if you haven’t, you might have heard of some of its members: Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp. The group’s stock-in-trade (so-called ‘constrained writing’) is best illustrated by their most notorious production: Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition which manages to avoid using the letter ‘e’ (and which was miraculously translated into English as A Void). Founded in 1960, the Oulipo spent its first decade in self-imposed semi-secrecy. While its academic sibling, Structuralism, came to dominate literature departments both at home and abroad, the Oulipo watched discreetly in disdain: why are the structuralists so dry, so up

Black and white and read all over

In 1956, after Penguin Classics had published 60 titles, the editor-in-chief of Penguin Books, William Emrys Williams, wondered: ‘How many more titles in the classical literature of the world are there?’ As a case study in heroic shortsightedness, this measures up to Bobby Charlton’s question to his brother Jack after England’s World Cup victory in 1966: ‘What is there to win now?’ Williams needn’t have worried. Penguin has not run out of new classics, and there are currently around 1,200 in print. Like the NHS, Penguin Classics is an institution — a miracle of curation, covering 4,000 years of human thought, albeit with a largely Eurocentric vision — that didn’t

Getting it in the neck

‘What!’, railed Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique of 1764. ‘Is it in our 18th century that vampires still exist?’ Hadn’t his Enlightenment rationalism seen off such sub-religious voodoo? Well no, mon frère, it hadn’t. In fact, here we are, a quarter of a millennium on, and those vampires are still with us. Films, rock concerts, novels, TV shows, they’re full of fangs and dripping with blood. We’re suckers for those suckers — so much so that even academia is getting in on the act. As Nick Groom, an English professor at Exeter university says in his densely researched new book: ‘Vampires are good to think with.’ Well, there’s certainly a

Alone on a wide, wide sea

Some years ago, when I stepped from an unstable boat onto Juan Fernández island, a friendly man took my bag and introduced himself as Robinson. Ten minutes later, I found a room to rent. The homeowner’s first name was Crusoe. Get the idea? Although Defoe set his story hundreds of miles away, near the mouth of the Orinoco, Juan Fernández was where the real Crusoe, the Scottish sailing master Alexander Selkirk, spent four years and four months in the company only of goats. Andrew Lambert has had the very good idea of writing a kind of historical biography of the 15×5-mile lump of volcanic rock 415 miles off the coast

Girls about town

On 8 June 1920 an old beggar woman sat against a wall in Kingsway holding a mongrel in her arms and singing aloud. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that there was a recklessness to her. She was singing for her own amusement, shrilly, and then fire engines came by singing shrilly, too. ‘Sometimes everything gets into the same mood; how to define this one I don’t know.’ In the mid-1980s, on my daily journey to Charing Cross Road, I would get off the 38 bus on the corner with New Oxford Street. Every morning I would see an old woman huddled in the doorway of what is now a

The laureate of repression

In 1927, while delivering the lectures that would later be published as Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster made a shy attempt to get to know his Cambridge neighbour, the classical scholar A.E. Housman. At first all appeared to be going well. After one lecture the two men dined together, and Housman told Forster ‘with a twinkle’ that he enjoyed visiting Paris ‘to be in unrespectable company’. Emboldened by this confession, Forster ‘ventured to climb the forbidding staircase’ that led to Housman’s rooms in Trinity College. The door was firmly closed against him. He left a visiting card; it was equally firmly ignored. What might have been the start of

One vast, blaring cultural circus

In the late 1980s Peter Ackroyd invited me to meet Iain Sinclair, whose first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, I had greatly admired. Ackroyd initially knew Sinclair as a poet, author of Lud Heat, an influence on his own wonderful novel Hawksmoor. Passionately interested in London, the three of us began to meet regularly. Sinclair was an admirer of the French situationist Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle) and popularised psychogeography in Britain. In his blending of myth, literature and close social observation, I felt he combined the virtues of Orwell and Pound. Before long, in company with the likes of the rock guitarist Martin Stone, the creator of

A window on Chaucer’s cramped, scary, smelly world

Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do his work? From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favour bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate, the main eastern point of entry to the walled city of London. ‘Grace and favour’ makes it sound grander than it was. With the help of a wonderfully ingenious pattern of inferences — in particular an architectural drawing from 200 years later which happened to include a sketch of Aldgate’s north tower at

Judge a critic by the quality of his mistakes

What the title promises is not found inside. It is a tease. John Sutherland says he has ‘been paid one way or another, to read books all my life’, yet he does not regard himself as well read in the genre of novels. With two million languishing in the British Library vaults, nobody could be, he insists. And although the publishers have given it the subtitle ‘A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities’, the author declares in his admirably succinct preface: ‘This book is not a guide.’ He’s right. It is an engaging game, or a compendium of games (as the Gamages Christmas catalogue used

Look again – the first world war poets weren’t pacifists

If the poets of the first world war probably enjoy a higher profile now than they have done at any time in the last 100 years, it has not been a smooth passage. When Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the fighting he was still virtually unknown, and even 25 years later in the middle of another war, when the ludicrous Robert Nichols — the man Edmund Gosse had once seen as a new Keats and Shelley combined — brought out his anthology of first world war poetry, there was still room for only four poems by Owen and none at all by Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas

How the Romantics ruined lives

It is perhaps the most celebrated house-party in the history of literary tittle-tattle: a two-house-party to be precise. Byron and his doctor/companion/whipping-boy John Polidori in the grand Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva. The Shelleys (Percy and Mary) and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont a short walk away in the modest Maison Chapuis. The cat’s cradle of sexual crossed lines. The dark and stormy nights. Byron’s proposal that they should each write a ghost story. The creation, by Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein. The conception of poor, short-lived Allegra, child of nonchalant Byron (‘When a girl comes prancing to you at all hours there is only one way’) and bold, silly, self-deluding Claire.

Tangier, by Josh Shoemake – review

This may sound a little orientalist, but Tangier has some claim to being the most foreign city in the world. Back in the day, its position at the northernmost tip of Africa was regarded as the edge of civilisation — more than that, as the edge of what was known, the edge of everything. Here were the Pillars of Hercules, which in addition to performing the important function of holding up the sky, were said to be engraved with the words ‘nec plus ultra’: beyond this, nothing. Since its foundation in the 5th century BC, the city has been variously controlled by the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs,

A Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing – review

The boozer’s life is one of low self-esteem and squalid self-denial. It was memorably evoked by Charles Jackson in his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend; having hocked his typewriter for a quart of rye, the writer Don Birnam spends his lost weekend in a New York psychiatric ward, with a fractured skull. Where did he get that? The previous night’s drinking is remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and guilt. Of course, the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness is familiar to most of us, even if the hangover seems a cruel price to pay. Olivia Laing, in her study of six alcoholic American writers, The Trip to Echo Spring (the

‘The Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum’ – review of The Dostoevsky Archive by Peter Sekirin

After you decapitate someone, might their severed head continue thinking? Prince Myshkin holds his audience spellbound with this macabre inquiry in The Idiot, a great novel whose author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was once called the Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum. Each of his great novels concerns a murder (one a parricide); most also touch upon the sickening theme of the rape of a child. The writer Lafcadio Hearn warned that reading him might actually drive you mad: it can certainly invoke pity and terror, embarrassment and laughter. Dostoevsky’s life was even weirder than his fiction. He was born in 1821, the son of a surgeon whom he believed to have been