Literary criticism

Shakespeare sceptics are the new literary heroes

Let’s start with the basics. Despite widespread disinformation, including in Shakespeare was a Woman and Other Heresies, there is in fact ample historical evidence from the period that a) attributes the plays and poems to William Shakespeare, b) registers the same William Shakespeare as an actor and shareholder in Lord Chamberlain’s, later King’s Men, and c) connects this William Shakespeare with the William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Only if you believe that all this evidence is fabricated does the authorship question become a question. And once the question is admissible, all that mass of documentation is no longer sufficient to answer it. Anti-Stratfordians operate almost entirely outside the academy of professional

From Mrs Dalloway’s West End to Tolkien’s Middle-earth

Professor David Damrosch, the director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, fell in love with ‘a fictional realm that I’d never imagined’ in 1968. His English teacher, Miss Staats, gave him Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. This horizon-stretching Manhattan educator turns up again in another light towards the end of this book. A long-term girlfriend of Saul Bellow, Maggie Staats prudently said no when the novelist proposed to her. At this point, Damrosch has just told us that the hero of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King remembers having ‘dreamed at the clouds from both sides’, so planting an idea in the young Joni Mitchell’s mind. You get the drift. Despite its

Paradise and paradox: an inner pilgrimage into John Milton

When E. Nesbit published Wet Magic in 1913 (a charming novel in which the children encounter a mermaid), she took it for granted that her young readers would immediately pick up the references to ‘Sabrina Fair’ from Milton’s Comus. Phrases from Milton were part of the language — ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods’; ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’. Milton was central to the shared experience of life itself for those who spoke English. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Milton was inside every literate anglophone head. If Harold Bloom is to be believed, which I think he is in this respect, the English romantic movement grew out

The odd couple: John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald

On a shard of paper, some time in the bleak mid-1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald incorporated a favourite line from one of his favourite poets, John Keats, in a short verse of his own: Don’t you worry I surrenderDays are long and life’s a benderStill I know thatTender is the Night Keats was a Romantic, perhaps the Romantic, with his lyric gift and tragically brief life. Fitzgerald loved the Romantic poets, and romance in the lower case, but was at the heart’s core a modernist, far more egoist than romantic, and quite hard-boiled. The little quatrain above is rather like T.S. Eliot’s ‘jug jug’ in The Waste Land — homage of

The art of the short story: what we can learn from the Russians

This is such a superb idea that it’s a wonder a book like this has not cropped up before. Here we have a critically acclaimed, best-selling novelist, who also happens to be a highly sought-after creative writing teacher, setting out the curriculum of his over-subscribed ‘How to Write’ class in a way that is accessible to anyone… and the book reproduces the texts under discussion. Wow. This has to be the best York Notes ever, flawlessly designed for the exam we all sit without realising: life. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain you get all Saunders’s commentary (which is both charming and addictive) and the original (translated)

Claire Messud helps us see the familiar with new eyes

The title of this collection of journalism is a problem. Not the Kant’s Little Prussian Head bit, which, though opaque, is explained in the text. It’s from Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser and is quoted by Claire Messud in the title essay: ‘We study a monumental work, for example Kant’s work, and in time it shrivels down to Kant’s little East Prussian head.’ As a novelist, she explains, she strives to resist that shrivelling — to avoid being condensed into a ‘little American head’, to retain and convey all the detail of life. The problem is with the claim that this is an autobiography through essays. It isn’t. It’s a

Harold Bloom finally betrays how little he really understood literature

Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’ has gone everywhere in the world since 1830. A professional scholar in Uruguay, Papua New Guinea or New Haven, Connecticut, reading the lines ‘Weeded and worn the ancient thatch/Upon the lonely moated grange’ might want to ask a few questions. Do English houses ever have moats? (Yes — Ightham Mote and Madresfield Court are famous examples.) Can we find houses with a humble thatch and also a moat? (A harder question – Tennyson’s poem set a vogue in landscape design as well as poetry.) Or, taking a different tack, where does the use of the word ‘moat’ as a verb come from? (Easy — ‘moated grange’ is

Who are today’s fictional heroes?

What’s a hero? There are probably at least two answers to that. One is that heroism is a moral quality: to do with courage above all but, in its wider connotations, to do with altruism or protectiveness and self-sacrifice. The answer that probably precedes that one, though, is a more technical, narratological one: the hero is the star of a story. In storytelling terms it’s a matter of narrative focus, and the reader’s implied identification with one character above the others — or, perhaps, admiration rather than identification. Heroes are bigger, braver, more purposeful, more important than the ordinary run of humanity. It happens that on the whole the aforementioned

As well as being a mythic tale, Moby-Dick is a superb guide to oceanography

Anyone who has read Moby-Dick will recognise the moment, 32 chapters in, when their line of attention, hitherto slackly paying out, snags. Having spirited us briskly through Manhattan, New Bedford and Nantucket, and having flushed Ahab from his lair on to the deck of the Pequod, Herman Melville divagates into a disquisition on whale taxonomies. In Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Richard J. King asks: ‘What happens to the story if Melville had an editor who convinced him to just cut cetology?’ Melville might have died rich and the rest of us would be all the poorer. ‘Cetology,’ writes King, lodges ‘a bone in the reader’s throat’. But, here, Ishmael is transmogrified

He saw it all

Apart from a passionate relationship with the common toad, what do George Orwell and David Attenborough have in common? H.G. Wells is the answer. The self-consciously ‘great’ old man’s bad, yet gripping, writing about utopias profoundly influenced Orwell. And Attenborough, as a lad, was entranced by Wells’s extravaganza A Short History of the World — biology,  space science, archaeology, the past and the future, all delivered for children in digestible weekly parts. Attenborough said he derived from it the idea that you ought to know about everything. This ambitious lack of boundaries that they received from Wells liberated both men. As Dorian Lynskey points out in this idiosyncratic and acutely

A man for all ages

The deployment of Shakespeare to describe Brexit is by now a cliché. It might take the form of a quotation, be borrowed in a headline, or involve the name of one of the better-known characters; it might turn up in that most hollow of adjectives, Shakespearean. It has two possible modes. There is triumphalism drawn from the history plays: this sceptred isle, once more unto the breach. And there is tragic calamity: the betrayal by Brutus, Hamlet dithering. Nobody much invokes the comedies, perhaps because negotiations with the EU have not yet descended to cross-dressing. Shakespeare is our national myth, most useful in a time of crisis, and an amazingly

Little women, big issues

The great thing about Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women is that it has something for everyone: stay-at-home types have the oldest of the March sisters, Meg, who struggles to reconcile her love of ease with both her responsibilities and the family’s genteel poverty (and does at least manage to have one night of fun at the Moffatts’ party, sipping their champagne with one hand and sporting her single good glove on the other, before settling down with a nice husband and even better linen cupboard); cool-slash-mean girls have Amy, who wrestles with vanity — not hugely successfully IMHO (Amy would be a demon with textspeak and indeed probably the

A poet in prose

Literary reputation can be a fickle old business. Those garlanded during their lifetimes are often quickly forgotten once dead. Yet there is a daily procession of visitors to Keats’s grave in the English cemetery in Rome, where the headstone reads, ‘Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’, so sure was the poet that the neglect he had suffered up to his death would continue ever after. By any standards, C. Day-Lewis — he disliked Cecil, the name given to him by his Church of Ireland vicar father — was among the most glittering figures on the 20th-century British literary scene, celebrated, well-connected, a bestseller and Poet Laureate for

The writer behind the brand

Few publishing phenomena in recent years have been as gratifying as Chris Kraus’s cult 1997 masterpiece I Love Dick becoming a signifier of Twitter and Instagram chic. The ‘lonely girl phenomenology’ it exemplified has now attained cultural status, with first person, inventive writing by women often enjoying centre stage. It’s interesting, then, that just as the wider culture has caught up with her, Kraus has pivoted away, delivering ‘what may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker’ — the underground punk novelist who is still, even 20 years after her death, awaiting the recognition she deserves. Penguin’s newly published modern classic edition of her most famous work, Blood

… 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 man who’s read everything

According to Martin Amis in The Information, the last person to have read every book ever published was Coleridge. Faced with More Alive and Less Lonely, though, you might wonder whether there’s a new candidate in town. Certainly, Jonathan Lethem’s mind seems not so much well-stocked as bursting at the seams. A few of the 70-odd pieces gathered here do concern such mainstream figures as Dickens, Kafka and Melville (where Lethem appears to know all the books not just by, but also about, them). But many of the others may have even the most erudite of readers heading sheepishly for Google, as he considers the work of say, Russell Greenan,

The classic that conquered the world

Somewhere between his first and second drafts, Victor Hugo decided to change the title of his great novel from Les Misères to Les Misérables, shifting the focus from society’s problems to the people suffering them. And what problems they were. Hugo had never been brutally poor himself, but he’d borne witness to enough brutal poverty around him to know it was real, and to understand what it did to people. He knew, too, how ill-equipped his society was to help the poor, or to fix the causes of their predicament. Not least because in the 1840s, when he started writing Les Misères, only land-owning citizens voted, so as long as


A law I’d like to see passed would exact severe penalties for the use of the word trope. It is as welcome in our language as toxic particulates are in the air we breathe. I saw a piece in the Guardian about a dramatic monologue called The Encounter offering ‘a recognised narrative trope: the white interloper introduced to a new way of being via an encounter with the other, the magical native’. Here trope seems to mean ‘a story in miniature, a recognisable theme’. The notion of a trope pops up all over the place these days. ‘How jazz ruins a young white man’s life,’ observed Caitlin Moran in the

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

Anatomy of a bestseller

Every four seconds, somewhere in the world, a Lee Child book is sold. This phenomenal statistic places Child alongside Stephen King, James Patterson and J.K. Rowling as one of the world’s bestselling novelists. But what makes the Jack Reacher books so successful? This is one of the questions Andy Martin, a lecturer in French and Philosophy at Cambridge, sets out to answer in this intriguing and uniquely unclassifiable book. Reacher Said Nothing, however, isn’t a work of literary criticism or a how-to guide. Martin contacted Child and asked whether he could observe the entire writing process for the 20th Reacher novel, Make Me. Amazingly, Child said yes. ‘So far I