It feels somehow improper to witness an author groping for the right words

The early stages of a literary work are often of immense interest. It is perhaps a rather tawdry kind of interest, like paparazzi shots of a Hollywood starlet taking the bins out before she’s put her make-up on. Of course it’s extraordinary to think that some of the most famous characters, events and lines in literature weren’t as we now know them but had to be struggled towards. Sometimes these efforts have the anachronistic but unavoidable sense of somebody getting it wrong. Textual bibliographers have carefully classified the different steps a work takes from manuscript to first edition and subsequent versions. Perhaps we could go further in search of a

What convinces Jeremy Corbyn that ‘there is a poet in all of us’?

Much like its editors, I have no idea who Poetry for the Many is for. However, the choir it preaches to is quickly identified. It opens with a dedication to Julian Assange, the free speech martyr in no way a narcissist patsy for a hostile state. A member of UB40 summarises the book’s aim on the jacket: to ‘encourage the working classes to embrace and enjoy culture’. Elsewhere, in the course of four separate introductions, I divine some plan to make poetry both politically relevant and accessible to the lower orders. This project apparently requires the literary advocacy of Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn. They have written personal introductions to

Why on earth did The Spectator support Brexit?

The temperature has hit 40°C in Crete, where I am writing this, and although there have been no fires, nothing is quite how it ought to be. I can’t work out whether this is a great opportunity to get a tan or, effectively, the end of the world. My 60-year-old taxi driver tells me that unfeasibly hot summers were a regular occurrence when he was young and that there’s nothing to worry about. But, he adds, he’ll be dead soon anyway so why should he care? Right or wrong, this is the paradox at the heart of the climate change debate. Older people, who could be held responsible for the

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Forgotten books worth rediscovering

Most readers have favourite books or authors they feel have been either forgotten or unjustly neglected. R.B. Russell, an assiduous book collector, did something practical about this when in 1990 he co-founded the Tartarus Press in order to bring the works of the once popular Arthur Machen back into print. Machen’s particular speciality was ‘weird fiction’, novels and stories that inhabit the borderland of this and other worlds, and Tartarus went on to reissue other authors in this genre, notably Robert Aickman and Sarban (otherwise the British diplomat John William Wall), as well as to publish new writers and a handful of classics. Fifty Forgotten Books inevitably includes a number

Why Russian literature shouldn’t be cancelled

Vladimir Putin makes no secret of his love for Russian culture, and Russian literature in particular – a body of work whose achievements, Dostoyevsky once claimed, justifies the existence of the entire Russian people. But if that same oeuvre now inspires a man instigating unprovoked war, doesn’t that raise urgent questions about its contemporary validity? For some, these concerns are best expressed via cancellation. In Wales, the Cardiff Philharmonic recently pulled the plug on performances of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Marche Slave and Second Symphony, the ‘Little Russian’ (an old and patronising name for Ukraine). In Ireland, Trinity and University College orchestras have excised all Russian music from their repertoire, while

Don’t read Ulysses; listen to it

Dublin. 16 June 1904. A little after 8 a.m. Two men – both annoying, one stung with grief and ambition – are having an argument. One is pierced by thoughts of his late mother. ‘Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart.’ She has come to him in a dream smelling of wax and rosewood. ‘Dedalus,’ the other calls up to him. ‘Come down, like a good mosey. Breakfast is ready.’ Ireland. 16 June 1982. 6:30 a.m. Radios all over the country emit the words ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’, and don’t stop broadcasting until they have read out every word of Ulysses, down to its last,

What Norman Mailer’s ‘cancellation’ reveals

New York Recently a story about my father, the writer Norman Mailer, getting ‘cancelled’ tore across the internet. What started the hoopla was Random House, Mailer’s long-standing publisher, suggesting that his estate bring a proposal for a book. The book was to contain excerpts from several of his political writings and interviews in which he presciently laid out the fragility of democracy. The collection was intended to honour his centenary next year. Random House received the proposal favourably, but then weeks later declined to publish it. The reasons are hearsay. One suggestion is that there were objections by junior executives to the use of the word ‘negro’ in Mailer’s essay

Why we should study literature, not science

Gstaad Who was it who said good manners had gone the way of black and white TV? Actually it was yours truly after watching the slobs parading up and down Gstaad’s main street. That was last year, but the bad news is that this year slobovia has come to stay again. Mind you, Alexandra and I had planned to have 50 friends for a party to celebrate 50 years of my enslavement, but Mister Omicron arrived and put a damper on our plans. The tent on the lawn and the oompah band were cancelled, and the New Year’s Eve blast turned into a smallish affair. The good news is that

My literary heroes have led me astray

Gstaad   Good manners aside, what I miss nowadays is a new, intelligent, finely acted movie. Never have I seen so much garbage as there is on TV: sci-fi trash, superhero rubbish, dystopian crap and junk about ugly, solipsistic youths revolting against overbearing parents. The director Jimmy Toback blames the subject matter for the lousy content, driven as it is by the need for diversity. I think lack of talent is the culprit. The non-stop use of the F-word is a given in Hollywood productions. Combined with constant violence, it makes for a lousy and unwatchable film. When one thinks back to classic movies such as The Best Years of

Gender neutrality and the war on women’s literature

Education has become embroiled in a culture war and rather than extricating itself politely, it just keeps digging. What gets taught has long been subject to debate: move beyond the basics and you rapidly head into dangerous terrain (although, look hard enough, and you will find those prepared to argue that even maths and spelling are racist). Now it’s not just taught content but the name of modules that is under the woke microscope. One of the UK’s leading exam boards, OCR, has proposed renaming the ‘Women in Literature’ section of its A level English courses. It is taking votes on new titles: ‘gender in literature’ or ‘representing gender’. But

It’s impossible not to feel snooty watching ITV’s Agatha and Poirot

Agatha and Poirot was one of those programmes that had the annoying effect of making you feel distinctly snooty. ITV’s decision to dedicate 85 minutes of primetime Easter Monday television to a books-related documentary was never likely to result in a steely Leavisite engagement with literature. Nor, of course, should it. Even so, it was hard to avoid a dowager-like shudder when, for example, one contributor declared that Agatha Christie ‘will never be surpassed as the world’s greatest novelist’ — especially when the contributor was that well-known literary critic Lesley Joseph. Or when Danny John-Jules suggested that a murder is ‘the last thing you’d expect’ in a book set on

How not to run a literary festival

Gstaad A friend of mine who lives here wants to start a literary festival and asked me if I had any advice for him. He’s a nice fellow and very friendly with my daughter, but he’s also the type who, had he been on board the Titanic, would have thought that the engines had stopped in order to take on some ice. In other words, he’s a naive man who believes in literature and writers and doesn’t realise that both commodities are unknown and probably deemed dangerous up here among the glitterati. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I have yet to see any lovers of literature among the new arrivals: pushy,

Lydia Davis, like an inspirational teacher, tempts her readers into more reading

A good indicator of just how interesting and alluring Lydia Davis’s Essays proved might be my recent credit card statement. It was hard to read very far without being introduced to an unfamiliar author, and the terms of the introduction were frequently so seductive that I found myself breaking off to order several secondhand books. The fee for writing this review had long been swallowed up when I realised that if I read everything that Davis made sound irresistible I would probably never reach the end of this splendid collection — and end up like Achilles chasing the tortoise in Zeno’s paradox. A writer of literary essays who encourages her

Spooky stories for Halloween

It is surely significant that Ed Parnell’s first novel The Listeners was an updated examination of themes latent in Walter de la Mare’s famously spooky poem of that title. The author credits this predilection for the macabre to an aunt’s VHS recordings of the Quatermass stories in the 1970s, when he was just a small child. Since then he has become an aficionado of the genre, and in his latest book makes a journey through Britain, from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, to pin down his own passion for ghost stories while exploring our national obsession with writings on the supernatural. Ghostland includes many of the genre’s key exponents, such

Where are Yeats, Eliot and Plath in a new survey of 20th-century poetry?

Shelley famously and optimistically proclaimed that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Adorno famously and pessimistically declared that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz. In The Music of Time, his new study of poetry in the 20th century, John Burnside makes a rather more modest claim: that to write a poem at all is an act of hope. By any standards, Burnside’s own career seems cause for hope in poetry’s capacity to transform at least one individual life. Born in 1955, into a working-class family in Dunfermline, he did not start publishing until he was in his thirties, following an addiction-fuelled breakdown and a subsequent attempt at a commuter-belt

The gifts of Gabo

Gerald Martin’s titanic biography of 2010, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, was the product of 17 years of research and 300 interviews, including one with Fidel Castro. So what does Solitude & Company add to the fairytale history of ‘Gabo’, as Latin America’s greatest teller of historical fairy tales is generally known? In the year 2000, when García Márquez was still alive, Silvana Paternostro began conducting her own interviews with Gabo’s family, his ‘first and last friends’, his agents, editors and fellow writers. She has now cut, spliced and transcribed the tapes in order to create the effect of a bar full of drunks interrupting one another. ‘Is that tape

Writing as exorcism

Why are people interested in their past? One possible reason is that you can interact with it, recruiting it as an agent of the present and the future. Siri Hustvedt’s novel, masked as a memoir, suggests you should rely not so much on your recollection of particular events as on your ability to interpret them, which can produce something truer than bare facts. ‘Yes, it is a memoir,’ the narrator says, ‘but memory is not fixed… memory and imagination are a single faculty.’  The outcome of Hustvedt’s attempts to commit the past to the page depends on memory acting as her editor. The book is centred on one year in

Squabbling over Kafka

Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial is a legal and philosophical black comedy of the first water, complete, like all the best adventure stories, with a physical treasure to be won or lost. Balint lays out with cool, collected passion the full absurdity of the 2011 court struggle which climaxed when a couple of boxes of aged, yellowing jottings, upon which an elderly Tel Aviv lady had allegedly allowed her cats to sit for many years, were taken under armed guard, besieged by writs and counter-writs, to the highest court in Israel. Until 1973, you see, these boxes had belonged to Max Brod, best friend of Franz Kafka, the legendary Nostradamus

Amos Oz, a giant of Israeli literature and politics

In Western democracies, literature no longer matters to politics. Once, literature and politics could co-exist on the same typewriter or in the same person: George Orwell in Britain, André Malraux in France. But that was a long time ago. Still, the powers of politics remain linguistic, whether bureaucratic or rhetorical: the war criminal at his desk, the elected representative on her Twitter. Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist who died today aged 79, was living proof of the political powers of literature. In Israel, which is a Western democracy most of the time, Oz is seen as a great writer but a failed politician. In the West, he is seen as