The books that made me who I am

Gstaad This is my last week in the Alps and I’m trying to get it all in – skiing, cross-country, kickboxing, even some nature walking along a stream. (I did my last downhill run with Geoffrey Moore, one that ended in a collision with a child at the bottom of the mountain, and I’m thinking of calling it quits on the downhill-skiing front.) The trouble with athletes is that we early on enact the destiny to which we are all subject, an early death. The death of sports talent is a subtle process. The eyes go first, then the step falters. Eventually you feel like an old man who is

Stories about stories

I wonder what your idea of a good novel is. Does it embody the attributes of solid plotting, characterisation and an impermeable membrane between invention and reality — the novel, that is, being a box from which nothing can leap out, and into which nothing, except what the author has chosen to put there, can leap in? And does it conform to the conventions laid down by the great writers of the 19th century? That’s what I assumed, during my schooldays; and the little that had filtered down to me of Don Quixote, which is claimed by many to be the ‘first’ novel, did not alert me to the fact

Low life | 26 October 2017

Last May we had dinner with a comic who reads a lot and his wife. At one point, he told Catriona that he had just finished a novel that he had enjoyed more than anything he had read for a very long time and he would like to lend it to her. He disappeared into the house to fetch it, and returned empty-handed and cross. His wife confessed that she was reading it and hadn’t quite finished. His wife loves to watch telly more than read novels, so this was a surprise. And here she was refusing point-blank to give this one back because she hadn’t finished it. The comic

Something scary in the attic

How do you like your ghosts? Supernatural fiction is arguably the hardest to get right. Ideally it should terrify, but what appals A might bore B and merely confuse C. The mechanics of apparition, however fanciful, must be internally consistent, and explanations kept simple. M.R. James excelled at giving his spectres agency and focus, but in some hands ambiguity is more effective. Read a Robert Aickman and half the time you have no idea what happened, if indeed anything did. I was once put off by a description in a novel of a ghost drifting round a house at night and contemplating its sleeping inhabitants. While that might give you

Highly charged territory

I first heard of this tragicomic spy romp around Israel and Palestine when Julian Barnes sang its praises in the Guardian a few months ago, having been ‘lucky to see an advance proof’. Lucky? Well, he and Nathan Englander do share an agent, who perhaps noticed that Dinner at the Centre of the Earth just happens to take its epigraph from a novel by, er, Julian Barnes. That’s showbiz, I guess; and in any case, a spot of sly boosterism rather suits this mixed-up tale of cloaked allegiances, which never quite supplies the facts you need to grasp what’s going on — at least not during the globe-trotting, time-toggling fug

Seeking closure | 12 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending is an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker prize-winning novel starring Jim Broadbent (we love Jim Broadbent), Harriet Walter (we love Harriet Walter) and Charlotte Rampling (we love, love, love Charlotte Rampling). With such a cast, you’d be minded to think it can’t fail, and it doesn’t in this respect. The performances are transfixing throughout. But it does not satisfy emotionally, as the ending of The Sense of an Ending makes no sense. It’s a (Non)Sense of an Ending. Same with the book, which, on completing, I think I threw across the room with a: what? Is that it? As directed by Ritesh Batra

Fragments of the future

Science fiction is not the first thing one thinks of in connection with the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, though the Nobel Prize for Literature has in fact been awarded for science fiction poetry — Harry Martinson’s Aniara was an epic about a spaceship. Then again, many English speakers probably don’t primarily associate Milosz with poetry either, but with The Captive Mind, his damning critique of the moral crisis of artists under authoritarian regimes. That book had, however, science fiction elements in its discussion of the ‘Murti-Bing pill’ — which reconciled the vanquished to their conquerors (lifted from Insatiability, a utopian novel by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, published in 1930) — and the

And then there was one

After a long struggle to receive mainstream publication, Paul Auster’s first few novels were a genuinely significant contribution to American letters, his patented mix of postmodernism, deadpan comedy and metatextual homage to Kafka, Hamsun, Melville and Hawthorne so singular it invited parody. Among these books, The New York Trilogy and The Music of Chance seem likely to last many years from now. But the second half of his career has proved more problematic. Seemingly tiring of his own shtick, he spent a long time dismantling what made him great, sometimes to powerful effect (Oracle Night), but more usually in a way that seemed designed deliberately to test his biggest fans.

A few good books

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever ITV or the BBC decides — the latter usually with charter renewal in the near or middle distance — that it needs to make some of that World-Class Drama it’s so proud of, its thoughts turn to regency frocks, scruffy urchins, pea-soupy London, agreeable country houses and the incessant clip-clop of hoof on cobble. Classy costume drama — invariably based, for extra classiness, on classy fiction of the sort you might find in Penguin Classics — is one of our major exports. But in the range of its source material they consider, its makers are as blinkered as the inevitable horse that

Into a cloud-scratched sky

There have been a number of attempts to graft the style of the so-called new nature writing onto the novel: works such as Melissa Harrison’s Clay, for instance, or Amy Sackville’s Orkney. Tom Bullough’s Addlands is a very creditable contribution to this genre. The form does have an intrinsic problem: how does one dramatise seeing? The solution here is that the characters — the reserved Idris Hamer, his stoical wife, Etty, and their son Oliver, a principled bruiser — are farmers in the Welsh borders. Their livelihood depends on being attuned to changes in the environment. The novel has an elegant structural conceit. It begins in 1941, with Oliver being

Forget about Shakespeare. We should be celebrating Charlotte Brontë

Major anniversary of her birth today, on 21 April. A ‘national treasure’, epitomising a certain kind of stoical, homely, female Britishness. Revered and adored by millions. Her family home a major tourist attraction. A life dedicated to self-sacrifice and the service of others. Plainly but elegantly dressed: not a follower of fashion. Rather severe-looking when not smiling. Yes, I’m thinking of Charlotte Brontë, and so should we all be, in this her 200th anniversary week. The third of six children of the Revd Patrick and Maria Brontë, all of whom died long before their father did, she wrote a revolutionary novel so grippingly, movingly brilliant that people still love it

Diary – 20 August 2015

This is the Corbyn summer. From the perspective of a short holiday, my overwhelming feeling is one of despair at my own semi-trade — the political commentariat, the natterati, the salaried yacketting classes. Who among us, really, predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would be romping ahead like this? Where were the post-election columns pointing out that David Cameron’s victory would lead to a resurgent quasi-Marxist left? And that’s just the beginning: how many of the well-connected, sophisticated, numerate political writers expected Labour to be slaughtered in the general election? Not me, that’s for sure. Going further back, how many people in 1992 told us John Major was an election winner? That Parris,

History is the art of making things up. Why pretend otherwise?

In a recent interview, the celebrity historian and Tudor expert David Starkey described Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. The novel, he said, is ‘a magnificent, wonderful fiction’. listen to ‘David Starkey on Wolf Hall’ on audioBoom But if Oxford has taught me one thing, it’s that all the best history is. Starkey is a Cambridge man, and maybe they do things differently there. But any perceptive Oxford undergraduate will soon realise that a little bit of fiction is the surest way to a First. What the admissions material opaquely describes as ‘historical imagination’ turns out to be an irregular verb: I imagine, you pervert the

The Long Shadow, by Mark Mills – a review

Mark Mills is known for his historical and literary crime novels, including The Savage Garden, The Information Officer and House of the Hanged. The Long Shadow is written in a different mode. It is set in a highly recognisable present; it is a clever, teasing hybrid of genres (psychological thriller, dark comedy, Pardoner’s Tale and dystopia); and it is fraught with tensions about money, class and the super-rich. The protagonist, Ben, is a well-nigh washed up screenwriter in his early forties. His wife has fallen in love with a successful businessman; Ben has been forced out into a seedy flat in a demoralising part of London. He passes the time

The Costa Book Awards make history

The Costa Book Awards has made its own history tonight by selecting, according to its press release, an all women shortlist* for the first time. Here are the category winners, each of whom bags £5,000: 1). Mary and Bryan Talbot win the Costa Biography Award for Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, a book that examines two father-daughter relationships: James Joyce and his daughter Lucia, and Mary Talbot’s relationship with her father, who was a James Joyce scholar. 2). Hilary Mantel takes the Costa Novel Award for Bring up the Bodies, the brilliant and demanding Booker winner about which quite enough has been written. 3). Francesca Segal’s The Innocents snaps up the Costa First Novel Award. It is

Back to the start – Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams, the Pulitzer nominated novella by playwright, poet and U.S National Book Award winning novelist Denis Johnson, is the life story of Robert Grainer, a man who ‘had one lover… one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon… [had] never been drunk… never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.’ Born at the end of the nineteenth century and dead a year before the Summer of Love, Robert labours in the American West, cutting timber for railroad tracks and then, when he’s too old for that work, carting people’s possessions around the countryside. The book’s chronology is loose, or, rather, Grainer’s whole life comes at us at

Ian McEwan’s novel questions

Brevity does not imply levity. That, at least, is the view of Ian McEwan. The national treasure was speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival over the weekend when he crowned the novella, which he defined as a book of roughly 25,000 words, as the ‘supreme literary form’. He challenged publishers and critics who believe the novella to be inherently inauthentic and frivolous, arguing that the compact form brings out the best in the greatest writers. ‘Somehow . . . the prose is better, more condensed, more rigorous. Characters have to be established with a great deal of economy. All this makes demands on a writer that brings them to a

Recent crime novels | 26 May 2012

William Brodrick’s crime novels have the great (and unusual) merit of being unlike anyone else’s, not least because his series hero, Brother Anselm, is a Gray’s Inn barrister turned Suffolk monk. The plot of The Day of the Lie (Little, Brown, £12.99), Anselm’s fourth case,  is triggered by the discovery of files relating to Poland’s suppression of dissidents in Warsaw, mainly in the 1950s. Anselm’s oldest friend, now blind, was caught up in a linked later betrayal while working as a journalist in Poland. He wants Anselm to go there in his stead to examine the file that holds the name of the informant who betrayed both him and many

Method in her magic

Bring Up the Bodies, as everybody knows, is the sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s fictional re-imagining of the life and times of Henry VIII’s most effective servant, Thomas Cromwell. We have long been banging our spoons and forks for it. Speaking for myself, I finished the first with an almost unbearable curiosity to find out what was going to happen next — a strange result, when you think of it, because we all know perfectly well what is going to happen. Mantel is comprehensive with her sources. Every scene is secured, like a piano key to its hammer, to the corresponding page of the great 21-volume Calendar of State

Fatal entrapment

I am no great fan of spy thrillers and positively allergic to conspiracy theories, but I found this book difficult to put down. In an earlier study, Edward Lucas examined Russia’s use of energy as a weapon against the EU and the Atlantic alliance. In this one, he dives below the surface into the murky waters of the country’s security apparatus and demonstrates that, while it has shed the old KGB image, it remains as pervasive and just as menacing. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the battlelines were clear cut and so was the role of the Soviet Union’s defenders. At home, they silenced any criticism of the