Exploring the glorious literary heritage of Bengal

The first time I went to India, nearly 30 years ago, I was sent as a young novelist by the British Council. Unusually, my first encounter with the country was Kolkata, a city I loved instantly. At the first event, after I had finished reading, an audience member gently asked if I liked Indian novels. I thought I was prepared, and mentioned R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth. The questioner smiled. ‘Those are all writers in English,’ he said. ‘What about writers in Indian languages?’ I was stumped. Perhaps many people of generous reading habits have the same block without knowing it. The liveliness of English-language writers

Emily Dickinson was not such a recluse after all

This is fanciful, I know, but I can’t help wondering about the great poetry that will surely be written in the early 2060s. Think about it: in the early 1960s, Sylvia Plath had her great creative outpouring, waking at 4 a.m. each day to work on the ‘Ariel’ poems that would make her name. Exactly 100 years earlier, Emily Dickinson was in full spate, writing 295 poems in 1863 alone. (Her total oeuvre amounts to nearly 1,800 poems, most of them unpublished during her lifetime.) The concentrated intensity with which these two women produced their best work has the quality of a natural phenomenon: a butterfly migration, or a swarm

Four female writers at the court of Elizabeth I

Almost a century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf claimed that if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister the obstacles to her sharing his vocation would have been insurmountable. Woolf’s argument that a woman needs ‘money and a room of her own’ in order to write proved persuasive. ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ has become a pop-cultural trope. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the distinguished American scholar of the Renaissance Ramie Targoff should borrow the phrase for a study of four woman writers. Her title offers a shortcut to understanding how significant this immensely accomplished quartet is for readers and writers today. Not that Targoff’s elegantly readable, immaculately

The healing power of Grasmere

William Wordsworth’s life is the foundational version of the nature cure. After a disrupted, troubled childhood, sent to live with unsympathetic relations after his mother’s death, a chaotically disaffected time at Cambridge and a muddled youth, fathering a child on a woman he loved but scarcely knew in France, Wordsworth refused all his family’s urgings to a nice career in the church or the law. Instead, he stumbled towards the kind of poetry he wanted to write and looked, with his sister Dorothy, for a sense of home in Dorset and Somerset. Finally, he returned to the Lake District, and in December 1799 came to Dove Cottage and Grasmere, where

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

Flaubert, snow, poverty, rhythm … the random musings of Anne Carson

Anne Carson, the celebrated Canadian-American poet, essayist and classical translator, is notoriously reticent about her work. She agreed to just these three sentences appearing on the cover of her first book in eight years: Wrong Norma is a collection of writings about different things, like Joseph Conrad, Guantanamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my dad, Saturday night. The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong. Not only does this suggest the range of subjects explored but also Carson’s idiosyncratic, playful humour. Of course there are links between the pieces, and of course they are anything but wrong. Wrong-footed by the blurb, it’s thrillingly difficult to find one’s

The real problem with ChatGPT is that it can never make a joke

I have been reviewing books for nearly four decades – starting in this very magazine – and over the years I have encountered some real stinkers. But this is the first time I can recall being reluctant to pick up the book because of actual physical nausea. Intellectual nausea I’ve had plenty of times. Give me a 900-page book of magical realism and that’s what I’ll get. But this time it metastasised into real queasiness. I’ll explain why. (Well, that is my job.) The odd thing is, Benny the Blue Whale starts amusingly enough. Andy Stanton, a writer of chidren’s books, had been both intrigued and alarmed by the rise

An obituarist’s search for the soul

‘“Deep breath”, says the doctor. I take one and hold it.’ Thus begins the fourth chapter of Ann Wroe’s Lifescapes. It is apt because, although the book is part memoir, part essay on the art of biography, it is really about the breath of life itself. Wroe’s writing is intense and visionary, at times almost ecstatic. Reader, dive in. Wroe has written weekly obituaries for the Economist for 20 years, seeking out seemingly ephemeral moments that unlock people’s lives. ‘Time and again,’ she says, ‘some incident in childhood is the key to a career.’ The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was delighted by the sound his toy hammer made on pipes and

A potent seam of violence: The Wren, the Wren, by Anne Enright, reviewed

The Irish novelist Anne Enright is now in her sixties. Her deceptively modest new novel, The Wren, The Wren, opens with a long section narrated by Nell, a woman in her early twenties living in contemporary Dublin. Nell scrapes by, ‘writing content non-stop’: travel pieces about places she’s never been to, stories for a wealthy ‘actress/eco-influencer’. Adrift and vulnerable, she falls into an on-off relationship with a man called Felim, who is emotionally cruel and photographs her naked without her permission. With this extended portrait of a much younger woman, Enright quietly establishes her excellence. Laid against similar endeavours by writers of her generation – Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at

In search of Jeanne Duval: The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson, reviewed

The shared etymology of the words ‘text’, ‘textile’ and ‘texture’ – from the Latin verb textere, ‘to weave’ – has long been a fertile subject, its thread running through the work of theorists such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze (from whom one of the epigraphs for this book is taken) and others. But this now critical commonplace provides a helpful entry point to the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s sometimes evasive first novel The Baudelaire Fractal, a work obsessed with textiles, tailoring, intertextuality and the woven physicality of language. The word ‘novel’ seems only really appropriate in its adjectival sense. It tells the story of Hazel Brown,

The illiterate poet who produced the world’s greatest epic

Odysseus is tossed on the sea when he notices a rock and clings to it. ‘As when an octopus is drawn out of its lair and bits of pebble get stuck in its suckers,’ says Homer, ‘so his skin was stripped from his brave hands by the rock.’ There is such elegant tricksiness in that simile. Homer still sits at the apex of western literature thanks to the beauty and influence of his verse. Robin Lane Fox has been teaching the epics for 50 years and studying them for many more. His lifelong fascination with the texts has bred a sort of feverish passion in him that makes him declare

The making of a poet: Wilfred Owen’s ‘autobiography’ in letters

Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This

Why you should write poetry

In a recent Low Life column, Jeremy Clarke referred to Edward Thomas and his writing of 16 poems in just 20 days. Similarly, practically all of the poems that made Wilfred Owen famous were composed in a few months (and when he was still in his twenties). It has been the same for many of our greatest poets. This prompts a few reactions: one is undoubtedly a sense of inferiority. But another is the thrill of possibility. It doesn’t matter if you’ve produced nothing of any literary merit in your life to date: a sudden burst of inspiration over a few weeks could be all you need. This is something

The lonely passions of Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, the poem that made T.S. Eliot famous. His story is familiar and yet still surprising. What is well known: Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape, it was published in The Dial and then The Criterion, and it was quickly recognised as a poem of great importance. Eliot emerged as the poet of his age and his views on the ‘impersonality’ of poetry would dominate the next several decades of poetry and criticism. What is less well known is how Eliot’s work was shaped and influenced by a few key women. This dynamic is what Lyndall Gordon’s

In the footsteps of the Romantic poets

Shelley, walking as a boy through his ‘starlight wood’, looking for ghosts and filled with ‘hopes of high talk with the departed dead’, found nothing in reply. Nothing reverberated. The ghosts were silent. But he felt something else non-human: the springtime breezes bringing a sense of the marvellousness of life itself. And so in that instant (or so he says) his mind changed. No more seeking after gothic horrors or pining for the worst; no more listening to the dead. Instead, ‘the spirit of beauty’ descended on him, illuminated him, shaping his life, becoming his goddess, the only force he could imagine that ‘could free/ This world from its dark

Larkin at 100: a tribute (1985)

This piece is taken from The Spectator’s fully digitised archive. There are many ways of judging poets. One sure test of their personal appeal is how many lines of their poetry you can remember. Not only can I remember a lot of Larkin, I find that it has sunk very deep, and become part of my private language. This is true both of his funny stuff – My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps To come and waste their time and ours… and also the jokey sadness of What else can I answer When the lights come on at four At the end of another year? Give

A poet finds home in a patch of nettles

Towards the end of a long relationship – ‘resolved to have a conversation about the Future, which meant Separating’ – Nancy Campbell’s partner suffered a stroke. Campbell’s life then became a hell of hospital visits, supporting and fearing for the brilliant Anna, an intellectual who worked with virus analysts in Moscow, reduced by brain insult and aphasia to a kind of infancy. Thunderstone is the story of Campbell’s response to this crisis. Her diary extracts jump from Anna’s stroke in 2019 and her slow healing, to Campbell’s own new life, which begins when Anna is strong enough to be encouraged to move on, from June to September 2021. Campbell is

The sad, extraordinary life of Basil Bunting

Funny old life, eh? Small world, etc. In one of those curious, Alan Bennett-y, believe-it-or-not-but-I-once-delivered-meat-to-the mother-in-law-of-T.S.-Eliot-type coincidences, it turns out that Mark Knopfler once worked as a copy boy on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle when Basil Bunting was working there as a sub-editor. Knopfler being Knopfler, he eventually wrote a sad sweet song about it, ‘Basil’, in which he describes England’s most important modernist poet sitting stranded in the newspaper offices, surrounded by up-and-coming Bri-Nylon-clad jack-the-lads, wearing his ancient blue sweater, puffing on his untipped Players, clearly ‘too old for the job’ and ‘bored out of his mind’. ‘Bury all joy/ Put the poems in sacks/ And bury me here

Hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley read aloud was a revelation

Last week I heard the actor Julian Sands give a virtuoso performance of work by Percy Bysshe Shelley to mark the bicentenary of the radical poet’s death this month. A couple of days later, I listened to a bit more Shelley, this time on the radio, and this time in the voice of Benjamin Zephaniah. Hearing his verses read aloud is so much more intimate than reading them silently. You may be sitting in a crowd, but as Shelley’s words fall into your ears, it’s possible to feel that you’re having a private audience with him. Reading the same poems in an empty room can be comparatively distancing. Zephaniah said

‘That little venal borough’: a poet’s jaundiced view of Aldeburgh

‘To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England,’ E.M. Forster declared in a radio broadcast in May 1941, but few people today talk about this Suffolk-born poet or indeed read him. This makes Frances Gibb’s slender but thorough account of George Crabbe’s life and work all the more welcome. In his time he was considered a leading, though controversial, figure, who wrote with stark realism about the spiritually and morally impoverished lives of East Anglian villagers and townspeople, in particular the inhabitants of the ‘little venal borough’ of Aldeburgh, where he was born in 1754 and spent an unhappy youth. After failing in his first career as an apothecary-surgeon,