Feeding frenzy: memories of a gourmand in Paris

‘Bald, overweight and gluttonous’ is how the American journalist and food writer A.J. Liebling described himself. Born in Manhattan in 1904, he wrote extensively about boxing and horse racing and was a war correspondent during the second world war, taking part in the Normandy landings in that capacity. He also recounted his gastronomic adventures in Paris before the war in Between Meals, a collection of essays largely derived from a four-part series, ‘Memoirs of a Feeder in France’, which ran in the New Yorker in 1959. The sign of a good restaurantmight be seeing two priests or two ‘sporting girls’ eating together As a gourmand (rather than a gourmet, a

The sleepless lives of great writers

To sleep or not to sleep – that is the question the French writer Marie Darrieussecq asks in her latest book, which explores the insomnia that has haunted her for 20 years since the birth of her first child. From that date, she writes, it ‘has attached itself to me like a small ghost’. Darrieussecq is best known for her surreal novel Pig Tales (1996), but Sleepless is an account of her search for a cure to insomnia and the solace she finds in discovering writers such as Franz Kafka (‘the patron saint of insomnia’), Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mahmoud Darwish, Haruki Murakami, Aimé

Celebrating Konstantin Paustovsky — hailed as ‘the Russian Proust’

When is a life worth telling? The Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky’s six-volume autobiography The Story of a Life combines high drama with heroic misadventure in a comico-lyrical amalgam of history and domestic detail that enchants from start to finish. Why Paustovsky is not better known outside his native Moscow is a mystery. In the mid-1960s he was nominated for the Nobel prize. (He was pipped to the post by Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of the obediently propagandist And Quiet Flows the Don.) Denounced as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ by the Soviet Writers’ Union, Paustovsky belonged to that select band of writers who inspire true fandom. Marlene Dietrich abased herself at Paustovsky’s feet

Lydia Davis masters the art of translating without a dictionary

‘Read slowly, word by word, if you wish to understand what I am saying.’ Despite appearing in Essays Two, the latest non-fiction collection from Lydia Davis, this exhortation is by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad; yet the approach is apt for Davis’s work. This is not because Davis, a feted translator and writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, is incomprehensible but because her work is often so short — a couple of lines or a couple of pages. It demands to be savoured slowly. Even when she writes at length, as she does in this hefty volume spanning 19 essays, her thoughts on literature and language

Must all history programming be ‘relevant’?

When it comes to history programming, television’s loss is increasingly audio’s gain. People moan to me most weeks over the lack of really good, rigorous, eye-opening documentaries on the screen, and I can only nod along in agreement. Oh for a Kenneth Clark-style lecture! More Michael Wood! There’s an especially strong appetite for the adventurous commissions of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s principally podcasts, now, that are pouring into this void. Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets, a 12-episode sequel to his previous series on the Victorians, even sounds like an extended BBC4 documentary, replete with talking heads, choral background music and just a dash of Horrible Histories. Unfortunately, it also suffers

William Boyd on the miraculous snaps of boy genius Jacques Henri Lartigue

What must it be like for an artist to achieve success only at the end of a long, relatively ignored career? The word ‘bittersweet’ seems particularly apt. Yet, late recognition is better, I suppose, than dying in oblivion like Vincent van Gogh, Franz Kafka or John Kennedy Toole. One of my favourite photographers, Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894–1986), did manage to savour the sweet smell of success in his old age. Lartigue’s late flowering was down to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its then director of photography, John Szarkowski. There’s a very good argument to be made that during Szarkowski’s tenure at MoMA (1962–91) his shows transformed 20th-century photography.

Do Jews think differently?

Sixteen years into a stop-go production saga, I got a call from the director of The Song of Names with a suggested script change. What, said François Girard, if one of the two protagonists was perhaps, er, not Jewish? My reply cannot be repeated. I was, for a minute or so, completely speechless. My novel, winner of a 2002 Whitbread Award, is the story of two boys bonding in wartime London. One is a refugee violinist from Poland, the other a middle-class kid of average abilities. ‘I am genius,’ says Dovidl to Martin. ‘You are — a bit everything.’ Beyond bomb sites, their friendship is rooted in a common heritage.

Impish secrets

Long ago, I interviewed Edmund White and found that the photographer assigned to the job was the incomparable Jane Bown — a bit like having Matisse turn up to decorate your kitchen. After we talked, Jane shot. She managed to convert a tiny hotel courtyard into a sort of antique Grecian glade. In her pictures, White peeped through the foliage with the smile of some demonic faun come to spread ribald chaos in the service of the great god Pan. I remembered that look when, in this patchwork of pieces about his life as a reader, he discloses that a heart attack followed by surgery in 2014 had one weird

Life in reverse

The publication of César Aira’s The Lime Tree in Chris Andrews’s assured translation is a reminder that much of the Argentinian writer’s massive literary output — now more than 70 books — remains inaccessible in English. In this novella, which teases readers with suggestions of the autobiographical, Aira has one eye on his country’s past and the social effects of Juan Perón’s regime, and the other on the literary legacies of Proust. For Aira’s unnamed narrator, it is not the taste of lime blossom tea that spurs his fluid reminiscences, but a particular tree itself, ‘grown to an enormous size’ and central to the small-town landscape of his childhood in

Muddled in minutiae

‘Publitical’ is a neologism worth avoiding. Bill Goldstein uses it to describe T.S. Eliot’s activities when launching and promoting his quarterly review of literature, the Criterion, which had its first issue in October 1922. Eliot wanted an eminent French author as a contributor: ‘the only name worth getting is Proust’, he told Ezra Pound. As the founding editor of the New York Times books website, Goldstein is attuned to cultural fashions, publicity drives and the politicking of literary factions. And so he makes a painfully reductive explanation of Eliot’s remark: ‘The importance of Proust was publitical above all.’ 1922 was the publication year of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Clicking of Cuthbert

Dark night of the soul

As bombs fall everywhere in Syria and IS fighters destroy Palmyra, a musicologist in Vienna lies awake all night thinking of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, where he stayed in 1996, following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie and King Faisal. He remembers the hotel’s Ottoman ogival windows and its monumental staircase, with its old, worn-out rugs and shabby rooms where there were still useless bakelite telephones and metal clawfoot bathtubs whose pipes sounded like a heavy machine gun whenever you turned on the tap, in the midst of faded wallpaper and rust-stained bedspreads. In 1996 Franz Ritter was travelling with a fellow student, Sarah, a beautiful

According to Luke

This is an odd one, not least because it claims to be a novel, which it isn’t. Emmanuel Carrère, writer and film-maker, looks back on an earlier self when, as a young man, he had a phase of being a devout Catholic, going to Mass daily, making his confession, the whole caboodle. He decides to marry his girlfriend, who is called Anne. We do not hear much about her. He later marries Hélène Devynck. Like the ‘real’ Carrère, the narrator has a house on the island of Patmos, where much of this book was written — appropriately, since it is a (sort of) commentary on the New Testament. As Carrère

Old, unhappy, far off things

August Geiger led an unremarkable life. Born in 1926, the third of ten children of a Catholic farming family in western Austria, the most unusual thing about him was his unwillingness ever to leave Wolfurt, the village where he had grown up. He built a house there, for his schoolteacher wife and their children, and refused ever to go on holiday. His wife had suggested that they go on a walk and call it their honeymoon, but August rejected even this slight change in his routine. It was, therefore, particularly poignant that when he developed Alzheimer’s disease, August’s dominant obsession became his desire to go home. Nothing could convince him

Grubby, funny shaggy dog story

The Mexican author Juan Pablo Villa-lobos’s first short novel, Down the Rabbit Hole (Fiesta en la madriguera), was published in English in 2011. It was narrated by the young son of a drug baron living in a luxurious, if heavily guarded palace, whose everyday familiarity with hitmen, prostitutes and assorted methods of disposing of unwanted corpses was both hilarious and unsettling. The novella was the first work of translated fiction to be shortlisted for the (now sadly defunct) Guardian First Book Award and was described admiringly by the writer Ali Smith as ‘funny, convincing, appalling’. Villalobos’s new novel, his third, has again been translated by Rosalind Harvey, whose work on

A mirror to the world

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Lloyd Evans and Dr Daniel Swift discuss how Shakespeare died” startat=1008] Listen [/audioplayer]Who’s there? Shakespeare’s most famous play opens with this slightly hokey line, and the question remains for his countless audiences, biographers and scholars. Who was this man? What makes his works so apparently endless? Like the plays, his life is studded with riddles. Even the basic facts are slippery and over-determined. We do not, for example, know the date of Shakespeare’s birth. His baptism was recorded at Stratford on 26 April 1564, and since it was customary to baptise newborns quickly, it has been accepted that his birthday was 23 April. This is a nice coincidence:

Gay tittle-tattle

The Comintern was the name given to the international communist network in the Soviet era, advancing the cause wherever it could. The ‘Homintern’, a wry play on that, was first coined at Oxford by Maurice Bowra and gladly passed on by Cyril Connolly, Auden and others, inferring an international homosexual network of mutual interest and support. Gregory Woods, in his very first sentence, defines it thus: ‘The Homintern is the international presence of lesbians and gay men in modern life.’ A few pages later he says: ‘There was no such thing as the “Homintern”.’ So which is it to be? And what does Woods mean by ‘modern life’? The opening

Diary – 31 December 2015

Disappointingly, the recent film about Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, does not include the thing about him which most struck me in Walter Isaacson’s biography: Jobs habitually parked in disabled parking bays. Naturally, this is something that I (in company with many drivers, I suspect) long to do whenever disabled spaces are the only available parking, especially when two or three of them are standing empty. But I don’t — even for a five-minute dash to Tesco. The fear of exposure stops me, as well perhaps as a smidgen of unselfishness. The fact that Steve Jobs unhesitatingly committed this minor offence reveals more about him — that he was unscrupulous, that he didn’t

Swords of honour

Earlier this century I was a guest at a fine dinner, held in a citadel of aristocratic Catholicism, for youngish members of German student duelling societies. My hosts were splendidly courteous, some of them held deadly straight rapiers or lethal curved blades, there were brightly coloured and golden braided costumes that made King Rudolf of Ruritania’s coronation robes seem dowdy, and we sung a rousing anthem about Prince Eugene of Savoy smiting the fearful Turk at the battle of Zenta in 1697. It was a high-testosterone evening. A few of my young hosts had duelling scars, discreetly placed so as to be imperceptible when they were in office suits, for

Soldier, poet, lover, spy: just the man to translate Proust

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s Englishing of Proust — widely and immediately agreed to be one of the greatest literary translations of all time — very nearly didn’t happen. Scott Moncrieff only suggested the project to his publisher after they rejected a collection of satirical squibs in verse (sample: ‘Sir Philip Sassoon is the Member for Hythe;/ He is opulent, generous, swarthy and lithe.’). Like any good hack, he had another suggestion up his sleeve: there was this character Proust just starting to be published — making a bit of noise in France. Constable didn’t immediately see the value: ‘They replied that they did not see much use in publishing a

TV snobs hate the telly because it’s watched by those born on the wrong side of the tracks

Growing up in the 1970s I watched as much TV as humanly possible. When we had important visitors to the house my mum would merely turn down the volume, and by the time we went to bed you could have fried an egg on the screen. Now that I am a middle-aged, middle-class professional the only thing that has changed is I watch even more of it. I have a TV in my bedroom, in the kitchen, lounge, and access to it on my phone, iPad and laptop. But all my adult life, since I began mixing with educated, privileged people, I have been plagued by TV snobs. You know