Jonathan Mirsky

Gossip from Lamb House

In 1999, Rosalind Bleach, whose mother had just died, opened for the first time her rosewood bureau with a swivel top and four drawers. She discovered 41 letters written between 1907 and 1915 by the Master — Henry James — to Mrs Ford, a now nearly forgotten upper-middle-class woman who lived at Budds, a country

The Godfather of the Steppes

First published in 1836, this novella shows Alexander Pushkin’s mastery of almost any form. The following year — after a miraculously productive short period — he died in a duel over the alleged adultery of his wife with the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador. Evocative, swashbuckling, romantic and sentimental, The Captain’s Daughter centres on

The very special relationship

‘Here is a hot potato,’ The Spectator’s book review editor wrote in a note accompanying this book. Radioactive, actually. In 2006 Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt posted a version of an article they had written on the Israel lobby for the London Review of Books on a Harvard faculty website. It was

You have been warned

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville Many years ago in Texas, a movie advertisement urged viewers ‘to thrill to Herman Melville’s immortal story of the sea, Moby-Dick, with Gregory Peck in the title role,’ prompting the New Yorker to comment, ‘A whale of a part.’ And how! I’ve just finished reading the book

Tales of the Yangzi

In Grand Canal, Great River we enter a world that makes the moon seem familiar. It is also one of the most beautiful books I’ve handled and is a screaming bargain. Philip Watson read Chinese at Oxford and spent most of his working life in the Foreign Office, with postings in Hong Kong and Beijing.

The madness of the two Georges

I saw Jeremy Paxman lose his languid scepticism a few weeks ago on Newsnight and exhibit what looked like amazement. Michael Rose had just said that if he were an Iraqi he would fight the Americans, or at least he could see why Iraqis did it. Is that, Paxman asked, what you want the families

A monster in the making

One day in 1915, when Stalin was in exile in Siberia, he was eating dinner with a few other revolutionaries. Everyone had to say what his greatest pleasure was. Some said women, others — can this be true? — ‘earnestly replied that it was the progress of dialectical materialism towards the workers’ paradise’. Stalin, known

Our women at the front

In the horror that is the Iraq war reporters usually broadcast from the safety of the vast Green Zone where Coalition civilians eat, sleep, make policy and issue statements. What we see on television are pictures taken by non-white photographers; the face-to-camera commentary usually comes from within the Zone. We can only surmise what life

The time of the hedgehog

As I read this big, enthralling book I often wrote the words ‘muddle,’ ‘misunderstanding,’ and ‘the brink’ in the margins. From 1955, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union, until his dismissal, sudden, unexpected and brutal (but not violent) by his comrades and ex-protégés in 1964, the world teetered several times on

The meeting of the twain

Seize the Hour is an admirable example of the storyteller’s power. From Homer to the great playwrights and novelists whose works we can hear or read repeatedly, the telling is all. Achilles pursues Hector around the walls of Troy; we know how it will finish, but like Homer’s audiences we want to hear it again.

Stalling at the starting line

Seven per cent of zebra finches stutter. So did Moses, Demosthen- es, Aesop, Churchill, Darwin, Nietzsche, André Malraux, Marilyn Monroe, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Charles I, George VI, and Lewis Carrroll. So do Margaret Drabble and Marc Shell, the author of this comprehensive, learned, even playful book. And so, declaring an interest, do I. Many

Softly, softly, catchee English

Hooray for Signal Books, publishers of the ‘Lost and Found’ series of classic travel writing. Not long ago I reviewed in these pages The Ford of Heaven by Brian Power, a memoir, first published in 1984, of Power’s childhood in north China. The notable thing about Power was how deeply embedded he was in the

The return of the native

Brian Power’s book, like the best Chinese paintings, contains a lot of empty space. You can either concentrate on what you see, or you can let your mind and imagination glide over into what might have been there. I have a silk-screen of a painting by the Song dynasty master Liang Kai (13th century) on

How not to lose your shirt in China

Each time I write something about human rights in China, as I did recently in The Spectator, I receive e-mails from men, always men, doing business in China whose message is this: China is becoming a world-class economic power with its own moral standards, so why don’t I shut up and praise it for its

A gangster comes to town

Jonathan Mirsky says that the state visit to Britain of China’s President is no cause for celebration When China’s President Hu Jintao sits next to the Queen at her state banquet for him on 8 November he will be a contented man. In the words of the Royal Academy of Arts, ‘China Turns London Red’.

Coming to the aid of the party

In 1967 I met a Polish diplomat in Cambodia whose communist family had immigrated to Palestine when he was a child. Like many Jewish (and other) communists the family was plunged into an emotional ideological quandary by the Soviet pact with the Nazis in 1939. The diplomat told me that one morning he awoke to

A low opinion of human nature

I feel slightly cornered by the blurbs on the jacket of this book. On the front, Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, says, ‘This is my favourite Chinese novel: a highly amusing comedy of manners that conceals a powerful emotional charge.’ On the back, Lisa Appignanesi suggests we ‘imagine Svevo taking David Lodge to China

A low score in the intelligence test

During an interview with James Naughtie, recorded in his keenly analytical The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency, the Prime Minister observed, ‘I never quite understood what people mean by this neo-con thing.’ This is not an obscure term. Can Mr Blair really not know that the neo-cons are a small group of like-minded

A great-grandmother glimpsed

I have a faded photograph of Frances Osborne. I imagine the moment the picture was taken: perhaps she had just been told that this, her first book, would be published. She must have been happy and would have shared her happiness with her children, Luke and Liberty, who, I suppose, must have been happy, too.

Led by the nose

In the spring of 1972 I met what I still think was the bravest man in China. An ordinary factory hand, he told me that the officially invited American China academics, of whom I was one, who the previous day had been brought to his ‘typical workers’ house’ in Canton, had been told a pack