Richard Davenporthines

Bohemian bonhomie

Mary Ann Caws, a retired professor of English and French literature at the City University of New York, published her first book in 1966. Since then she has written several dozen studies, many of them about surrealism or modernism; others with such varied subjects as the women of Bloomsbury, Robert Motherwell, Blaise Pascal, Provençal cooking,

Eric the Red

Sir Richard Evans, retired regius professor of history at Cambridge, has always been a hefty historian. The densely compacted facts in his books, the evidence of an inexorable mind incessantly at work, the knock-out blows that he has dealt to adversaries from David Irving upwards — they all characterise authoritative books by a hard-man among

Two men on a mountain

A book that opens in a Lahore refugee camp, shifts to Cat Bells Fell, rising above the shores of Derwentwater, and then swoops between the Ranigunj coalfields in Bengal, Belsize Park, a handicrafts exhibition at Kharagpur, Kensington Gore, military intelligence headquarters in Calcutta, an aircraft factory in Wembley and the Himalayas is bound to keep

Found and lost | 30 November 2017

Charles Duff’s memoir tells a sad tale of cruelty and betrayal with spry wit rather than bitter resentment. Notwithstanding the subtitle’s threat of earnest Welsh soul-searching, Charley’s Woods is tart, arch and crisp. It recalls a strange, lonely childhood with brisk frivolity and a ruthless perception of other people’s oddities, vices and humours. Duff was

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

Understated eloquence

It is 50 years since the publication of Very Like a Whale, Ferdinand Mount’s first novel. ‘Mr Mount’s distinguishing feature as a novelist,’ Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote in her sniffy, uncomprehending Times Literary Supplement review, ‘is that his analysis of society is obedient to Conservative economic principles.’ In the ensuing half century Mount has proven resolute

An infinite spirit

Can American publishers be dissuaded from foisting absurd, bombastic subtitles on their books as if readers are all Trumpers avid for tawdry, over-simplified stunts? Howard Bloch is a professor at Yale whose previous books have had medieval French literature, the Bayeux tapestry and medieval misogyny as their subject matter. He has taken an entertaining diversion

All about C

In March 1981 Margaret Thatcher went to the hospital bedside of Maurice Oldfield, the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service, who was dying of stomach cancer. She found him surrounded by his brothers and sisters, whom she gently asked to leave as she needed to ‘speak privately with Sir Maurice’. When they trooped back

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

Wilde about the boy

The prodigious brilliance, blaring public ruin, dismal martyrdom and posthumous glory of Oscar Wilde’s reputation are almost too familiar. The facts have been rehashed in numerous biographies, and dramatised by such actors as Robert Morley, Peter Finch, Rupert Everett and Stephen Fry. The only way to attack the subject with any hope of surprise is

How a clumsy drummer started the 1848 revolutions

There are hundreds of resounding ideas and shrewd precepts in Adam Zamoyski’s temperate yet splendidly provocative Phantom Terror. This is the history of European ultra-reactionary repression and police espionage in the half-century after the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1789-93. The instability of popular opinion, the destructiveness of angry, ignorant populism and the wretchedness

The opéra bouffe that was the Bretton Woods conference

There ought to be a comic opera about the Bretton Woods conference — Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, about Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, with its mordant libretto by Philip Hensher, should be the model. Everything about the conference was overdone. It was held in 1944 in the gargantuan Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire, which

What E.M. Forster didn’t do

‘On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken,’ said Penelope Fitzgerald in 1987. The South African novelist Damon Galgut has reversed this formula — with mixed results. He has written a novel about a fellow novelist, E.M.

Critics can be creative – look at Malcolm Cowley

Even Spectator book reviewers have to concede that their craft is inferior to the creative travail of authors. Henry James railed against the practitioners of literary criticism long ago: So much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing: so many gentlemen sitting down to dispose in half an hour of what a few

The Rothschilds, the Spenders, the Queen…

The novelist David Plante is French-Québécois by ancestry, grew up in a remote Francophone parish in Yankee New England and came to London half a century ago when still an avid young man. For 38 years he lived there with the late Nikos Stangos, a cosmopolitan of the Greek diaspora, whose father had been expelled

Colette’s France, by Jane Gilmour – review

Monstrous innocence’ was the ruling quality that Colette claimed in both her life and books. Protesting her artless authenticity, she was sly in devising her newspaper celebrity and ruthless in imposing her personal myths. She posed as provincial ingénue, wide-eyed young wife of the Paris belle époque, scandalous lesbian, risqué music-hall performer, novelist of prodigious

Brotherly love

Twenty years ago Pat Barker won acclaim with Regeneration, her novel about shell-shocked army officers undergoing treatment at the Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital for soldiers during the first world war. Her new novel is a close scrutiny of parallel atrocities of 1914–18. As in Regeneration, some characters are based on real-life figures. Several scenes are set