Stephen Abell

Borders of the possible

The original title for this novel was Jews with Swords, which perfectly captures its spirit as well as its subject. It also, incidentally, suggests a good literary parlour game, in which classic works are simplistically renamed to reflect their content: Day Out in Dublin, for Ulysses, or Beautiful Child Abuse, for Lolita, perhaps. In any

Small maelstrom in Yorkshire

An abiding impression of the Victorian period is its mania for being straight-faced to the point of seeming strait-laced, for order and precision, for enumeration and explication. The Times affirmed that ‘just now we are an objective people. We want to place everything we can under glass cases, and stare our fill.’ Gathering the Water tells

Swansong at twilight

It is, if you stop to think about it, an important literary question: what, exactly, is the point of short stories? They so often can — to this reader at least — be dismissed merely as stunted or early-aborted novels, a single idea gestated in the writer’s imagination that has inescapably failed to divide, multiply

Too bloody writerly

Novelty alone — with writing as with condoms — should not ever be the overriding criterion when making an important selection. Unfortunately, in their introduction to New Writing 13, Toby Litt and Ali Smith make clear that they have only chosen authors practically squeaking with novelty: writers ‘for whom everything they write is a renewal

Small-town screwballs and surprises

In a 1925 essay, Freud unearthed an important linguistic truth about the concept of the uncanny (unheimlich). He noticed that it had drifted very close to its apparent antonym heimlich, which starts out as ‘homely’ and can, via ‘private and personal’, become ‘secretive and repressed’. This enabled him to offer the more important psychological insight

Tunnel of love vision

Tim Madden, the narrator of Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), offers a perceptive instance of literary criticism when he recalls that ‘the best description of a pussy I ever came across was in a short piece by John Updike’. However, even that is not enough for him: what he would really like, he

Taking matters seriously

For a critic as seriously intelligent as James Wood, a discussion about the nature of comedy is, inevitably, no laughing matter. And this is appropriate enough: modern comedy, in his opinion, appears to contain few actual laughs. The historical shift from an essentially religious, theatrical ‘comedy of correction’ to a secular, novelistic ‘comedy of forgiveness’

A failed kiss of life

For a writer or critic to describe something as ‘interesting’ is, of course, neither revealing nor interesting. Which is a shame, for Peter Ackroyd is rather fond of this sort of information underload: Richard II is ‘perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of English sovereigns’; the putative affair between Chaucer’s wife and John of Gaunt

A serious case of rising damp

In this, her ninth novel, Maggie Gee has determinedly sought — like God in the beginning — to make the watery world she has created ‘teem with countless living creatures’. She did not, however, see to it that it was good. For The Flood teems not only with living things (birds ‘quivering, flashing on the

Making it a just so story

This new collection is, surprisingly for a little black book, decidedly unsexy. In fact, A. S. Byatt — unsurprisingly, perhaps, for those readers who persisted through the Victorian mumblings and fumblings of Possession — does bad, awkward sex rather well. Here is a gynaecologist and an art student getting together (note especially the prophylactic double

The play’s the thing

The early life of Arthur Miller reads a bit like the first chapters of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: a precocious Jewish boy during the Great Depression, an influential older brother, an adolescent sexual awakening with a prostitute. Indeed, his life as a whole — in which he was to marry and