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Writing Worth Reading

Rescuing Brecht

Stephen Parker’s Bertold Brecht is “not only the biography of a genius, but itself a biography of genius”, perhaps even enough to redeem Brecht’s reputation in Britain and America, which are, “if not quite Brecht-free zones, nevertheless territories where he has persistently been misunderstood, unappreciated, unloved and under suspicion”. If Brecht’s life was wayward, so was Picasso’s; and Brecht’s talent was every bit as great (4,400 words)

Is “Finnegans Wake” Unreadable?

No, but it presents a “Himalayan challenge” — 600 pages of “dense, lightly punctuated prose aspiring to the condition of poetry”, incorporating words from 65 languages. “Heaven forbid that it should be imitated”, said an early reviewer: “This is Mr. Joyce’s individual mode of self-expression, and therefore nobody can do anything properly comparable with it without doing something quite different” (990 words)

Cavafy In English Accents

Discussion of Cavafy’s life and work, prompted by Daniel Mendelsohn’s new edition of the complete poems. “His poems are ‘like pedestals without the statues’. If one leaves out the implied derision, this is not a bad description. Often Cavafy’s poems reveal the emotion we should have felt at the sight of a statue which is no longer there; it was there, there where we once saw it, in the place from which it has now been removed” (3,890 words)

Wilde’s World Of Journalism

The two latest volumes in the Oxford University Press edition of “The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde” collect Wilde’s journalism — a difficult task since much of it was published anonymously. Wilde’s literary executor, Robbie Ross, made a first pass at the task a century ago; this second compilation is “a landmark in Wilde studies”, shedding much new light on Wilde and his efforts “to translate aesthetics into popular culture” (2,180 words)

Poems Of A Lifetime

Great poets know when to stop. They don’t overload what they want to say with too much verbal artifice or borrowed erudition. “For a poet to be all sound is nearly as bad as for a painter to be all paint. I still find that a Swinburne poem affects me like a painting by John Bratby: there is so much impasto that the only tension lies in your wondering whether it will slide off the picture and fall on the floor” (2,553 words)

Georges Simenon Returns

Shrewd, affectionate portrait of the prolific Belgian author and his creation, Inspector Maigret. “The Inspector is clearly a functioning alcoholic, forever at the beer, the wine, the fine and the Calvados. It’s possible Simenon didn’t notice how much Maigret was drinking because the novelist was himself a functioning alcoholic. A doctor suggested that on writing days he limit himself to two bottles of red” (2,740 words)

Ian Hamilton’s Brilliance, Busted

Reflections on the short and troubled life of The New Review, a glossy 1970s London arts magazine whose editor, Ian Hamilton, combined brilliant commissioning with disastrous management. A single issue included articles by Isaiah Berlin, Philip Larkin and A.J.P. Taylor. It was, “depending on your point of view, either the best literary periodical of the past fifty years or an elitist folly lavishly bankrolled by the taxpayer.” (4,730 words)

Hold Or Fold

On Paper, by Nicholas Basbanes, celebrates the 2,000-year history of a medium that has so far outlasted clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, metal, bark, bones, seashells and floppy discs. If the paperless office does arrive, it will do so only after a highly successful rearguard action by paper. Desktop computers (and printers) have only increased consumption of the commodity they were expected to render obsolete (680 words)

T.S. Eliot’s Carelessness Towards John Hayward

Review of Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T.S. Eliot And Their Circle, by John Smart. Hayward dreamed in youth of being a great poet, and had modest success as a critic, but earned his footnote in literary history as the friend, “confessor” and occasional editor of a much greater poet, T.S. Eliot. The two men fell out when Eliot remarried, and Hayward came off worse. His “stock of malice” was no match for Eliot’s “sadistic nature” (2,622 words)

Fate Urg’d The Sheers

Notes on the 300th anniversary of the publication of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, a mock-epic poem about “a bizarre episode” involving a row between two families over the theft of a lock of hair. It was Pope’s third major work and he was still just 25. His royalties were meagre. But the boost to his reputation enabled him to negotiate a contract for his next work, an Iliad translation, that made him rich (2,670 words)

New Poems By Sappho

More on the two lost works by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho rediscovered on a papyrus in Oxford; with transcriptions and translations. The “Brothers Poem” is “a family drama with epic overtones”. The “Kypris Poem” is about unrequited love and addressed to Aphrodite. “The verses show an ear for balancing and texture, the pulse of rhythm, graceful shaping of words, and an atmospheric ending to a poem” (1,620 words)

The Great Tokyo Zoo Massacre

Ian Jared Miller’s history of Tokyo Zoo, The Nature Of The Beasts, is “a triumph” combining “archival richness, analytical dexterity and elegant writing”. Founded at Ueno in 1882 as “the first zoo in the world not built under the sway of a Western imperial regime”, the collection rose and fell with Japan’s own imperial project. Two-thirds of the animals died in WW2, many of them in the Great Zoo Massacre of 1943 (1,420 words)

Does Journalism Have A Future?

Discussion of Out Of Print, a “clear-headed” book by George Brock which argues that professionalized journalism may be a transient phenomenon. “It may one day in the future seem odd that societies had a large group of well-paid professionals whose job it was to select and provide the words and images that people looked at in order to know the world beyond what they could see and hear with their own eyes and ears” (1,980 words)

Artists In The Kitchen

Review of The Modern Art Cookbook, “a potpourri (or perhaps a bouillabaisse) of literary texts in verse and prose, recipes and images” by Mary Ann Caws; and Modern Art Desserts, “a different kettle of fish – more rambunctious, more delirious, more ingenious” by Caitlin Freeman, chef at the San Francisco MOMA café. “These gorgeous books capture something of the splendour of looking, and making, and sharing” (1,970 words)

Herodotus, The Homer Of Prose

Tom Holland has produced “unquestionably the best English translation of Herodotus to have appeared in the past half-century … fast, funny, opinionated, clear and erudite. As I read it straight through, cover to cover. I frequently forgot that I was supposed to be evaluating the translation and became swept away by the vertiginous forward thrust of Herodotus’ own storytelling. I am in awe of Tom Holland’s achievement” (1,990 words)

Du Côté De Chez Swann

The first volume of Proust’s master-work, A la recherche du temps perdu, was published on 14th November 1913. André Gide rejected it for the Nouvelle Revue Française — he thought Proust a “snobbish dilettante”. It was taken on by Bernard Grasset, who told a friend: “It’s unreadable; the author paid the publishing costs.” A reviewer for Figaro found the book “highly original” but sadly lacking in plot (2,200 words)

D.H. Lawrence As Poet

“The extraordinary unevenness, the repeated lapses of judgement, the readiness to bang on, the uncontained profuseness, all these come to seem not incidental deficiencies, but, rather, key elements in the full Lawrence effect. These poems do not come across as particular undertakings that have been finished off well, but more as parts of a potentially unending series of provisional reports back from what it was to be Lawrence” (3,100 words)

Going, Going, Goncourt

Enjoyable potted history of France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, which is worth only €10 in cash, but ensures hundreds of thousands of sales. Women have won only eight times in 110 years; history has not always been kind to the judges’ taste. In 1913 they snubbed Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; and might well have done the same to Marcel Proust, had he troubled to submit Du Côté de chez Swann for consideration (1,071 words)

The Greatest Philosopher Of The Twentieth Century

The title may well belong to F.P. Ramsey, who died at 26, having “figured out the principles governing subjective probability, and so opened the way to decision theory, game theory and much work in the foundations of economics … Contemporary debates about truth, meaning, knowledge, logic and the structure of scientific theories all take off from positions first defined by Ramsey”. He translated Wittgenstein, who overshadowed him (980 words)

We Need Danilo Kiš

Review of Birth Certificate: The Story Of Danilo Kiš, by Mark Thompson. The Yugoslav-born Kiš was “one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century”, an equal of Thomas Bernhard or Milan Kundera. His books have been forgotten in the English-reading world, though at least two of them are masterpieces of “melancholy precision”. All the more reason to welcome this “comprehensive, erudite and stylish new biography” (3,800 words)


Review of Time Reborn, by Lee Smolin, resuming the past century’s philosophical debate about the nature of time. “Why does time have a preferred direction, always pointing from the past to the future? (After all, space doesn’t similarly point in any particular direction.) And why does it seem to us as if we are travelling in that direction from our births to our deaths, carried effortlessly along by the progress of now?” (1,700 words)

Igor Stravinsky And The Rite of Spring

Centenary tribute from a friend of the composer. Long, discursive, not always easy going, but full of interesting detail. Original inspiration came from the work of Lithuanian painter Mikalojus Ciurlionis. “It is scarcely believable that The Rite of Spring, and before it The Firebird and Petrushka, were written by a composer still in his twenties, slightly more a decade after the death of Johannes Brahms” (4,760 words)

After Thatcher

Review of recent books about Mrs Thatcher, by her former policy adviser. On Robin Harris’s Not For Turning: “He spares us nothing: her heavy drinking, her shouting matches with Denis, her wild suspicions of his infidelity, the cruel effects on her short-term memory of her succession of strokes, until she could no longer string a sentence together. As compelling in its unrelievedly black and venomous fashion as the novels of Céline” (5,400 words)

Pleasures Of Dr Johnson

Book review, of writings on Samuel Johnson, returning the focus to Johnson’s own work, and to what contemporaries said about him, before Boswell’s Life fixed him for posterity. “A strange, perplexing, yet always provoking alternation of insight and prejudice, precision and prolixity, timidity and courageous originality”. Hazlitt thought him a tedious writer, much more amusing in conversation (1,886 words)

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