Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I have moved!!

You can find the new blog at www.suzifeay.com - read me there and check out the new look.

Best wishes

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Top Ten Man Booker Moments

I was privileged enough to go the (Man) Booker prize dinner for 11 years in a row. Here are my favourite memories.

1997 - The God of Small Things

My first year; I was overwhelmed by the scale of the event and blown away by the grandeur of the Guildhall with its gigantic statues of Gog and Magog standing sentinel. Arundhati Roy glowed with stardom and gave a heartfelt, gracious speech. Less thrillingly, Madeleine St John's shortlisted title The Essence of the Thing was my first Booker 'huh??'

1999 - Disgrace

The year I learnt an important lesson: if you're going to the dinner, try to read at least some of the books. It's embarrassing to wing it when you're a literary editor. I was placed on a table of charming Booker employees who had read all the shortlisted titles and wanted some top-flight critical discussion from me. I still haven't read J M Coetzee's masterpiece but to this day I remember the passionate debate: Is it misogynist? Yes... no... Yes... NO...

2000 - The Blind Assassin

So this year I invented a new Booker tradition: read five shortlisted books, run out of time and then find that it's the one you haven't read that wins. Tchah! The shortlist was chiefly memorable for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, otherwise known as 'the sheep-shagging novel'. I'm afraid so.

2001 - The True History of the Kelly Gang

The first year the longlist was published. I was, and remain dubious about this, but apparently it's 'good for sales'. Cracking shortlist this year, including McEwan, Andrew Miller (Oxygen), David Mitchell's stunning Number9Dream and Ali Smith's Hotel World. But I hadn't read the Carey. The long tables a la Hogwarts were uncomfortably crammed: Booker was outgrowing the Guildhall. As we all sat down I asked Ali how she felt. 'I'm just so pleased to be here AT ALL,' she beamed. The best moment for me this year actually came after the dinner, when I sloped off with my friend, Michele Roberts, one of the judges, and sat on her rooftop overlooking the Thames drinking red wine. I also discovered that knowing one judge does not necessarily mean you know in advance what the winner is going to be. I got the impression Michele thought the voting was going to go a different way...

2002 - Life of Pi

My memorable moment came long before Booker night. I was loafing around the Groucho club late
one night when a familiar tousled-haired figure hoved into view. Barely listening to the usual impassioned spiel, I let Jamie Byng of Canongate shove an advanced readers' proof into my hands. Months later it was still lying around unread, some book with a tiger in a boat on the cover. Eventually I read it and... wow!

This was the year the dinner moved to the British Museum, presumably for space reasons. While having the champagne reception among the Egyptian sculptures was fabulous, once dinner started it was hard to hear anything with the appalling acoustics (the tables were laid out in the central court, around the old reading room). 'And... (crackle) the (mumble crackle) is... (inaudible).' When Martel switched to French in his acceptance speech, it wasn't much more incomprehensible than his English over all the static. But how we cheered plucky little Canongate.

2003 - Vernon God Little

Back at the BM, announcements still inaudible. This year the organisers decided, unwisely, to focus on the judging process rather than the books, screening a short film showing A C Grayling reading on holiday, Francine Stock unpacking boxes of books, D J Taylor looking thoughtful... yes, yes, judging is NOT INTERESTING, please move on. I also remember a quote from the mountaineer judge Rebecca Stephens along the lines of 'I'm looking for a novel that makes me feel emotion'. It's not a great criterion, is it? I mean, Hitler made people feel emotion. As the announcements began, all the hacks left their tables and thundered to the front, cupping their palms round their ears. That crazy scamp DBC Pierre won.

2004 - The Line of Beauty

The concourse at Victoria Station presumably not being available, the ceremony moved, for one year only, to the vast and atmosphere-free Royal Horticultural Halls. Toibin, Mitchell and Hollinghurst were the favourites, my fellow Indy on Sunday writer (and judge) Rowan Pelling wore an eye-popping low-cut frock, and glamorous Sarah Hall (shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo) created a stir with her tattoo-baring outfit. I was gutted about Mitchell (still am), but LOB was a worthy winner. It's a great year when there are three masterpieces on the shortlist.

2005 - The Sea

Possibly my finest Man Booker hour, and the only time I have been placed next to a winner. Not that anyone on the Picador table thought John Banville was in with much of a chance, what with Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Sebastian Barry to contend with. This was probably the best shortlist in all my Booker years (unimpeachably high-brow literary judges, that's why). The mood on the table was gloomy, relieved by the occasional comment such as: 'It's a great achievement to get this far, John. Just think of it like that.'

I wasn't even at his side when the announcement was made: I was up on the balcony doing a piece to camera for Kirsty Wark. We all leaned dramatically over to hear the result, only to see the table I had just been sitting at erupt with joy. Damn! Banville was swept into superstardom - you couldn't get near him at his Groucho club aftershow party - and I didn't see him again for a whole year, when his publishers had a reunion lunch. He was kind enough to say that everyone who'd been on the table that night was part of the magic. John, you are a gent and my favourite ever Man Booker winner!

2006 - I can't even bring myself to say

The announcement was made and moments later Edward St Aubyn and his entire contingent (including the actress Maria Aitken) rose and icily swept out of the room. Spotting Alan Hollinghurst, I did a Munch's The Scream face and he said, 'I know. SHIT HAPPENS.' My deputy texted me the single word 'Noooooo!'

Usually the losers' parties are tumbleweed affairs, but that night it seemed like everyone stopped by to commiserate with Teddy. Eventually the room became so starry it was like a winner's party after all. There was even an odd moment when one of the judges turned up to apologise to the stony-faced St Aubyn. A surreal evening.

2010 - The Finkler Question

Bit of a jump, but I have no strong memories of the years White Tiger or The Gathering won, beyond meeting the extraordinary Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People and talking to Adiga's publisher beforehand, who confessed, 'We're trying to calm him down. He really thinks he's going to win.' And I unfortunately missed the Wolf Hall dinner.

The winner announcements are always dramatic, and you can instantly tell from the atmosphere when they've got it 'right'. You could really feel the love for Howard Jacobson. (As opposed to the 2006 announcement when it felt like all the energy had suddenly drained out of the room.) I even managed to grab hold of Howard's trophy and pose for a photo. I wonder what this year's Man Booker moment will be?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Happy National Poetry Day!

Last night I went to the Forward Prize party at Somerset House in London, to see John Burnside win Best Collection for Black Cat Bone (Cape) and Rachael Boast the Best First Collection for Sidereal (Picador). No one could quite agree how to pronounce that one: Cider-real? Sigh-DEAR-re-ul? Sidder-real? So I asked Boast. Then promptly forgot what she'd told me. However you say it, it's an excellent collection. I had a brief conversation with the waifish poet in her stylish hat, trying to explain what appealed to me about her work. 'Yes, a lot of people like the poems about lying around on hillsides, drinking,' she observed.

One of the judges, Lady Antonia Fraser, was hunting round the room for Andrew Wyeth, author of a poem (it's in the Forward Book of Poetry 2012) entitled 'Pinter's Pause'. I'm not sure she ever found him, but she did track down Leeds poet John Whale, whose collection Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), shortlisted for best debut, had a poem about Marie Antoinette. I loved this book, clever and cultured and steeped in the era of the Romantics, with pieces about Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, and the grisly title poem: 'we fell upon the rain-soaked bodies of the dead /... From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two hundred sets of perfect teeth.'

Then it was off for a grand dinner under the painted eyes of Horatio Nelson, to celebrate two decades of the Forward Prizes. The supremely generous and dedicated founder William Sieghart recollected that an early 'best collection' winner was Thom Gunn with The Man With Night Sweats, a rapid poetic response to Aids that bore out Sieghart's contention that poetry tackles issues more quickly than other art forms. My seat was marked 'Don Paterson OBE' (he'd had to go), which tickled me. Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, whose speech was read in absentia, remarked on the poetry scene's internecine warfare this year. Judith Palmer and Fiona Sampson of the imploding Poetry Society seemed to be grimly avoiding one another. Let's hope it's all calming down now.

I recently reviewed five new anthologies for the Independent on Sunday, including the Forward Prize volumes (including Poems of the Decade), two from Salt Publishing, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and The Best British Poetry 2011, and Michael Hulse and Simon Rae's massive undertaking, The 20th Century in Poetry, 800 pages and over 400 poems.

One major theme of the Hulse/Rae volume is war. It was experienced at first hand by the poets of WWI but as the century marches on, there's a significant cultural shift with great implications for poetry. 'John Forbes,' they say, 'observes the Gulf War of 1991 from the perspective most of us now share, that of the television viewer.' Forbes's 'Love Poem' is a rather subtle and clever piece; however, this phrase sent me into flashback mode. At the Independent on Sunday, I regularly used to get poems from readers, usually with an urgent note to say that as they were topical, could I ensure they got into the very next issue? One writer took compliance so for granted that he added testily: 'I expect to be paid your normal rate.' With a sinking heart, I would read the poems. They were usually from 'the perspective most of us now share'.

A paraphrase might go something like this:


I am in my kitchen, kneading dough, thinking how good it will taste when baked, and how much my family enjoy eating my home-made bread. I cover it and leave it to rise and start watching the one o'clock news.

Oh no! I see scenes of carnage in a market somewhere in the middle east! Terrorists have blown up lots of women who were queueing for ... bread. That's ironic, isn't it? I feel quite sad about my bread now. Why should I bother baking it (writing poems) in a world where that happens? What's the point of it all? I really feel very depressed.

And then I think - I WILL bake bread (write poems) after all. I will bake it in defiance of the terrorists. I will bake it for all the women who can't bake bread (or write poems), all over the world. I will do it in solidarity with them. Slice by slice, the world will become a slightly better place. My family really are going to enjoy this lovely home-baked bread...

My little paraphrase sounds mocking - actually some of these poems were rather good. They were just eerily unoriginal, and their authors were sublimely unaware of it. Perhaps it's because poetry's antennae operate so sensitively that they can pick up virtually the same vibration in several different places at once. I wonder whether these strange little news-item poems are still being written? After all, it's what the Poet Laureate's for...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And the Ship Sailed On

I've just taken a bit of a break, a self-imposed writing retreat on the coast of Maine. Crashing waves, mist rolling in from the sea, foghorns calling mournfully, and the twice daily highlight of the dawn arrival of the cruise ship and its twilight departure. Watching that ghostly shape, lights bravely twinkling, get swallowed up by the deepening gloom was the perfect end to the day. The solitude turned out to be refreshing rather than sanity-challenging, and it was the perfect place to ponder, write and READ. So here's what I tackled out there.

Generally I don't read many American books so I decided to take destination-appropriate reading material. First up was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, to which I was attracted by the jacket quote 'The OC meets Donna Tartt's The Secret History'. Well. This was another example of 'never believe the blurb'. I adore The Secret History, but it is not exactly a realistic novel. As I delved into Sittenfeld's tale of an ill-at-ease teenage girl trying to cope in an expensive New England co-ed boarding school, I wondered - when are they all going to start killing each other? And it's so not that sort of book, as shy heroine Lee might say.

I found myself puzzled by Sittenfeld's rigorous realism, her patient chronicling of Lee's academic struggles and silly school rituals, such as the prolonged game of Assassin everyone revels in. In each lengthy, immaculately constructed chapter, she details a particular element of Lee's misfit years at Ault College, whether it's the fake popularity she briefly attains through an ability to cut hair, the embarrassment she feels when her parents arrive from Indiana for parents weekend, or the mystery of the sneak thief who is rifling through possessions in her dorm house. Each chapter has a focal point - the hair-cutting, for example - but weaves in myriad other issues, observations and ramifications. It feels casual, but is expertly constructed.

In particular, Sittenfeld expresses time very well, how it's experienced not as a line but in overlapping layers. Occasionally there is an interpolation from adult Lee, sadder and wiser, so it is also an evocation of lost time. The last chapter, 'Kissing and Kissing', is masterful, an account of the culmination of Lee's mad passion for the out-of-her-league Cross Sugarman,and her (sort of) downfall - which is maybe just the first sign of growing up. Lee gets herself into an awful scenario with Cross - anyone who's ever been a teenage girl will wince, but Cross himself is a fully-rounded and believable, if unscrutable boy. Once I learned not to expect scenes of Bacchic ecstasy I found this an immensely impressive and moving book.

Next was a collection of stories, Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward, which actually contained a story set in Maine. The stand out story for me was 'The Way the Sky Changed' about the aftermath of 9/11 (and I read it round about the tenth anniversary). Beginning with the image of a rib on a mantelpiece, it dealt with a man and a woman who had lost partners in the atrocity, her husband in the north tower, his wife on flight 11. Their attempts to date are wonderfully pragmatic - she lends him her husband's pyjamas, and is delighted to discover his wife's designer shoe collection fits her too. Little bits and pieces of humanity are being sifted from the rubble and gradually returned to families, hence the rib. At they end they both have to face 'what remains'.

The problem with short story collections generally is that there are always a handful of killer pieces - the singles, if you like - and the rest is filler. Admittedly, this collection is of a pretty high standard throughout, and I especially enjoyed the second part, a series of interconnected stories about Lola, whose lover rejects her for Miss Montana, but who later finds love with Emmet, an oil engineer. Lola's mother and mother-in-law and especially difficult father Fred are well-drawn characters, the latter in particular apt to make this reader suck her teeth in annoyance. The humorous stories, such as the one about the attempt to catch a masturbator in the public library, are very good too. But a few of the others are about such banal life-experiences as difficulties with house-hunting and conception. I picked up a copy of Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, which had been left in the house, and just one brief story - 'The Young Man With the Carnation' - had more to say about life, love, passion and art than Ward's neat accounts of self-involved couples with an obsessive urge to reproduce. Why should we care?

Another book I found lying around was Humphrey Carpenter's classic The Brideshead Generation, which I devoured as the sun set and cruise ships twinkled by. The Evelyn Waugh circle, comprising such eccentric characters as Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, the Lygons and the Mitfords, is something I've long been fascinated by. (D J Taylor's excellent Bright Young People intersects with this book, although his focus is more on the non-writers, the hedonistic, doomed socialites who partied their way into novels like Vile Bodies.) I suppose this must have been an early example of that now-familiar genre, the group biography. Carpenter tells a wonderful tale, though I suppose it's inevitable that the earlier chapters grip the most, when everyone is young, beautiful and fresh and living at Eton or Christchurch. Characters have a tendency to fall away, unnoticed, as the story goes on - surely Waugh was affected by the sudden death at a young age of his friend (and possible candidate for Sebastian Flyte) Hugh Lygon? Carpenter moves off too fast to say. But he was the first to start ploughing this particular field, and the book is fascinating, as are his shrewd comments on Waugh's novels.

Incidentally, I was not far from Egg Rock, which brought to mind the title of the early Sylvia Plath poem, 'Suicide off Egg Rock'. Is it the same one, I wondered? When I came home, I couldn't find my Sylvia Plath biographies or poems; they must have been 'archived' (ie hidden away somewhere). If anyone knows anything about any Maine connections of SP's, it would be interesting to hear.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Benjamin Markovits and Byron

I recently interviewed Ben Markovits for the Independent on Sunday about his new novel, Childish Loves, the final instalment in his Byron trilogy. (The others are Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment.) As always, due to space constraints, a lot of fascinating material doesn't end up in the piece, so I decided to share more of the conversation here.

We met at Blacks Club in Soho, and I had to wait for half an hour for the photographer to do his thing. Ben asked the photographer many questions about his work, especially as a war photographer, and was very charming. When they had finished, we settled in with a couple of beers and began the interview.

I began by asking about the framing device to the novel, where a fictional academic called Peter Sullivan has written the two previous volumes of the trilogy and much of this one. 'Benjamin Markovits' is also a character.

I played pro basketball after college because I thought it might fund my writing and I love basketball and I’d written about the experience in various ways. I’d done some journalism on it and I’d written several drafts of memoirs that I wasn’t happy with.

I wanted something about memoir in the tone of my description of the experience, so it seemed natural to use the false memoir form when I came to write the novel [Playing Days]. And so in a way, Childish Loves grows out of all of that.

I found the device quite destabilising when it comes to reading the passages supposedly by Byron.

Is it? I couldn’t tell whether the games I was playing would reinforce the realism of the Byron narrative or undermine it. Because actually most of the sources say that the thing that Peter wrote is pretty close to what happened. But it undermined it for you?

Little bit, yeah! But not in a bad way. Did the voice come easily?

It’s not truly an academic enterprise. I got into Byron when I was 13 or 14 and I loved reading him and have read him ever since and all through the period of writing this trilogy I’ve read and re-read the letters. I can’t say it came easily… there are a couple of decisions I made. One is not to write the famous burnt memoir, because if you did that it’s sort of a crossword puzzle game. Because we know certain things about the memoir, we know some lines, there are sources we can go to to find out what was in it. It was written at a particular period in his life and would reflect that fact, and the closest you could do was to come up with something that was inferior, obviously.

So what I try to do with Byron’s style is use what was wonderful about that style but put it into a form that he never really used himself, which was the Jane Austen-style, plot-progressive, cumulative novel. He doesn’t do that, right? He tells stories and anecdotes, he goes on riffs, he doesn’t add character to dialogue to event in the way that Austen does. His style is so wonderful and one of the things that attracts me about it is that it’s vivid without being metaphorical. He uses the odd metaphor but basically it’s driven by another source of vividness and that was a lot of fun to get into.

He comes across as quite a nice person...

What’s always strange about it is that on top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that, he could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that’s a very attractive contrast. Somebody who could see quite clearly into the motives of his friends, while at the same time making a huge stink about the fact that he has to come in third at dinner because they haven’t honoured his rank.

I talked to Fiona MacCarthy, and her book [biography] was sold as ‘the gay Byron’ and the book isn’t that. I don’t think she thought he was. He clearly was bisexual and he formed strong attachments to the women in his life and to the men – mostly boys – in his life. If he was gay he was good at forcing it! Also the love of his life seems to have been his sister. I don’t know who you could point to with whom he had a stronger or deeper attachment, and it was clearly sexual.

He asks which Romantic poet I favour and I say I’m a Shelleyan.

Are you an anti-Byron Shelleyan or a pro-Byron Shelleyan?

Pro. Funnily enough, although they’re always linked together, they were not that friendly…

I think for Byron, Shelley wasn’t one of the real intimates. I think they had an intense relationship but in his letters Byron doesn’t usually want to accord Shelley top-buddy status.

I always assumed that Byron liked to think he didn’t value the friendships of letters as much as he valued other kinds of friendships. The people he talks about most warmly were the Scropes and the Hobhouses, people who weren’t in the first instance men of letters, so somewhere in his mind he always relegated Shelley to a writerly friendship, not one of the core.

What do you think about Byron’s work?

The early stuff isn’t great: 'Child Harold'. But 'Don Juan' is a beautiful poem. 'Beppo', actually. I would like Beppo to be taught alongside 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' as one of the great romantic poems. I think it deserves it.

I haven’t read it…

'Beppo' is the one about the Italian woman whose husband is lost at sea. She takes a lover, and then the husband comes back during Carnival and says you’re my wife. And it ends with them all being friends together. It’s about 10 pages and it’s like a mini 'Don Juan'.

One of the things that happens to a writer who had the kind of success that Byron had with Childe Harold is that you’re stuck reproducing it. The difference between the public perception of him and his real self started to worry him, not just as a human being, but as a writer. What was he doing wrong if he was misrepresenting himself in the ways that his earlier work was? And his response to this was 'Beppo'. The claim that he wants to make about himself in his early work, all the Byronic hero stuff, is that the way life works is that something terrible happens to you and you never get over it, and that’s the tragedy of life. And in 'Beppo', he realises that something terrible happens to you, and you get over it and that's the tragedy of life. And once he realises that, he can see his way clear to the masterpieces.

Beppo’s great! He talks about, if you go to Italy in Lent, be sure to bring ketchup. Cos otherwise you’ll get really bored of the food. And if you think that this was being done at the same time Shelley was doing the great but century-less 'Ode to the West Wind', it’s so astonishingly contemporary and fresh, 'Beppo', that it seems a real achievement.

Childish Loves has some affinity with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest – the changing reception over time of a dead poet.

I have read The Stranger’s Child and I know him a little bit - it was funny because the books do have similar themes.

Why does your Faber editor Lee Brackstone have a walk-on part?!

I liked it! How do you feel about that? It seemed funny to me.

This kind of non-fictional fiction allows lots of quiet jokes like that – which are maybe more amusing to the writer than anyone else. You know Lee, but people who don’t probably think I’m making it up. It’s a funny joke that works for the writer and a small circle of readers but for anybody else it doesn’t seem to be a joke at all.

I like the fact in writing this sort of fiction that the pressure on me is to make things more believable in memoir terms rather than make them more believable in fiction terms. The basic premise I have as a writer is that the way things actually happen is generally more interesting than the way I can imagine their happening.

With Playing Days I try to do it, but without winking at the reader at all. I wanted a certain class of reader to just read it as a straight memoir and just assume it was true.

I mention something in the book about being a reviewer and going through people’s backlists and when you do that it’s depressing to see the same house coming up again and again [in their fiction]. The country house, and the relation with the husband, and the mother who acts a certain way, and all these figures who reappear in book after book. And is that the thing that actually happened? Is that the bedrock of true material from which they have made all the fiction and if so, should I be more interested in the true material than the stuff that they’ve imagined? And part of me thinks, yeah, I should be. If someone can tell me what their life is really like, that should be more interesting to me than if someone can make something up about it.

When you ask about this, though, most novelists protest ‘But they’re fictional characters…’

Writers want to say that, don’t they? I’m perfectly happy to answer, if someone wants to know how much is true. It seems a reasonable thing for a reader to ask. Even though I think most writers want to pretend it’s the worst question in the world.

The me-character spends his whole time trying to work out what’s true from Peter Sullivan, so I’ve done it myself. I went to do a reading from A Quiet Adjustment when we were living in Boston. It was a passage about Byron’s relationship with Augusta and someone said to me afterwards, ‘If I’d known he’d slept with his sister I wouldn’t have come,’ ie, I was interested in Byron but when I found out he was such a naughty man…!

A Quiet Adjustment is an Austenian novel with Byron in it…

I think that’s exactly right and that’s part of what I intended. And actually what happens when my character Annabella Milbanke faces up to a whole different world of sexual reality.

Annabella would actually work quite well as an Austenian character and would be rewarded in an Austen novel, whereas in the real world…

She gets screwed in the ass by Byron! And comes to terms with it.

I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. So we might be certain that Byron’s sexual profligacy is a bad thing: too many people, too great an age difference. On the other hand, Peter Sullivan’s response which is almost entire repression doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude towards the business either. And so one of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame in different ways sex acts that we weren’t quite comfortable with.

I think the Edleston [a choirboy Byron met at Cambridge] relationship is really affecting, especially if he didn’t sleep with him. If the limit of their intimacy continually approached the sexual relationship but never actually achieved it, why not?

The other thing that’s confusing is the Romantics romanticised male friendship too, even when we wouldn’t call it sexually driven. The line between what Byron had with Hobhouse, with whom he had a very intimate friendship, and with Edleston isn’t totally clear, although H clearly disapproved of his friendship with E. I have a lot of sympathy for Byron and I hope this is the most sympathetic of the three books towards Byron. That was my intention.

We talk a bit more about Byron versus Shelley.

There are times when it’s hard to tell which of them was the bigger shit, Shelley or Byron. I like this quote from Shelley in which he complains that Byron bargains with Italian peasants for their daughters, which clearly seems to us to be a bad thing to do, except that Shelley’s complaint is that ‘they stink so of garlic that no ordinary Englishman can approach them’. Who’s playing the aristocrat now?

Maybe I should have made more of Shelley. He really appears more in Imposture, but it’s hard enough doing Byron without tackling...!

The trouble with writing great people is that one of the things that makes them great is they’re smarter than you. And that was enough of a challenge with Byron, so I kind of leave [Shelley] for dead before he appears in Childish Loves.

They wrote so much – I never write a letter any more. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you haven’t got a TV. They didn’t waste their brains on Twitter.

I remember hearing that the students in Tiananmen Square were reading Byron and Shelley. I was 14 or something. Not just Shelley the revolutionary, but Byron as well. But a lot of interest is in the life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Literary Pilgrimage

The Wordsworth Trust is one of my favourite literary museums and when I heard of their latest exhibition, Shelley's Ghost, I had to make the trip. I read some of Shelley's poems aloud recently, at Arthur House's excellent poetry night at Blacks Club in Soho. I had always planned to read from 'The Mask of Anarchy' and some of the scathing political poems, but given that the previous night had seen some of the worst rioting seen in London for decades, Shelley's incendiary verse could not have seemed more powerful and contemporary.

Quite by accident, my trip coincided with a poetry reading by Fiona Sampson and Carola Luther in the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere. Luther was reading from her newly published Carcanet collection, Arguing with Malarchy (pronounced malarky, rather than malachi, she explained).

'This feels like a big gig,' she said charmingly. Growing up in South Africa, she read Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome as well as Wordsworth, so had a sense of 'greenness and daffodils inside, despite living somewhere with aloes and dust and repression'. Her work shows a deep awareness of the animal and physical world. One Wordsworthian poem, 'The Lamb', was written in the Lake District.

She warned us that 'Julia's Party' was 'mournful', a poem about an old lady who collapses at a gathering, 'folding up / like a deckchair, kicked /right there against the yellow doors'. A summery poem about bees, 'sunlit busbies stuffed with sleep', fitted the beautiful weather outside. Her chicken poems go some way to explaining the hideous (at least to me) cover photograph of a cockerel's eye in close up (it's her cockerel). Earlier work was more closely linked to her African self, but frequently she seemed puzzled by her own poems, as if not quite sure of their source.

The energy level kicked up when Fiona Sampson took the stage, a crisp, musical poet with great presence. She apologised for her bad cough, but it just made her voice even more husky and expressive. Sampson edits Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society (ructions continue over its future direction). 'One of the joys of the day job is the hate mail,' she said wryly, clearly feeling the strain, and went on to read a poem entitled 'Death Threat'. Other poems told of a miraculously bleeding yew, Crick and DNA ('The Code') and she read a lovely piece for her brother, 'The Corn Sermon'.

The next morning, I turned up for Sampson's lecture on Shelley at the Wordsworth Trust. She has just compiled an anthology of his verse for Faber. Interestingly, she got the commission before she was even interested in him. 'I'm no Romanticist,' she announced. Her observations were all the more thought-provoking for not coming from an avowed fan. I was particularly struck with her notion that as he was not widely published during his lifetime he was essentially 'talking to himself'. The poems are 'not quite clear as a bell', she said ruefully, but she found herself moving far away from her initial feeling that he was 'windy and wordy'. Living conscienciously was his goal; 'he was not the victim of destiny,' she maintained.

She read from 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' and 'Queen Mab', also the sonnet 'England in 1819', and 'Ode to the West Wind', giving thrilling emphasis to the music and virtuosity. Strangely, she rather mucked up the lines about free love from 'Epipsychidion' ('I never was a part of that great sect...') by reading them in a comedy voice. She claimed they were 'unintentionally funny' and wondered why we weren't laughing. Whether or not you believe, as she does, that the sentiments represent outrageous special pleading, the poetry is spellbinding. Form and content are not so easily separated; it seems a strange point for a poet to miss.

The Trust's permanent Wordsworth exhibition is gloriously retro, telling the story of the older generation of Romantics via gloomy oil portraits and watercolour landscapes, cases full of manuscripts with long explicatory panels and reams of poetry. No buttons to press, few videos, no actors hamming it up as Dorothy or Coleridge. It's quite refreshing. Mervyn Peake's drawings for 'The Ancient Mariner' are a particular highlight.

'Shelley's Ghost' is quite a small exhibition, but a wonderful one. For a start, the great portraits of Godwin, Mary Shelley, Shelley and Wollstonecraft from the National Gallery are there, but are hung much lower, so that you can actually look Shelley in the eye. It is not a particularly adept portrait; unlike Byron, whose many likenesses were mostly taken by skilled artists, Shelley sat to an amateurish friend in Rome, Amelia Curran. The mouth is weak, the hand is pudgy, but the eyes are clear and it's eerie to look into them. Bad painting it may be, but there is a definite family resemblance to the lovely portrait of his sisters Margaret and Hellen, also on display.

The exhibition shows the relics of a literary family, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft's heartbreaking note to Godwin, dated 30 August 1797: 'I have no doubt of seeing the animal today...' The 'animal' was her unborn baby (non-nonsense enlightenment rationality speaking there). Mary demands a diverting novel to while away the hours before labour begins in earnest. Of course, she was to die a few days after the birth of Mary Shelley.

There is a page from the manuscript of Frankenstein, with heavy corrections from Shelley. It has always been disputed how much he contributed to the novel. The notebooks are particularly fascinating, showing just how hard Mary Shelley had to work to complete the posthumous Complete Poems. Ideas, lines and images fly in all directions, and when inspiration failed, Shelley made charming doodles of trees, flowers and boats. I loved the small notebook, still with its original bookshop sticker, bought in Paris after their elopement, in which they scribbled a shared travel journal.

I was sorry not to see Jane Williams' guitar, bought by Shelley and presented to her with the manuscript of 'With a Guitar, To Jane'. But there is plenty here for the enthusiast to ponder: a fragile and very rare banner from Peterloo; a sensitive portrait of Edward Williams, who drowned with Shelley; a water-damaged copy of Sophocles which was probably salvaged from the wreck; and Shelley's last letter to Mary, the last line of which I've always found haunting: 'I have found the translation of the Symposium.' 'Our great poet of rapture', in Sampson's phrase, was in full intellectual spate when he was silenced forever.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Funny Games

The story of the 'Silent Twins' fascinated me as soon as I came across it, probably through one of the Sunday Times pieces on the topic by journalist Marjorie Wallace. Her luxuriously long and detailed accounts were expanded into her first book on the twins. Their unresolved story continued, and a new updated version of her book, The Silent Twins, has just been published by Vintage (£6.99). The tale has not lost its capacity to shock.

June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins, were born into a black family in Wales in the early 1960s. Although clearly highly intelligent, from the age of three they refused to talk to their parents, older siblings, or anyone else. A younger sister came along, Rosie, who was the only person they would condescend to communicate with - for a time. They spoke to each other in what sounded like a made-up language. Rejected by, and rejecting the outside world, by the age of 16 they were living on benefits, spending most of the day cooped up in the bedroom and writing obsessively. They wouldn't eat with the family, or share their rich fantasy life.

When puberty struck with a vengeance, they began to leave their safe haven more and more frequently, to pursue boys, or rather stalk them. They fell in with a tough crew of brothers who introduced them to sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeing themselves as special, determined to make the world notice them, they embarked on a crime spree of theft and arson. (Before reading this book, I hadn't realised how serious their crimes were - they weren't mucking about.) The court case made headliines all over Britain. Still teenagers, and immature at that, they were deemed to be psychopaths and given a 12-year sentence to be served at Broadmoor. With this they lost all dignity and privacy; it's truly painful to read their diary accounts of, for example, their sexual experiences, frustrations and longings.

The great value and interest of Wallace's book lies in showing what happens after a court case and sentencing, after the public forgets the story. The twins weren't prepared for Broadmoor nor it for them. They had been left to their own devices by their parents, and by teachers, who all assumed they would 'grow out of it'. Psychiatric professionals were no more enlightened. Wallace followed the case and befriended these two weird girls.

Mining their diaries for clues, Wallace looked for explanations. What began as a childish game very quickly got out of hand. June writes about being in the grip of her sister's dominance, longing to connect with her family, feeling the world passing her by, but all the time unable to raise or eyes or speak until given the 'secret signal' by her twin. Obsessively they wrote in their diaries about their mutual dependence, love and hate.

The very few pictures of them showing any emotion show them to have been attractive little girls, but in most pictures they seem sulky, surly, deliberately obstructive. A telling family photograph is reproduced in the book, showing their elder sister's wedding. It's a conventional line-up of bride, groom, and bride's family, but to the right of the group is a strange sight: two identically dressed and posed young girls, chubby-faced, eyes downcast, hands hanging strangely in front of their thighs. For the whole of the celebrations they apparently stood stiffly like this, refusing to acknowledge anyone.

What always fascinated me most about them was their aspiration to be published novelists. June wrote and self-published 'Pepsi-Cola Addict', and Jennifer wrote 'Discomania', 'The Pugilist' and 'Taxi-Driver's Son' (if nothing else, they had a great knack for titles). But how, I wondered, could you possibly cut yourself off from the world and other people, and expect to write novels - that most generous and humanist of art-forms? You could work on mathematical formulae, write music, paint or solve chess problems; but surely not write publishable novels. They had imagination, a certain self-insight and superlative verbal skills. But could that be enough?

The Brontes are most often invoked in the case of the Silent Twins, as a group of lonely sibliings who were similarly absorbed in their private fantasy worlds. But there's no real analogy. Most biographers have now refuted the notion that Haworth was a dreary backwater and the Bronte children were devoid of intellectual and societal stimulus. And they were anything but silent. Wallace remains convinced that the girls were geniuses.

As to how the whole tragic story plays out, I'll leave it to you to read the book. It's thoroughly gripping and has been endorsed by Oliver Sacks. You only wish that Supernanny had been around when they were three years old. If their funny games had been nipped in the bud, the outcome might have been very different.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ears pricked up

It's been pointed out before that Joe Orton was the Christopher Marlowe of 20th century theatre: prodigiously talented, scathing of contemporary mores, homosexual and murdered at a young age: Orton bludgeoned by his lover, Marlowe stabbed by those he counted friends. I've loved Orton's brief oeuvre for a long time; I even  went on pilgrimage to Noel Road to see the house where he was killed in August 1967. His published diaries are very funny, charting his blithe course through theatrical and celebrity London of the '60s. They gain a shocking resonance from his killer's suicide note. If you read the diaries, he scrawled, you will understand. 'PS. Especially the latter part.'

John Lahr wrote an excellent biography using one of Orton's spare titles, 'Prick Up Your Ears' (just move that 'e'...), which was filmed with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. As a student I performed in Cock-Ups, a rather brilliant play about Orton's life and death in which a succession of his strangest characters turn up at Noel Road to 'solve' his murder. In true Orton style, one of the props is a huge dildo, seriously considered to be the murder weapon by an incompetent sleuth.

Most of our budget went on this eye-watering device, which disappeared after opening night, never to be seen again. Nothing as impressive could be sourced at short notice from the local sex shops, but we used the incident to promote the rest of the run, writing 'Who Stole the Cock out of Cock-Ups?' in big letters on the blackboards outside the student union. (In those days, we didn't have Twitter or Facebook - just chalk.)

So it was with keen excitement that I went to see a double-bill of Orton's shorts, The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, at Greenwich Playhouse. From its opening exchange between a woman and a man who is 'meeting a man in the toilets at Kings Cross' to its final bathos over a dead body (the police will understand, says thuggish Mike; 'They have wives and goldfish of their own'), Ruffian is a skilful three-hander, exploiting to the full the dynamic whereby each character shows a different facet according to who they're with. Jack Brackstone-Brown was a superbly lithe Wilson, the boy who confronts a weird London couple, Joyce and Mike. Great face-acting from Rebecca Hands-Wicks, registering every little twinge of Joyce's anxiety, hope and missing self-esteem. As ever, Orton's misogyny is marked, but it must be fitted into the wider pattern of his misanthropy. Paul Robison captured Mike's stolid unpleasantness, but perhaps not quite his interest in the deranged but attractive Wilson. Also, Robison and Hands-Wicks are too young to convey the almost parental tenderness which must sit alongside the sexual tension. (Orton was to go on to refine the formula in Entertaining Mr Sloane.)

With the cleverness of the working-class boy with a Penguin Classic, not of the public-school privilege Orton hated, The Erpingham Camp is mockingly based on The Bacchae. Thus Euripides' tragic King Pentheus is reduced to the pompous owner of a holiday camp, and Dionysus himself to the loutish camper Kenny (this is wittily signalled by his adoption of a leopard-print wrap during a facetious talent competition).

The holiday camp vacation on which the play is based used to be a more central feature of British life, well before the advent of cheap flights and Britain's Got Talent. Now it's merely camp, but the satiric force of Orton's subversive play is undiminished. It's easier nowadays to see this as a straightforwardly political play, with food riots and crackdowns by authority, played for laughs.

The seedy Padre (Christopher Prior, marvellous) and the incompetently scheming Chief Redcoat Riley (Danny Wainwright, funny and endearing), together with Erpingham (Barry Clarke), represent the forces of order (is it too much to see Riley's ukulele as Apollo's lyre in this diminished classical context?). Meanwhile prim couple Ted and Lou, with capering Kenny (Ross Finbow) and his simpering wife Eileen ('I'm expecting!'), lead the forces of anarchy. Clarke gave the Hitler-moustached Erpingham a certain pathos; he's rather like Captain Mainwaring, obnoxious but pitable. Orton was fascinated by female sexual power, probably because he didn't understand it, and Rachel Waring as seductive Redcoat Jessie embodied his writerly fantasies with a cool poise.

I didn't think it would be possible to express an entire holiday camp on a stage as small as that of the Playhouse but director Maria Chiorando and her set designer Lucy Rushbrook have done an excellent job. I'm afraid the runs ends today, so I've left this a bit late, but it just goes to show that however fashionable and of his moment Orton undoubtedly was, his savage comic brilliance and the crisp snap of his wit still have the power to enthrall.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Farewell, Bookdog

Bookdog's adventures were formerly catalogued in Scarlett Thomas's entertaining Bookgirl blog; she also appeared as a character in Scarlett's novel Our Tragic Universe, so her literary credentials were impeccable. I knew that Bookdog was ill but hoped to see her one last time. It wasn't to be.

My first impression of her was aural: howls and piteous wails as she attempted to scrabble her way right through a door. A small, black rescue dog, she had abandonment issues and greeted returning owners and new friends with equal hysteria. The performance would continue with several minutes of salmon-like leaping and balletic pirouettes, expressive of joy and reproach. I have no idea what mixture of breeds she was; but her personality was much bigger than her person.

There was a game she devised, quite a complicated and ritualistic game that involved throwing a tennis ball up the stairs, while she waited at the top in the classic yoga 'downward dog' position. Bounce, trajectory, placement and speed were strictly regulated, and she would wait with steadfast patience for the dim-witted human player to grasp the rules. It was not possible to outlast her enthusiasm for such simple pleasures. Like all dogs, she had a lot to teach restless, unsatisfied human beings. Living in the moment, she was always happy to see what the day would bring, excited to see you arrive and yet unregretful to see you depart.

In Our Tragic Universe, 'B' has an appetite for literature - literally. 'I opened the door to find B waiting for me, with bits of shredded book-proof everywhere,' says Meg, the writer-narrator. 'B loved books, but particularly proofs, with their cheap, shiny paper, even more than she loved the filled bones they sold in the market on Saturday.' All that is left unshredded is the press release: 'Apparently, what B had eaten this time was "Futuristic noir for a post-MTV, post-Cyberpunk generation".'

Later in the novel, Meg flees with all her belongings, which fit into 'three cardboard boxes and one big suitcase. B had a little box of her own, containing her blanket, three tennis balls in various states of existence, her rubber ball, two half-chewed pieces of rawhide, her bag of dog biscuits and the two tins of food that were left in the cupboard.' Our last glimpse of her is curled up contentedly before the fire. What's key is that B is simply herself, not a symbol or device. Also, fictional dogs frequently die, Scarlett noted, and she was determined that wasn't going to happen to B.

What other great literary hounds are there? Iris Murdoch was good on dogs, I seem to recall. Enid Blyton's rather bland Timmy is other only other one I can think of, but there must be many more...

I like to think of Bookdog in dog-heaven with a small cargo of tennis balls. In any case, she will live on; we can make her come to tail-wagging life again, just by reading Our Tragic Universe.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Man Booker Longlist - some thoughts

I was asked recently to come up with my own longlist for the Man Booker prize and then jauntily told I'd be 'scored' on my predictions. Of course I wasn't trying to predict anything - how could I, when I've only read a fraction of the reported 154 submissions? I read about 60 novels a year and frankly that's quite enough. My list was just that - my own favourite 13.

As it happens, though, my score was low. Only Alan Hollinghurst and - a dark horse this - D J Taylor's Derby Day were on both lists. My first feeling upon looking at the real Man Booker longlist was bafflement. Who on earth were all these people? I hadn't heard of half of them. In a sense, Man Booker judges can never get it right. Too many established names and they're playing safe, not enough and they look wilfully out of touch.

Then I started looking at who was left off, and my bafflement increased. Justin Cartwright has bad luck with the Booker and Other People's Money sadly didn't buck the trend. But it took several reads of the list to realise that the unthinkable had happened. Yes, they really had overlooked Edward St Aubyn's At Last, the novel around which a steady buzz has been growing ever since publication a few months ago to rapturous reviews. Andrew Miller's Pure is another notable omission. There's no Ali Smith, John Burnside, Philip Hensher, Helen Oyeyemi, Amitav Ghosh...

My first Tweeted responses to the list (I was still in shock) were met with a few how-can-you-criticise-before-you've-read-them-all comments. Well, for one thing, the Man Booker longlist is published in order to boost sales and create word of mouth. While it might be nice if there were a three-week comment moritorium while we diligently work our way through all 13 titles, meanwhile, back in the real world... And obviously it's legitimate to comment on books that we have read, found brilliant, and which we feel have been mysteriously snubbed.

One publisher's loss is another publisher's gain, of course, and I tip my hat to Seren, Oneworld and Serpent's Tail who no doubt richly deserve their placing. It's hard to talk about omissions without offending people who are on the list, which is not my intention. I look forward to reading the longlisted titles. 

On further inspection the list comes into focus and there are some intriguing inclusions. I hadn't read Sebastian Barry's novel (will now) but he is hugely gifted, and I had also overlooked the Julian Barnes, which I've been told is superb. I'd already earmarked Pigeon English to read: it's gone to the top of the pile. Carol Birch is sadly underrated and Jamrach's Menagerie sounds wonderful. Jane Rogers is also a safe pair of hands (interesting to see she's now with a small publisher, Sandstone Press). Snowdrops created a buzz on publication. It's also good to see the strong Canadian presence.

It's been noted that there are four debuts on the list, and books from several independent publishers, who god knows, need a boost. I'm sure the judges are aware that the Man Booker is not a best first novel prize, or a prize for plucky independents, or a Fairy Godmother, 'with one tap of the wand I can make you famous' prize. It is for literary quality, and only literary quality. With that in mind, if all the longlisted books are as good as At Last we are in for a glorious booky summer.

Here's my own list of thirteen:

The Death of Eli Gold by David Baddiel
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright
The Blue Book by A L Kennedy
Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Childish Loves by Ben Markovits
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Pure by Andrew Miller
There but for the by Ali Smith
At Last by Edward St Aubyn
The Knife Drawer by Padrika Tarrant
Derby Day by D J Taylor

It's open to the accusation that they are mostly established names, but then they're established for a reason. Of course it reflects my own reading, making this a neatly circular exercise: these are the sort of books I pick out, and therefore, I like them... The benefit of judging any prize is the way it takes you out of your literary comfort zone - the only way we find new stuff, after all.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list. And if I were to come up with a shortlist, St Aubyn, Bainbridge (provided the deceased are eligible) and Miller would be on it: three concise and contrasting pieces of artistry that represent the very best of British fiction.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harrogate times two - and not a happy Betty

On July 2 I went up to Harrogate to interview the bestselling authors Douglas Kennedy and Sadie Jones as part of the Summer Festival. It was the first of two visits to this beautiful and elegant former spa town.

Both their novels deal with the breakdown in trust between partners under the pressure of dire historical predicaments. The Moment is set in grim East Berlin before the wall fell, Small Wars tells of a military marriage in '50s Cyprus against a backdrop of guerilla warfare and brutal reprisals. Alhough the books are very different in tone, it was an apt pairing and both were on terrific form. Afterwards Douglas and I repaired to the prosaically named Restaurant Bar and Grill for cocktails and supper. The barman's Negronis got the thumbs up from Douglas, a very discerning fellow.

The next day I had to return to London to interview Michael Cunningham in the Purcell Room at 4pm. The gods were against me; vandalism on the line meant all trains to London from Leeds were cancelled. A saintly man at Harrogate station reorganised my train times. 'I'm on stage at the South Bank in front of hundreds of people!' I said, self-importantly. 'Are you a comedian?' he asked, which made me laugh.

I made it to the green room with ten minutes to spare. Fortunately Michael Cunningham is supremely laid back and it was a relaxed hour's conversation, during which he revealed that he is a secret silversmith and sells his wares under a pseudonym at Barneys in New York. Which has to be one of the weirdest things an author has ever told me.

His new novel By Nightfall is a terrific piece of work, a graceful story of love and betrayal with the heft of a book twice its size. What's brilliant is the way he sketches a whole life with the economy of a short-story writer. The story, which lightly echoes Death in Venice, is set against the backdrop of the New York art scene, about which he talked fascinatingly.

Later that week I went to Liverpool to interview Libyan novelist Hisham Matar about his new book Anatomy of a Disappearance, which I think is even stronger than his debut, In the Country of Men. Part of the Bluecoat's Arab festival, it was a mesmerising event as Matar talked unselfpityingly about his own tragic family background and his hopes and fears for Libya and the Arab Spring. The next night it was back to London for Alan Hollinghurst at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Alan is quite intimidating, but also witty and thoughtful. The highlight was his excellent reading, bringing out to the full the sly humour of The Stranger's Child. I made a light-hearted suggestion that the book's sections would still make sense if read in reverse order. This seemed to perplex him, though I meant it as a compliment. I thought it was a brilliant trick he must have deliberately planned. It seems not.

Last Monday (11th) I chaired a quiet, intimate event with the lovely Helen Oyeyemi, who was reading from and talking about her latest, Mr Fox. First she read out the dark fairy tale of the same name, about a young woman who outwits a dastardly murderer: 'Be bold, be bold, but not too bold...' Mr Fox the woman-killer crops up in all cultures, she pointed out, sometimes in unsuspected guises - I hadn't spotted that Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a variant of the story. I could have happily discussed fairy tales with Oyeyemi all night.

And so, back to Harrogate again to interview Laurie Graham and Wendy Holden about At Sea and Marrying Up respectively. The discussion ranged widely from why we're all fed up of Pippa Middleton, the joy of writing about wicked characters, feminism with large and small fs, Carmen Callil (who discovered Graham) and comic influences. It was great fun.

We decided to celebrate afterwards by going to the famous Betty's Tea Shop. I went to the one in York years ago, and remembered its atmosphere of elegant indulgence. I even remember what I ate: a unusual confection of cream, pastry, black cherry and cinnamon. Things have changed a little, it seems.

We may have been a bit annoying. We were directed to a side room we didn't fancy, so remained hovering in the main tea room. Directed to another table, we suddenly saw that a prime table by the window was being vacated, so swiftly nabbed that instead. Maybe this caused offence. We sat there... and sat there... then when we asked if we could order, a young woman dressed as a waitress informed us that it wasn't waitress service. You have to go to the counter and pay in advance. 'It's a bit like Russia,' Wendy muttered.

Finally, our goodies arrived. I have no complaints about the plate of zingy, chewy macaroons that Wendy and I shared, nor about the exquisite rose-scented China tea that accompanied them. But the service was so joyless. On leaving I caught the eye of two waitresses, both of whom looked stonily back at me. Weird.

My visit to Harrogate was rounded off in fine style, however, with a visit to the Mercer Art Gallery to see an exhibition by Yorkshire's answer to Caspar David Friedrich, Atkinson Grimshaw. His enigmatic moonlit scenes of Victorian docks, rain-wet city streets, autumnal gardens, lonely brick mansions and leafy suburban lanes (often with hurrying female figure in the distance), are familiar from many a Penguin Classic jacket. The exhibition traces the development of this most mysterious and apparently self-taught artist, from early pre-Raphaelite-influenced landscapes and nature studies to experiments with light and mood, often based on photographs; then on to tender female portraits and clear attempts to ride the Aesthetic wave with Whistler-esque Thames scenes and fashionable interiors. Many of the paintings are in private hands, loaned to the exhibition, so this really is a must-see. It's Grimshaw up north!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Nothing of him that doth fade...

On July 8 1822 the 29-year-old Shelley set off from Livorno with his friend Edward Williams, and their boat boy Charles Vivian, to return home to Lerici. The boat, Shelley's pride and joy, turned out to be badly designed and they did not survive the storm that overtook them on the way. Here are ten fantastic books that explain why he is still a living force 189 years later.

1. Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial)

Not just a great biography of Shelley but a landmark in the history of biography, rescuing its subject both from the sickly sentimentality of the Victorian era that succeeded him, and the rubbishing of F R Leavis. This showed a rash and ruthless, even a sexy Shelley, who combined the glamour of Byron with the sensitivity of Keats. A young man writing about a young man, it is a poignant account; not so much a Life, as Holmes claimed, as a haunting.

2. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography by James Bieri (Johns Hopkins)

Wonderful as Holmes's biography is, Bieri's crisp and authoritative take, published in 2004, brings the best of modern scholarship to bear on this brief but hectic life. Bieri fills out the detail, sees certain elements from a refreshing new angle and includes new information to intrigue the enthusiast. Not as sweepingly Romantic as the Holmes but worthy to sit beside it on the shelf.

3. Red Shelley by Paul Foot (Bookmarks)

The Victorians tended to ignore Shelley's passionate radicalism, vegetarianism and feminism in favour of his swooning love poetry. The unforgettable Paul Foot here makes a spirited case for the revolutionary poet as socialist figurehead. Excellent, tub-thumping stuff, right down to the great title and iconic cover with red star and dishevelled poet seemingly heading a mob march.

4. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed Roger Ingpen, 2 vols

These are rare; I had to haunt Hay-on-Wye for years before finding copies (pre-internet). Fresh and unmediated, here's the unadulterated voice, from the cheeky 11-year-old who signs off, 'Now I end. I am not / Your obedient servant, / P. B. Shelley' to the almost unbearably poignant last letters of a man still in the thick of things and full of literary plans. The letters describing his travels in Italy are superb, as are the ones charting the always difficult relationship with Byron. When writing about his own work he is modest, fateful, almost sad. There are no great theories of poetry a la Keats, no 'I think I will be among the English poets at my death' - and all the better for that, in my view. Give me Shelley describing a night in Venice with Byron over Keats chirupping about sparrows in Hampstead any day.

5. Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself by Ann Wroe (Cape)

A thoroughly original and brilliant book examining the rich textures of the poet's work and linking them to the life in fresh and surprising ways. Few scholars make such ingenious connections, or demonstrate so well how clever he was, how well-read in Greek and Roman classics, in French political theory, in history and Italian poetry (he remains one of the finest translators of Dante). A giddily exciting intellectual odyssey.

6. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family by William St Clair (Faber)

Another biography, but with a clever twist - St Clair shows how the story of Shelley and Mary didn't begin with them, but with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. St Clair shows how the younger generation consciously took up the baton of the dead author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (however, their relationship with the very living Godwin was a source of constant strife). The scholarly St Clair is not above having a little mischief at the expense of the youthful pair, but he also writes movingly about the failures and tragedies that dogged this supremely gifted family.

7. Shelley's Boat by Julian Roach (Harbour Press)

The story of Shelley's last days, a mixture of eerie foreshadowing and sheer bad luck, superlatively told. Shelley was obsessed with the sea, boats and water, and at many times in his writing he seems to be foreseeing his own death. In one of his last letters to his adored Jane, Edward's wife, he wrote hauntingly: 'How are you today and how is Williams? Tell him that I dreamed of nothing but sailing, and fishing up coral.' But was his death inevitable? Tracing the events that led up to the tragedy, Roach's elegant detective work grips.

8. The Strange Death of a Romantic by Jim Williams (Scribner)

Shelley's life has inspired numerous novels, few as ingenious as this one, which slyly purports to answer the question: 'Who murdered Percy Shelley?' A century after the drowning, a young doctor comes to the coast where Shelley lived, where a group of languid expats drink, flirt, and play literary games, writing witty pastiches that suggest solutions to the mystery. But then, of course, there's a real murder... A clever thriller, well worth tracking down.

9. Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (Oxford)

Shelley's (possible) lover and Mary's step-sister is a fascinating and tragic character in her own right, living on til 1879, long after her fellow adventurers were dead. The attempts of the Shelley scholar, Edward Silsbee, to extract her cache of Shelley letters, was transmuted by Henry James into his novella 'The Aspern Papers'. Here Shelley's Constantia takes centre stage, but remains ever enigmatic: 'In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie, / even though the sounds which were they voice, which burn / Between thy lips are laid to sleep... / Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet, / Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!'

10. Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle by Janet Todd (Profile)

Just so it's not all cheerleading, here's the scholar Janet Todd ripping into Shelley as a heartless manipulator of vulnerable women. Todd takes as evidence the sad life of Mary Wollstonecraft's first child, Fanny Imlay, born in Paris during the French Revolution and written about with such joy and pride in Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden, a key Romantic text. Mary Shelley's half-sister was just not glamorous enough for the philandering poet she adored. Todd overstates her case in a screechy, indignant book, but it is never less than gripping, even when you want to throw it at the wall.

RIP Shelley.
'Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange'.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The F***ing Famous Five

I have been reviewing YA (young adult) fiction for about six months now for the Financial Times. One of the main differences between YA fiction and adult fiction is the attitude to bad language. The YA convention is to avoid it where possible, though it can be alluded to: 'Dad dropped the teapot and said a bad word,' in younger teen novels, for example.

It can go a bit further. Here's the protagonist of Paige Harbison's excellent new novel about a female bully's rehabilitation, Here Lies Bridget (Mira Ink).  She's sitting in the school loos, reading the inscriptions on the inside of the cubicle:

'My heart sank as I read. I was a slut, I was a bitch, I was a spoiled brat and I was a lot of other things. I gasped audibly when I saw that someone even called me a c*** [asterisked in book], a word I had completely banned from my vocabulary...'

So far so good. But Lex by James Mylet (Quercus) takes it to the limit. The eponymous protagonist is 17, living in a small town in Ireland and running a pirate radio station from his bedroom in between school commitments. The book is fresh, it's funny, and it contains abundant four-letter words, all of which are justified by the subject. Lex would swear like this, just like any other 17-year-old.

To me, it's primarily a book about adolescence for adults rather than teen fiction per se, but such is Lex's wonderfully funny voice that it would certainly be enjoyed by someone of the hero's own age or a bit younger. Especially winning is his philosophy of life, expounded throughout the book. 'To be interesting and keep being interesting and keep being interested, that is the pinnacle, that's the ultimate goal of man, not to climb a fucking mountain or score a fucking goal,' is a typical pronouncement. He's also very sound on Bono: 'He's Ireland's most famous person globally and he's a total knob.' (U2 are 'shite'.)

I contacted the publishers about the issue, only to receive an airy comment that teenagers are not likely to be offended by bad language these days. No doubt. I still think it's appropriate to mention in a review if a YA novel contains more than a modicum of cursing, for the parents' sake if nothing else. Books don't have to mimic the real world in every detail. In any case, the most burgeoning genre in YA is fantasy, which generally avoids the issue entirely (fairies don't say 'fuck').

Certain words are starting to creep in now: 'piss off' is pretty standard, 'fuck off' can appear maybe once per book for the older age range. But to be honest, I have rather enjoyed roaming this largely F-free zone. Something would definitely be lost if YA novels routinely employed the sort of language you hear down the high street.

I'd be very interested to hear other peoples' views on this, especially parents of teenagers. It's possible I'm entirely out of touch on the subject of bad language - but just consider the writers we love who elegantly expressed all aspects of human emotion without recourse to it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons, which shows a woman in a bonnet facing two gentlemen across a desk. 'It's very good, Miss Austen,' says one, 'but all the effing and blinding will have to go.'

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who needs Downton Abbey?

Thursday 9 June

Off to the 8th Althorp Literary Festival in Northamptonshire. This is my fourth year. It will be hard work: I have 11 events to chair over three days, starting tomorrow morning.

Arrive to find that it's just me and the Antonius Players, who are rehearsing next door while I sip sherry in a magnificent sitting room filled with oil paintings of rectangular cattle. After the introductions we have dinner and return for coffee and liqueurs and much hilarious theatrical and musical gossip. The six of us file off to our bedrooms. Mine seems miles away from everyone else's; I briefly feel unnerved, marooned in a house set in a park the size of Monaco (as Charles Spencer puts it in his book Althorp: The Story of an English House). The stable clock chimes. I fall asleep.

Friday 10 June

Breakfast with the Antonius Players in the Tapestry Passage, then a quick walk to the lake before the day's visitors arrive. It's deserted, apart from a friendly gardener edging the path, and an indignant flurry of ducks. Bliss.

To work. This year the Green Room is the library, a sumptuous room painted in 13 shades of cream to maximise the light. Through the large windows, rolling parkland, dotted with mature trees, stretches to the horizon; early that morning, when I peeped out through my shutters, a herd of deer appeared like a benediction.

First gig: the wonderfully energetic Evan Davis, talking about his book Made in Britain. A very entertaining hour; Davis is not afraid to tussle with the audience on the subject of Thatcher, immigration and unemployment.

There's a half hour break and I'm back in the marquee, interviewing our host Charles Spencer on the topic 'Althorp: A personal view'. And personal is what we get, with funny anecdotes about stepmother Raine, and touching portraits of his father and grandfather, not to mention favourite members of staff, including the housekeeper who used to descend into the cellars with a poker to do battle with the rats. (I wonder briefly whether he's ever uttered the phrase: 'You can't get the staff.')

After lunch I introduce a very entertaining lecture by Professor Gordon Campbell on Bible: The Story of the King James Version. I point out that the house we're in is actually 100 years older than the KJV. In the evening there's a grand old lit fest tradition: supper outside on the Portico, whatever the weather. Old hands like myself know to bring a warm shawl; others position themselves under the heaters. It's worth it for the stunning view of the park; but as night falls we're glad to return to the warmth of the library and its open fires. Yes. Open fires in June...

Saturday 11 June

Phew. A whirl of events today. Start off with the regular morning walk: encounter Rachel Johnson and her adorable dog, Coco, by the lake and walk back with them. Over breakfast am amused to read Blake Morrison's piece on country house fiction.

First up is Henry Worsley's tale of Antarctic derring-do, In Shackleton's Footsteps; and a fascinating one-on-one with David Baddiel, whose excellent fourth novel The Death of Eli Gold, tackles the life and troubled legacy of a Roth-Bellow-Updikean Grand Old Man of American literature. Baddiel politely dissents from my view that, his work aside, the phenomenon of Comedian-Writes-Novel is on the whole to be deplored.

In the marquee, Craig Brown's mirthful One-Stop Literary Festival takes no prisoners. Compiled from his spoof celebrity diaries in Private Eye, it takes in W G Sebald, Jeanette Winterson, D H Lawrence, Anthony Powell and many more. He continually toys with one of his recent victims, Kay Burley, who is in the audience. Finally she stands up, delivers a spirited plug for her book and ends ringingly, 'I'm on at 5pm in the house, not in a tent.' Thus encouraged, Brown reads his Burley spoof, which is brilliant - but she gets a round of applause too, for being such a good sport.

The last event is a brief introduction for Peter Snow's To War With Wellington, a thrilling worm's-eye-view of the Peninsular Campaign told via diaries and memoirs from Wellington's troops. Swingometer Snow really is as excitable and enthusiastic in real life as he was on all those election broadcasts.

It's been a busy day and myself and Fiona Lindsay, the other chair, have kept going on adrenalin and the constant chocolate biscuits provided in the library. Dinner is in the magnificent State Dining Room, and we all tiptoe back into the marquee to see the second half of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's brilliant set. 'Genius,' says Charles Spencer. 'Proper genius.' Finally, those who can tear themselves away from the drinks trolley get another treat: the now traditional late-night tour of the house. Stay up chatting to the affable Craig Brown until 12.30am.

Sunday 12 June

Up late; no morning stroll. At 10.30am, I'm in conversation with political grandee Michael Dobbs, who's talking about his new thriller Old Enemies. It  reintroduces us to his long-running hero Harry Jones, an MP with seemingly very little time for constituency work as he swings into action to foil a complex Zimbabwean/South African kidnap plot. Top stuff.

Dr David Starkey only requires an introduction and a helping hand on to the stage as he's done his foot in. You can tell he'd rather be striding around than sitting in a chair with his foot up on a stool, but his waspish and penetrating talk on marriage and the monarchy is perfectly to time and delivered without notes. It is rather mean-spirited - what on earth does he have against the Archbishop of Canterbury? - but since he has promised to outrage us, we can hardly complain about that.

The very last event for me is an interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore about his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography a work of vast scope. He mesmerises us with tales of the Herodian dynasty, the death of Jesus, the point where archaeology meets politics, and his prognostications for the future and views on the Arab Spring. Erudite, passionate and humane, it is a brilliant talk. Most impressive of all, his two children, each clutching a stuffed toy, sit through it without making a sound.

Then, in a last flurry of goodbyes and chocolate biscuits, it's over for another year. Roll on Althorp 2012!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sir Vidia's lofty peak

Poor VS Naipaul, he just sounds mad these days, doesn't he? Strutting on the island of his own self-belief, surrounded by the seas of solipsism, he announces via the Evening Standard that all women's writing is 'unequal to me'. Astonishingly for someone so blinded by his own egotism, he declares that women have a 'narrow view of the world' and goes on: 'inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.' Bless him, he doesn't get out much, does he?

Anyone who makes statements like these first has to demolish the mighty monolith that is Jane Austen, and he is quoted as saying that he 'couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world'. Is this, would you say, a particularly intelligent reading of Jane Austen? I can detect no sentimentality in her world of rigidly enforced conduct and complex social mores, undercut by a savage irony and even a hint of malice. He's like the man in the old joke about the Samurai sword: her sharp wit has severed his neck, but until he nods he thinks nothing has happened.

It's not ridiculous or philistine to dislike her work - Mark Twain's advice to anyone seeking to build a library was first to omit the novels of Jane Austen - but you had better read it carefully before you make sweeping comments about it. Naipaul shows all the signs of the intellectual despot who doesn't need to think or study before he makes his comments, he just 'knows'. How lonely he must feel up on his  peak, with no one to look up to or admire. Sadly, his conceit is the hallmark of the lesser mind, not of the genius. There are all too many people in this world who don't need evidence or logic to support the idea that they are superior to others.

Last night I led a reading group discussion at the South Bank Centre on The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The lively debate on this brilliant and many-layered novel danced for an hour and a half and at every turn we found new things to criticise and admire. Her themes - the rise of McCarthyism in America, the position of the artist in society, the power and responsibility of the press, the rights of the individual to privacy and free speech, democracy versus demagoguery, and fundamentally what it is to write at all - are so far from the 'sentimental, narrow view of the world' that Naipaul diagnoses in women's writing, that he might actually enjoy the book. If he could take his blinkers off for one second.

Of course, this might just be a brilliantly conceived stunt to give more prominence to the Orange Prize, the winner of which is announced next week. He has single-handedly demonstrated why the prize is still needed, which is more than the most ardent feminist could achieve. Or he could just be a sad, bitter old man whose best work is far behind him, who realises that he has to say obnoxious things just to get people thinking and writing about him again. It's a rather tragic finale for the towering author of A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Goodbye Leonora

I was very sad to hear at the end of the Book Review Show on TV last night that the artist and writer Leonora Carrington had died. It wasn't exactly a surprise - she was 94 after all - but to me she was one of the great lights of the last century, a thrilling person to have in co-existence.

I first discovered her when Virago published a volume of her work entitled The House of Fear in 1989. The cover features one of Leonora's most famous paintings, The Inn of the Dawn Horse. In a bare blue room, Leonora herself, seated in a flouncy chair and wearing riding gear, reaches out towards a hyena with human eyes (the strange, shadowed mist behind it might be the dimension it has just stepped out of). Suspended on the wall behind her is a white rocking horse, while outside the window, a real white horse races off into parkland. Leonora, the beautiful girl in the house, made a similar escape from wealth and privilege in Lancashire to the wild world of the imagination.

This compelling image was created when the painter was around 20 years old; round about the same time she wrote a story that anticipates Angela Carter, 'The Debutante', in which a hyena befriends a young heiress and goes in her stead to a ball. The fact that the hyena tears off the face of the girl's maid in order to achieve the imposture hints, perhaps, at the cruel-seeming single-mindedness necessary to be an artist. 'Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face,' the narrator tells the hyena. 'It'll hurt her too much otherwise.'

The book also contains a series of fascinating photographs, including a press clipping of an unsmiling Leonora as an actual debutante, off to court with lace fan and headdress; a photo of creepy Crookhey Court where she grew up, surely the source of her persistent Gothic fantasies; and snaps with her much older lover, the artist Max Ernst. She underwent a terrifying experience of madness in 1940 after being raped by a gang of soldiers in Spain while Ernst was in a concentration camp. The result was a remarkable memoir, Down There, which impresses with its pitiless revelation of a mind unravelling. 'Exactly three years ago,' it begins, 'I was interned in Dr Morales's sanatorium in Santander, Spain, Dr Pardo, of Madrid, and the British Consul having pronounced me incurably insane.'

After surviving this horrific experience, and unable to resume the relationship with Ernst, who took up with Peggy Guggenheim, she eventually found happiness in Mexico City. There she married a Hungarian photographer, met Frida Kahlo (no love lost, I gather) and became friends with that other powerful magus, the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

It's very rare for a human being to achieve such heights in two disciplines. Leonora seems to have left writing behind, but never gave up painting. I was lucky enough to see her retrospective in the Serpentine Gallery some years ago, which became a temple of the occult for the duration of the show. The space was filled with images and statues of elongated women with bird or animal heads, elaborate clothes of fur or feathers; they performed rites of alchemical transformation, enacted magical rituals or ominous scenes from Celtic folklore. They ran through mazes, made strange gestures or tended Ceridwen's cauldron: glittering figures netted and dragged up direct from the subconscious. 

At the cash till, buying the exhibition catalogue, I was amused to see a scribbled notice to the staff: 'Before locking up, wrap Catwoman in bubblewrap and turn on the demystifier [sic]'. Perfect! For mere mortals, a demystifier is essential when roaming this underworld of bizarre forms and occult threats. For Leonora Carrington, it was home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Golden Age or last gasp?

Is the book dead? It's the major question of our time, with most of us booky types insisting that it isn't, perhaps with more hope than confidence. In this turbulent era, it surely can't be a coincidence that recently there has been, to my mind, an extravagant rise in the quality of hardbacks. I have a pile of new books on the desk in front of me which bears this counterintuitive notion out.

Yesterday I received a finished copy of Andrew Miller's new novel Pure, published next month. The cover image is based on Goya's print, 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', although the sleeping man has been embellished with gilded buttons and cuffs, buckles to his shoes and a bow in his hair. The design runs over to the back cover, placing the man in a large, bare room, at a table with a pen, candle and jug, and a set of mathematical rules and compasses, while the birds of nightmare swoop and circle above. Outside the window is an 18th century city scene. (The illustration is credited to Royston Knipe.)

It's not just a question of the cover image, but the whole conception: the fine etched lines that give the grain of linen to the cover (there's no dust jacket); the pleasing contrast of the black birds, the grey tones, and the touches of green and gold on the title and man's coat; the way the spine displays the corner of the table with  loaf and knife. It's a delicious artefact, and I can't wait to tuck into Miller's tale of a fetid and groaning Parisian cemetery, and the 18th-century architect charged with clearing it.

Miller is published by Sceptre, who as you may remember did such a brilliant job with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and in much the same way: dispensing with the dustjacket, making the texture of the cover an intrinsic part of the design, and wrapping the illustration (by Joe Wilson) round to the back cover. Sceptre's fiction designs are consistently excellent, as are those of John Murray, also part of the Hodder group. My next example is Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, the follow up to the Man Booker shortlisted Sea of Poppies. This has a conventional dustjacket, but there's nothing conventional about the illustration in deep blues with sinuous white lettering. The hint at blue and white Chinese pottery and the junks silhouetted in the distance express the next stage of the Ibis's journey as it enters Chinese waters with its heterogenous runaway crew. The floral motif is echoed on the beautiful jade green endpapers and at each chapter heading. Well done, John Murray!

More conventional perhaps, but still striking, is Weidenfeld and Nicolson's treatment for Clare Morgan's forthcoming novel, A Book For All and None. It's good to know that a publisher can still invest like this in a debut. There are no coloured endpapers or chapter-heading embellishments, but the Art Nouveau design in turquoise, yellowy-cream and crimson is striking and beautifully articulated across three areas: front, back and spine. The motifs of lighthouse, waves and books point elegantly to its Woolfian subject. The confident design (Nadina Gray)  proclaims, quite rightly, that the author, an Oxford academic, is one to watch.

Another fiction debut, Alice Albinia's Leela's Book, has been thoughtfully realised by Harvill Secker.  The dustjacket image of Ganesha has a cutout to display the pretty patterned cover within. The book would look just as attractive without the dustcover (which is just as well, as I'd deduct points for the white jacket - they look grubby almost immediately).

Albinia is not a total novice; her first book, Empires of the Indus, was well-received (she is married to the writer Tristram Stuart, the 'TS' of the dedication page). Again, such care and attention signal that this is a major new talent; this is a book to cherish, something that will stay around for years on your shelf, rather than vanishing into the ether.

But will they sell? A friend of mine, a senior Waterstone's bookseller, does a great horror-film scream (eyes wide and terrified, hands clawing the air) at any book jackets he thinks are hopelessly uncommercial. We are frequently at odds - the books I think most exciting visually are frequently dismissed with a brusque: 'Won't sell.' But I think all of these would get the thumbs up from him.

So instead of kowtowing to the populist demands to make everything cheap, cheaper, cheapest, some publishers at least are fighting back with beautiful artefacts that demand to be cherished. Looking at these lovely volumes, you'd never think publishing was in crisis. Would you?

PS My comments refer to the UK editions. To my mind, American book designs are almost always duller and more conventional than the British equivalents, though their standards of book production remain high. There are some glorious exceptions but.... have a quick trawl through Amazon and see what I mean.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How much plot?

Agent Jonny Geller recently complained that The Independent's review of Jane Harris's new novel Gillespie and I contained too many spoilers. Having just  reviewed the book myself for the Financial Times, I was curious to see what he meant. On reading Carol Birch's review I thought Geller was being unfair, and challenged him to see if he could do any  better.

Reading a novel in advance of publication is like setting out on a long sea voyage in which you're not just ignorant of your destination, but even what sort of vessel you're travelling on. The captain may be a fraud and the unobtrusive fellow who brings your tea in the morning might turn out to be the one you should have kept an eye on all along. Certain tip-offs will help later passengers enjoy the trip more fully. Yet in alerting them to all the sights, you should never rob them of the thrill of surprise.

My rough rule of thumb is that the first quarter to a third of a novel generally constitutes the set up and is fair game. The reviewer can describe that set-up, and maybe drop a few broad hints as to the direction the action might go, but at some stage you have to say 'Now read on...' However, sometimes even an early twist is clearly designed to come as a shock. (In which case it'll probably be given away by the jacket blurb.)

When editing reviews, a literary editor all too often has not read the novel in question, so it can be difficult to ascertain how much is too much. I might send an entire review back with the terse note: 'Too plotty!' A phrase such as 'After his wife dies...' would have me trying to elicit where in the book this happened. If it fell foul of my golden rule, I'd amend it to something like 'After a family tragedy...' Sometimes even this is too much, if it's a 'lightning from a blue sky' development. Sensitivity to the writer's design is all.

It's amazing how wedded reviewers can be to revealing the plot: 'I can't discuss the book properly without revealing that she dies halfway through/the butler did it/it was all a dream.' Funnily enough, this defence does have some historical weight. Reading Virginia Woolf's early book reviews, I was surprised at how much of the plot she routinely gave away. Perhaps today we focus on plotting above all other stylistic issues; certainly her reviews were also full of insight about the craft of fiction. Most often, though, the 'this happens, then that happens, then finally...' school of reviewing is just lazy.

Gillespie and I does present specific problems for the critic. To use the maritime analogy above, it quickly becomes clear that deciding what sort of vessel you are on, be it comfortable cruise liner or leaky tub, is absolutely crucial. Harris's narrative is so deft at wrong-footing the reader that even to know at the outset what sort of story you're going to be told will take away from the purity of discovering/deciding that for yourself.

Sadly, Jonny Geller did not choose to rise to my playful challenge to write a review himself. At least he conceded that in this case it is a tricky undertaking. I recommend Harris's superbly slippery novel, but the less you know about it in advance, the better.