A Literary A-Z

The latest installment…


It would appear that M is rather a popular letter for an author’s surname. There are the Mitfords, Iris Murdoch and that other I.M. – Ian McEwan. There’s Somerset Maugham, William Maxwell and Gavin Maxwell. Richard Mabey, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore. And let’s not forget Malory, Marvell and Milton. Or Japan’s Murikami and Mishima, or Scandinavia’s Mankell. Blimey.

I have to admit to feeling rather ill-equiped to judge the winner of the Ms. For, although I’ve read something by each of these writers, I’m afraid I haven’t read much by any of them. And most of them are rather prolific. How can I possibly judge Somerset Maugham, having read only The Moon and Sixpence? Ditto for Iris Murdoch, having read just two of her substantial oeuvre. I quite like the idea of Gavin Maxwell versus Richard Mabey as both The Ring of Bright Water and The Unofficial Countryside are published in elegant Little Toller editions, but again I feel reluctant to boil either author down to just one of their books.

The only way out of this indecision is to imagine being stuck on a desert island and to decide which one of these author’s books I’d like to be have for company. And, while I’m sure this makes me terribly conventional and more than a bit snotty, I have to say, without a shadow of a doubt, Milton. (He also has the advantage of being the one author from that list of whom I’ve read rather a lot, having studied him at university.)

It’s rather unfair, I think, that Milton seems so off-putting and formidable to many readers. He’s one of those names that’s so far up there in the canon, that many people assume that he’s terribly important, but also that he must be studied at length – like Shakespeare – and that he uses lots of difficult old words. And, whereas everyone has to study Shakespeare at some point, thanks to the curriculum, poor old Milton is rather less compulsory.

I wish that instead of seeming so terrifying, Milton could gain the reputation of being a poet that, really, is quite straightforward to read and understand. His poems are great long narratives, and most of them tell stories that we all know anyway. Rather than having to read a short poem, painfully slowly, scrutinising every single word, I’d argue that Milton’s longer poems can be read almost like a novel.

He often uses enjambment, instead putting the break half-way through the line. This makes it very easy to keep on reading, and really it can be quite hard to stop! Take the opening of Paradise Lost, for instance:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

It isn’t until one reaches ‘woe’ that one can properly draw breath. And the clever thing about this structure is that the second half of each line often refers to both the first half of both that line and of the following. So, for instance, ‘and the fruit’ refers back to ‘Of man’s first disobedience’ – i.e. what comes from man’s first disobedience – and also on to ‘Of that forbidden tree – i.e. that notorious apple. It makes the poem seem twice as thick with meaning.

The other, quite geeky, thing that I love about Milton is the way that many of the words he uses have double meanings. So, for instance, when Satan tempts Eve to eat the apple, he is described as ‘the spirited sly Snake’. ‘Spirited’ here means possessed by a spirit (of Satan), but it also means ‘brisk, blithe’, and indeed the snake is described as ‘blithe’ just a few lines later. Then again, Satan doesn’t just tempt Eve, he ‘seduces’ her, tempting her, and also ‘leading her astray’, as he literally leads her to the forbidden apple. This resonance is from the Latin meaning of ‘seduce’: ‘se’ meaning ‘aside, astray’, and ‘ducere’ meaning ‘to lead’.

But above all, Paradise Lost is exciting. Satan is a surprisingly intriguing character rather than being a straightforward baddie, and there are some quite funny digressions, such as how it is, exactly, that angels have sex!


Rather slimmer pickings for N. I have to say straight away that I can’t bear V.S. Naipaul. And I must also ashamedly admit to never having read any Nabakov. So I’m going to make rather a surprising choice for N and go for the teen author Patrick Ness.

Patrick Ness won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a few years ago for his astonishing novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

Todd, the main character, lives in a place where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, which swirl around them as something called ‘Noise’. This means there’s no privacy, no quiet and no secrets. But then, Todd finds a patch of silence, and everything changes suddenly and terrifyingly.

What’s so brilliant about The Knife of Never Letting Go is how it treads the line between the familiar and the alien so well. Everything is recognisable, yet also different. The idea of being able to hear people’s thoughts is at once very easy to imagine, yet also horribly strange. The language reflects this too, for instance, a question is called an ‘ask’ and a child is called a ‘pup’. Similar and understandable, yet also different.

And this really is an exciting adventure story. I could barely put it down. More exciting, even, than Milton.


O is another letter for which there seems to be a strange paucity of writers. I’d say it essentially comes down to Ovid versus Orwell.

I did so enjoy reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses soon after I finished school. The Greek myths were such a huge part of my childhood, and it was with utter joy that I could grow reacquainted with them in such readable and elegant verse. Here again were Orpheus and Eurydice, Daedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, Echo and Narcissus … all these wonderful stories that could be read all over again. And there were new revelations too. I remember being stunned by the entry on Pythagoras, who was known to me only for having that theory about the squares of the sides of triangles adding up. Who knew he was vegetarian and so eloquent with it too?

But perhaps Orwell has to win. I challenge anyone not to feel overawed by either Animal Farm or 1984. One invariably reads at least one of them when one is a young teenager, when they seem completely groundbreaking. Political, satirical, funny, dreadful, shocking, dystopian, terrifying …

I read a few of his essays at university, but it wasn’t till a couple of years ago that I really re-engaged with his work, when I read Down and Out in Paris and London. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I shall spare you a long digression, but I really did think this was a brilliant book. Certain elements will stick in my mind forever, such as the broiling heat of a Paris kitchen when he was a plongeur, and the ‘tea-and-two-slices’ which was the standard meal of every tramp in England. And the description of how one particular OAP lived on his tiny pension, eating nothing but tea-and-two-slices or even just dry bread, sleeping in doss houses but still sparing enough money to have a weekly shave, summons a great deal of respect.

O, then, surely must be for Orwell.


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