Posts Tagged ‘Literary A-Z’

A Literary A-Z

February 20, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time since the most recent instalment of my Literary A-Z. For those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath since the battle of Rushdie vs Richardson, I can only apologise.


Kicking off with S seems a little unfair because S has to be Shakespeare. No room for manoeuvre there. If I had to pick my favourite Shakespeare, I’d choose King Lear. (I wrote about the Domar’s recent production here.)

But, for the sake of making it slightly more interesting, some other S authors that I’ve loved are Ali Smith, J.D. Salinger and – of course – Dodie Smith. My old boss used to publish Salinger’s books and told me that he was very tricky with his covers, never letting a picture on the front, insisting that the design be purely typographical. At school I thought Salinger’s collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalor, was the best book ever. I read it obsessively, many times over. It was a love made defiant when told by my English teacher that it wasn’t substantial enough to be the subject of an essay. Pah, I thought, you just don’t understand. It was all deeply teenagerish and a little silly.

Speaking of silly teenagers, last night I happened to watch the DVD of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which many of you know is one of my all-time-favourite books. It was a rare instance of being almost enjoyable on film as on the page, thanks mostly to Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. The funny thing was that the film looked oddly like a Brora photoshoot, which, given they’re supposed to be an impoverished family and Brora cardigans cost upwards of £200 a pop, does seem peculiar. Particularly fun bits were the scenes shot in the RIBA building, which was dressed up as a thirties department store. Does anyone else love playing the London place-spotting game when watching anything on screen? Annoyingly the husband tends to get it about five seconds before me each time!

A brilliant S-link is that not far into the film of I Capture the Castle, everyone’s trying to get the Americans’ car out of the mud when James Mortmain (aka Bill Nighy) curses the storm’s ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’. Looking back through the book I can’t find these exact words; instead, Dodie Smith just writes that ‘he was freely damning the weather’. Well Bill Nighy evidently freely damned the weather in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear. One great S is brought into another great S. Splendid!


T is a little more tricky. Edward Thomas? Colm Toibin? Elizabeth Taylor? I’m going to confess that I’ve never got on particularly well with Tolstoy. I’ve begun Anna Karenina several times, and never got much past the ice skating episode. Perhaps I was just too young. (But I worry that I’ll never love the Russians because I always get so muddled with all the long names!) Some Tolstoy that I did enjoy was The Kreutzer Sonata, which Penguin published as a pretty little Great Loves edition.

I think I must go for Edward Thomas. However much I loved The Blackwater Lightship and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, ‘Adlestrop’ wins hands down every time. Even if he was quite horrid to his wife.


An impossible letter because I haven’t read anything by John Updike, who seems to be more-or-less the only fiction writer beginning with U.

Then again, I haven’t read any non-fiction by Jenny Uglow, but I suspect I’d enjoy her much more than Updike. I feel particularly fond of Jenny Uglow, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet read any of her well-acclaimed biographies, or her book about English gardens. This is because as well as being such a successful writer, she is also a very well-respected editor. Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus no less.

When I was shuffling around at the bottom of the publishing food chain, trying to write a novel in the mornings before arriving at the sterile office, the thought that there were very successful publishers who also managed also to have writing careers was tremendously inspiring. It made me think that I might not have to choose between writing books and making them, that I could somehow do both. How I longed to bump into her, strike up a conversation and be given a cup of tea and taken under her wing! Needless to say I never had the courage even to say hello, and, when it became clear that one must be far more senior and important than me to go part-time in publishing and that I couldn’t go on forever doing all my writing very early in the morning and then being brain-dead all afternoon, I took a different path from Uglow and side-stepped out of publishing. But well done her, as there must have been a time when she stuck to her guns and said, no I’m not leaving, I’m going to make this work and do two things very well indeed. U goes to Jenny Uglow.


A Literary A-Z

November 7, 2011

The lack of last week’s post was in part because I was tied up writing the first of my fortnightly columns for the Spectator’s Book Blog (cue applause, thank you). It was also thanks to the horror of tackling a rather tricky trio of letters for the next instalment of my Literary A-Z. PQR. Not quite a football team, but not far off. PQ aaaargh is closer to how it feels.

But I can delay no longer. Here it is.



P has to be Proust. I say this not having read any Proust. I base my judgement almost entirely on my father’s opinion, where Proust is held higher than any other author. I do want to read Proust, and, as a teenager, often threatened to do so, but this prospect filled my father with terror. ‘No, you shall not read him yet,’ he said, with near-Victorian sternness. ‘You are too young.’

I don’t think I minded that much. Yes, I felt a bit patronised, and said, more than once, ‘It’s so unfair. I hate you.’ (All in the name of Proust.) I think I might even have begun Swann’s Way out of spite, but after a couple of paragraphs, I realised that it was rather slower than the books to which I was used, so I quietly replaced it on the shelf. Back to such teenage classics as Junk and Goodbye Johnny Thunders.

But I do have one – albeit tenuous – Proustian connection. At my hen party (written about at great length in this post), a dear friend presented us with a batch of home-baked madeleines. A literary treat, and delicious to boot. In no time, we were reminiscing about the good old days … and I’m sure that’s more-or-less Proust’s point.

I suppose, if one were to be strict and disallow Proust, either on the (not unreasonable) grounds that I’ve not read any, or on the grounds that my father’s other favourite reading material is Winnie the Pooh in Latin … then I’d go for Orhan Pamuk. I did think that Snow was really terribly good. And The Museum of Innocence wasn’t bad either. Just a shame it went on and on and on a bit too much in a post-modern imitation of the narrator’s obsession over the girl. But there we go, take your pick. Proust or Pamuk depending on how lenient you are feeling.



Perhaps Q should go to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who did, after all, style himself as the initial ‘Q’. This Cornish author wrote a few Robert Louis-Stevenson style stories, but the reason I’d heard of him was in his guise as an anthologist. He created the Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900, which was the big poetry anthology until the seventies. That’s quite a long time. I quite like the idea of his editing a quintessentially English book, which people pocketed as their companion while they roamed the Empire.

But I’m not sure it’s fair for an anthologist to take the biscuit, so it shall have to go for the only other Q I can think of: Thomas de Quincey.

I was very excited about reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I remember reading about him at university, as an influence on Virginia Woolf. Apparently some of her more hallucinatory prose was in part thanks to her Quincean reading material. Of course, when I eventually got round to reading it, a few years later, when a damaged copy was lying around the bookshop, I expected his crazed language to seep into my own writing too. I hoped that by reading about opium I might even do a Coleridge.

Sadly not. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a bit of struggle to get through. There was a lot of preamble and the actual opiumy bits felt rather overblown and silly. I suppose I did always quite like the way he talked of ‘eating’ opium, as opposed to taking it. It made me wonder if this were a literary pre-cursor of the current vogue for drug dealers to call drugs ‘food’. But I digress.

As neither of these are particularly satisfactory, perhaps we could go completely off-piste and say Queen. As in the band. Bohemian Rhapsody has some pretty wild, silly lyrics.

Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!

Twentieth-century opium eating?



Phew. This one’s easier. It must be Salman Rushdie, although I did spare a (brief) moment to consider an author of the same initials, Samuel Richardson. Incidentally, while I was engaged in the distraction-fuelled putting-off of this piece, I saw that on Twitter Salman Rushdie was staging a #literarysmackdown between Richardson and Sterne. Little did he know that, over at EmilyBooks, the former was already engaged in a literary smackdown against his nibs himself.

But Rushdie wins hands down. Clarissa was so exhaustingly long, and while the whole letter device was quite fun and addictive, she pretty swiftly got on my nerves.

Granted, several people find that Rushdie’s writing gets on their nerves pretty swiftly too. But I am firmly of the school of thought that finds his writing imaginative, inventive, invigorating and really quite incredible. I read The Satanic Verses first, when travelling around Spain with my Muslim best friend, after leaving school. Perhaps it was a bit insensitive of me. She was more than a bit cross about it. But, as I told her then, in no uncertain terms, it is a wonderful book.

Then I went on to study Salman Rushdie at university, as part of the post-colonialism course. At Oxford, where life feels rather determinedly old-fashioned, studying books that aren’t classics and can be bought somewhere other than Blackwells, felt like sticking a finger up at the establishment. Bring on the revolution, I told myself, while others were quietly getting on with Chaucer and the Romantics.

So perhaps it is in part thanks to the intoxication of naïve student days, but I have since reread Midnight’s Children and loved it just as much. And apparently Rushdie’s children’s books are pretty brilliant too. Luka and the Fire of Life is one I’d like to read when I’m next feeling a bit poorly.

Gosh I hope that S, T and U are easier!

A Literary A-Z

September 19, 2011

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.

A Literary A-Z

July 18, 2011



J surely boils down to a battle of two great Jameses – Henry James and James Joyce. I have soft spots for both.

My tutor at university was a Joyce expert, and I remember the experience of reading Ulysses very clearly indeed. I was sitting on one of my Mum’s quite smart cream sofas, with a cup of tea nearby – perpetually  nervous that I might spill it – holding the thick paperback with both hands, amazed that my tutor understood this incredibly dense book so well that she had actually edited it. I was on that sofa for several hours every day for a week. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have a tutorial with her about it. I was so unnerved at the thought of having to write an essay, which she would then read, or, worse still, that I would read it aloud to her, that in the end I wrote about a character who only appears in about six pages – a man in a macintosh.

One of my favourite lines of all literature is the final line of The Dead, the novella at the close of Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Incidentally, I mentioned this in a post about Orhan Pamuk a while ago, only to overhear Andrew O’Hagan tell someone – just the following day – that it was his favourite line. Strange coincidence. He definitely thought I was a bit peculiar when I rushed up to him and told him it was one of mine too, and I’d just written about it on my blog.

As for the other James, Henry, well he has an Oxford-related story too. During my entrance interview, I was asked which writers I liked, whose work I hadn’t studied at school. At the time I was obsessed with Milan Kundera. My future tutor (the Joyce expert) was unimpressed. She said she didn’t want to talk about him and asked me for something else. My brain went spectacularly blank. For a moment it felt as though I’d never read anything at all. At last I remembered something. ‘I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ I ventured.

We discussed Ian McEwan for a while. I said I’d liked the way Atonement was told from a child’s perspective, but yet there seemed to be an adult’s sensibility behind it. The Joyce expert introduced me to the word ‘focalised’. Then the other tutor in the room – who was to become my Middle English tutor – piped up for the first time.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘he just does what Henry James did. Only Henry James did it so much better.’

‘Really?’ I asked, remembering that I’d read Portrait of a Lady and struggling to see the similarity.

‘Of course. It’s just like What Maisie Knew. But James was a real master.’

I left the interview feeling that it had gone quite well. I thought I might try to track down a copy of What Maisie Knew so that when it came to my second interview with them I’d be able to say something about it.

At what seemed like an ungodly hour the following morning, someone knocked on my door. I was informed that I was wanted for an interview at another college, in half an hour.

I felt sick and confused. I hurriedly got dressed and gobbled my emergency Kit Kat Chunky. I was escorted to this other college, which was about five times the size of little Exeter. On the way, while crossing one of the quads of this grand college, the heel of one of my stupid shoes, which I wasn’t used to wearing, got lodged in between two paving stones and I was momentarily stuck in the mud. It was a sign of things to come…

With most of these interviews, you’re given a piece of writing to look at for half an hour beforehand. For this one, I was given a piece of poetry. I began to read it.

‘Oh no, I’m so sorry,’ the lady said. ‘You wrote about poetry in one of your essays. John Donne. There’s no need to test you on that. Here’s some prose instead.’

And she handed me a page of prose. I looked down at the bottom, where it said, ‘taken from What Maisie Knew by Henry James’.

I then suffered the most appalling interview you could imagine. Everything I said was twisted around and thrown back at me. I felt as though we were playing some weird game, in which I had to say why I loved English Literature and then they had to show me that actually I’d just said why I didn’t. It was terrible.

Until it came to the questions about the unseen extract. I talked about it for a while. They didn’t appear to be listening to me. Then, at last, I ventured, ‘It reminds me a bit of Atonement by Ian McEwan.’

They both sat up. ‘Do go on,’ said the one who had been marginally less nasty to me than the other one.

I went on for a little while. I used the word ‘focalised’. It was the only three minutes of the interview that weren’t horrific. And then, I’m not sure how, but I found myself talking about John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

At this point the nastier tutor cut in. ‘Given that the course at Oxford is very traditional. Do you not think that your taste in literature is rather too modern?’

Back to the ridiculous game then. I struggled through the rest of the interview, left it in tears, sat on the train back down to London, steely with determination never ever to study under such a horrible man.

In the end, luckily, I was offered a place at Exeter, and only once came across the horrid man in a lecture, out of which I swiftly walked.

Well, I suppose it’s actually not a particularly nice story, that one. But then I did end up reading What Maisie Knew and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. So brilliant that it inspired me to start my own writing. I wrote a few chapters of a book, focalised through a little girl who had quite a peculiar imagination, who was staying in a house with her mother and grandmother, while terrible grown-up things were going on. I didn’t get particularly far with it, but it was a start. And if it weren’t for that, well then I probably wouldn’t still be trying.

I suppose that means Henry James has to win.



There seem to be several Ks who I like. Kafka, Kapucinski, Kapur, Keats, Kipling, Kunzru, in alphabetical order.

But I’m going – surprisingly decisively – to opt in favour of Keats. There’s a great deal about his poetry that should be praised. Not least, that it’s exceptionally beautiful. But I’ve always felt particularly fond of his poetic use of medical and scientific language:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

Keats mingles hemlock and opiates with the river Lethe. (The Lethe was one of the rivers of the Underworld; drinking from it led to complete forgetfulness.) Poetry is always full of mythical references like this. They make it seem magical and old and mysterious. But the precision of the medical language, of naming these two substances – hemlock and opiates – that would achieve the same effect as drinking from the river Lethe, creates something unique and quite extraordinary.

During A-Levels, I was the only person in my English class who was also studying Science. And I was the only person in my Chemistry class who was also studying English. The Science block was a seven-minute walk from the main School building, where English – and other Arts – lessons took place, which meant that I was always slightly late for everything. Unfortunately, in English, as everyone knew that it was because I’d come from the Science block, it meant that my being late wasn’t remotely cool or rebellious. It just showed that I was a Science geek. And when I turned up late for Chemistry, having come all the way from English, everyone thought I was a wishy-washy arts student.

It felt as though the combination of English and Science couldn’t possibly be resolved. Until I found Keats. And then I saw that really, if the two very different disciplines could be brought together, they could create something that really transcended either one of them alone.



D.H. Lawrence, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, or Emmanuel Litvinoff.

The man who managed to get the C word into literature must be given due credit. And everybody loves The Leopard. Plus those two are double-Ls: Lawrence with Lady C; Lampedusa with The Leopard.

But I’m going to go for the one who’s usually overlooked, Emmanuel Litvinoff.

I discovered Emmanuel Litvinoff thanks to Iain Sinclair in his Hackney book. He was mentioned a few times as a writer of the Jewish East End. But then I could never remember his name when I went into a bookshop. Indeed I’d almost forgotten about him, by the time I started actually working in a bookshop.

And then, a couple of weeks in, as I was shelving some books in the London section, I saw it: Emmanuel Litvinoff Journey Through a Small Planet. The book looked rather smart – a Penguin Modern Classic. The cover shows an eccentric-looking man wearing big specs, light shining full onto his broad forehead, in contrast with the dark stairs on which he’s standing. Intriguing.

I bought it, read it and loved it. Litvinoff’s memoir is about growing up around Brick Lane at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was filled with Jewish immigrants.

People spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs

It is rather a subtle portrait of a time and a place – rather than always feeling proud and part of his community, at times he feels ashamed:

The Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation

And yet, it was Litvinoff who stood up at the ICA in the 1950s, to recite his poem accusing T.S. Eliot of antisemitism, even though T.S. himself had just joined the audience.

A great man, and his book is a great story. L is undoubtedly for Litvinoff.

A Literary A-Z

May 31, 2011


Just over a year or so ago, I’d have found G a bit tricky. There’s Graham Greene (of course) and also Amitav Ghosh – I was mildly obsessed with his books, when I was at university. And, thinking back to children’s books, there’s also Ursula le Guin, who wrote the absolute classic Earthsea books, featuring Sparrowhawk, a wizard with whom, as a ten-year-old, I was completely in love.

But all this was before I discovered Jane Gardam. It was before a strange two weeks, last March, when I was recovering from having my tonsils removed – a time spent moving between bed and sofa, alternating between severe pain and being smacked out on Codeine, when it took half an hour to nibble a piece of toast. A colleague had recommended reading A Long Way from Verona. She said it was one of her favourite books – comforting, funny, and brilliant enough to make anyone want to become a writer. Indeed, she gushed about it so much, I felt like I couldn’t very well say no. (Now, I worry that I have the same unnerving effect when recommending Jane Gardam to unsuspecting customers.)

Reading A Long Way from Verona was absolute bliss. It was everything I’d hoped for and more – silly and clever and touching and altogether brilliant and, best of all, utterly eccentric. Set in wartime Yorkshire, it’s written from the point of view of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl, who is determined to be a writer. (For more, see this earlier post.)

Subsequently, I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (see this post) and then Old Filth, both of which confirmed my view of her as one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. (And these two were read without any codeine at all.) Jane Gardam manages to be so terribly clever in such a light-hearted, delicate, precise way. Everything is very funny yet also quietly poignant; it all seems slightly mad, yet is so perfectly observed. I cannot recommend her highly enough. G is definitely for Gardam.


I cannot resist bringing in a terrific tale from the bookshop. Somebody’s favourite author is Roger Hargreaves, he who wrote the Mr Men books. I say ‘somebody’, because until last week we didn’t know who he or she was. We have a recurrent problem in that every couple of months, ALL our Mr Men and Little Miss books – so that’s around a hundred of them – would disappear. Despite our most vigilant efforts, no one had managed to catch sight of the thief. Until last week, that is, when my colleague and I were involved in a pretty exciting car chase.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I came out of the stock room and instantly noticed that the Mr Mens were gone. I told my colleague – I shall call him, enigmatically, ‘C’ – and C said, ‘Oh my god, it was that woman, she’s only just left.’ He raced out of the shop, accosting her, asking her about the books, asking if he could look in her, suddenly rather suspiciously capacious, bag. She refused to stop, hurried across the road, with him in hot pursuit, and jumped into her getaway car. Yes! She really had a getaway car, with a driver inside. Quick-thinking C, wrote the number plate down on his hand, as they sped off towards the horizon. We phoned the police. We got to use the funny Charlie Foxtrot Tango code. The police said they’d try and catch em. But they didn’t. They just suggested we got CCTV. And that was that.

But, Mr Men thief, if you were to happen to read this. BE WARNED. We know who you are now! Don’t ever come near our shop again.

There are some good Hs. There’s Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame, Hemmingway and Siri Husvedt. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read anything by her. I must put that right, as several people have told me how fantastic she is. I suppose the correct choice should be Hemmingway, but, for some reason I’ve never been quite as wild about him as I feel I ought. My favourite Hemmingway moment is that really naf bit in the film City of Angels when Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan to describe a pear like Hemingway:

Sweet…juicy. Soft on your tongue. Grainy … like sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth.

I suppose it’s actually quite good, but watching it feels cringingly terrible.

But for my real favourite H I’ve got to hop over to non-fiction and say Alexandra Harris. What a hero. Her book, Romantic Moderns, is completely wonderful. (I’ve written about it here and here.) She shares Jane Gardam’s eccentric tone and lightness of touch. What comes across more than anything in this beautiful book, is quite how much she knows, yet quite how lightly she wears her knowledge. Rather than wading through millions of dates and dry facts, the book is a feast of gleeful anecdotes. My favourite one is in her chapter entitled, ‘An Hour in the Garden’, when she writes about how flowers became a kind of protest against the utilitarianism and rationing of war. In 1943 The Transport of Flowers Order (yes, really!) banned the transit of flowers by rail and, consequently, tales of flower smuggling bloomed. People used to scoop the hearts out of cauliflowers and fill them with anemones. Extraordinary!

Harris has a magpie’s eye for the sparkling anecdote that brings an idea brilliantly to life. Romantic Moderns is a marvellous book that has got to be in my non-fiction Top 3, and definitely the winner for H.


I is a troublesome letter for an author’s surname. I haven’t read anything by John Irving, which makes me feel, rather resignedly that perhaps, just by default, due to the paucity of authors whose last names begin with I, it might have to go to Ishiguro. Even though I think he’s not really all that. Izzo is supposed to be a great French crime writer, but I haven’t read him either. I suppose I could be precocious and a bit witty and say, aha, ‘I’ am my favourite writer. But that’s, frankly, a bit too nauseatingly self-satisfied.

I was about to give up on this one and just say ok, Ishiguro’s good enough, but, by a tremendous piece of luch, I’ve been saved by a splendid theatre trip on Saturday night. I’m not sure if I’ve yet mentioned The Rosemary Branch on EmilyBooks. It’s a sweet little theatre pub, just round the corner from me, which happens to be playing rather a large part in the novel I’m writing. By happy coincidence a friend has been acting there in I am a Camera – a play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

First of all, let me just say, that there are few things better than a night out at a theatre pub, especially if it’s local. It feels a bit like going back to the fifties. All the punters are very friendly and jolly. The landlady knows pretty much everyone by name. There’s a lot of sitting around, drinking and gassing in the interval and afterwards, that you definitely don’t get in a theatre that offers only an expensive, crowded bar, rather than a spacious, welcoming pub.

And the play itself was fantastic. It’s had brilliant reviews, which is not particularly common for Fringe theatre. The acting was top notch, and the story was brilliant, following the escapades of Isherwood and Sally Bowles – two English expats – in 1930s Berlin. The title is from the first line in Isherwood’s book:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Good first line.

I know that a play based on a book by an author is somewhat tenuous ground to claim that he’s the best author for I, but well, sorry, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I have seen the film of The Single Man, based on another of his books, too.) Anyway, I fully intend on reading Goodbye to Berlin as soon as poss – then I’ll have something a bit more solid as backup – but, even in the meantime, Christopher Isherwood wins for I.

A Literary A-Z

May 3, 2011

Time for episode two in the series – D,E, and F.


‘Dahl for D’, someone commented on the first installation of this literary A-Z. But what about Dickens, eh? Or Dalrymple? Or Dostoevsky? Or, for that matter, Donne? D seems to have particularly rich pickings.

Dahl is indeed a strong contender – for his adult short stories, fantastically weird and chilling, as well as his better-known children’s work. But, one doesn’t have to look hard to discover that he was not a very nice man. As Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian put it:

No matter how you spin it … Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite.

In light of the stiff competition, perhaps this nastiness is reason enough to put Dahl to one side.

William Dalrymple is in the shortlist because his book From the Holy Mountain was the first piece of travel writing I read. A friend at school gave me a copy and I was absolutely blown away by it. It also meant that I spent most of my GAP year writing a journal in a rather overblown literary style. I think that luckily it’s now got lost somewhere.

Dostoevsky, yes he’s good, but, personally, I never get on as well with the Russians as I’d like. The writers that is, not the people. Some of my best friends are Russian.

So D, when scrutinised a little more rigorously, comes down to Dickens versus Donne. It’s a strange clash – the master of the neverending sentence versus the master of concise imagery.

Dickens is undoubtedly one of the great British novelists. His sentences may be long, but you want to get to the end of them because of his brilliant plots. Bleak House, I remember a friend telling me, five minutes before one of our first year exams at Oxford, was the first ever detective story. His stories endure, now adapted for television, film, stage, musical …

But, Donne. Well, ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ was Johnson’s famous critique of his metaphysical images. And it is by pulling out the gaps between different ideas, ‘yoking’ them so violently together that he achieves such surprising, unique, concise, and effective images. The lovers are ‘stiff twin compasses’, so that when one ‘far doth roam’ the other ‘leans, and hearkens after it,/And grows erect, as that comes home.’ (I can still remember sniggering about this at school.)

And if I’m honest, and I’m a bit ashamed of this soppiness, I’ve got to choose Donne, because, to my mind, he writes about love better than anyone else. ‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,’ from ‘The Good Morrow’ is beautiful and perfect. It can’t be beaten.


I’ll cut to the chase here. Eliot versus Eliot. Another case of novelist versus poet. George versus T.S.

George Eliot is magnificent. Middlemarch is widely accepted as one of the greatest novels of all time. Virginia Woolf said it was ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I have always preferred Daniel Deronda, for reasons which I go into in this earlier post. Her novels are full of terribly astute observations, such as this one from Middlemarch:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot?

Clever lady. And great plots too.

T.S. Eliot. Well he’s also clever. At times, admittedly, he’s more than a little obtuse. I remember spending hours puzzling over his Four Quartets at university. I decided that to try to get to the bottom of it, I’d draw pictures of what I thought he was saying. I ended up drawing endless circles, and decided that that was the whole point. It didn’t go down particularly well in my tutorial. There are some marvellous images in his poems, some, which Johnson might have thought were also yoked by violence together. But I feel particularly fond of T.S. for his playful children’s poems. Whenever I get in a muddle about something like:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

Then I console myself with something from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, be it Macavity, Mr Mistoffelees, or even Growltiger:

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

But enough deliberating … I’m going for George Eliot. Just because I think it would be wrong not to.


F is obviously Forster. But I shall swiftly mention some other excellent Fs too: Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Fanon, Faulkner. Now back to Forster.

Forster is possibly my favourite writer. Full stop. I think he is a genius. His novels are a perfect mixture of neat, satisfying plot and meaty ideas. He is very good at writing about the English. Especially the English abroad. How do the English respond to a different country, to a different landscape? (I wrote about his use of landscape here.) And how do English good intentions make everyone else suffer?

I suggested to someone in the bookshop that he might enjoy Forster, to which he replied that he thought Forster was something one read only at school. It’s a terrible shame that Forster’s work has accrued the dust and must of a classics, the forbidding black jackets, the scary expectation of something impossibly high-brow. Really his novels aren’t difficult at all. And to prove my point, I shall end this post with is ingeniously mock-casual opening to Howards End, which I defy anyone to find intimidating:

One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

If you haven’t read any Forster, well one may as well begin with Howards End.

A literary A-Z

March 28, 2011

I am usually very good at sleeping. I can do it pretty much anywhere and for as long as is possible. Even during an unbelievably perilous journey across the Indian Himalayas, crammed into a tiny jeep with nine other people and a driver who stank of booze and drove for 22 hours without taking in anything solid. Head lolling from side to side, I was out for the count, much to the annoyance of the fiancé, who spent the 22 hours clinging on to his seat, eyes wide with terror.

But, the other day, I found myself unable to get off to sleep. For those who suffer from insomnia, it must be an incredibly frustrating, debilitating affliction, but, as it so rarely comes my way, I quite enjoyed the novelty. Rather than fretting about whatever it was that was keeping me awake, I decided to put my mind to better use.

I thought perhaps I’d go through the alphabet for a particular category. Capital cities are a good one, as are rude words (the only way to keep me sane while having a filling at the dentist). But, in the end, I went through the alphabet deciding on my favourite author for each letter.

It was a fascinating exercise. There were some unexpected and very difficult matches, (Virginia Woolf vs Edmund de Waal, for instance) and it also showed up several gaping holes in my reading. It is refreshingly logical, which is something I rarely am about books – it’s easy to gush about favourite books and marvellous authors, but when one has to weigh an author against another one, it becomes a far more measured exercise.

So I thought I’d share the fruits of my insomnia with you, and take you through my literary A-Z, a few letters at a time. I think what I’m doing, in blogging terminology, is introducing a ‘series’. I expect I’ll do it once a month. I hope you like it!


For many people A means Jane Austen. So many – usually very clever, well-read – people, such as P.D. James, absolutely adore Jane Austen. But I think she’s the musical equivalent of Mozart. Evidently a genius, but so twee and twiddly that I can’t bear her. I must be a philistine. I hope that, like tomatoes, it’s a taste I’ll grow into.

But just a slipped final letter away from Austen is Paul Auster. The first Auster I read was The New York Trilogy. I’d just decided to apply to read English at Oxford – as opposed to Biology or Psychology, which had been the original plan – and our English teachers had distributed these lists of books that I suppose they considered to be seminal works that we should have read before our interviews. I read several of the books on there with a feeling that they were good but old. Books like Rasselas and Candide and Gulliver’s Travels – all very clever, all very important, but nothing that sets a seventeen-year-old alight. But then there was The New York Trilogy and – apologies for being a bit Billy Eliot here – it was like electricity. I was so astonished to be reading something so modern, so new, so playful, so dark. And, in the words of my seventeen-year-old self, I thought it was quite ‘cool’. It made me feel incredibly excited about the possibilities of literature, as something that could be so experimental, something that was still evolving, something with a future, not just a past.

I went on a bit of an Auster binge after that, and I remember feeling particularly fond of Mr Vertigo, which is about a boy who learns to fly. And Timbuktu, told from the point of view of Mr Bones, a dog. And then I read Invisible a couple of years ago, which was, characteristically, weird but also brilliant. And, most recently, Sunset Park, which was a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5.

Martin and Kingsley Amis deserve a mention, although I hate the one and never got round to reading the other. I better stick with that first, tremendously excited, reading of The New York Trilogy and say that Paul Auster is King of the As.


The Bs, for me, boil down to Bronte vs. Bowen.

Having recently finished Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen (see my last post), I am very much under the Bowen spell. I am longing to read more by her – I’d love to see what her novels are like – and, as I said, her voice is so strong and familiar that I felt like I’d made friends with her. I am even beginning to miss her.

But the Brontes. How can anyone compete? Perhaps it’s because the Brontes are usually part of a schoolgirl’s reading, they seem like a rite of passage. I have felt a particular affinity with Wuthering Heights because when I went to Burma, nearly ten years ago, I met this very kind man called ‘Mr Book’, who ran a bookstall, and looked after my friend and me for a few days. He, funnily enough, loved books, and so he decided to call me ‘Emily Bronte’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’.

It’s hard to decide between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but I think I’ve got to come down on the side of the latter. It’s such a wonderful book, and one that bears rereading several times. Charlotte Bronte creates such overwhelming empathy for Jane – a sweet, young girl in a big, strange house – that anyone who doesn’t count this among their Top 20 books can scarcely be human!

I nearly forgot Bassani, who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I read this while I was on holiday in Italy last summer (see this post on it). At the time, I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was utterly spectacular. It was only afterwards, that I found I kept on thinking about it, and began to see that really it was a rather subtle masterpiece – Bassani created a lingering poignancy, which still haunts me today.

But, when all’s said and done, no other B can beat Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte has to be the winner.


Now C is an embarrassing letter for me. Not in a Lady Chatterley way, but because it shows up so many gaps in my reading. I know, from various friends and colleagues, that the following C-authors are fantastic: Michael Chabon, Raymond Carver, John le Carre, Wilkie Collins, Albert Camus. I can hardly bring myself to admit this, but I haven’t read any of them. No, not even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not even Kavalier and Clay. Not even L’Etranger.

I suppose one very useful aspect of this exercise is in showing up the gaps. I must stop making excuses and just get round to reading some of these books!

So, for C, I’ve hopped over to poetry. To Coleridge and to Chaucer and yet another tricky decision. I’m not sure there’s much that’s better than ‘Kubla Khan’. And there’s the great opium story that goes with it. But Chaucer … he’s up there with Shakespeare, I don’t think it would be right to knock him off the top spot.

We read rather a lot of Chaucer at university. Here and here are earlier posts about the dream poems, and everyone knows about The Canterbury Tales, but it’s Troilus and Criseyde that seals the deal for me. It’s magnificent. And the character Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, who persuades Criseyde of Troilus’s virtues, gives us the word ‘pander’.

Yes, C has to be Chaucer.

Any disagreements? Any omissions? Let me know … In the meantime, I’ll start weighing up the Ds, Es and Fs.