By TOBY LICHTIG
Amid all the outcry and ill feeling surrounding Ken Livingstone’s Hitler-was-a-Zionist “gaffe”, it’s probably worth referring to a few historical facts. I’m not sure which history book the former London mayor has been reading, but it presumably isn’t Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), in which we can find (on page 67, should Livingstone wish to consult it) a very clear explanation of the Reich’s policy on Palestine:
By MICHAEL CAINES
"Found on the Shelves": you may have already spotted this pocket-friendly series of little books in the bookshops. A collaboration between the ever-elegant Pushkin Press and the London Library, it includes a volume called On Reading, Writing and Living with Books that celebrates the prestigious literary history of the London Library itself by offering a selection of short pieces by former members: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leigh Hunt and E. M. Forster. But also: Virginia Woolf's essay "How Should One Read a Book?". It's described here as simply "published in 1932", although its earliest version is a talk Woolf delivered at a school in the mid-1920s. It gives the impression, in any case, of the maturest consideration, so that the title's simple-sounding question – how should you read a book? you pick it up, open it, turn to the first page etc, answers every smart alec or alice, first time round – actually gives on to a prospect of deep critical wisdom . . . .
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
As France prepares to host the Euro championships this summer, it’s a sobering thought that it’s probably an event the country’s security services could happily do without. But on the field of play itself, the hosts have deprived themselves of their star striker Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), over the matter of a sex tape that implicated another player, Mathieu Valbuena. It’s an unsavoury episode with a suggestion of blackmail. The manager Didier Deschamps (captain of the World Cup winners in 1998, and of the European champions two years later) decided that it simply wasn’t possible to overlook Benzema’s errant behaviour.
By MICHAEL CAINES
I took a tour of Shakespeare's England yesterday morning – without leaving central London.
It seemed like the right time to do it. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death has inspired an extraordinary number of exhibitions and events. I feel as if I reached "peak Bard" some time ago, following the previews for By me William Shakespeare and the BFI's Shakespeare on Film season (where Sir Ian McKellen restated his view, as in his Richard III, that updated or contemporary costumes can help viewers to understand what's going on in the plays). Nevertheless, there has been much more to enjoy. . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
Some writers float in and out and then back into fashion (no more about John Williams's Stoner for now, please); some sink like the obviously solid objects they are; others seem to become lily pads fit for the critical frogs to bask on, thinking their fine, fly-focused thoughts. (There must be more types, but mercifully I'm out of rubbish metaphors.) Charlotte Brontë, in case you were in any doubt, seems never to have been in any danger of losing buoyancy – she was born 200 years ago today, and has been assured of some kind of attention since 1847 at least, when the publication of Jane Eyre by "Currer Bell" triggered such excitement and curiosity about the pseudonymous author. The novel's immediate reception is well known: Elizabeth Rigby's damning of its "gross inconsistencies and improbabilities", as well as Jane's "unregenerate and undisciplined spirit"; G. H. Lewes's enthusiasm for this "utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit". What happened after that?
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
On Thursday night I watched Brian May emerge from underneath a woman’s skirt. Being on stage, commanding an audience – it’s nothing new for Queen’s lead guitarist. What is new is his focus on Victorian crinolines or, to be more precise, stereoscopic photographs of them.
The craze for these undergarments in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the invention of the stereoscope, May told us last week at the launch of his new book, Crinoline: Fashion’s most magnificent disaster, co-written with Denis Pellerin (they call it a “disaster” because the undergarment was a significant fire hazard: there were around 300 deaths a year from fire accidents during the crinoline’s peak). Stereoscopic cards, dubbed by the press as the “Poor man’s picture gallery”, presented scenes, such as the Egyptian pyramids and crocodiles, in life-like 3-D to a public that had never seen or experienced anything quite like it before.
By SAMUEL GRAYDON
On entering 50 Albemarle Street, I felt as Ali Baba might have as the stone was rolled back from the mouth of the thieves’ cave. For an inconspicuous white town house, a minute’s walk from Green Park underground station, it certainly held more than its fair share of treasures. This was John Murray’s house and, from 1768 to 2002, it was the site of operations for the publisher that bears his name. I was directed up a wide staircase to the first floor where, in a room with grand bookshelves and gold wallpaper, lay a spread of tea, coffee, pastries and fruit (and, oddly, Bloody Marys). This was the “Frankenstein Breakfast” of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. Evidently, Frankenstein went for the Continental.
We were celebrating the winners of the 2016 Keats-Shelley Prize for poetry and essays on the theme “After Frankenstein” (for the bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel), and the winners of the Young Romantics Prize, for sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds, now in its second year. The Association had organized a reading, by the actors Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis, of extracts from Frankenstein intermingled with extracts from Shelley’s diary, arranged by the poet Pele Cox.
By RUPERT SHORTT
Before visiting Malta a few days ago, I’d thought of it as a place of many quiet charms, but few if any superlatives. I was only right about the charms. Among other things, I’d failed to grasp the power and reach of the Knights of St John, who ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, lavishing their wealth on a network of churches, palaces and fortifications that rival much of baroque Rome.
In any case, though, the country’s importance long predates the time of the Knights. First settled by Sicilian farmers in around 4000 BC, Malta and the adjoining island of Gozo contain clover-shaped megalithic temples built several centuries afterwards, but not unearthed until the Victorian era. Later in antiquity came periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Romans (under whose watch St Paul was shipwrecked on the island, c.AD 60), Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. After the last Norman king died without an heir in the late twelfth century, Malta was controlled by Swabians, Angevins and Aragonese in turn. It was a Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who offered the Knights of St John a home on the island after they had lost their foothold on Rhodes to Arab invaders.
By DAVID COLLARD
The author Neil Griffiths runs an engagingly low-tech YouTube channel on which he delivers informal off-the-cuff literary monologues straight to camera, occasionally swigging from a glass of red wine. While preparing a broadcast about his favourite novels of 2015 (see above), he realized that they had all originated with small independent publishers and this was, he says, "a Damascene moment that turned me into an evangelist".
Griffiths brings a convert's enthusiasm and energy to the publishing revolution that has emerged over the past few years – an equivalent, if you like, of micro-breweries, artisanal bakeries and hipster pop-up bars.
Griffiths's Betrayal in Naples (2004) won the Writers’ Club First Novel Award, and Saving Caravaggio was shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel Award in 2007. At the end of February this year, after mulling over that Damascene moment, he launched the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, open to UK and Irish publishers employing no more than five full-time members of staff. Each publisher can submit a novel or single-author collection of short stories. A shortlist of eight books, decided by a group of independent booksellers, will be confirmed at the end of the year, and the winners announced in February 2017. Griffiths freely admits there is a "selfish reason" for launching the prize – he wants his third novel Family of Love to be published by an independent publisher because it is, he says, a "subtle" book about faith that would be "difficult for a major publisher to get on board with" (Griffiths's previous novels were published by Penguin).
By MICHAEL CAINES
A ventriloquist's dummy was one of the more unusual exhibits on display in the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library a couple of years ago. The dummy represented a character who owes something to Dickens's Mr Micawber (as the ODNB puts it): "bulb-nosed, bald-headed, spindle-shanked, bespatted big boots, batter-hatted, and of course booze-nosed . . .". Ally Sloper was a rent-dodging rogue (as his name suggests, slopes up an alley to avoid paying up) and, unusually among the other "nineteenth-century precursors to the twentieth-century industry" (I'm lazily quoting myself here) in the BL's exhibition, a comic character popular enough to escape the confines of the page.
Several cartoonists produced Sloper-centric series, which had originated in the pages of London's weekly "Serio-Comic Journal" Judy (established as a rougher-and-readier riposte to Punch) in 1867. By 1884 this rogue had grown sufficiently in popularity for him to have a weekly of his own: Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. Only one cartoonist, however, has just had an online archive of her work launched at the Guildhall Library . . . .
By BRYAN KARETNYK
Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".
"Barrage Balloons" by Eric Ravilious – copyright Towner gallery
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Claude Debussy probably didn’t have the English Channel in mind when he wrote La Mer. He did, however, complete the piece while staying in Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel in the summer of 1905. The Grand still stands elegantly on the seafront. A few minutes’ walk away from the seafront is the Towner gallery, a modern space (all concrete and glass) dedicated to contemporary art. The Towner, together with the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, forms a fine trio of galleries all within 25 miles of each other on the South coast. Brighton, further west up the coast and home to two universities and several art colleges, has nothing to match them.
Recording Britain, an attractive small exhibition at the Towner (until May 2, admission free), draws on work from the V&A’s collections. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Kenneth Civilisation Clark “commissioned artists to paint ‘places and buildings of characteristic national interest’, documenting rural and urban environments and precious buildings under threat, not only from bombs but from the effects of ‘progress’ and development”. The project resulted in 1,500 watercolours, which went on show around the country in order to, in Clark’s words, “inspire the war effort and boost public morale”. Forty-nine of these works are on display in Eastbourne.
One of the pleasures of press day (on any paper, I should hope) is seeing readers' letters fall into place on the page, and marvelling at the unique knowledge they're prepared to share (when they're not spoiling for a fight, that is). The example below, from this week's issue of the TLS, begins as a response to some observations in the paper's NB column about the current scarcity of decent second-hand bookshops in Oxford, and turns into something else . . . .
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
When J. M. G. (full name Jean-Marie Gustave) Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in 2008, the Swedish Academy called him “an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”. This strikes me as a fine specimen of the higher waffle; either that or – “beyond and below the reigning civilization”? – something was lost in translation. And yet I can see what they mean. Le Clézio has long focused on the marginalized and downtrodden in society, using his novels as a means to explore issues such as sexual exploitation, political oppression and environmental degradation. It hasn’t always made for good fiction; his last two published (and as yet untranslated) novels, Ourania (2005), and Ritournelle de la faim, published weeks before the Nobel announcement, come to mind.
But when Le Clézio is good, he’s very good. His first novel, Le Procès-verbal, published in 1963 when he was twenty-three and translated as The Interrogation, remains a strange and brilliant book. Some critics saw affinities with the nouveau roman but I think it’s out on its own: experimental, yes, but completely original. It’s arguably his best book.
By MICHAEL CAINES
You might think twice about buying eBooks after reading this. Sainsbury's takes over Nook e-books business in the UK. Apple to pay $450m settlement over US ebook price fixing. "End of the beginning for e-books", says Tamblyn (i.e. Michael Tamblyn, the CEO of the ebook service Kobo). I was prompted to look up the latest headlines about ebooks by the Channel 4 news story above, called "All in a bind".
The story stars a bookbinder whose work I've admired for some time now, Michael Curran of the Tangerine Press, as well as that man of many talents, Billy Childish – both of them have interesting things to say, I think, within the rather straitened either/or context of this report. It tells us that we live in an age of analogue versus digital, books versus ebooks, traditional craftsmanship versus PDFs and print-on-demand. Does it really have to be like this?
By TOBY LICHTIG
The Man Booker International longlist was announced last week and I’m pleased to report that the TLS has covered – or is poised to cover – all thirteen books on it. It’s an interesting selection, pleasingly diverse, and it affirms, I think, the current rude health of literary translation.
The award is a new-look prize, folding in the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (sponsored by the soon-to-be-defunct Independent print product) with the former Man Booker International Prize, which was a rather odd biennial award for a body of work published in English or available in English translation. The new Man Booker International will run every year and is awarded for a single novel, published in the past year in English translation. The prize money is £50,000 – to be shared between the author and translator. The other shortlistees each get £2,000, to be shared in the same way.
By MICHAEL CAINES
A declaration of interest: I am a Liar. And I am not only a Liar, but a proudly unionized Liar: for I am a founding member of the notorious Liars' League.
This organization's sole purpose is a noble one: to bring together two species of Liar, actors and writers, to entertain an audience for one evening every month with a selection of short stories. The writers write, the actors read (sometimes doing the police in different voices), the audience listens and, as the Liars' League slogan has it, "everybody wins". I'm very much on the fringe of the group but, from that perspective, it appears to be a formula that works.
And as Liars' League approaches its ninth anniversary and its 100th event (not counting those hosted by its offshoots in New York, Hong Kong, Portland, Blackpool and various literary festivals), it would seem to prove something else, too: that that rotten old lie about the short story being dead is the worst one of the lot . . . .
By DAVID COLLARD
Some lines from the poem "Behaviour of Money" by Bernard Spender (Poems 1940–1942) came to mind on a balmy Saturday afternoon earlier this month, when I attended a one-day event called The Maximum Wage: A performance publishing extravaganza.
"The poor were shunted nearer to beasts. The cops recruited.
The rich became a foreign community. Up there leaped
quiet folk gone nasty,
quite strangely distorted, like a photograph that has slipped."
Hosted by the artists David and Ping Henningham, collaborating as Henningham Family Press, Maximum Wage was inspired by an observation made by George Orwell in his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" (1941): "A man with £3 a week and a man with £1,500 a year can feel themselves fellow creatures, which the Duke of Westminster and the sleepers on the Embankment benches cannot".
Camp set by migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border near the Greek village of Idomeni, on March 10, 2016. Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Cradle of the Enlightenment. Birthplace of many wonderful writers and composers, and home to some of the finest works of art and architecture. But Europe has also been the site of innumerable religious and civil conflicts. And, of course, in the past century the continent experienced two catastrophic wars and one of the greatest crimes in history. What is now the European Union was founded in the 1950s partly in an attempt to ensure that hostilities wouldn’t break out on the continent again. It wasn’t able to prevent the non-EU member Yugoslavia from erupting into civil war in 1992–5, and the country’s consequent break-up into six sovereign states. But France and Germany have been locked together in a permanent loving embrace. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the continent effectively disappeared behind the Iron Curtain before re-emerging in the late 1980s and early 90s. Then came the euro, and the expansion of the Union, to its current membership of twenty-eight countries (minus that serial non-joiner right in the middle, Switzerland), with several more waiting to join: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and – more problematically – Turkey.
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In the latest episode of TLS Voices, Sam Graydon explores Robert Browning's crucial role in the development of the dramatic monologue, with a selection of readings from his works:
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