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 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".
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
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 . . . .
"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . .". In the latest episode of TLS Voices (see below) we draw out the bicentennial celebrations for Jane Austen's Emma. As a forthcoming review in the TLS notes, the novel first appeared in print on December 23, 1815, after being advertised as published "this day" a week earlier; its title page, as above, is dated 1816, as was conventional for books published so late in the year. Walter Scott's perceptive review of it appeared in the Quarterly Review for October 1815, which seems to have actually appeared in March 1816. Within another few months, a few more reviews came out; they were generally kind, but hardly the stuff of literary legend . . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
Some are born to it, some achieve it, and some . . . you know what I'm talking about, of course: greatness. Whatever the Dickens that is.
Literary greatness does not necessarily apply to the author whose books you enjoy most. Or whose books induce the worthy aching in the brain that lead their readers to boast about having finished them on social media.
In any case, when one TLS contributor, Jonathan Barnes, interviewed another, D. J. Taylor, for the Dictionary of Literary Biography series, Taylor, the author of the recently published The Prose Factory, offered this intriguing answer:
By MICHAEL CAINES
There is a delirious moment in Simon Critchley's ABC of Impossibility when somebody asks him a question. It is not the question itself that disturbs him (or disturbs Critchley's alter ego at least, in this "experimental text of para-philosophical fragments working toward a poetic ontology"), but the name of the questioner:
From Simon Critchley's ABC of Impossibility. pic.twitter.com/OrdkpFhbXX— Michael Caines (@michaelscaines) October 27, 2015
Oddly, this neat little nightmare came to mind as I read about the ongoing debate concerning the Cecil Rhodes statue that both adorns and debases the façade of Oriel College, Oxford – it's a mental association I couldn't wholeheartedly trust. For the ponderous question, read the statue; for the name and the oppressive history to which the name is a clue, read "Cecil Rhodes" and the whole of the British imperial project – no, it doesn't quite work, does it . . . .
Morrissey fans may not be delighted by Ben Eastham's review of the novel List of the Lost in this week's TLS (December 18 & 25); our reviewer concludes, as many critics have done, that the legendary Mancunian song-writer has not transferred his exceptional talents from one genre to another. But they may gain a little satisfaction from spotting our Fiction Editor's subtle, un-signposted juxtaposition of that review with Claire Lowdon's of By Grand Station Central I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart, one of Morrissey's favourite books, and one which has been alluded to throughout his song-writing career.
"Grabs and devours" ("The Headmaster Ritual"), "louder than bombs" (an album title), "reel around the cafe" ("Reel Around The Fountain"), "rocks below" ("Shakespeare's Sister" – a multiply allusive title in itself), " . . . do you hear me where you sleep?", "the fierce last stand of all I have" ("Well I Wonder") are all phrases and lines from Smart's novel. And there are many, many more: a diligent fan has listed them – along with scores of other references to various films, songs and books – here.
By DAVID COLLARD
D'entre les Morts is a modestly competent psychological thriller by the French writing duo known as Boileau-Narcejac, first published in 1954. It's fair to say that it would attract little attention today had it not formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The novel was recently republished in English, and I was delighted to be given the chance to review it, because the film has been a personal obsession since I saw a faded print screened in a Manchester flea-pit nearly forty years ago. After multiple viewings it remains as fresh and complex and alluring as ever, one of a handful of films that deserve and repay close attention over decades. It is an undisputed masterpiece, although on its release in 1958 the director's forty-fifth feature met with a lukewarm reception and would not appear in the Sight & Sound critics' poll until 1982, when it came seventh. In the most recent poll it was voted the greatest film of all time, displacing Citizen Kane, which had occupied the top spot since the poll began fifty years ago. Such lists count for little, but if pushed I'd argue that Hitchcock is a greater director than Orson Welles while Welles is the greater artist. This is the kind of distinction that used to prompt heated exchanges in the bar of the old National Film Theatre, spiritual home to many a passionate cineaste.
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