By PETER STOTHARD
A call from Oxford: why am I writing about Roman toilets and sewers in The Spectator rather than the TLS.
By PETER STOTHARD
A call from Oxford: why am I writing about Roman toilets and sewers in The Spectator rather than the TLS.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria instructing their children; a political alphabet frames the image. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1843. (Wellcome Images)
By MICHAEL CAINES
Zombie-like? Let me explain. In case you're not familiar with it, we started running a TLS Poem of the Week several years ago, when the late Mick Imlah was poetry editor. Mick's early choices, laconically prefaced with some apposite remarks, included Philip Larkin's "Aubade" and Stevie Smith's "Pretty". More recent examples of verses first published in the paper, now selected by Andrew McCulloch for an online revival, include "Re-reading Jane" by Anne Stevenson, "Holbein" by Geoffrey Hill and John Hartley Williams's take on "Le Bateau ivre". These weekly poems have come to reflect a world of possibilities, it seems to me – of the literary imagination from A to Z. . . .
Andrei Zorin's account of War and Peace as Tolstoy's "total explanation of the current state of Russia" is now freely available on our website. This is just one horse in a Tolstoyan troika, however, passing splendidly through the village at pace: anyone who is curious, or even passionate, about Tolstoy will find more to enjoy in this week's TLS, as a glance at the issue's contents page will reveal.
That glance won't reveal the unsung feats of our pictures editor Martin Smith in bringing together, as illustrations for the same issue, a kind of miniature picture gallery inspired by the Russian master, including art by the Russian master himself: his doodles in a manuscript of Anna Karenina. . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
It's practical criticism time again (when is it not? I hear you say). Here’s the opening of a novel. Who wrote it? No shouting at the back if you already know:
"Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
They crossed the country on a rambling southwest line in an old Citroën sedan, keeping mostly to secondary roads, traveling in fits and starts. They stopped in three places along the way before reaching their final destination: first in Rhode Island, where the tall man with the black hair worked in a textile mill; then in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked for three months on a tractor assembly line; and finally in a small California town near the Mexican border, where he pumped gas and worked at repairing small foreign cars with an amount of success that was, to him, surprising and gratifying."
The novelist and regular TLS contributor Jonathan Barnes recently showed this passage to a group of creative writing students and challenged them to name the author. Any ideas?
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
I only ask what may seem a rather self-regarding question because I was recently made aware of the existence of an essay entitled “Sur le style du Times Literary Supplement” by Maxime Cohen. (Thank you to TLS reader and contributor George Walden for the tip-off.)
The essay appears in Promenades sous la lune (Grasset), a wide-ranging collection, as the titles suggest: “Petit éloge des ordinateurs” (in praise of computers), “Des vins”, “De la plus courte scène érotique de la littérature française”, “Au sujet d’Aristote”. Cohen, who is (or at least was when the book appeared in 2008) a librarian in Paris – well, more grandly, “conservateur général des bibliothèques” – is an essayist of the old school, prefacing his pieces with well-chosen epigraphs and eschewing an index. His “Propos sur l’e muet” (on the silent e) is particularly well turned and opens: “L’e muet ou muette est la plus grande beauté de la langue française”. And in this case the epigraph, from Voltaire writing to M. Deodati de Tovazzi on January 24, 1762, is so good that I quote it in full:
Vous nous reprochez nos e muets comme un son triste et sourd qui expire dans notre bouche; mais c’est précisément dans ces e muets que consiste la grande harmonie de notre prose et de nos vers. Empire, couronne, diadème, flamme, tendresse, victoire; toutes ces désinences heureuses laissent dans l’oreille un son qui subsiste encore après le mot prononcé, comme un clavecin qui résonne quand les doigts ne frappent plus les touches.
(roughly translated: “you reproach us our silent es as a sad and mute sound that expires in the mouth; but it’s precisely in these silent es that the great harmony of our prose and verse consists . . . ; all these happy word endings leave a sound that continues after the word has been uttered, like a harpsichord that resonates after the fingers have touched the keys")
The TLS essay turns out not to be particularly about the paper’s supposed style and more about the English essay tradition (but it’s good to know that a reader as discriminating as Cohen clearly sees the paper). He does point out how a TLS reviewer will “patiently pick out the errors of a historian who is in all other respects an established academic”. That rings true enough.
But is there such a thing as TLS style? A hundred years ago, as the excerpt at the top of the post shows, there was a certain formality: Mrs. Wharton’s repeated references to “Mr. James” would grate on the modern ear, and we are not told that the Mr. James in question is Henry James – obvious though it would have been to readers at the time.
I should say that I don't have an objection to the use of "Mr" or "Mrs" in a review – indeed it's sometimes appropriate and displays old-fashioned courtesy (rather than heavy sarcasm). But it can pall if it appears repeatedly.
When I started out on the paper, I was told that we referred to authors reviewed initially by their full name, and then by their title and surname and then just by the surname, before rounding off with the full name. The latter strikes me as unnecessary and liable to produce a jarring effect in a concluding paragraph – we don’t bother with it now – but we will, I hope, always overrule the occasional academic tendency to refer to authors just by their surnames from the outset.
The Times recently had a style overhaul, dispensing with what they saw as redundant capitalizations. Maybe we’re a little bit guilty of this at the TLS, i.e. “the West”, and should think again. It is the 21st century after all. Watch this space.
Karl Ove Knausgaard aims to capture “the tedious, repetitive and microscopic” aspects of life – and he has done so in a six-volume, 3,500 page novel in Norwegian called My Struggle. Pram-pushing, nappy-changing and the school run are some of the subjects on which he lingers. So too, the entry of bacteria into the heart, certain English rocks songs, and the impact of milk upon breakfast cereal. This week Thomas Meaney reviews the third part of the whole to appear in Don Bartlett’s “superb work” of English translation, making the preliminary judgement that its “extreme artlessness creates a far more intense realism than we might have thought possible, a confessional novel that outdoes most confessions”.
For the Emperor Vespasian the contents of a baby’s nappy would have been a potential new income source. As Greg Woolf describes, urine provided some of the essential chemicals for cleaning and brightening the woollen cloth that Romans used for togas and other uniforms of their day. The fuller’s trade was essential and profitable if little sung in history and literature. The phrase pecunia non olet (money has no smell) is attributed to Vespasian as a response to a fastidious complaint from his son and successor, Titus, about so unsavoury an addition to the tax take.
The smell of money is a matter of concern, sometimes akin to desperation, for those seeking to punish the rulers of Russia and Ukraine for the problems of Crimea. Confiscating the dirty assets of oligarchs would be one of the easier sanctions if one could sniff out what and where they were. John Lloyd, reviewing two books about supporters and opponents of Vladimir Putin, describes the depth of the new corruption and its links to the “centuries old norm” of survival that requires enriching those above one in the hierarchy as flagrantly as one enriches oneself.
Few of our literary critics have been as consistent sniffers out of the decadent rich as the Oxford professor and Sunday Times reviewer John Carey. D. J. Taylor praises the memoir of a writer and scholar who never found much to like in the Bright Young Things.
By MICHAEL CAINES
Good proofreaders and sub-editors, we are told from time to time, are in short supply; but for many years the TLS was lucky to have what its former Editor, Ferdinand Mount, described as the Rolls-Royce service of two superbly tenacious correctors of grammar and spelling, pursuers of stray facts and upholders of consistency in house style. One of this team was the late Keith Walker – "a tall, elegant figure in a grey suit, with a packet of Gitanes perpetually to hand", as our diarist recalled. Those were the days, I remember, when you could still smoke in an office.
The other, Richard Brain (above), has just died at the age of eighty-five. One of John Gross's last appointments to the staff of the TLS, he worked on the paper, a retirement or two aside, for over a quarter of a century, after a notable career at Oxford University Press. There, as Literary Editor of OUP's General Division, he helped, among other things, to secure Athol Fugard's reputation on this side of the world and co-edited a new and greatly expanded edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
These achievements equipped him, like Keith, to write authoritative reviews on unfortunate attempts to occupy the same territory (he gave the Times Book of Quotations magnificently short shrift) and the occasional book or film. His first piece, for example, on the Uncollected Poems of John Betjeman, begins by suggesting that it's the kind of book that might be, as it were, "good for a few stops", "like a 104 bus when you're waiting at the Archway for a 43 or a 134 to take you to Muswell Hill", but ends with a warning about the "gushing, derivative foreword by Bevis Hillier which fills one with foreboding about the forthcoming multi-volume biography". And there's an enviable side-swipe towards the end of his piece on Dead Poets Society, that "romance of adolescent hopes and supposings", about the cast of "barely professional actors (Robin Williams not excluded)".
There were enthusiasms, too, though, to counter the barbs, as well as the anecdotes and benefits of his experiences in the publishing world – translating Georges Simenon, having dinner (mainly rice pudding, apparently) with Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, corresponding with Nancy Mitford. How many tyros and their typos he must have put right over the years.
John Horne Burns was once “extravagantly acclaimed” and is now “virtually forgotten” writes Eric Ormsby this week, reviewing David Margolick’s “excellent and highly readable biography” of a writer who illuminated the sexual life of Americans in Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War. Burns’s once bestselling novel was called The Gallery, after the nineteenth-century city centre arcade where Italian men and women offered sex to GIs in exchange for cigarettes and gum. Burns was fearless, for his time, in writing “what is often cited as the first open description of homosexual life in American literature”. To be gay was to be “dreadful” – both as noun and adjective, a code word that worked its way into popular comedy of the 1950s. Dos Passos and Hemingway were impressed by The Gallery, but Burns died of sunstroke in 1953, despondent, suggests Ormsby, at the later trajectory of his career.
During the war, Burns was both a brutally frank observer and a censor of letters from prisoners of war. Eric Bulson considers the paradoxes of an earlier generation of censors struggling to deal with the national interest and with vigorous descriptions of sex. The neologisms of James Joyce caused difficulties for authorities around the world. Americans saw the publication of Ulysses in the 1930s as a brave response to book-burnings by Hitler even though Ulysses was not, in fact, banned in Germany till 1938.
Burns was a failed novelist before he reached Italy, and his biographer argues that it was the war which removed his “ungenügender Selbstsucht”, a term for the insatiable love of self which he found in “Harzreise im Winter” by Goethe. W. Daniel Wilson describes how the “exaggerated Goethe cult” in Germany today sits uneasily with the stories, still hidden in Weimar archives, of how the Nazis used the writer, who is “still a central touchstone for national identity”. Wilson recommends that the street in Goethe’s home town named after his Archive’s “committed and active anti-Semite” director, Hans Wahl, should be renamed for Julius Wahle, his Jewish predecessor.
Our late and much-loved friend Christopher Hitchens liked to speak of places that produced more local history than they could consume: Cyprus and Ireland were two of them and Crimea is most certainly another. The news stories this week from Ukraine bring back again the surplus stock of war and deportations, sullen minorities, mythic heroism and the mess made by all those distinguishing right from wrong from a distance. The TLS leaves news to others but there are twentieth-century echoes this week in the letters of the American poet, critic and Stalinist sympathizer Malcolm Cowley, reviewed by Marc Robinson. Cowley was “a dedicated fellow traveller but never a Communist Party member”, an artist who saw himself both near to and far from the camps, the famines and the show trials. The letters, “sensitively compiled and annotated by Hans Bak”, return compulsively to the question of his loyalties, the paralysis of his inaction and the “normal instinct” for comity with Russia. Our Commentary explores the poetry of Varlam Shalamov, the author of Kolyma Tales, generally recognized by Russians as “the greatest work of literature about the Gulag”. His poems, unpublished before perestroika and bowdlerized since, are about writing, reading, religion and a distance from the external world. Influencing Tomorrow is a book co-edited by Douglas Alexander, the man who may be dealing with Moscow if Labour wins the British election next year. Charles King notes “the combination of hubris and timorousness that is the stock-in-trade of the foreign policy establishment in Western democracies”.
Kathleen Burk reviews “a convincing and important contribution to national and international history” by Richard Roberts, noting the decisive response by David Lloyd George to the little-remembered financial crisis of 1914. David Watkin praises an unusual account of the colours that have come to be typical of Rome over the centuries, four of which appear on our cover this week. The Renaissance past, it seems, was paler than we might expect. The deluxe edition of John Sutcliffe’s book contains nine essential pigments for producing the more familar effects at home.
Later this year the voters of Scotland will answer “yes” or “no” to the question of their independence. Campaigning by those in favour of and those against a united kingdom is well under way, the latest battlefield being the future of the Scottish pound and the reluctance of all parties in London, themselves united as on little else, to underwrite the feared extravagances of nationalism. The year of the vote has been carefully chosen by those who seek a “yes”, 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the unexpected victory of Robert Bruce over the army of Edward II, an event, as Kathryn Sutherland writes this week, which so powerfully represents “the literary imagination in politics”. The book under review is Bannockburns by Robert Crawford, which, while offering “a severely distorted picture of Scottish writing”, stands proudly in a long history of wars of words.
Calcutta’s history is better understood as written in violence, beginning, as Siddhartha Deb argues, with thuggish British tax collectors, and passing through, inter alia, liberation, communism and an influential fashion for burning trams in the streets. Deb is reviewing Amit Chaudhuri’s account of two years in a city struggling with the modernity that the author “loves so much”, increasingly divided between the well-walled rich and the farcommuting poor.
Chris Woolgar looks at the British wars in India as background to the organization required to defeat Napoleon. The campaign against Tipu Sultan in 1799 gave Colonel Wellesley both the booty and the experience of command that made him Duke of Wellington.
“Sex and philosophy have always existed in close but perilous proximity”, declares Nicholas Vincent at the start of his review of The Letter Collection of Abelard and Heloise. A twelfth-century correspondence between two intellectual lovers, a teacher and his pupil who became castrato and nun, has been the basis of many a romantic fiction. In this 800-page critical edition, edited by David Luscombe and translated by Betty Radice, Heloise’s language, even when kneeling at mass, is “startlingly explicit”.
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