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Archive for the ‘Appreciations’ Category

Art for a Mary Shelley t-shirt available from the ThinkGeek webstore

It is a fine time for Finds to be returning Miranda Seymour’s greatly praised Mary Shelley to print. On first publication in 2001 the book was hailed by the FT’s reviewer as “the most dazzling biography of a female writer to have come my way for an entire decade.” And 2011 has already proved to be a year of passionately renewed interest in The Woman Who Wrote Frankenstein – her life, her legend and enigma retain all their powers to enthrall. Danny Boyle’s new staging of Shelley’s most famous novel has been a huge success for the National Theatre (your correspondent wrote on the subject for the Guardian back in February) and the fascination of readers with the ‘tangled lives’ of the circle of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley has been evinced yet again by the great reception afforded to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics.
Merely to know that Mary Shelley completed Frankenstein when not quite 19 is to be aware this was no ordinary young woman. But Mary’s exceptionality began with her parentage: her father was the radical novelist/thinker William Godwin, her mother the intrepid proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who died of septicaemia 12 days after giving birth to her – a grievous inheritance for any child.
Wollstonecraft’s life is rather better known than her writing – partly because the widower Godwin wrote an impassioned memoir of her, including details of her unmarried motherhood and various love affairs which aroused a deal of public disapproval. Mary certainly read her father’s memoir, and her mother’s books, including the famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman. How far had the apple fallen from the tree? Well, in describing Wollstonecraft as ‘feminist’ one intends to say above all that she was a model of self-reliance and that her passionate concern was with how the potential of her sex could be freed by education. And young Mary did indeed get the benefit of a good, advanced education, though her father was in other ways an unhelpfully remote figure. Still, it may be that no small part of the appeal to Mary of Godwin’s protégé Percy Bysshe Shelley was the aura Shelley exuded of a readiness to live out the ideals of Mary’s parents.
Of course, the romance of Mary and Shelley proved to be no giddy jaunt, much less a seamless union of minds. Clearly Percy Bysshe offered her good editorial advice in the writing of Frankenstein, the fame of which would enable her to eclipse his literary star for a while. But the fact remains that of Mary’s five pregnancies with Shelley only one child survived into adulthood. She suffered profound depressions, and grew to build up resilient defences against the outside world. In the end she would outlive all the luminaries of the ‘Pisa circle’: a lone mother, Shelley’s flame-keeper, author of many volumes though none to rival her hideous progeny Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley we may say there was a sort of ungovernable daring but also, over time and perforce, a driving need for social ‘respectability’. And these dual forces are twinned to a degree in her work.

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Francis King, who died on Sunday July 3 aged 88, was among the leading English novelists of our time. “In a career that extended into its seventh decade,” DJ Taylor asserted in an obituary notice for the Independent, ‘[King] wrote at least half a dozen novels that deserve a place in the late 20th-century canon.’ Finds is proud to be the publisher of no fewer than eight of King’s unfailingly excellent novels (including A Domestic Animal, which was longlisted for the retrospective 1970 Booker Prize.)
A Domestic Animal, for all its accomplishment, was a work that caused King no small measure of pain both through its inspiration and its reception, as he discussed feelingly in a contribution to the Finds website. He did not make things easy for himself; and Ion Trewin’s obituary for the Guardian reflects interestingly on why King’s achievements are perhaps not as widely known as they ought to be:
‘If, commercially, [King] failed to reach the top rung of the fiction ladder he blamed himself. “I have never wished to be identified with only one type of fiction,” he wrote in 1976. “Perhaps this has harmed me in popular esteem; the public tends to like its novelists to write the same novel over and over again.” One further explanation for his lack of commercial popularity was what King himself recognised as his “profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world”. Others identified melancholy in his work.’
King was for 25 years one of the Sunday Telegraph‘s principal book reviewers, and for 10 years its theatre critic. The Telegraph‘s obituary proposes that King was committed to giving his readers a less comfortable literary experience than the more run-of-the-mill entertainer:
‘[King’s] 28 novels show a recurring fascination with the louche and the bizarre, which he would sometimes introduce casually, but with shocking effect, in the course of an otherwise urbanely careful narrative.’
One testament to the high regard in which King was held by his friends is evinced by how many of them have made small but significant contributions to these obituaries. Jonathan Fryer adds a supplement to the Guardian obituary (and also composed an In Memoriam at his own blog.) Maureen Duffy also made an addition to the Guardian obit in respect of King’s role in lobbying for a Public Lending Right for British authors. And Julian Machin contributed a postscript to the Independent notice, relating King’s enthusiasm for E.M. Forster, and noting his posthumous awarding of the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal.
On the Finds list alongside A Domestic Animal you will also find the following works by Francis King:
The Widow (1957)
The Custom House (1961)
Act of Darkness (1983)
Voices in an Empty Room (1984)
The Woman Who Was God (1988)
Punishments (1989)
The One and Only (1994)
Here at Finds we join in the sadness at Francis King’s passing, and we commend these and indeed all of his novels to any discerning reader in search of the best in fiction.

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With Alan Hackney’s I’m All Right Jack newly reissued in Finds it’s obviously much, much too good a chance to miss that we sneak in a couple of choice moments from the Boulting brothers’ classic 1959 Ealing screen adaptation of the novel, starring Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. Sellers’ performance as Fred Kite is probably still rated as one of his finest, and thought to be a reasonably faithful portrait (however comic/sardonic) of an enduringly recognisible British workplace ‘type’. I don’t know, though – after all it’s 50 years since this film was in cinemas – does Fred Kite really remind you of anyone these days…?

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Your correspondent, being also a novelist, tends to fight shy of statements about what The Novel ought to be and what novelists ought properly to concern themselves with. My general hope (without meaning to imply a Maoist line on the matter) is that a hundred different flowers blossom in the field. But in that spirit I’m happy to own up to a particular admiration (among many) for a certain sort of novelist whose historical-cultural range and taste in subject matter is notably restless, ambitious and diverse. William Palmer is certainly one such novelist.
As David Lodge has put it, ‘Palmer’s fictions are notable for the variety of their subjects and settings, and for the consistency of their craftsmanship.’ You will find no obvious internal linkage between Palmer’s The Good Republic, Leporello, The Contract, The Pardon of Saint Anne, The India House or the story collection Four Last Things except for that craftsmanship and ‘precision’ to which Lodge pays tribute. I am pleased to say that The Good Republic, The Pardon of Saint Anne and Four Last Things are all available in Finds. And The Good Republic has a special pertinence for readers in this year that sees the twentieth anniversary of the independence of the Baltic republics Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A review of our Finds edition published in the Economist, which hails the novel unreservedly as a ‘classic’, is worth quoting at length:

Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider. It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40… Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.
All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.
The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.
Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.

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Memorial to journalist Jessie White on the facade of her former home in Lendinara, Italy

The excellent Bookslut site recently ran a fine review-essay by Jenny McPhee examining two new books from female American journalists who have reported from Afghanistan: Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. McPhee astutely opens her piece with reference to a title of great pertinence to this subject-area and one we are proud to offer in Faber Finds:

Anne Sebba’s Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square (1994) is a compendium of vignettes profiling dozens of female journalists over the past 150 years. An excellent addition to herstory, Sebba’s book covers all nature of journalist, notably the long tradition of the female war correspondent, beginning with Jessie White, who commenced her life-long career in 1860 embedded within the ranks of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, and ending with BBC journalist Katie Adie’s coverage of the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and the 1989 student revolt in Tiananmen Square. In story after story of intrepid women risking all in pursuit of the news, Sebba describes the systematic prejudice they encountered and their heroic battles to overcome myriad barriers in order to do their job.
In 1898, novelist Arnold Bennett wrote in Journalism for Women: A Practical Guide: “Is there any sexual reason why a woman should be a less accomplished journalist than a man? I can find none…” Yet as Sebba shows in the years since Bennett’s statement, the issue of a woman’s suitability for the profession has been constantly debated: During a war, are women a distraction to the soldiers and therefore dangerous? Are women emotionally biased, less objective, more partisan? Are they oriented more towards people rather than facts and statistics?

BTW the Independent‘s formidable political correspondent John Rentoul administers a justly celebrated slack/cheap-journalism-watch series entitled ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’, and I would say that familiar and chauvinist little troika that rounds off the Bookslut quotation could probably be admitted in toto...

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Consider this:
“As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be… I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability”…”
And now this:
“We few who were getting off at Cairo weren’t important, it seemed… We were being dropped in the desert, in that powdered sand and air like a hot cupboard that kept things the same for ever: hate and love, boredom and exhilaration, beauty and horror; Egypt dealt only in extremes, her weather extended the same charity to them all: to the flies and the maimed beggars on their trolleys in the cities; to the temple at Karnak and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was a place where nothing ever died – where death was always visible…”
The former is Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair in February 2011 on what he sees as the gloomy prospects for a revived post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter is Joseph Hone, an English novelist of espionage whose work is passionately admired but ought still to be better known – and this particular passage is from the early stages of The Private Sector (1967), the first of a quartet of novels centred around an unassuming but strangely trouble-making spy named Peter Marlow. And Finds is honoured to have all four Marlow novels on its list.
Hone has a superb advocate in the contemporary practitioner Jeremy Duns, who rates Hone as “one of the great spy novelists of the last century” and writes brilliantly here about the important distinction between ‘Field’ and ‘Desk’ in the genre. Duns describes Peter Marlow as:

“an MI6 desk man turned field agent… a wonderful character, and I think deserves to be as well known as [Le Carre’s] Smiley. He’s the constant outsider, peering in at others’ lives, meddling where he shouldn’t, and usually being set up by everyone around him… He is repeatedly being taken out of his grubby office in the Mid-East Section in Holborn and dragged into the line of fire. The plots come thick and fast, and feature ingenious twists, action, mayhem, chases, Esperanto smiles and high-octane affairs – all the great spy stuff you’d want. But it’s all wrapped up in prose so elegant, and characterization so subtle and pervasive, that you put the books down feeling you’ve just read a great work of literature.”

If you’re intrigued then I’d urge you to read Duns at length here, because his appreciation of Hone is deeply felt and most discerning. Duns rates The Private Sector as one of his favourite five novels of all time, and having just read it myself I can undoubtedly see the appeal. Hone beautifully captures the immediate aftermath of what historian Elizabeth Monroe famously called Britain’s Moment in the Middle East – a ‘moment’ of 40 years’ duration, wherein Britain endeavoured to lord over the local oil supplies and pull the strings of the region’s politics – only not by brute colonial rule, rather by a not-so-subtle form of coercion and king-making. (This all ended, of course, in the debacle of Suez, Anthony Eden’s sorry effort to brand Nasser a Hitlerian menace and unseat him by force, an effort thwarted when President Eisenhower effectively told Eden not to be silly – after which Britain would retain a measure of influence in Egypt, but a shamed and demoralized one – and this is precisely the sort of ugly/sinister spy-world evoked by Hone.)
Jeremy Duns quotes a Washington Post review that calls it just right: “[Hone’s] tone is nearly perfect – quiet, morbidly ironic, beautifully controlled and sustained, moodily introspective, occasionally humorous and more often bitter, with a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.” A third of the way through The Private Sector I thought I was reading a beautiful marriage of Orwell’s Burmese Days (in its evocation of profound British colonial torpor) and John Fante’s Ask The Dust (in its rendering of a hopeless, near-rebarbative love affair). But that is before the spy game truly gets underway, and Hone shifts gears to show his expertise in that department too.
The Private Sector is available to order here, and you will find links to the subsequent Marlow novels on the same page.

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‘I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech — and something of Dickens’ love for bravura — have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for)…’
(James Baldwin, 1952)
As a Harlem teenager– the oldest of nine children – just prior to WWII, James Baldwin for a while emulated his father by becoming a preacher in a small Pentecostal church. Today we have no difficulty in finding the influence of Biblical cadence in Baldwin’s famously fluid and eloquent writing style. He wrote a great deal and wrote nearly all of it superbly, devouring subject matter, for he was (famously) by his own estimation “a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent and hungry black cat.” But his elegance never hid or was intended to hide the force of his feeling about racism in America, the subject he would address most powerfully in The Fire Next Time (1963). ‘No black man,’ he once wrote, ‘can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of the white man.’
In 2008 Finds had the honour of returning to print James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, which was based on Campbell’s ten-year-acquaintance with Baldwin prior to the great man’s death in 1987, alongside interviews with his friends and his extensive correspondences. It’s a fantastic study by one of the best literary critics at work today, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly. You can sneak-preview extracts here and here. And James Campbell wrote interestingly here for the Guardian on the biographer’s use of sources, Baldwin’s letters in his case.
This Saturday March 19 at 2pm the National Film Theatre in London (as part of its ‘African Odysseys’ strand) is screening I Heard It Through A Grapevine, a 1980 documentary by director Dick Fontaine and producer Pat Hartley made in collaboration with James Baldwin and his brother David. The piece is about the survivors of the civil rights movement, and the state of the movement’s ideals twenty years after its inception. It finds Baldwin – who quit the US for Paris in 1948 but returned to be a participant in the civil rights struggle – returning once again to those American cities where that struggle began, starting in Washington and ending in Mississippi, putting the questions ‘What has happened to these people? What happened to this country? And what does this mean for the world?’ As such it’s an essential watch for anyone versed in or seeking access to the field of Baldwin Studies.
Below are some fascinating samples of Baldwin from YouTube.
The first is a remarkable CBS TV roundtable from 1963, discussing Dr King’s March on Washington and involving Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Sidney Poitier.
The second is a piece of the debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge University Union on October 26, 1965, the motion being “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
The third is the opening of the excellent 1989 documentary study James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.


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