Posts Tagged ‘london review of books’

The classic novel by Jean Rhys, whose definitive biography is now in Finds

It’s my pleasure to unveil another strong, diverse and enticing selection of titles newly reissued in Finds as of this month. The nominees for your reading pleasure are:


A Spirit Rises – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Our second offering of stories from this brilliant and versatile author, much admired by (inter alia) Sarah Waters and Ali Smith. Dovegreyreader also offers a recent appreciation here.

A Test to Destruction – Henry Williamson
The eighth of the fifteen titles in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence, the numbers of whose readers in Finds appear to be growing daily…

The Bath Detective – Christopher Lee
The first in a thriller trilogy by the acclaimed novelist, historian and broadcaster whose own website is here.

Mark Only – T. F. Powys
The latest in our restoration to print of extraordinary works by the more austere of the prodigious Powys boys (see previous post here)…


Jean Rhys: Life and Work – Carole Angier
The definitive study of the melancholy author whose glorious final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, confirmed Al Alvarez in calling her “the best living English novelist.”

The Embattled Mountain – F. W. D. Deakin
Bill Deakin’s scintillating account of his WWII mission into Yugoslavia to locate and assess Tito and his Partisans. Our earlier post on Deakin is here, and Mark Wheeler’s tremendous New Introduction here.

Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War – Geoffrey Elliott & Harold Shukman
A gem of an insight into how certain bright young scholars of the 1950s (among them A. Bennett, M. Frayn and DM Thomas) sidestepped National Service so as to be instructed in Russian for the betterment of the Cold War effort. Fine Spectator review here, and more to come on this blog…

Enid Bagnold – Anne Sebba
Our latest from Anne Sebba, a marvellous study of the brilliant and controversial woman who wrote National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. See Anne’s personal author site here.

Lloyd George: From Peace to War, 1912-1916 – John Grigg
We continue to reissue Grigg’s magisterial sequence, hailed by the Telegraph as overall “one of the most brilliant biographies of recent times”, this third volume the winner of the Wolfson Prize.

East End My Cradle – Willy Goldman
An unforgettable, affectionate evocation of 1930s London life from an author hailed in his time as “a sort of Proust of the Whitechapel Road.” Longer appreciation to follow on this blog v soon…

The Coming of the Barbarians: A Story of Western Settlement in Japan 1853-1870 – Pat Barr
An evocative and apt title for Pat Barr’s indispensable account of the opening to Japan first forged by US Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry – a story that inspired, inter alia, Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History – Roy Foster
An inspired collection of thematically-linked essays praised in the LRB by Colm Toibin as ‘important and original’. (Toibin also hailed Foster as ‘the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation’, and his fascinating essay is fully available here.)

How the English Made the Alps – Jim Ring
An exciting anecdotal study of how 19th-century English poets, Christians and natural scientists sought out the highest peaks of Alpine glory, driven – as E.S. Turner put it in his LRB review – by “lust for adventure, scientific curiosity, vanity, national pride, the need for spiritual uplift, the geological urge to disprove Genesis, the expansion of railways, the tourist mania, the deathly pilgrimages of the tubercular and, finally, the primitive and irresistible joys of the piste…” Phew!


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Franz Kafka in 1906

One wants to mention in passing an event that has just passed by but which was, clearly, noteworthy – namely what I take to have been the first in the London Review of Books’ ‘winter season’ of lectures at the British Museum, given by Judith Butler and concerned with “the legal battle between the state of Israel and the German literary archive over the question of who owns Kafka’s work.” I confess, I was unaware that this battle was raging, but clearly it does make for an extraordinarily thorny set of contentions. For come-latelys like me Max Liu offers a first-rate write-up service on the event over at the excellent Bookmunch site. Moving from the specifics of the lecture to a more general but vital consideration of the Kafka legacy, Liu makes the following, very interesting observations:

By holding public lectures of this calibre at the British Museum, the LRB invites you to engage with criticism in whatever spirit you wish. Populist distinctions between academic discourses and the interests of general readers and writers are straw men, but it’s worth spelling out: the ideas at stake tonight resonate in fundamental ways with the universal human, not least at the end, when Butler asks if Kafka really wanted Brod to burn his manuscripts. Did he find the idea of his work outliving him too painful? Or did he hope that the impossibility of communication would mean that his instruction was never received?

I was musing a bit on the latter question in my previous Kafka post, and I daresay it’s one of the great enduring literary posers. When I ask ‘Could there ever be another Kafka?’ I suppose part of what I’m wondering is – in our age of neglected book-mountains, blogosphere and electronic publishing can we imagine that the greatest writer of our times might be a solitary fellow with an overbearing family who works a humdrum job in an office, writes feverishly and with genius at night, but decides, finally, that nothing of what he’s written should be set before readers…? Did Kafka ever write a short story on such a theme? I daresay he could have executed it very well.

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F.R. Leavis

Is there such a thing today in English letters as a ‘major critic’? The cognoscenti could perhaps name one or two, but it’s hard to think of a household name. Of course it would be silly to pretend that F.R. Leavis, even in his 1950s heyday, was up there with Tony Hancock or Dixon of Dock Green. But then even I, as a schoolchild of limited literary horizons, came to an awareness of Leavis in the decade after his death in 1978. Then as now, ‘Leavis’ seemed to connote a literary-critical austerity, the fastidious formation of a canon (Eliot/Conrad in! Dickens/Hardy out!), ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’ as to what constitutes excellence in a work. By legend Leavis was a teacher who didn’t have pupils so much as disciples. His two best-known titles, The Great Tradition (1948) and The Common Pursuit (1952), also the seminal New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and the re-evaluating Dickens The Novelist (1970, co-authored with his wife and fellow scholar Queenie) are all available in Faber Finds.
If Leavis fell from fashion toward the end of his life, he seemed to disappear in the 1980s/1990s (though I wonder what was his influence if one happened to be a student of Eng.Lit. at Cambridge in that time?) What happened, of course, was Structuralism: the interrogation of ‘texts’ as opposed to the elucidation of ‘works’, the querying of previous valorisations of the ‘great’ author, the consequent diminishing of the idea of a critic as one who explains how and why a work is great (though all this seemed to make for a lift, funnily enough, in the notion of ‘great’/unanswerable critics).
In the eyes of this reader a great many scholars who embraced Critical Theory instantly wrote/talked themselves out of any interest or relevance, since one does not require chiefly of a lit-critic that they instruct us in geopolitics – or, as Leavis is said to have remarked, we don’t go to D.H. Lawrence to learn whom we should vote for.
But if one fancifully imagines 1970s Cambridge as a bastion of Truth/Beauty values threatened by scruffy and voguish French theories (and a profoundly anti-Leavis interest in the movies)… then the clash is defined by ‘The MacCabe Affair’ of 1981, evidently a nasty business in its day, and one that spoke poorly of Cambridge’s tortuous internal workings. For those new to this story, its protagonist Professor Colin MacCabe provides a useful summary in this, an obituary for his rightly esteemed former colleague Frank Kermode.
As one fortunate to have been taught by Colin MacCabe and to count him a friend, I should say that his concern for standards of excellence in English and his passionate regard for great writers and writings would yield to no-one. And in saluting Kermode I’d say he also demolishes the clearly phoney opposition that was proposed to exist in Eng.Lit. between Fixed Canon and Floating Signifier.
Colin’s personal view of Leavis and his legacy is very clear – ‘no one but the scholars will read Leavis’ rebarbative and angry prose in the future…’ But there are a couple of other voices worth hearing out in this discussion. One is Terry Eagleton, who wrote in the THES that “MacCabe is an inheritor of that dissenting tradition from Leavis and Empson to Williams, that was neither dully conformist nor callowly iconoclastic, but that was rather, in Leavis’s poignant words, ‘Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.’”
And then one can hardly imagine a finer tribute to Leavis – to any teacher of literature – than this, which Frank Kermode composed for the London Review of Books in 1995.
“[Leavis] gave one a new idea of what it meant to read… the whole business of criticism acquired a new and exhilarating quality. That gnarled manner of speaking or writing sounded serious, deliberate and urgent, a new way of stressing the high importance of the subject. At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language, and he was determined to teach others who wished to be civilised how, at its best, language, the main medium of culture, worked in great writing. He believed that such study was a principal means of access to a civilised society.”
Let us hold at bay for now the obvious rejoinder expressed so well by George Steiner, following Adorno et al, that the twentieth century left us with little faith in culture’s power to civilise. Let’s just here take Leavis on his own terms. His former student Robin Wood, later a film critic of note, once wrote that Leavis was especially fond of quoting Lady Chatterley’s Lover to the effect that:
“It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.”
Reasonably put, no? And as an assertion of value in literature – however many quarrels that issue has thrown up – who could quarrel with it?

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