Sunday, November 29, 2009

My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

My hero: Ben the labrador

John Banville
Saturday 29 November 2009

ow is one to write about a family pet without plunging feet-first into a slough of bilge and bathos? There are people who find offensive the very idea of pets, and they have a point – when Byron spoke of animals being "spoiled" by intimate proximity to us he was not thinking of pet manicures and a comfy place on the hearth-rug. The poet knew that our attitude to animals is hopelessly confused: since we are lords of the universe we feel no compunction in eating them, yet certain special ones we take into our homes to share our lives with us. What's a dog to think?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wilkie Collins / The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation

The Woman in White's 150 years of sensation

Wilkie Collins's novel caused unprecedented excitement when it appeared in 1859, and has not lost its capacity to thrill

Jon Michael Varese
Thu 26 Nov 2009

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Victorian readers opened Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round to find the concluding instalment of A Tale of Two Cities, and, immediately following it, the opening instalment of a new novel with no author ascribed. They joined a new protagonist, "Walter Hartright, by name," on a night-time walk over Hampstead Heath, winding on moonlit paths until they reached the intersection of the Hampstead, Finchley, West End, and London roads – somewhere in the area of where the Finchley Road tube station now stands. There they were stopped, every drop of blood in their bodies frozen still by "the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly" upon Walter's shoulder. And there, for the first time, they met the mysterious Anne Catherick –better known as The Woman in White.
Often singled out as the foundation text of "sensation fiction" – a genre distinguished by its electrifying, suspenseful, and sometimes horrific plots, as well as its unsavoury themes of intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and the like – The Woman in White was an immediate sensation in its own right. (In honour of its 150th anniversary, you can currently sign up to read the story as it was originally published, in weekly parts. There are tweets, too.) Margaret Oliphant hailed it as "a new beginning in fiction", while at the same time Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed it as "great trash". And while Henry James disliked the "ponderosity" of The Woman in White (calling it "a kind of 19th-century version of Clarissa Harlowe"), he acknowledged that the book had "introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors".

Despite such drastically mixed reviews, The Woman in White was a mad success with the public, and made no less of a sensation out of its 35-year-old author, Wilkie Collins. In middle-class dining rooms everywhere, discussion turned to the intriguing cast of characters Mr Collins had invented – mannish, eloquent Marian Halcombe; faithful and angelic Laura Fairlie; sinister, secretive Percival Glyde; and of course Count Fosco, seductive and cunning, with his cockatoo, his canary-birds, and his white mice running over his immense body. Two months in, Dickens was calling the novel "masterly", and Prince Albert admired it so much that he later sent off copies as gifts.
During its serialisation in All the Year Round (from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860), and upon its publication in book form, The Woman in White inspired not only a series of imitators (chief among them Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne [1861] and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret [1862]), but also what John Sutherland has described as a "sales mania and a franchise boom." Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. The poet Edward FitzGerald named his herring-lugger "Marian Halcombe"; cats were named Fosco and thought to look more sinister; and Walter became a fashionable name for babies. As Kenneth Robinson, one of Collins's earliest biographers, pointed out, "even Dickens had not known such incidental publicity".

While Collins was no stranger to the literary scene at the time of The Woman in White's appearance (by 1859 he had published four novels, two collections of short stories, and numerous other books and essays), he had not yet become an author of completely independent means. Unlike Dickens (his friend, boss, and mentor) he had not been catapulted to international fame by his early novels, and thus still retained his day job as a journalist. But The Woman in White changed all that. As a serial, the novel lifted the circulation of All the Year Round to even higher levels than had Dickens, and Sampson Low's first printing of 1,000 copies of the three-volume edition in August of 1860 sold out on publication day. When Smith and Elder made a £5,000 bid for Collins's next novel the following summer, Collins knew that he had made it. "FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS!!!!!!" he wrote to his mother in July of 1861. "Ha! ha! ha! Five thousand pounds, for nine months or, at most a year's work – nobody but Dickens has made as much."
Collins's storytelling talents were utterly mesmerising for Victorian readers – and they are no less captivating for readers today. He was the master of the "cliff-hanger", and given the 40 or so of them that strategically punctuate The Woman in White, it's not difficult to see why this Victorian novel continues to thrill us. Our flesh creeps when Anne Catherick places her hand on Walter's shoulder; our hearts ache when Marian Halcombe falls ill and Count Fosco violates her diary; our blood curdles when Walter Hartright stands next to his beloved's tombstone, only to look up and find her standing there. The apparitions that Collins conjures are the ghosts that ensured not just his success but his longevity. They are what have kept readers going back for more during the last 150 years, and they bear testament to the value of Collins's self-professed, "old-fashioned" opinion that "the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story ..."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd

My hero Alan Ross

William Boyd
Sat 21 Nov 2009

can visualise Alan Ross's expression – ineffably polite, but just failing to disguise his displeasure at being called anyone's hero. Perhaps "exemplar" would be a better word, given that he was the first writer I properly came to know and also the first editor to publish me, selecting one of my unsolicited short stories for his literary journal London Magazine in 1978. I was 26 – it was to be an association that lasted until his death in 2001.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self

JG Ballard
Illustration by T.A.

My hero: 

JG Ballard 

by Will Self

Saturday 14 November 2009

omorrow, on what would have been his 79th birthday, family and friends of JG Ballard will gather in London to celebrate his extraordinary life and still more extraordinary literary achievement. I don't really do "heroes", and Jim Ballard's whole outlook was antithetical to the notion of the "great man" (though less so, I suspect, to that of the "great woman"), but if I were in search of an antiheroic hero it would have to be him. When I was stranded in the doldrums of my early 20s, desperate to write fiction but uncertain that there was any way to yoke my perverse vision to any recognised form, Ballard's luminous short stories and minatory novels showed me a way forward.

Then there's the man himself. I was just one of the scores of journalists who went out to sleepy Shepperton to beard its seer, and no matter how many times we'd already been told not to expect some drug-crazed weirdo, we were all surprised to find the genial, rather bluff Jim Ballard, happy to discuss anything from the wilder shores of futurity to the pinched parochialism of England's greening.
Over 15 years I got to know this intensely private man – a little. It was difficult for me not to look to him for advice – and he showed me the respect of never providing any, save by omission, the real advice being: think for yourself. Early in life, during the Japanese occupation of his natal city, Shanghai, Ballard had learnt the vital lesson that anyone can descend effortlessly into barbarism, and so he eschewed all state-sanctioned morality and the mock heroics that bolster it up.
Ballard's contribution to literature, to the visual arts, to architectural theory and even philosophy will, I feel certain, be increasingly acknowledged in the decades to come. His writing life straddled the period from when censorship meant that commonplace thoughts could not be set down to the current era when anything can be said – but hardly anyone bothers to listen. He thus stands as the last great English avatar of the avant garde – heroism enough for anyone.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Classics corner 036 / The Tin Drum by Günter Grass / Review

No 036

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Phil Mongredien
Sunday 8 November 2009 00.05 GMT

"Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution…" So begins Oskar Matzerath, narrator of Günter Grass's 1959 debut. With the help of one of his titular drums, Oskar recounts – not always reliably – the extraordinary events of his first 30 years: arresting his own physical development on his third birthday by throwing himself downs the stairs; "singshattering" glass with his otherworldly voice; impregnating his father's second wife; his key role in the deaths of his parents; finding independence as a stonemason, then later an artist's model and recording artist in the German postwar economic miracle.
Set primarily in Grass's native Danzig, the shadow of Nazism hangs heavy over the first two-thirds of the book, with Kristallnacht, the fall of Poland and ultimately the Soviet capture of the city all refracted through Oskar's eyes, as is the plight of German refugees struggling westwards ahead of the Red Army.

But it's Grass's dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation. It's no coincidence that Oskar enjoys a stint with a jazz band, as there is an uninhibited, free-flowing musicality to the telling of his life story.
To mark The Tin Drum's 50th anniversary, its publishers around the world have commissioned a series of new translations, overseen by Grass himself. Breon Mitchell has reinstated much of the rhythm of the German original, as well as restoring some overtly sexual references thought too shocking for British audiences half a century ago. Given Grass's close involvement with this new translation, it is fair to call this the definitive version of arguably the most important German novel of the postwar era.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes

My hero Ernest Shephard 

by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes
Saturday 7 November 2009

am not sure what he would make of it: disbelief, amusement, or irritation that I should single him out. But my hero is Ernest Shephard, who spent much of his time on the Western Front as a company sergeant major.