Monday, 26 April 2010

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman - review

Writing about the university of Oxford is very hard indeed. You are always going to be in the shadow of Evelyn Waugh. The narrative arc of Oxford novels is almost always the same: outsider falls in with glamorous group of rich people and is in some way damaged. This applies to American novels about Ivy League universities, too. And hardly anyone gets it right. I don't think Naomi Alderman, in her new book, The Lessons, has got it right at all. Her novel follows the classic arc (also seen in Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Richard Mason's The Drowning People, etc.)

Many things about it, I had no space for in my review. The novel is very entertaining, but it struck me as false. There is a moment where the students get their results - one of the boys gets a two one, as does one of the girls. Alderman suggests that girls are marked down. But Oxford exams are anonymous! And in any case, the other female members of the group get firsts, whilst the other two boys get a two two and a third. She also has her group moving out of college in their first year - I'm not sure the university authorities would be too happy about that.

Still, here is my review, for the Financial Times: Click HERE

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Here is a link to a piece I wrote for The Daily Telegraph about letter writing.

Click HERE

And long live the art of writing letters.

Life in the Country

Here is a short interview in Country Life of April 21st. They have my college down as Balliol: it was Oriel. I feel honoured by the mistake, though.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Did Achilles have Asperger's? And what's Marilyn Monroe got to do with it?

There is a simile in the Aeneid, in Book I, where the busy Carthaginians are seen by our hero (conveniently clad in a cloud spun by his mother Venus) building their new city. They rush here and there, laying out walls, marking out houses, all intent upon their business. Virgil compares them to bees, something I have always found slightly sinister - bees are, after all, relatively mindless. But that is how I have felt, over the last week or so: rather like a bee, perhaps not filling its cell with honey, but at least attempting to do so.

As I have buzzed through the city, I have had the discordant pleasure of my iPod throwing up first Ted Hughes' Prometheus, followed by 'Eurodisco', a song by the little known and much reviled band Bis. From the sublime to the ridiculous, and then to the fall and beyond: I saw Arthur Miller's play, 'After the Fall', a thinly disguised account of his life with Marilyn Monroe, a brittle, heroic, doomed character. In it Pandora McCormick particularly shone as Marilyn, or rather the Marilyn character, clothed in red and pouting on a bed. It is a hard play to pull off, but I think the Oxford Drama School did it well, with strong performances from all.

I've also been reading (after a marvellous review in the New Yorker by Daniel Mendelsohn, I was sent straight back to the source material) the Iliad, and a couple of things struck me: first, what was the actual shape of the Trojan horse? It can't have been anything more than a barrel, really, or perhaps an upturned skiff on a couple of logs. I would like to know more about this: if anyone can point me in the right direction, please do. And the second thing was, perhaps Achilles (another brittle, heroic, doomed character: the Marilyn of his day?) was suffering from some variant of Asperger's syndrome: selfish, ritualistic, and unable to see the views of anyone apart from himself. I wonder if this explains the wrath (menin) of Achilles: Sing, Muse, of the Autistic Spectrum Disorder of Achilles.

Which brings me, in a round-about way, to a film I saw recently advertised: 'Agora'! Now there's a name for a film. 'Meeting-place!' It is, apparently, about the mathematician Hypatia, who as far as I remember was ripped apart by an angry mob using seashells, for one reason or another, I think for attempting to explain calculus or some such. It stars Rachel Weisz. I know nothing more of this film. What next? 'Pythagoras!' We can but live in hope.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Liberators Review - Link

Here is a link to Dinah Hall's review of The Liberators in The Sunday Telegraph. I would be interested to know whether anybody agrees with her - should children's books take place only in urban badlands? Why does the setting of a children's book seem to matter so much? Surely all levels of society / culture are suitable backdrops, as long as the story is good enough?

I remember when I was a child, I read The Family at One End Street, about a poor family whose mother took in washing. It never occurred to me that they were anything but children; in the same way, Just William wasn't middle class, he was just a boy, and the children in The House of Arden, who inherit a castle, didn't seem any different to me. Children don't think like adults - they have yet, fortunately, to gain all those horrible layers of social awareness that grown ups are burdened with. To a child, any child in a book is just another child having an adventure, and it doesn't matter what level of society they're on.

When you've clicked on the link, scroll down a little to find the review: BEST BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

Lost and Found

The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced - but not for this year. Instead, because of some complexity in the rules, the year 1970 was missed out, so this year the balance will be reset and we will all jump into a time machine and zip back to the era of the flower child. This may sound like a marketing opportunity, but what it is doing is bringing into the news some excellent novels, and that surely is a good thing.

Out of the six books listed, I have read four - interestingly, all by women. Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven is a marvellous, sleek, intense piece of work, about the youth of Alexander the Great; Nina Bawden's The Birds on The Trees details the tragedies that befall a family whose son is expelled from school; Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon is a sun-lit affair, all repressed emotion and smouldering sex, and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat is poetic, dark and surprising. All these books might just as well have been written yesterday; it is a mark of their writing across the board that they do not rely on gimmicks or flashiness, just good, elegant, well-moulded sentences. Also, too, they deal with issues - homosexuality, incest, drug-taking, adultery - in clever, clear ways. They throw light upon the time they were written, and yet stand as comments upon human nature. What is rather marvellous is that they are all short. I wonder whether both these points could be applied to many of the books shortlisted for the prize in the last couple of years.

This week I have also been in contact with many South African writers, talking about a way forward for the country and its literature. It seems particularly appropriate in the weeks after Easter, with the sun rising and the story of the Resurrection ringing in our ears (whether you believe in it, or have been listening to the discussions about Philip Pullman's new book, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ). I attended a christening at the weekend: a new life, old friends, and hope.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Bloggled and Bantered

"Well I'm the King of Boggle", raps one of the Beastie Boys, 'There is none higher, I get eleven points off the word quagmire." (If only all rap lyrics could be so geeky.) My new phone (under the heading 'Achievements') tells me that this week I have spent 3 hrs and 55 minutes playing Boggle, and that my longest word (scoring the same as the NYC DJ) was 'bantered', followed closely by 'bustard' and 'ponders'. What this says about my vocabulary, I'm not sure. What I do find immeasurably irritating with this version of Boggle is that it is incredibly prudish. It is the lipsticked, powdered maiden aunt of board games, whom you visit for tea and cakes once a year. Boggle the Prude will not allow the following words - whore, slut or queer - all of which, surely, are real, actual words with a long and distinguished heritage. Whore comes direct from Old English 'hore', which stems from ProtoGermanic *khoraz, which means simply 'one who desires.' Slut (also from German) was used by Chaucer - to mean an untidy man; and queer is from the Proto Indo European base *twerk, which simply means to twist. Slut and queer have only recently gained secondary connotations. I wonder why Boggle allows this censorship? The game allows some very odd 'words' indeed, just like some games of Scrabble. If anyone can give me the meaning of the following, I'll be extremely grateful: "Ens" "Esne" "Peh" being just three of the least obscure. This kind of prudery is pointless and damaging - it is like Don Juan's mother allowing him to read every kind of text, except the ones that had anything to do with human reproduction - and look what happened to him. And in an age when far worse things can be found by anybody at the click of a mouse, and where children run riot in Underground stations, it seems slightly disingenuous.

In other news, after a dearth of literary parties, several hundred (well, about five) came along at once. Monday saw me squashed into a corner at the launch of "Victoria and Abdul" by Sharbani Basu, about the Empress of India's relationship with her Urdu teacher, a dashing young munshi who, at the age of 24, caught the Queen's eye and was immediately transported to heights of power - well, he was given some land and all the other servants resented him. It's a fascinating story, and excerpts were beautifully read. (I'm going to try 'munshi' on Boggle, but I have a feeling it won't play). Kingfisher beer flowed afterwards, and what food there was vanished almost immediately under the hungry claws of journalists, well-wishers, High Commissioners and assorted grandees. Thursday brought a party (with enormous amounts of Chinese food) to celebrate Hilary Spurling's magnificent new biography of Pearl Buck, the Nobel Laureate, which has garnered brilliant reviews across the board (and was the Literary Review's cover piece for March). I'm certainly going to give it a try: it's called 'Burying the Bones'. It is heartening that a subject which is off most people's radar can be given so much prominence. Who says the book is dead?