last post

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

this blog has now been abandoned


Categories: Uncategorized

The Symbolism Survey

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?

McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.

His project involved substantial labor—this before the Internet, before e-mail—but was not impossible: many authors and their representatives were listed in the Twentieth-Century American Literature series found in the local library. More impressive is that seventy-five writers replied—most of them, in earnest. Sixty-five of those responses survive (McAllister lost ten to “a kleptomaniacal friend”). Answers ranged from the secretarial blow off to a thick packet of single-spaced typescript in reply.

The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.

Even if he approached them en masse, with a form letter.

And failed to follow up with a thank-you note.


Kerouac p. 1


Kerouac p. 2

Norman Mailer


Ayn Rand


John Updike p. 1

Updike p. 2


Ralph Ellison


The answers to the questionnaire were as varied as the writers themselves. Did Isaac Asimov plant symbolism in his work? “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?” Iris Murdoch sagely advises that “there is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.” Ayn Rand wins the prize for concision; addressing McAllister’s example of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, she wrote, “This is not a definition, it is not true—and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” Kerouac is a close second; he writes, “Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.” The apologies Bruce received from secretaries—including those of John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Ian Fleming—explaining that they were traveling and unable to respond were longer than that.

Science-fiction writers—most notably Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Judith Merril, and A. J. Budrys—were the most expansive. Biggle sent a lengthy letter and then, nearly a year later, sent further thoughts. In the second letter, he advised McAllister to read an essay by Mary McCarthy, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” saying, “You will not want to do any kind of article on symbolism until you have read [this] … You will find much good material there, as well as an emphatic reinforcement for your viewpoint.” (McCarthy sent the same advice herself.) Judith Merril’s response is heavily mired in linguistics; she offers McAllister a chart to illustrate her semantic overview.

Some were dismissive of Bruce’s project, or his methodology. MacKinlay Kantor chided, “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.” Others, like William Melvin Kelley, cite the work and characters of other authors rather than their own. Kelley names Faulkner, Robbins, Hemingway, Twain, and Salinger: “Holden Caulfield is a person, but enough of us felt that we were like him to make him a symbol. But if he’d been a symbol, Salinger would have been an unknown writer living in Vermont.” Henry Roth mentions Dante, Blake, Joyce, and perhaps Malamud as writers who intentionally incorporate symbolism (Updike names Joyce and Dante as well, along with Homer). Roth notes that the Greeks, Elizabethans, and Cervantes were “interested in a type of what existed rather than symbols of abstract ideas, forces, beliefs.” For himself? “My own feeling at the time I wrote CIS [Call It Sleep] was that the symbol was well-surrendered or abandoned for the greater verity or the more striking insight.”

Saul Bellow p. 1

Bellow p. 2


I recently spoke with Bruce McAllister by phone about his recollections of his literature survey. There is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the one-time student seeking knowledge has devoted most of his career to teaching. McAllister, who has published widely and been nominated for some of the most prestigious genre fiction prizes—his 1988 “Dream Baby” was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards—taught literature and writing at the University of Redlands in southern California for nearly twenty-five years. For the past dozen years he has run McAllister Coaching, helping writers of books and screenplays shape their manuscripts. McAllister at sixteen? Self-described as full of “the arrogance of high schoolers” he felt beyond his classroom assignments, and was, as he put it, “tired of symbol hunting.”

Though McAllister now claims, “It never occurred to me that [the writers] would answer,” once they did he was delighted—as was his English teacher: “a sweet, teacherly soul,” impressed by his industry but unable to absorb the import of its result. The search for symbols would continue, at least until the end of the 1964–65 school year.

In reflecting on the project, McAllister feels “caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” The question remains: Why did they answer? McAllister claims no credit, describing his survey form as “barely literate.” He recalls that in his cover letter (no examples of which exist) he misused the word precocious—he meantpresumptuous—and in hindsight he sees that he was both, though few writers seemed to mind. “The conclusion I came to was that nobody had asked them. New Criticism was about the scholars and the text; writers were cut out of the equation. Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.”

Ray Bradbury p. 1

Bradbury p.2


December 5, 2011 | by Sarah Funke Butler

 Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc. She is curator of the exhibit, “Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time,” now on view at the Forbes Galleries in New York.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Best Literary Fiction Blogs & Websites

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Written on November 22, 2011 by  in Writing Advice

Automat / Edward HopperAutomat / Edward Hopper

Earlier this fall, I was asked for a list of the best blogs and websites focused on literaryfiction and culture. While I knew of a few, I put the question to my social network, and was able to curate the following list.

If I’ve missed any sites that deserve consideration, please let me know your favorites in the comments, and I’ll consider expanding the list. (Note: I have deliberately excluded well-known traditional media, e.g., Publishers Weekly, New York Times, etc.)


Best Literary Fiction Blogs & Websites

  • Bookslut. One of the oldest and best places to find out about new books and literary news, by Jessa Crispin. Twitter: @thebookslut

Categories: Uncategorized

No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead

Zoe Williams serious books

Zoe Williams recommends reading serious non-fiction rather than novels. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

It’s something that they say a lot in publishing, apparently, that once you turn 40, you start reading biographies. I do remember in my 20s, someone nearing 40 saying, “When a novel says, ‘So-and-so walked into the room,’ I have this voice in my head shouting ‘So? They’re not real! The room isn’t real!'” I thought, what an incredibly weird, sad, unexpected, unattractive side of ageing, like getting cellulite on your nose. Sure enough, though, I’ve found my appetite for fiction has fallen off a cliff. It’s possible that this is just part of my inexorable crawl toward death. But there’s a topnote of guilt, which reminds me of that wartime poster: “To dress extravagantly in wartime is worse than bad form. It is unpatriotic.” When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand, and a lot of it is quite basic (what’s the point of low interest rates again? How do you devalue a currency? Why are there so many earthquakes? Tell me one more time about tectonic plates; I promise this time I’ll listen … ), it feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.

There is a surge in popular economics books – if you look at the Penguin catalogue for next year, every second one is about money, how it works, how it doesn’t work and how soon it will end.

There is a surge of books about the changing world order: India Rising, from Faber, as of course it is, but also Keeping Up With the Germans. Its author, Philip Oltermann, finished it before the crisis, and before Angela Merkel fetched up at the centre of the eurozone pantomime. He describes the eerie experience of hearing economic commentators pose exactly his question, as a matter of urgency: how on earth can everybody keep up with the Germans? The book is not straightforward economics. “It’s a book about why English and German people sometimes get on and sometimes don’t. It’s a book that argues that, in order to understand the phenomenal success of the German economy over the past 50 years, we need to look beyond the cliche of robotic, machine-like ‘efficiency’ and understand why Germans are ultimately sentimental romantics, even when it comes to cars.”

And that, in a way, is why I feel as if I should be reading it. It’s reasonable, as an adult, to decide you don’t want to read a book about the German economy, because you probably wouldn’t understand it, whereas it seems unreasonable to watch a crisis unfold before your eyes, and know so little about it.

There are two questions looming over every conversation – how did we get into this mess? And who, in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time, will have come out of it? I had a sudden snap of realisation about how prevalent those questions had become when I was flicking through a book called Running With the Kenyans; I misread it as “Running With the Keynsians”; my friend misread it as “Running with the Koreans”.

The key text for popular economics is John Lanchester‘s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. It’s sold 30,000 copies since it was published last year. (For comparison, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman wrote an incredibly slim, readable volume called The Return of Depression Economics, and that’s sold 19,000 in three years – these are UK figures, by the way.) Lanchester wrote the book because he was researching the financial industry for a novel, Capital, which is out next year; and the intricacies of the way finance worked seemed a) so interesting and complex that they were effectively a character in their own right, and b) vitally, this was stuff nobody understood. “I felt, and still feel, that the gap between people who speak money and people who don’t is actually a democratic deficit. This is the only time I’ve ever felt that I have a citizenly duty to keep it up. I mean, only reactively, when I’m asked.” I personally am of the view that he should do a Whoops Roadshow, but that is between him and his citizenly duty – at some point you do start thinking, I should have understood this before circumstances made it alarming not to understand it.

Much of the territory of Whoops relates to financial instruments, CDOs and other toxic debt bundles. “Some of the people who didn’t understand them were the directors of major banks. That should be a joke, but isn’t.” That counts as a mitigating factor, for the layman – but the storm we’re living through now makes me realise how little I understood of any of the past 20 years, in terms of the economic foundation stones they were laying down. So to take, at random, the eurozone again: there were people objecting who weren’t just dyspeptic Tories. There were also leftwing Eurosceptics, Jack Straw, the late Peter Shore, predicting exactly, to the letter, what would happen to a single currency – that the interest rates would be determined by the strongest economies, but wouldn’t suit the weaker ones, which then wouldn’t be able to devalue and wouldn’t be able to leave. I didn’t really know why a low interest rate would suit a strong economy, and I didn’t understand the point of devaluation. I was too busy reading Martin bloody Amis. As if that’s going to help. Lanchester says, possibly by way of reassurance, “We’d all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we’ve woken up doing 90.” The problem with ignorance is twofold: you feel alienated and disempowered, and that’s quite anxious-making, but you also feel embarrassed by the limits of your understanding, so you back out of the conversation.

When you back out of a conversation at a macro-level, that’s how you wake up doing 90, with a government full of bankers and technocrats. I’m emphatically not saying, “We’re all going to be Italy in a minute,” because that’s the kind of scaremongering nonsense that you’d only start if you hadn’t just read (26 pages of) Akerlof and Shiller’s Animal Spirits. The alienation effect makes it necessary, much as it pains me to say it, to understand what the parents who were driving were actually thinking: so not only do we have a citizenly duty to understand Germany, economics, the new world order, science and climate, but we probably also have to read, if not Tony Blair’s autobiography, at least Gordon Brown’s and/or Alistair Darling’s.

But this isn’t just semi-sincere self-flagellation; there is also a problem with the modern novel and its continuing fear of saying anything useful, for fear of not sounding literary enough. Everyone expected Alan Hollinghurst to write the definitive book of our recent past, since that’s what he did for the 1980s, in The Line of Beauty. Instead, to use a technical publisher’s term, he “did an Atonement” – this is where you re-site your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political. Hannah Griffiths, editorial director at Faber and Faber, explains that this is partly a pragmatic consideration: “You’d have to write a very ambitious contemporary novel, because they take so long to come out.”

Damian Barr is a writer and playwright who also runs literary salons in Shoreditch House, as a result of which he has read almost everything: “There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn’t have to be informed, and it doesn’t have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter. Of course, I only mean the ones worth reading.” Lanchester notes: “In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that’s not literary enough.” I can remember the beginning of falling out of love with fiction, when it began to annoy me if the main character didn’t have a job or any visible means of support. Once that annoys you, you get annoyed by almost everything.


And if fiction is permeated by considerations – some practical, some literary, some pretentious, some reasonable, because long explanations of things are boring – that make it fight shy of big questions; even non-fiction shares some of this coyness. The Costa shortlist came out this week, and in the biography section, one (broadly) about the first world war, one (broadly) about the second, one biography of Charles Dickens and Patrick and Henry Cockburn’s Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, a Father and Son’s Story. And that last is a fine book, but Cockburn’s area of expertise, won over a lifetime, is as a foreign correspondent. Yet when he writes a book about Iraq (Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq), about things that would be quite useful to know, especially if we’re going to start attacking Iran, the mainstream acts as if it had never happened.

Of course, there’s a caveat, isn’t there? A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the “tell me, Professor” moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. “If I’ve learnt anything real,” Griffiths concludes, “I’ve learnt it through fiction.”

And this point is made flesh, really, by John Lanchester, who illuminated all this nefarious financial jiggery-pokery – but Whoops was a side-dish or an amuse-bouche to the main project, Capital, a great monster of a novel, which does more than illuminate finance: it animates it; and that’s when you fully comprehend something, when you can see its face.

 – The Guardian, Saturday 19 November 2011
Categories: Uncategorized

Why flatpack fiction will always be two dimensional

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment

As the Booker shortlist proved, too many modern novels are assembled for a market

There’s a fairly widespread view that English fiction is in the doldrums. This year’s showcase for the contemporary novel, the Man Booker prize, a bellwether for our literary culture, has inspired some more than usually anguished hand-wringing. “Is that it?” and “Is this the best we can do?” have been among the dominant reactions in an almost universal expression of dismay and disbelief.

This cultural recession mirrors the economic downturn. Last month, on a visit to the US, I got a rare glimpse into the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate. Apparently, for at least one prominent literary agent, there is now only one rule, which can be expressed mathematically as 1/10, thus: “A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes.”

My thoughts went to my favourite novels. Who, by such criteria, would give Heart of Darkness or Ulysses a second glance? Monty Python’s “summarise Proust” competition was an inspired moment of surreal comedy, but apparently that’s now the reality. How, for instance, would you explain The Portrait of a Lady in a single sentence? American girl, transplanted to England, refuses English peer, falls victim to the sinister Madame Merle and marries a worthless dilettante, in a terrible compromise of frustrated emotion? Well, hardly.

Perhaps one should not get too prudish about the 1/10 formula. Henry James himself wrote in The Art of Fiction that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel… is that it be interesting”. While the criterion of 1/10 tells us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, this news is all the more perplexing because, at first glance, the marketplace appears to be in such rude good health. Never has there been more new fiction, from chick lit to manga, available to the common reader. According to Nielsen BookData, of the approximately 150,000 new books that came out in the UK last year, 78,000 were works of fiction, generating about £476m.

This is a market that promotes quantity before quality, but in a new way. Mass culture has always been banal and high culture its redemption. Not any more. The 1/10 formula helps to explain why the 2011 Booker shortlist had such an air of painting-by-numbers. With the exception of the winner, The Sense of an Ending, every one of its nominated titles could be summarised in a single sentence and would indeed have sponsored a few minutes’ dinner conversation (but not more).

For this, you can blame the literary agents, or the festivals, or harassed readers, or creative writing schools, or simply the desire to attract an audience in a cacophonous market, but the upshot is the same. It’s the Ikea novel, shaped by the logic of 1/10. Ikea novels are the kind of fiction that comes direct from the factory, with no intercession of craftsmanship or artistry en route to the consumer. They are created by often talented writers, frantic to make a career, who have acquired a boxed-up fiction kit at a suburban outlet and assembled it in their spare time on the living room floor, with a construction manual in one hand, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in the other.

The Ikea novel has all the things that fiction is supposed to have. It is competently written in a simulacrum of fine writing. It has character and situation, conflict and resolution. Somewhere you will find the “arc of the narrative”. Under its highly painted metalwork there’s probably an “inciting incident” or two. Ikea-fiction writers know all about “first-” or “third-person” and “unreliable” narrators. The latter are fashionable just now, because they can be used to explain away narrative cock-ups.

The thing that Ikea culture manufactures looks like fiction, sounds like fiction and even reads like fiction. There’s just one problem: Ikea fiction is not original, and not distinctive, with no inner vision or humanity. It comes from a kit. It’s a fake and can never be a work of art. How could it be? It was invented to please a market, and to make money. No wonder so many erstwhile novelists are turning to film and television.


The Inky Fool comes up with golden nuggets

In a sign of the times, Mark Forsyth better known as the blogger Inky Fool, who has been riffing in cyberspace on the myriad secret connections of the English language, has come down to earth with the publication of a hardback, The Etymologicon (Icon Books), shortly to be a pre-Christmas Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. Forsyth, who describes himself as a “journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter and pedant”, has trawled the OED for some very strange nuggets. The Etymologicon (the word is Milton’s) links sausages and botulism, testicles and the Bible, even Bikini Atoll and Godzilla. In 250 pages crammed with cross-references, this inky fool has given the nation’s quizzers the stocking filler of the season. How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom Pérignon and Mein Kampf.



Farewell to Stevenson’s most devoted servant

The world of Stevenson studies is idiosyncratic, obsessive and sustained by passionate amateurs, many of them living, as Stevenson himself did, on the Pacific Rim. Recently, Stevensonians lost one of their most dedicated servants, Ernest Mehew, at the age of 88. For the record, Mehew was renowned as the editor of RLS’s letters. In the absence of the full-scale biography for which the Stevenson world still waits, this volume is a canonical text and Mehew its architect. But in the margins, this man of letters was a one-time civil servant at the Ministry of Food and, later, an ad man. He played an important part in some great campaigns – “naughty but nice”, “drinka pinta milka day” and “go to work on an egg”. Stevenson, a master of brevity, would have approved.

 – The Observer, Sunday 13 November 2011


Categories: Uncategorized

Interior with Extension Cord

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Categories: Uncategorized

The Forward poetry prize at 20

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Set up to bring greater attention to contemporary poetry, the Forward prize celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. Fellow poets and writers pay tribute to those who have won the Best Collection.

Blake Morrison on The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn, 1992


“I wake up cold,” the title poem begins, “I who / Prospered through dreams of heat.” That sudden chill sets the tone for this collection of elegies, written at the height of the Aids epidemic. Gunn’s previous book, The Passages of Joy, 10 years before, had sung of the Californian good life: “Sweet things. Sweet things.” Desire for young flesh (“the hard-filled lean body”) still courses through this collection. But it’s chastened by grief and loss. The titles alone tell the story – “In Time of Plague”, “Terminals”, “The Missing”, “Lament” – and much of the imagery comes from the sickbed: greyish-yellow skin, pills, feeding tubes, parched mouths, collapsed lungs. “My thoughts are crowded with death / and it draws so oddly on the sexual / that I am confused,” Gunn reflects. But it’s the lack of confusion – the clarity and orderliness – that really strikes you. He reports as if from a war front, like an Owen or Sassoon, offering anthems for doomed youth. But he doesn’t allow pity to disrupt his couplets and quatrains. “The friends surrounding me fall sick, grown thin / And drop away,” he writes. “Their deaths have left me less defined.” But his poetry keeps its shape and definition: he owes it to those friends to commemorate them with love and dignity. That tension between passion and constraint – which Gunn maintained right up till his death in 2004 – still sends shivers down the spine.

Read ‘Well Dennis O’Grady’, a poem from The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn

Gillian Clarke on Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy, 1993


It was all there, already, in 1993: the energy of the syntax, the let and go of the iambs, the ear and eye for detail which so precisely captures a time, a place, a class. It is poetry driven by the fizz of being alive, the language bold and slangy. Yet we’re stopped in the headlong rush of words by the punctuation of a perfectly observed detail, a sudden tenderness – the saucer of rain in the garden, and the onion, “a moon in brown paper”, “the careful undressing of love”. And those clipped, sometimes aggressive last lines: “Fuck off. / Worship”. And “The taste of soap”.

Mean Time gave us some of Carol Ann Duffy’s best-known poems: “Valentine”, quoted above, “Havisham”, poems of childhood such as “Litany”, “Stafford Afternoons” and the loving, lovely poem for her mother, “Before You Were Mine”. Here are poems of her child self, the secretive teenage language of her adolescent self, the private shiver of new love, and outspoken adult love, as in “Disgrace”, all voicing her own and therefore the reader’s experience. Here too is her talent for classically iambic rhythms: a perfectly tuned, broken beat that sounds in ordinary speech to this day, and out of which Duffy makes great poetry. Daringly, after so much brash, bold language, the book concludes with a poem that has become one of the nation’s favourites, a perfect sonnet, “Prayer”. The poem and the book end thus: “Darkness outside. Inside the radio’s prayer. / Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” This worthy winner stays in the mind, as poetry should.
Read ‘Mean Time’, a poem from Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy

John Fuller on Harm by Alan Jenkins, 1994

Prizes encourage a firework metaphor of fame that distracts from the maturing of talent. Alan Jenkins’s achievement is in one sense classically starry: the launch with In the Hot-House (1988), soaring with Greenheart (1990) and bursting with the Forward-winning Harm (1994). Harm was a timely winner. It significantly mines the new vein of confessionalism available to poets schooled in the Lowell/Hamilton mode who had moved into a postmodernist playfulness. Jenkins explores self-abasement in a fictive world, with cock-and-bull adventures, dream-poems and Muldoonian rhyming (“Studebaker”/”rutabaga”) but also takes a circumstantial journey into remembered lust, shame and regret. The classic Jenkins scenario is the love-loss for which he has only himself to blame (“Houseboy”, “Bathtimes”). His poetry is what all poetry should be, the surprising and beautiful organisation of things that life has disorganised: “Missing, believed lost, five feet four-and-a-half / of warm girl, of freckled skin and sulky laugh / and blood on the sheets and ash on the pillow / with the smell of bacon eggs and lubricant …” (“Missing”)

The Drift (2000) and A Shorter Life (2005) consolidated the bright display, developing other themes of family guilt, childhood and the cruelty at the heart of thoughtlessness. And earlier this year the wonderful Hardyesque “Death of the Moth” was published. Certainly no falling off. The consistency and deepening of Jenkins’s achievement would be well served by a Collected: its resourceful variety now needs to be seen in extended form.

Read ‘Thirty Five’, a poem from Harm by Alan Jenkins

Paul Farley on Ghost Train by Sean O’Brien, 1995

A few months ago, I was giving a poetry reading in a small town in Norway with Stig Inge Bjørnebye (ex-Liverpool left back), sipping fiery aquavit. Which sounds like the staging of a notional Sean O’Brien poem. I’d taken an actual one with me, about football, that I thought they’d enjoy. They did. Flying home, I had a chance to rediscover the book this poem appeared in – Ghost Train – somewhere over the North Sea.

Had I forgotten the excitement of reading O’Brien in 1995? Perhaps subsequent work had occluded it: the two collections that followed Ghost Train were also strong; Downriver (2001) and The Drowned Book (2007) also won the Forward Best Collection prize. Reading this book again, I remembered how I’d sensed this secret history of the everyday being opened up, and being drawn to that dimension of his work. He was unmistakeable, entirely distinct even then, but there was definitely a faint background buzz of other writers whose work had ignited his: Douglas Dunn, Peter Didsbury, Roy Fisher.

Since Ghost Train, his work’s become part of the landscape, admired for its formal and imaginative confidence, by turns witty, angry, bold, virtuosic, audacious even. But on that plane I was reminded that this is also a writer with great resources of delicacy and mystery. I think of O’Brien as a poet of echoing corridors and northern rain and estuaries, of sidings and fireweed, in-between places and waiting and the silences that go on without us, of an England in its long afterwards, and what he once described as “the blue light and derelict happiness.”
Read ‘Revenants’, a poem from Ghost Train by Sean O’BrienRead ‘Indian Summer’, a poem from Downriver by Sean O’BrienRead ‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, from The Drowned Book by Sean O’Brien

Alan Hollinghurst on Stones and Fires by John Fuller, 1996

John Fuller could justly have won the Forward in a number of other years, but Stones and Fires was an especially rich and involving collection. Much of it is elegiac in tone – opening with a poem in memory of the Oxford historian Angus Macintyre, killed in a motor accident, and closing with the wonderful “Star-Gazing”, an extended nocturnal reflection on mortality, grief and our place in the universe. Roy Fuller, the poet’s poet father, had died in 1991, and “A Cuclshoc”, though not strictly an elegy, is a heartbreaking record of two separations: the grieving poet finds a letter about a shuttlecock written to his father, absent in the Navy, when he was a small boy – “laborious sentences / With all their childish feeling and now with all / My later tears. I HOP YOU WILL COM BACK SOON // SO WE CAN HAVE SOME FUN.” The lobbed shuttlecock itself “glints / With the stitching of the angels, buoyant in the light, / Never falling.” Alongside such pieces Fuller set quite different things that showed him at the full stretch of his versatility – surreal experiments, a menacing blues on the brands of barbed wire, cryptic poems in prose. And luminous, humorous poems on Corsica, an island explored ever more hauntingly in several subsequent collections.

Read ‘Detective Story’, a poem from Stones and Fire by John Fuller

Kate Clanchy on The Marble Fly by Jamie McKendrick, 1997


The Marble Fly in question is carved, “a shade larger than lifesize / and much stiller than life and harder” on a wall relief in Pompeii. It is just one of a series of peculiar objects, from the skull of a Xhosa warrior, complete with bullethole, to the tiny spring from the inside of a biro, which Jamie McKendrick lifts and holds to the light in this spaciously paced but densely packed collection. The poems have diffident openings, self-deprecating endings, and, in the middle, tidal waves and centuries of violence. Somehow, the objects, and the poet, survive the disaster and carry on existing, modestly surprised.

This is a book like a cabinet of curiosities, one with fold-out shelves and a battered exterior. The agave plant and banana boat bristle from its pages as cleanly as they ever did, but you can’t buy the actual blue and black book with its modest, dated fly image any more. I cherish mine. It may even be worth something, for this collection was one of the last productions of OUP’s poetry list, a ship which went down, in true McKendrick style, sometime ago for reasons no one can now remember, in a year that began “with baleful auguries” and ended “fraught with the fear of war”.
Read ‘Gainful Employment’, a poem from The Marble Fly by Jamie McKendrick

Jeanette Winterson on Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, 1998

A poem is a practical act of memory. When most memory is outsourced to hard drive and smartphone, the poem releases in the reader a private memory-store, prompted but not prescribed by the poem. This is a relief. Ted Hughes’s love affair with Sylvia Plath began with poetry and at the end of his life he took it back there. Birthday Letters was a supreme act of memory – faithful in the way that memory must be – in that it is partly invented. Hughes, the steady observer of the real, understood the quantum rule that the observer acts upon/alters what is observed, even if the observer is unobserved. That is exactly what happens in Hughes’s first famous poem “The Thought-Fox” (1957). In Birthday Letters, remembering Sylvia becomes the opposite of the dismembering of Sylvia that happened after her death; the poet parcelled out to satisfy a hunger for wreck, victim, blame, martyr. Pieces of Sylvia Plath fed rumour and gossip from the second of her suicide.

It was brave of Hughes to make public what had been private – the yearly conversation on the anniversary of her death. Time is not an arrow. Poetry disarms the clichés. Birthday Letters disarmed the commonplaces of death and loss. Love – and language – survive.
Read ‘Epiphany’, a poem from Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

Daljit Nagra on My Life Asleep by Jo Shapcott, 1999

Shapcott is as rare as Eliot, Larkin or Bishop: each collection is long awaited and each poem has the weight of a novel with a unique unearthly mood. In “Motherland”, she says, “I am blue, bluer than water / I am nothing”; her personality is as diffuse and as uprooted as Bishop’s. This nothingness echoes the objective correlative of Eliot and enables Shapcott’s transmutation. She becomes in turn Thetis, cheetah, mad cow, quark (yes, quark!) and Mrs Noah, among others.

Coming to My Life Asleep, the reader may find the kind of horror that begets laughter as in Charles Simic or Goya, but they may also find the earned celebratory tone of Czesław Miłosz. Some of the poems seem to take their licence from Plath’s mushrooms, though Shapcott’s speakers are much livelier and weirder. Shapcott has the quotidian concerns of Larkin, as in a recipe poem about “Mandrake Pie”. The mandrake is best pulled at dawn, for the “double root / [is] said to have grown from seeds of murderers put to death”. Here we are given a gothic twist to dramatise a woman’s maddening servitude. Sometimes the poems feel as though they could be from the routines and imaginings of the unhinged subject of Charlotte Mew’s great poem “The Farmer’s Bride”.

Shapcott renews us by giving a fresh and affectionate perspective on the world. Consider her thoughts on the northern lights: “I have stolen / some of the light which drenches you this midnight / to wish you all the islands in the world / and every one a different kind of peace.”
Read ‘My Life Asleep’, a poem from My Life Asleep by Jo Shapcott

Don Paterson on Conjure by Michael Donaghy, 2000

When Conjure won the Forward, it was quickly declared to be “a genuinely popular choice”. This, for once, was true – though mostly because people found it difficult to begrudge Donaghy anything. His was a civilising influence on our excitable little constituency, and he was the first to remind us that all so-called “poetry wars” were really a knife-fight in a phone box. (Lord, have we missed him recently.) His poetry served much the same function. Through his example, our own poems took more pride in their appearance, showed greater respect for the reader, and understood the value of good humour. But Donaghy’s great gift was his ability to forge a poetic language where thought was indivisible from feeling.

Donaghy was a slow worker, and really only wrote one book, which he published in instalments. There were no particularly noticeable developments of either technique or subject matter; the former had always been seamless enough to be largely invisible, and his interests were so eclectic, nothing so base as a “theme” would ever emerge anyway. Conjure is the third part of the glorious tetralogy that ended with the posthumous Safest a few years later. It has eight or 10 poems that are among his very best: “Caliban’s Books”, “Haunts”, “Our Life Stories”, “Black Ice and Rain” … All accomplish the Donaghy trick of hitting you simultaneously in the solar plexus and between the eyes; every rereading reveals an unsuspected layer of complexity, allusion and – I realise belatedly – moral subtlety. “Tears” is short enough to quote in full, which is the only way one should ever quote these marvellous poems: “Tears / are shed, and every day / workers recover / the bloated cadavers / of lovers or lover / who drown in cars this way. / And they crowbar the door / and ordinary stories pour, / furl, crash, and spill downhill – / as water will – not orient, / nor sparkling, but still”.
Read ‘Caliban’s Books’, a poem from Conjure by Michael Donaghy

John Kinsella on Max Is Missing by Peter Porter, 2002


Max Is Missing is a vibrant, philosophically flexible reinvention of poetic persona that takes Porter’s renowned wit, and knowledge of European history and cultural arts, further into his varied equivocations over the meaning of Nature (with a capital N). Porter’s comparisons come down to moments or examples of human achievement and failure. He brings the “urban mind” into confrontation with any “Wordsworthian” tendencies that might raise their head, if with irony. Max offers room for animals, not only as poetic device, but also as creatures in themselves, even if the forces of existence weigh them down. Porter’s confrontation of Nature’s contradictions comes out of a Hardyesque fatalism more than an epiphany. His world is both God-filled and Godless; when God does appear it is often with a bleakly indifferent supremacy. While the classical wrestles with the modern (so often found wanting), there’s a lightness that retains satirical depth while inviting familiarity, gossip among the hard-edged reasoning, and the ability to poke fun at himself and his subject: “We who would probably want to remake / or at least tidy up Tracey Emin’s bed”. There are a handful of poems on Australian subjects. “Duetting with Dorothea”, referring to the author of one of Australia’s best-known (though least “great”) poems, laments: “Instead I saw a landscape / Lit up by inner doubt.” And in a colonised space, this is surely a legitimate stance for a non-indigenous Australian. One should always have doubt.
Read ‘Last Words’, a poem from Max Is Missing by Peter Porter


Kathleen Jamie on Breaking News by Ciaran Carson, 2003


I loved Breaking News because of all the white space, because the poems were sculpted out of silence. It’s not a quiet book, however: it’s about war and terror. The loud painting on the cover – Géricault’s The Blacksmith‘s Signboardsets out the book’s concerns. Géricault and Goya could be considered the war photographers of their day, and both feature in Breaking News, because war and its wastes are ever with us.

Carson’s interest in the Crimean war in particular was quickened because many streets in his native Belfast are named after Crimean battles, so the book refers back and forth, from Belfast to Balaclava with surveillance helicopters, bomb alerts and the wretched warhorses. The poised spare poems, many with just one word to a line, are perfect, and take their bearings from William Carlos Williams (imagine his Red Wheelbarrow abandoned on a battlefield) – a debt Carson acknowledges.

But he can’t resist opulent language for long. The closing section of the book is called “The War Correspondent”, and this, as Carson’s notes say, owes much to the Anglo-Irish journalist William Howard Russell, whose vivid dispatches shaped attitudes to the Crimean war. In a remarkable series Carson’s skilled work with line and rhythm turns those dispatches, sometimes verbatim, into poems of richness and depth. It’s a book that bears witness to horrors past and present, and shows that poetry inhabits our streets and newspapers, and that in talking about the disasters of war one can still call upon language which is now clean and bone-like, now rich and honeyed.
Read Gallipoli, a poem from Breaking News by Ciaran Carson


Jo Shapcott on The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie, 2004


I first read The Tree House when it came out in the autumn of 2004. I dived into poem after poem, thrilled: it was one of those books that announces a change in the temperature and direction of poetry, a real breakthough on behalf of the whole art. It is not only that the poems teem with living things and are fresh and delicate, beautifully made. Or that their sound world, enhanced by Jamie’s deft use of Scots in some poems, is a treat for the ear. The Tree House looks again at the way humans live in and with nature; how the natural world penetrates thought; how we understand and react to living things. The poems explore the human contradiction of feeling separate from nature but actually being part of it. More than that, they are both profound and oddly practical in proposing how we might make our way through the world. Perception, a morality of looking, is part of it: “what could one do but watch” asks the narrator in “The Basking Shark”. One of my (many) favourite poems, “Flight of Birds”, is elegiac, a tone which threads through the book and which is all too appropriate in the face of our destructive impact on the Earth. “We’ve humiliated living creatures,” says the narrator. She goes on to ask, almost tentatively, “might we yet prevail / upon wren, water rail, tiny anointed goldcrest / to remain within our sentience in this, / the only world?” I remain grateful for this book; in awe.
Read ‘Flight of Birds’, a poem from The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie

John Burnside on Legion by David Harsent, 2005


When I read poetry, I am looking for a world that I could never have imagined for myself. A worldview, a sensibility, that begins by seeming strange, even alien, but ends up leading me, sometimes reluctantly, into a suddenly familiar territory of ancient memories and repressed dreams. This is the territory where Blake receives his visions of Albion, but also where Baudelaire lurks in the smoky, perfumed shadows; Wallace Stevens pursues the as-if of the supreme fiction; Marianne Moore builds her astonishing menageries and imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Though, as Mandelstam says, we should not compare – “the living are beyond comparison” – I’d have no hesitation in adding David Harsent to that list, for his is probably the richest, most seductive and, at the same time, most rigorous imagination working in English poetry today, and Legion is a tour de force of subtle music, unsettling imagery, unmatched formal agility and a worldview that is, by turns, a joy or a terror to share.

I often recommend, to friends, students and outsiders fresh to English poetry, the haunting, beautiful and deeply unsettling “Ghost Archaeology” as an example of the best of what is happening in contemporary writing. As close as any finished thing comes to perfection, this is work of subtle, yet gently insistent musicality, compassionate in the true sense of the word and, as it reaches its eerie closing lines, deeply humane in its vision. This is poetry of utter integrity that, for the attentive reader, can make the world, if not a better, then at least a truer place.
Read ‘Arena’, a poem from Legion by David Harsent

David Harsent on Swithering by Robin Robertson, 2006


Robin Robertson’s vision is compelling, dark, unmistakeable. In Swithering, the developmental side of vision is everywhere evident: two poems that take Strindberg as their subject are subtly referential in their narrative continuity; “Ghost of a Garden” and “A Seagull Murmur” come at personal loss in different ways, though both have about them a sort of steely tenderness; and “Selkie” finds a new aspect in a later poem, “At Roane Head”, which won the Forward Best Single Poem prize in 2009.

For me, though, the most telling linkage in the book comes with the two approaches to the Acteon myth: a brilliantly turned version of Ovid, and a broken narrative titled “Acteon: The Early Years”. In the former, the story of Acteon’s transformation by Artemis and the terror and savagery of his death is given in tense, flexible free verse. The poem as a whole, but especially the passage that describes the hunt, is unrelenting and fierce and almost filmic in its intensity. The latter seems to me one of the most affecting poems Robertson has written – but also unrelenting, also fierce. The way it converts the Acteon narrative to its own purpose – a haunting and painful form of unrequited love informing a loss of innocence – is unsparing and unforgiving. I hope I might provoke readers to go to the poem if I say that the moment of bitter resolution in the final section is both startling and deeply moving.
Read ‘A Seagull Murmur’, a poem from Swithering by Robin Robertson

Andrew Motion on The Lost Leader by Mick Imlah, 2008


The Lost Leader was Mick Imlah‘s second collection: it came out 20 years after his first, Birthmarks, and a few months before his death from motor neurone disease. The tragedy of that early death still feels so intense, it’s difficult to read The Lost Leader without feeling our responses to the poems are in various ways pointed and shaped by our knowledge that they are the last Imlah wrote. He is not au fond a Keatsian poet, but his legacy is tinged with a Keatsian pathos.

Imlah’s first book had shown in some parts an aptitude for ventriloquism (especially of 19th-century voices), and in others for a beautifully calm form of documentary lyricism; in his later work both these things are refined in the service of a loosely structured narrative that gives “the matter of Scotland”. Sometimes the concentration is on major historical figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Sometimes it is on out-of-the-way things. In every case the forms are ingenious but sturdy, while the voice that delivers them is soaked in the tradition, but utterly original.

In later parts of the book, Imlah looks more directly at his personal history. For first-time readers, these are likely to seem the most welcoming – especially the very witty but tender poems to his wife, and those about his children and contemporaries. In one of these, the elegy for his university friend Stephen Boyd (like Imlah himself, a keen rugby player), he says “sport matters / Because it does not matter”. In a qualified sense, this assertion takes us close to the heart of everything Imlah achieved as a writer. He is absolutely serious, and often concerned with grave subjects, but entirely without self- importance. The Lost Leader was certainly the best poetry book published in 2008; one of the best poetry books of the new century, in fact.

Read ‘Maren’, a poem from The Lost Leader by Mick Imlah

Ian Duhig on Rain by Don Paterson, 2009


Paterson is one of the essential contemporary poets of these islands; formally accomplished and inventive with a pitch-perfect musician’s ear. His work has never been short of that playful ingenuity so ubiquitous a feature of modern poets’ lockers – and of which modern readers sometimes weary. Rain, for me, moved his writing beyond “all the craft and clever-clever” (the charge levelled against himself in his earlier Landing Light), and the reasons for this were brutally clear: it wasn’t a matter of technical development – rhymes are unshowy here, rhythms depressed – but the acquisition of pain. The “clever-clever” is still occasionally present, as in his techno-geekfest “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze”, but the author of God’s Gift to Women always knew he wasn’t, and throughout the doubting, self-interrogating collection, poems of heartbreak are made from fragments of hearts other than Paterson’s: “‘You’re saying that because / the bed’s a light-year wide, or might as well be, / I’m even lonelier than I thought I was …'” (“The Day”). His earlier sex poems would detumesce beside those here on parenthood or, crushingly, abortive parenthood (in “The Swing”). Haunted by loss, Rain is dedicated to the memory of Paterson’s great friend, that other fine poet Mike Donaghy, dedicatee of its longest poem “Phantom”, where Donaghy’s ghost admits “I loved the living but I hated life”, painfully true of many poets’ self-regarding attachments. One critic wrote that Rain‘s success restores faith in prizes. Perhaps, but it’s a book of broken faiths.

Read ‘The Swing’, a poem from Rain by Don Paterson

Nick Laird on Human Chain by Seamus Heaney, 2010


In Kuno Meyer‘s translation of the ninth-century Triads of Ireland, “the three glories of speech” are rendered as “steadiness, wisdom, brevity”, and that trinity might serve as a précis for Heaney’s work. Human Chain, though, sees that Heaney steadiness, the sense of balance and endurance, undercut by a new tenor of instability and uncertainty: the poems were written after a mild stroke Heaney suffered in 2006 and, while not comfortless, they come to doubt “the solid ground”: “As I age and blank on names, / As my uncertainty on stairs / Is more and more the lightheadedness // Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging, / As the memorable bottoms out / Into the irretrievable, // It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.”

Heaney’s late style has gravitated towards the relaxed line, and there’s a conversational freshness to these pieces. The vernacular idiom is mixed with the lapidary though, just as the poems integrate the local with the classical. Meditating on mortality makes time contract and bend; gaps between the past and present disappear as death begins to press its pattern over every life. These poems, which include many great elegies to friends, move “among shades and shadows stirring on the brink”, ghostly parents and grandparents and first loves.

Human Chain is Heaney’s Book of the Dead, and sits easily among his finest collections. Though revolving around sadness and loss, the book continually finds the energy and imagery to make looking over the last threshold possible. In his elegy for David Hammond , Heaney sees himself at his friend’s open door: “I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, / Intruder almost, wanting to take flight // Yet well aware that here there was no danger, / Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming / Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar // On an overgrown airfield in late summer.”
Read ‘Had I not been awake’, a poem from Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Fiona Sampson on Black Cat Bone by John Burnside, 2011


John Burnside creates a world of tones and shifting, shifty meanings that’s not quite like anywhere else. But it resembles the secret, often rather shameful, world of our own hopes and fears. This is particularly true of his poetry, which frequently evokes the dreamlike sensation of blundering through a landscape that is on the brink of offering him, or us, an extraordinary revelation.

The evocation itself, though, is done with exceptional subtlety. Black Cat Bone, Burnside’s 12th collection, brings together his narrative and musical gifts in a way that echoes and develops all that has come before. In the long opening poem, “The Fair Chase”, part ballad and part folk tale, the protagonist is a sort of holy fool, “flycatcher, dreamer, dolt, / companion to no one, / alone in a havoc of signs”, who follows the hunting traditions of family and community, and “becomes / the thing he kills”. This kind of transubstantiation isn’t new in Burnside’s work. His characteristic chain-link imagery passes images forward to create whole landscapes. But, here, that dream logic echoes a kind of “phantom narrative” in other poems, such as “Faith” and “Notes Towards an Ending”, which seem to tell stories from the world of relationships – but don’t do anything quite so reductive.

And all this in Burnside’s extraordinary music. His long sentences, his tumbling scenes and details, add something quite new to the English lyric tradition: the chance to riff, a kind of trance-like rapture. It’s for this sound, as much as for his wild delicacy, that Burnside evokes such passionate admiration.

Read ‘Notes Towards an Ending’, a poem from Black Cat Bone by John Burnside, Thursday 6 October 2011


Categories: Uncategorized

Great Expectations voted readers’ favourite Dickens novel

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Orphan Pip’s rise through society thanks to his mysterious benefactor wins poll by comfortable margin

Great Expectations

Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean’s 1946 film of Great Expectations. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

The author himself might have preferred David Copperfield, but Guardian readers have voted for Great Expectations as their favouriteCharles Dickens novel.

Pip’s adventures won 24.9% of the reader poll, well ahead of the second-placed Bleak House with 16.9%. David Copperfield, which Dickens called his “favourite child”, was third with 9.2% of the vote.

From its famous opening in the graveyard, when the orphan Pip first encounters the shackled convict Magwitch, “a fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg”, through his meetings with the bitter Miss Havisham and the cold Estella, and his rise through society thanks to a mysterious benefactor, Great Expectations is, said voter gavinscottw, “not only – as others have observed – formally the most ingenious of the novels – but perhaps Dickens’s most morally angry work”.

Others were less impressed by the novel, and put its popularity down to the fact that “people are made to read it in school, so it’s the only one they’ve read”, said VaneWimsey, an Our Mutual Friend supporter. “It’s sooo thin and long-drawn-out. And Estella is just plain nasty. Don’t know what Pip sees in her. First crush, maybe … great love of anyone’s life, no way.”

Great Expectations’ place on school reading lists can’t be the only reason for its triumph, however, with the school perennial Oliver Twist only picking up 4.6% of the readers’ votes. Pip’s place in readers’ affections was also attributed to the wealth of film and television adaptations which have been made of the novel over the years. A new version from BBC One starring David Suchet as Jaggers, Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham is out for Christmas, and a new film adapted by One Day novelist David Nichollsstarring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch is due to start shooting shortly.

“I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it,” wrote Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Guardian. “It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief. But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations. Our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his ‘favourite child’ and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better.”

Despite a glowing user review from Jane Smiley, which saw the Pulitzer prize-winning author call it “one of my two or three favourite novels of all time”, praising its “magical” prose and “perfect blending of story and style”, Our Mutual Friend only picked up 6.5% of readers’ votes. “Where’s the love for Our Mutual Friend?” asked voter VaneWimsey, describing the author’s final complete novel as “the great masterwork of Dickens’s maturity”.

The least popular Dickens novel was, unsurprisingly, his unfinished final work The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with 0.8% of the vote, narrowly behind Martin Chuzzlewit (1%), The Old Curiosity Shop (1.2%) and Nicholas Nickleby (1.8%).

Your favourite Dickens novels: the result in full

A Christmas Carol 7.4%
A Tale of Two Cities   8.7%
Barnaby Rudge  4.6%
Bleak House 16.9%
David Copperfield   9.2%
Dombey and Son 1.9%
Great Expectations   24.9%
Hard Times   2.9%
Little Dorrit 3.6%
Our Mutual Friend   6.5%
Oliver Twist   4.6%

Martin Chuzzlewit 1%

Nicholas Nickleby   1.8%
The Mystery of Edwin Drood 0.8%
The Old Curiosity Shop 1.2%

 –, Monday 3 October

Categories: Uncategorized

What’s your favourite Charles Dickens novel?

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, in contemplative pose. Which is your favourite Dickens? Photograph: Hulton Archive

We’re on the hunt for our readers’ favourite Dickens novel. We’ve asked a line-up of distinguished Dickens enthusiasts for their opinons. See which ones William BoydSimon CallowKathryn HughesJohn Mullan,Michel FaberDJ TaylorRobert Douglas-Fairhurst and Philip Hensherlike best. Or listen to our books podcast to hear from Colin Thubron, Andrew O’Hagan and Malorie Blackman, among others. Now it’s over to you – vote in our poll and have your say in the comments.

 7.4% A Christmas Carol
 8.2% A Tale of Two Cities
 0.8% Barnaby Rudge
 18.6% Bleak House
 10% David Copperfield
 1.7% Dombey and Son
 25.2% Great Expectations
 2.9% Hard Times
 3.3% Little Dorrit
 7.6% Our Mutual Friend
 4.6% Oliver Twist
 1.3% Martin Chuzzlewit
 1.8% Nicholas Nickleby
 0.9% The Mystery of Edwin Drood
 1.3% The Old Curiosity Shop
 4.4% The Pickwick Papers

Great Expectations

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

  • Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations

Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Photograph: Allstar

Great Expectations (weekly serial, December 1860-August 1861)

According to George Orwell, the biggest problem with Dickens is that he simply doesn’t know when to stop. Every sentence seems to be on the point of curling into a joke; characters are forever spawning a host of eccentric offspring. “His imagination overwhelms everything,” Orwell sniffed, “like a kind of weed.”

That’s hardly an accusation that could be levelled against Great Expectations. If some of Dickens’s novels sprawl luxuriously across the page, this one is as trim as a whippet. Touch any part of it and the whole structure quivers into life. In Chapter 1, for example, Pip recalls watching Magwitch pick his way through the graveyard brambles, “as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in”. Not until the final chapters do we realise why Pip is so haunted by the convict’s apparent reluctance to stay above ground, but already the novel’s key narrative method has been established. To open Great Expectations is to enter a world in which events are often caught only out of the corner of the narrator’s eye. It is a world of hints and glimpses, of bodies disappearing behind corners and leaving only their shadows behind. Whichever of Dickens’s two endings is chosen, it’s hard to finish the last page without thinking of how much remains to be said. Of course, none of this occurred to me when I first read Great Expectations as a child. In the 1980s this story of class mobility and get-rich-quick ambition resonated with all the force of a modern parable. The revelation that there was another story behind the one I was enjoying was as much a shock to me as it is to Pip, but that only increased my admiration for a novelist who treats his plot rather as Jaggers treats Miss Havisham in her wheelchair, using one hand to push her ahead while putting “the other in his trousers-pocket as if the pocket were full of secrets”.

I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it. It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief. But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations. Our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better.

Few works of fiction have enjoyed such a lively creative aftermath. Peter Carey has rewritten it in Jack Maggs. Television shows from The Twilight Zone to South Park have echoed it in ways that range from loving homage to finger-poking parody. Even the title has settled in the public consciousness, with shops such as “Grape Expectations” (wine) and “Baked Expectations” (cakes). It’s hard not to be fond of a novel that so perfectly reflects its author’s restless, rummaging imagination.


 Sketches by Boz

by DJ Taylor

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868. Photograph: Leonard De Selva/CORBIS

Sketches by Boz (1833-1836)

Originally written as newspaper journalism, collected in two volumes published by John Macrone in February and November 1836, with illustrations by George Cruikshank, and nearly titled “Bubbles from the Brain of Boz and the Graver of Cruikshank”, Sketches by Boz is the public record of Dickens’s apprenticeship. The early pieces, as he later pointed out, “comprise my first attempts at authorship”. By the time of “Vauxhall Gardens by Day”, written in October 1836, The Pickwick Papers had reached its eighth number and a meteoric career had taken flight.

Read in the order they were written, the Sketches consequently give off the terrific air of a newly minted talent discovering what it can do. While the opening tranche of “tales” derive from the work of forgotten contemporary humorists, the pieces of London reportage that he began to contribute to the Morning Chronicle in autumn 1834 (“Gin Shops”, “Shabby-Genteel People”, “The Pawnbroker’s Shop”) are like nothing else in pre-Victorian journalism: bantering and hard-headed by turns, hectic and profuse, falling over themselves to convey every last detail of the metropolitan front-line from which Dickens sent back his dispatches.

As he itemises the contents of the pawnbroker’s shop (“a few old China cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety …”) you sense that Dickens barely knows how to stop. It is the same with Miss Amelia Martin in “The Milliner’s Mishap”, eyeing up her friend’s wedding breakfast (“pewter-pots at the corners; pepper, mustard and vinegar in the centre; vegetables on the floor”) – a world so vivid and variegated to the person writing about it that there is almost too much to set down.

By the time of the final sketches (“Our Next Door Neighbours”, “The Tuggses at Ramsgate”) Dickens had begun to stake out the lower-middle-class interiors that critics were already marking down as his special subject. Meanwhile an admiring gang of early Victorian novelists stood ready to take their cue. Reading “Shabby-Genteel People”, for example, one can almost see Thackeray (who shortly afterwards was to write his own shabby genteel story) making notes in the background.


Our Mutual Friend

by Philip Hensher

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV's Our Mutual Friend.

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV’s Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend (monthly serial, May 1864-November 1865)

Dickens’s last completed novel is a marvel of play-acting and posturing, of taking on roles through delusion, calculation and ambition. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of late-period masque, where the roles and disguises that John Harmon and Boffin consciously assume exaggerate the more ordinary play-acting and pretence that we all engage in. The Veneerings’ awful dinner parties, or the love affairs where both participants wonder whether they are quite up to the mark, or the Lammles’ getting married in the misguided belief that the other has money – these are all wonderful, extreme examples of what the sociologist Erving Goffman was later to call “the presentation of self in everyday life”.

It’s a novel commonly described as flawed, but I guess it’s the Dickens novel I love best, and come back to most frequently. It’s said to be highly artificial – Henry James remarked, on its first publication, that he had never read a novel “so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt”. The details of the plot, it’s true, are elaborately implausible. But the individual characters are shockingly recognisable – the scenes between Mrs Wilfer striking postures and her debunking daughters, for instance. There are a hundred Podsnaps who will explain climate change over London dinner tables tonight, with a sweeping gesture of the arm. Dickens’s genius for human observation at its quickest reaches a kind of pinnacle with the young man who tries to exercise his French and says “Esker” at a Veneering dinner, says nothing more and never reappears. But he will live forever, and we all know someone just like him.

It’s so full of the river, and the sense of the city, and a huge stretch of London society, and so grand in its vision that perhaps we forget how gloriously funny it is – the Boffins deciding to go in for history, and buying a big book (“His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire”) or the captivating Lady Tippins (“You wretch!”), or Mrs Wilfer, after placing Bella in the magnificent coach of the Boffins, continuing to “air herself … in a kind of splendidly serene trance on the top step” for the benefit of the neighbours.

I love the bold sentiment, the pathos and the drama; I even love the kid who dies whispering “A kiss for the boofer lady”, because you might as well swallow this magnificent novel whole. And best of all is the exuberant, light-hearted moral conviction of the last page, as Twemlow at the very end shows his steel. Wagner said that the whole spirit of the English people was contained in the first rocketing eight notes of “Rule Britannia”. But then he probably hadn’t read Our Mutual Friend.


 Bleak House

By Kathryn Hughes


‘Dickens never wrote better’ … Gillian Anderson (left) as Lady Dedlock and Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther in the BBC serial of Bleak House, 2005. Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan

Monthly serial, March 1852-September 1853
Dickens wrote his ninth novel at that perfect hinge in his career when he was finally able to channel his creative exuberance into a sustained and sophisticated piece of narrative art. All the usual fun is here, but it’s in the service of a sustained moral inquiry into the evil that manmade systems do to the people they’re supposed to help. I think it’s Dickens’s best book and, given that it’s all about Chancery, I’d like to call expert witnesses. So here they are, the very unalike GK Chesterton and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom agree that Dickens never wrote better.

There’s that extraordinary opening, describing a murky November day in London where there is “as much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be so wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”. It’s an extraordinary image, stretching and collapsing time in the outrageous notion of a prehistoric monster let loose in legal London. Anyone who thinks that the high Victorian novel is a synonym for plodding realism really ought to read this top-hatted version of Jurassic Park.

They should read Bleak House too if they’re convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these, an all-seeing, weighty cove who can hover over roofs and barge through walls and show us all the characters from Jo the crossing sweeper, to Miss Flite in her birdcage lodgings, to Mr Bucket, the inscrutable detective. But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.

Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it’s OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation. Brilliant too is Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who is more interested in helping the African tribe of Borrioboola-Gha than attending to her adolescent daughter. Caddy’s fierce sulkiness, her miserable habit of hating the ones she loves the most, and her sweet redemption through love to an equally scarred child, Prince Turveydrop, strike me as absolutely real.

Of course there’s nothing new about Dickens being able to create wonderful characters. The difference here is that, while Harold Skimpole, Mr Tulkinghorn, Krook et al fizz with bright particularity, their job is to service the story – in Dickens’s earlier novels the endless cameos tend to derail the narrative. Bleak House represents the author at a perfectly poised late-middle moment in his extraordinary art.


Hard Times

by Michel Faber

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV's Hard Times

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV’s Hard Times. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features

Hard Times (weekly serial, April 1854-August 1854)

Facts and figures. In 1978, when I was 17 and in my first year at university, I read approximately 3,500 pages of Dickens. I’ve not revisited any of his novels in the 34 years since, except A Christmas Carol and Hard TimesA Christmas Carol because I wrote a foreword for it, and Hard Times because there was something unDickensian about it that intrigued me. Set in a northern mill-town rather than Dickens’s usual London, Hard Times tackles politics in an uncharacteristically rigorous fashion, bringing it closer to Disraeli’s Sybilthan Pickwick Papers. Dickens seizes on utilitarianism – a philosophy most of us recognise as benign and socially progressive – and vilifies it as a great evil that poisons the human spirit. He expresses his loathing for trade unions, too. It’s all rather problematic, but Dickens just about pulls it off through sheer force of will, creating those unforgettable (and weirdly Kafkaesque) schoolroom scenes in which zombie-like pupils spout verbiage like “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.”

My affinity, as a novelist, with Dickens has been overstated. I relish the way everything in his prose pulsates with life force, and I’m in debt to him every time I invest inanimate objects with uncanny animism. But his female characters annoy me. Not the grotesque ones – Miss Havisham, Mrs Micawber and other delicious monsters. It’s the nubile, noble heroines I find irksome. Their vapidity and sexlessness is often attributed, by pundits whose acquaintance with Victorian literature is scant, to the moral climate of the era. Yet other Victorian authors managed to sneak eroticism into their work, and if Dickens had put his titanic talents to the challenge of sublimated sex prose, he could easily have out-porned Bram Stoker. He just didn’t want to.

Which brings me to another reason for recommending Hard Times: it contains the closest thing to a real, complex woman in Dickens’ s fiction. Louisa Gradgrind may be as neutered as the rest of his heroines, but she’s aware of her passionlessness, and blames it on the repressed upbringing she’s been subjected to. In Great Expectations, Dickens created a femme fatale, but Estella is icily secure in her fataleness. Louisa remains achingly vulnerable, a cold fish who longs to be a warm mammal.


The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

By William Boyd

Drawing of Charles Dickens, with wife and sister-in-law

‘I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories’ … a drawing of Dickens with his wife and sister-in-law by D Maclise, 1843. Photograph: Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Monthly serial, January 1843–July 1844
Martin Chuzzlewit was Dickens’s sixth novel, serially published in 1843-44, and, compared to its great predecessors was something of a flop, much to Dickens’s surprise and chagrin. He was mightily pleased with the book – “I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories” – and couldn’t understand its comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold 40-50,000, for example).

In fact the novel is somewhat strange and uneven. Martin himself, the eponymous hero, only appears in about a fifth of the book, there’s a whole section that takes place in America that is the most heavy-handed satire, the lapses into romantic sentimentality are toe-curlingly coy and was there ever such a bland pair of lovers as Martin and Mary?

However, Chuzzlewit is, I believe the most sheerly funny of all Dickens’s novels and the comic characters and scenes are written with a vigour and brio which is the equal of anything else in his oeuvre. I would go so far as to claim that, in Chuzzlewit, you find the most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature, namely chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London. These 40 pages are written with a textured brilliance of detail and are also replete with the richest comedy – a coming together of style and humour that is unmatched in all his other novels. You will laugh out loud at Martin Chuzzlewit – the comedy travels effortlessly across the 170 years since it was written – and for that reason alone it deserves to be ranked among the greats.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

By Simon Callow

Jamie Bell in the film of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY 2002

‘Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man’ … Jamie Bell in the 2002 film, Nicholas Nickleby. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/Cloud Nine

Monthly serial, April 1838-October 1839
Dickens started writing Nicholas Nickleby only a year after Pickwick, as part of that astonishing trio of novels (of which the middle one was Oliver Twist) that he knocked off in a breathless 18 months, and it partakes of the same ebullient energy and free-wheeling inventiveness as the earlier book. I was initially attracted to the book for obvious reasons: I was an actor, and the glorious celebration of the theatre, not just in the episodes concerning Vincent Crummles and his troupe of down-at-heel showpeople but in the whole form and structure of the book, exhilarated me, and it still does. Despite the bleak and terrible realities Dickens describes – the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, the depravities of Sir Mulberry Hawk and the implacable destructiveness of Ralph Nickleby – it has the sweep and gusto of a great melodrama. The stage management of events is pretty shameless, but it’s as enjoyable as a 1930s Hollywood movie. Dickens’s irresistible compulsion to create whole parades of unforgettable grotesques and his magnificent crusading rage against injustice all keep the pages turning.

The central character has often been criticised as being merely functional, but it seems to me that Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man: his passion, impulsiveness, somewhat exaggerated notions of gallantry, occasional priggishness and big embracing spirit are so much shared with his author (who at this stage of his life frequently had to take to horseback in order to work off his undischarged surplus of élan vital) that reading the book puts us in very close proximity to the young Dickens. And in Mrs Nickleby, he has created a savage and wildly funny portrait of his own mother. Dickens’s feelings about her were dark and complex: she tried to overrule John Dickens when he withdrew his son from the blacking warehouse in which the 11-year-old Charles languished, and he never forgave her for that.

The young women, in the book, alas, are both inspid and lachrymose. There is in fact a pressing and permanent tension between Nicholas Nickleby‘s carnival spirit and its morbid sentimentality, a tension highly characteristic of the nascent Victorian era in which it was written, and one that was central to Dickens himself; he never quite resolved it to the end. But for the most part the book is a kind of corybantic frieze of all-too-human mankind, its characters parading unforgettably past us, insinuating themselves permanently into our imaginations, populating our mental landscapes. Its spirit seems to hark back, past Shakespeare, to Chaucer, enabling Dickens to embody something quintessentially and irrepressibly English.

Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World will be published by Harper Press in February 2012.

Dombey and Son

By John Mullan

Charles Dickens giving a reading

He is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing … Dickens giving a reading. Photograph: Alamy

Monthly serial, October 1846-April 1848
“What was a girl to Dombey and Son!” Despite its intransigently masculine title, Dombey and Son is the one Dickens novel apart fromBleak House with a heroine, Florence Dombey. And Florence, made courageous by the death of her mother and the neglect of her proud, rich father, is an altogether sprightlier protagonist than dutiful, grateful Esther Summerson.

Mr Dombey, her father, is one of Dickens’s emotionally cauterised men of wealth and power, rich in worldly appurtenances and poor in any concession to humanity. He thinks that he sits on top of society, but in fact he understands little about the commercial forces that have made him and will destroy him. The great power in Dombey and Son is that of the railways. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of the building of the railway – a kind of “earthquake” that has hit Camden Town. Later chapters reveal a nation transformed by and utterly enamoured of this new power. “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.” Trains are crucial to the elaborate plot.

Like all great Dickens novels it has really satisfying baddies. Major “Joe” Bagstock, one of those who predates on the loftily oblivious Mr Dombey, is a sinister, blue-faced old soldier with the disconcerting habit of talking of himself in the third person to an invisible confidante. “He’s hard-hearted, Sir, is Joe – he’s tough, Sir, tough, and de-vilish sly!” Devilishly, he arranges the marriage of Dombey to his rival in hard-grained pride, Edith Granger. It is a marriage made in hell, and the description of the wedding, like the decription of Paul Dombey’s christening earlier, is one of those unforgettably terrible and comic Dickensian set-pieces.

The novel’s big villain is Dombey’s “manager” (and rarely has so much nastiness been coaxed from that word), the “dainty” Mr Carker. Carker, Dombey’s “Grand Vizier”, has wonderfully white teeth and a smile that never extends beyond his mouth. He is the loyal apparatchik who would love to destroy and replace his master. “His manner towards Mr Dombey was deeply conceived and perfectly expressed. He was familiar with him, in the very extremity of his sense of the distance between them.” Those on the lookout for sentimentality will be able to find it, but in fact the novel is remarkable for its attention to failures of feeling. “What do we live for but sympathy!” exclaims the monstrous Mrs Skewton, who pimps her daughter to rich men looking for a trophy wife. Dombey is half-glimpsed in grief after his son’s death in childhood, but must dignify his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes “a bidder against him”.

Dombey treads proudly towards his doom with the author’s unheard warnings ringing in his ears. Dickens is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing. As ever, he energetically escapes the confines of literary decorum. Dombey and Son has all the satirical indignation of his early fiction – but new shades of darkness and a new narrative complexity. Halfway through his career, it was his first great novel. David Copperfield came next., Friday 23 September 2011 

Categories: Uncategorized

Joanna Trollope to rewrite Jane Austen

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Author of The Rector’s Wife plans modern-day ‘conversation’ with Sense and SensibilityJoanna Trollope and Jane Austen

‘She is a great: I am a good’ … Joanna Trollope and Jane Austen. Photograph: Rex/Hulton Getty

From Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy to Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, Jane Austen created some of the most enduring romances in literary history. Now, publisher HarperCollins is hoping it has dreamed up another marriage made in heaven, commissioning Joanna Trollopeto write a contemporary reworking of Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility.


The pairing is the first in a what the publisher has dubbed a “major” new series, in which it will team modern authors with Austen’s six novels, asking them to reimagine the books in a contemporary setting. The project is the latest addition to the current vogue for Austen remixes, which have ranged over recent years from the unexpected success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombie mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to erotic fiction author Mitzi Szereto’s X-rated Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts.


Trollope, whose novels of everyday relationships and emotions have garnered her comparisons to Austen in the past, will publish her take on Sense and Sensibility in autumn 2013. She said the novel would be “not an emulation, but a tribute”.


“This is a great honour and an even bigger challenge,” said the author ofThe Choir, A Village Affair and The Rector’s Wife. “It’s a hugely exciting proposal to attempt the reworking of one of the best novels written by one of our greatest novelists. This is a project which will require consummate respect above all else.”


HarperFiction publishing director Louisa Joyner said the two novelists “share an extraordinary ability to combine heart-rending plots with a social acuity which has powerful resonances for contemporary audiences”. She came up with the idea for the series after reading a comparison between Trollope and Austen – Trollope herself has said that “comparisons with Jane Austen make me twitch. She is a Great: I am a Good – on a good day”.


“TV adaptations of Austen all focus on one reading of her: they are all about the romance. But actually she was such an acute social commenter – and economics were such an important part of it,” said Joyner. “I couldn’t help thinking about all the contemporary resonances, [and I realised that] taking the bare bones of the story, and seeing where a contemporary novelist would get to would be fascinating – like refracting the novels through a prism.”


Joyner describes the new series as a “conversation” between Austen and today’s novelists. “I am imagining all sorts of reactions, everything from amazed to unhappy and everything in between,” she said. “What is very exciting is that people have that strength of feeling about a novelist. This is no attempt to better her. It’s a respectful conversation, and if it ends up with people talking more about Austen and Trollope, then that’s a good thing. It’s not a competition. It is a literary celebration, and all debate is good.”


Meanwhile, John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, said the project was part of “a time-honoured literary genre”. “in the 18th century they used to call it imitation,” he said. “It’s an old tradition – Pope did Horace, Dr Johnson did Juvenal, now Trollope is doing Austen … I think it’s fine. It always works best if the people who enjoy it most know the original – that’s the test.”


HarperCollins is currently in talks with other “authors of global literary significance” about the remaining five Austen novels. Joyner would not comment on suggestions that Stephen King might produce an interesting take on Northanger Abbey, or that an Ian Rankin crime twist to Emma could prove fun.


 –, Tuesday 13 September 2011

Categories: Uncategorized