Category Archives: Great Books

Complete Works

In the middle of last year, I began hunting down second-hand copies of The Complete Works of George Orwell.  I use the word copies advisedly, because the complete Orwell consists of twenty tomes: nine novels and eleven volumes of collected letters, essays, journalism and fascinatingly varied jottings.

Twenty volumes.  Over eight thousand, five hundred pages in total.  And the fruit of seventeen years of hard graft by its editor, Peter Davison. Continue reading

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Martin Kingsleyovich Amis

Russians are tough: particularly Russian women, since the men tend to be tough to the point of early self-destruction.  Even the language sounds tough – only Polish sounds more like a stand-up argument is in progress while in fact two lovers coo endearments at each other.  Russians have been imbued with a special and enduring kind of gloom and fatalism by their history, yet somehow they refuse to be cowed by it: ‘So we’ve had a hard few centuries?  Nitchevo.’

Martin Amis, by some mysterious process that cannot entirely be explained by the word ‘research’, has absolutely nailed the Russian collective psyche, and he does it in under two hundred pages, in a novel called House of Meetings. Continue reading

One-Hit Super-Wonder

Name the writer whose career can be summed up as follows:

They publish one novel, and one novel only.  Over the next half-century, that novel sells in excess of thirty million copies and wins the Pulitzer Prize.  The author refuses almost every opportunity to be interviewed.  They have to be bullied by friends into accepting the awards and honours they so richly deserve.  On the rare occasions that they make public statements they exhibit a hard-headed sense that never looks like wavering.  They are adored by millions but intimately known by very, very few.

But you know already that I’m talking about Harper Lee. Continue reading

Medea and Morality

While discussing Euripides’ Medea with a student last night, I was briefly stunned by their comment that the play seemed too simple – that it lacked elements that could be explored in depth, and was therefore not a good bet to write an essay on.

I say briefly stunned, because comments like this generally precipitate a rant of about half an hour from me.  On this occasion I managed to hold myself to a tightly run twenty-three minutes.  But it got me thinking. Continue reading

Stepping on W B Yeats

It can take days to read a novel and a lifetime to understand it.  In fact, I’m sure it can take a lifetime to read a novel – I’ve been stuck on page two hundred and fifty-seven of Ulysses for about eighteen months, and the knowledge that there exists a book called Finnegans Wake sometimes makes me curl up in a corner to have a quiet cry.

But reading a poem can take seconds, and you may still be puzzling over it on your death-bed.  Then again, there are some poems that have an instantaneous and truly devastating effect on you: as if you’d cannily jumped over a puddle only to alight gracefully on a land mine.

And the undisputed master of puddle-and-land-mine poetry is William Butler Yeats. Continue reading

Under Milk Wood, A Play For Voices

I was fourteen, I think, when I first read Under Milk Wood, and I’m still reading it.  In some sense I never stop.  It showed me that the English language could be a musical instrument, and that English printed on a page could be considered as a kind of notation.  That’s not quite a this-is-the-book-that-changed-my-life revelation (don’t you hate the question ‘Which book changed your life’ by the way?), but it certainly changed the way I read.  It was the book that changed all other books.

It’s very hard to give a synopsis of Under Milk Wood.  Is it the story of a community full to bursting with people who are themselves to blame for their frustrated lives?

No.  It can’t be: that would be too simplistic.  This, I think, is better: Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices, is a dream designed to remind you how painful waking up can be.

I own two copies of Milk Wood: the Adeline edition is the one I grew up with (and I still think it’s the best version of the text), and I have a fetching purple hardback printed by The Folio Society.  The Folio edition is a joy to behold, but there are a few very strange editorial decisions that distort one or two passages.  I’ve owned three Adeline editions in the past decade or so.  My first fell to bits, and they’ll never find the body of the prick who stole the second.  I’m a bit funny about this book.  There was a time, too, when I was devoted to the BBC recording of it (Richard Burton reading the parts of the two anonymous narrators) but while I still have a lot of time for it, I know Milk Wood so well by now that it sounds better in my head. Continue reading

Frontiers, Football and Fatwas

Salman Rushdie is still probably most famous for having had a price on his head larger than the vast majority of book advances.

The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, attracted the ire of the Ayatollah Khomeini who (with charming timing) called for Rushdie’s death on Valentines Day 1989.  It would be nine years before Rushdie could again walk the streets without a team of minders in reasonable confidence that his imminent death by violence was unlikely.  Reading The Satanic Verses today, it’s rather hard to see what all the fuss was about – granted, it does describe a brothel in which the gals take on the names and personalities of the wives of the Prophet Mahound (no prizes for guessing who he’s based on), and yes, it does unpick the legend that early Surahs (subsequently expunged) of the Qur’an were dictated by Satan rather than the Angel Gabriel and it must be conceded that it points out that texts twice dictated are unlikely to be inerrant… but it’s hardly the sort of thing you’d imagine people plotting murder over.  But then again, nor were the Jyllands Posten cartoons.

Rushdie’s work as a fiction writer has rarely been short of spectacular: Midnight’s Children, Fury, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar the Clown, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Enchantress of Florence (in addition to The Satanic Verses) are all books that I recommended wholeheartedly – so it seems almost unfair that he’s brilliant at non-fiction too. Continue reading