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
Posted in Great Books
Tagged Bibliomania, Clive James, Essays, George Orwell, Journalism, Martin Amis, Novels, Peter Davison, Politics, Salman Rushdie, The Complete Works of George Orwell
Everyone knows – in theory – how to write an essay, but very few people can write them to really high standards.
Excellent essays can begin with the author in a state of frank confusion: Montaigne not only invented the form, he made an art form out of just such beginnings. But Montaigne never reached the end of an essay without having achieved a pellucid certainty about his topic. You are never confused at the end of his essays, much as you and he may be at the start of them.
Now that’s the kind of trick that very few essayists can be trusted to turn ever, let alone at will.
Inga Clendinnen wrote an indispensable book on the dawn of European occupied Australia: Dancing With Strangers. The central message of Dancing With Strangers was that 1788 need not have been (indeed did not at the time look like being) the cusp of various cultures’ destruction. This message is a useful one to remember when reflecting on Australia’s modern history, and all the more so as our history sidles haltingly into the twenty-first century. Continue reading
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
As an incitement to wholesale reading and indiscriminate humanism, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia stands alone.
Of course, having picked up the book, the first wholesale reading you’re going to do is of Cultural Amnesia itself. It consists of over 100 essays on culturally or politically significant figures in both the Eastern and Western parts of our globe over the span of – oh – call it two millennia; it weighs in at 850 pages, or just shy of a kilo. So if you’re reading with care, the reading will take you a while.
I bought my copy just about a year ago, and it’s now heavily underlined; the margins are dotted with exclamation marks and notes and the spine is just starting to give way (I’m looking for a hard-back edition, by the way – if anyone out there is fool enough to part with one, I feel sure we could do business).
Having had a year to browse and cogitate, to scribble notes and to google, I feel just about ready to write about it. But only just. Continue reading