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L'étranger – that 'irksome' classic?

September 2016, by Adrian Tahourdin[ —]




Looking for The Outsider: Albert Camus and the life of a literary classic (Chicago) by Alice Kaplan is a National Book Award finalist in the United States, we learn from its cover (it’s being published in October). A simultaneous edition has already appeared in France from Gallimard (Camus’s own publisher) and was favourably reviewed in Le Monde des livres by the paper’s Camus expert Macha Séry. The TLS’s review of the English edition is forthcoming.

Kaplan’s thoroughly researched book takes the form of the biography of a novel, rather in the manner of the acknowledged Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece. For example, in archives in Oran, Algeria, Kaplan has found newspaper reports in 1939 in the Alger Républicain – the paper on which Camus cut his teeth – about an incident on the beach involving a Frenchman or pied noir and two Algerian youths. L’étranger was published in 1942, and has so far sold in excess of 10 million copies in France. The French specialist Sudhir Hazareesingh, in his book How the French Think (2015), referred to its "somewhat irksome" author – a consequence of being schooled in the French classics in his native Mauritius. Another snippet new to me was the fact that in 1972 a Folio edition of the novel “was offered in exchange for bonus points by Total gas stations throughout France”.

In Oran she secures an interview with the writer Kamel Daoud whose novel Meursault, contre-enquête (2013; The Meursault Investigation) takes the form of a fictional response to L’étranger, giving the nameless Arab of Camus’s novel a name and an identity.

Kaplan’s prose is not without its rhapsodic flights: “Something horsey and asymmetrical about his face, despite his fine features, gave him an expressive force that moved deftly from comic to tragic, from gangster to prince”; “. . . Montherlant, the great Henry de Montherlant”. And Kaplan is nothing if not thorough in her Acknowledgements – six pages of them – including the “suberb” (sic) translator of the French edition Patrick Hersant and the “photographer Kays Djilali” who “accompanied [Kaplan] on photographic treks in Algiers and Oran, taking beautiful pictures of the traces of Camus’s life and work . . .”. But none of these photos appear in the book!

One final point: Kaplan refers to the text throughout as The Stranger, yet her book is called Looking for The Outsider. Surely Outsider is more correct. Stranger just sounds, well, strange.

The guises of Rochester

September 2016, by timescolumns[ —]

Dominic Cooper in the 2016 theatre production of The Libertine
Dominic Cooper in The Libertine, which opens at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on September 22


A revival of Stephen Jeffreys’s 1994 play about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, opens in London on Thursday, starring Dominic Cooper as the peerless peer. Whether Cooper can embody the two distinct sides of Rochester – "the devil incarnate and the angel undefaced" – remains to be seen, though sceptics might wonder whether the star of Mamma Mia! can convey the melancholy poetic imagination of a man who once described himself, in a letter to his mistress Elizabeth Barry, as "the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive". But whatever happens on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Cooper will be following in a strange and, in its own way, noble tradition.

The libertine poet was one of the greatest celebrities of his time. Able to walk with the king (unless he had been banished from court) yet keep the common touch by consorting merrily with prostitutes and down-and-outs, Rochester was both loved and loathed by those around him. He was sufficiently well known for his friend George Etherege to immortalize him as Dorimant in his play The Man of Mode (1675), from which the dichotomy between demonic and angelic is drawn.

Although the play’s subtitle, Sir Fopling Flutter, refers to its outrageous fop character (who was based on the "man of fashion" of the day, Beau Hewit), Dorimant is the protagonist; he is a dashing, devil-may-care seducer, of whom "a thousand horrid stories have been told" but whose charisma is underscored by intelligence and wit. Rochester’s greatest poem, "A Satire against Reason and Mankind", is referred to in the play, when the servant of Dorimant's former mistress Loveit announces: "Your knowing of Mr. Dorimant, in my mind, should rather make you hate all mankind".

The play ends happily, with Dorimant pledging fidelity to the witty Harriet: "The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me, and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty". Rochester’s own end five years later was less happy, as, racked by tertiary syphilis, he succumbed to madness and died at the age of thirty-three. Immediately after his death, a myth grew up, masterminded by his puritanical mother Anne, that he had repented of his sins on his deathbed; this version of events was popularized by Anne’s chaplain Robert Parsons, whose funeral sermon proved a wildly popular bestseller, skilfully combining an improving moral message with hints of salaciousness.   

Funeral sermons for the notable were often published, but normally sold no more than a couple of hundred copies; Rochester’s sold thousands, making it hugely lucrative. It went through no less than twenty-four editions in the course of the following century, and became one of the standard texts of repentance and forgiveness. This Rochester became a totem for the god-fearing Victorians; the treasurably kitsch painting The Death of Rochester or A Last Request of the Earl of Rochester (1850) by Alfred Thomas Derby depicts a pallid Rochester on his deathbed in the arms of his wife Elizabeth, being ministered to by a clergyman, complete with a heavenly light shining from the window, presumably to take Rochester's penitent soul up to heaven. The only things lacking are a stirring rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus and the text of Luke 15: 11–32 – the Parable of the Prodigal Son – plastered underneath.

Other depictions of Rochester as a more complex figure have proved more enduring. Anthony Hamilton’s ghostwritten memoirs of Philibert, Comte de Gramont, a French nobleman who had been at the Restoration court in the 1670s, featured Rochester as an arch (in both senses) seducer; described as "the man in England who has least honour and most wit", he is determined to bed as many women as possible, and gets into amusing scrapes with the queen’s maid of honour, Goditha Price, and her rival for Rochester’s affections, a Miss Hobart. Replete with hammy dialogue and tongue-in-cheek authorial moralizing, the book is entertaining enough as a kind of Restoration comedy redux, but the flowery writing and somewhat clichéd presentation of Rochester signal that this can be safely disregarded as fantasy.

This idea of the poet as little more than a libertine persisted, however – not helped by Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets (1779): "in a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness". Nonetheless Johnson's book inspired Charlotte to name her brooding hero Mr Rochester. It is conceivable that she was also familiar with William Henry Ainsworth’s Restoration potboiler Old St Paul’s (1841), in which Rochester, as usual characterized as a cunning lecher, appears in disguise – as, of course, does Brontë’s Rochester.

The twentieth century saw surprisingly few fictional appearances of Rochester, and when he was depicted, it tended to be in "popular literature" as a stock rogue-seducer reformed by the love of a good woman, as in Barbara Cartland’s bodice-ripper A Serpent of Satan (1979). Anyone who has ever trudged their way through a book in Cartland’s oeuvre will know what to expect: a virginal heroine, a wicked lord, coyness in the final bedroom scene, and much breathy dialogue along the lines of "I must be dreaming . . . .  I did not even dare to pray that you would love me". It was not until Jeffreys’s play that Rochester received a more high-profile depiction, especially in the 2004 film version of The Libertine, in which Johnny Depp channelled his then recent portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow (even reprising the accent) and conveyed something of Rochester’s charm and charisma but little of his decency, his capacity for intellectual brilliance or his emotional turmoil. More recently, Tom Hardy played Dorimant in a 2007 revival of The Man of Mode at the National Theatre; connoisseurs of Hardy’s flamboyantly eccentric performances on screen would have been disappointed by his toned-down restraint, as his co-star Rory Kinnear stole the show (and the plaudits) as Sir Fopling Flutter.

Johnny Depp and Rosamund Pike in The Libertine, 2004
Johnny Depp and Rosamund Pike in The Libertine, 2004

Nancy Carroll and Tom Hardy in The Man of Mode,  National Theatre, 2013
Nancy Carroll and Tom Hardy in The Man of Mode, National Theatre, 2007

It will be fascinating to see how Cooper (at thirty-eight, five years older than Rochester when he died) will interpret this most mercurial and indefinable of literary figures. Most people have their own interpretation of who Rochester was, whether it is the angel undefaced, the devil incarnate or something in between, and that is how it should be. As Rochester himself wrote, musing on what posterity might have in store for him after his death:

All my past life is mine no more;
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams given o’er
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.
Whatever is to come is not:
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot,
And that, as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is wholly thine.

Dinner with the Twits

September 2016, by timescolumns[ —]

 The Twits
The Twits, played by Lizzy Dive and Chris Barlow; image courtesy of Facebook: TwitsDinner


“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.” As I walk through south London on my way to Dinner with the Twits, I can't help admiring how well the first line of Roald Dahl's children’s classic has worn.

Somewhere below Waterloo, in the ominously named Vaults, the gruesome pair are hosting a banquet. The event has been created by Les Enfants Terribles, the theatre company behind the wildly successful Alice’s Adventures Underground, and Bompas & Parr, popular jelly experts and creators of such bizarre gastronomic novelties as last year’s Alcoholic Architecture, a misty room under Borough Market where you could stand and breathe in one drink’s worth of booze, and The 200 Club, a £2,000, 200-course, 24-hour tasting menu. I pick up my ticket and drop my things at the cloakroom. As I step towards the bar, the attendant calls out: “Good luck”.

We are shepherded into the “Ghastly Garden”, where the audience is left to root around in search of appetizers. I find a pulsating mass of cold spaghetti worms, glue soup, pig ears, Bloody Mary-glazed chicken hearts, and a green quail’s egg lurking in the compost heap. I am not appetized.

Then the Twits arrive, played by Chris Barlow and Lizzy Dive. The pair are enormous, grizzled, grotesque and foul. We are there to celebrate the renewal of their vows, for after all this time, Mr Twit says: “They are very much in luu…”, he gags, “..luuu”, he retches, his cheeks swell “… It’s okay. I swallowed it. Luuuurve”. We enter the banquet hall, where dinner is to be served.

The doors burst open and the Muggle-Wumps (the couple's performing "monkeys") enter, carrying an enormous tower of bird pies. Each is dropped off complete with a roasted talon and a ladle of parsley liquor from a bubbling cauldron. Accompanying this is a plate of “muddied spuds”, buried in dried olives. There’s also a pile of “six-legged slaw” that is, in fact, bugless. And that’s it. Unfortunately, the Dahlian menu descriptions fail to disguise the fact that all of the grub is unremarkable. The only truly Twittish aspect is its miserly meagreness. 

As we eat, the story progresses, though interest seems to wane as it becomes clear that the plot, such as it is, has been constructed merely as background entertainment. It is rounded off with an explosive cannon trick, which ends messily for one poor Muggle-Wump, and the arrival of an enormous puppeteered Roly-Poly bird.

The Twits of my school years were created to frighten and entertain children. There is no risk of that at the Dinner. Kids aren’t allowed in. The show is strictly 16+. All of this raises the question: who on earth is this for? The whole experience lasts an hour and a half, of which perhaps there’s really only thirty minutes of acting. The cheapest tickets are £81.50, the most expensive £111.50. That’s a staggering amount to cough up for two courses and some desultory attempts to inspire nostalgia. 

When the show ends, we’re returned to the bar. I’m handed one of “Mr Twit’s Dirty Negronis”. The classic cocktail has been altered to include the smoky and very “in” cousin of tequila, mezcal, and a sprinkling of dried mealworms. Back above ground, I appraise. It was a daft and expensive mixture, one that was hard to swallow and left a clinging, bitter taste on the palate. The cocktail, however, was quite good.

In the book, Dahl writes: “If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face”. I’m scared to look in the mirror.

Mr Twit’s Dirty Negroni
Mr Twit’s Dirty Negroni; photograph by George Berridge

What's so great about Roald Dahl?

September 2016, by David Horspool[ —]
Roald Dahl, 1954, by Carl Van Vechten

Roald Dahl, 1954, by Carl Van Vechten

Last year the TLS hosted a discussion on the subject of “Overrated and underrated” authors. They are planning to do the same again this year. It’s always easier to think of candidates for the first category than the second. And if you ask me, a prime example is the man in whose name thousands of primary school children are being encouraged to celebrate today: Roald Dahl.

Heresy? As a parent of a primary-age schoolchild, I can attest to the enduring popularity of some of Dahl’s best works (in which category I’d place Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny Champion of the World). And you wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of kids reading, not that dressing up as Mike Teavee necessarily qualifies. But two things bug me about Dahl-mania. First, there are other children’s authors, you know -- even “classic” children’s authors (Kenneth Grahame, Clive King, A. A. Milne, Norton Juster, Michael Bond, off the top of this head) who don’t receive a fraction of this attention. Hasn’t Roald Dahl had enough of a boost from Hollywood without having to corral every child in England to read him or dress up as one of his characters? It sometimes feels as if school literacy programmes are part of some sort of Dahl cult, something that I’m sure would have given the author himself much amusement.

Secondly, he wasn’t always that good. For every Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is a Great Glass Elevator (a haphazard hotchpotch of sub sci-fi, a cash-in brimming with longueurs, without any of the redeeming humanity of the first book). You can keep almost all his “comic” verse (Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, Rhyme Stew: “no animal is half as vile / As Crocky-Wock, the crocodile”, etc). In fact the “poetry” he shovels into even his best books often feels like filler (and seems to have given David Walliams the idea that children don’t mind if you pad out their stories with endless lists). What’s a poor parent supposed to do when confronted with “songs” of many verses for which no tune suggests itself? As I spy the stanzas coming up on the facing page, I start fidgeting before my six-year-old does, or simply suggest stopping there.

When Dahl wrote for adults (apart from his memoirs, which are, if not necessarily particularly revealing, compelling creations none the less) he could be amazingly facile and often horribly misogynistic (Switch Bitch, anyone?).

All this may seem rather curmudgeonly on the great man’s 100th birthday -- and of course I’m happy if the charity set up in his name receives donations -- but as there is a Roald Dahl day celebrated every year in various ways, it’s not as if 2016 is particularly unusual. But perhaps we can count this year’s festivities as a decent send-off, and start revealing to our children that, in the BBC presenter’s preferred formulation, “other authors are available”? 

What's your favourite Bowie song?

September 2016, by Adrian Tahourdin[ —]

Station to Station cover.jpg


Well, which one is it? “Space Oddity”? “Aladdin Sane”? “Changes”? “Life on Mars”? “Drive-In Saturday”? “Diamond Dogs”? “Rebel Rebel”? “Ziggy Stardust”? “Young Americans”? “Fascination”? “Station to Station”? “Sound and Vision”? “Heroes”?  

Or none of the above? There are so many to choose from, after all.

The question at the top of the post is not one to put to Paul Morley, author of the just published The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie made a world of difference (which will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS). At a recent event to mark the publication of the book at the Emmanuel Centre in Central London, Morley declared how much he hated being asked that question. I didn’t hear the reason why – he spoke rather fast and not always very clearly. Needless to say, when he took questions from the audience, first up was “What is your favourite Bowie song?” The look he gave the questioner was witheringly eloquent.

Many of us will remember hearing the news of Bowie’s death in early January. Although he was sixty-nine, he still seemed young – the ultimate Peter Pan, his fine features a little worn but not hugely so. And he had made a musical comeback from a decade of silence just three years previously, with The Next Day, featuring such poignant songs as “Where Are We Now?”, in which he revisited his highly creative Berlin period of the late 1970s.

I have to confess that I took rather a lot of time out from Bowie’s music – I’m unfamiliar with everything between Let’s Dance (1983) and the 2013 comeback. Maybe that makes me an old school Bowie fan. Morley has been a lifelong follower; his new book, which took him a mere ten weeks to write (it’s more than 450 pages long!), has clearly been long-gestating.

The final song on Blackstar, released days before Bowie’s death, is the urgent, mesmerizing “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. It would be hard to imagine a sadder, more heartfelt artistic signing off. Yet its exact meaning is mysterious.

Personally, I think Morley could have answered that essentially harmless question. It was rather self-regarding of him to bat it away. There’s no shame in having a favourite book/painting/song after all, is there? My own view, for what it’s worth, is that nothing can exceed the sheer strangeness and beauty of “Station to Station” (1976). And I don’t suppose I could have imagined thirty years ago that the funk-soul Young Americans (1975) would become my favourite Bowie album now that I’m listening to him again. Common to both is the wonderful guitar playing of the Puerto Rican American Carlos Alomar, who also appeared on Heroes, Low and Lodger. And while I’m at it, I have long wondered what one of the the lines from “Station to Station”, “the European cannon is here”, actually means! There are suggestions online, but nothing completely persuasive. Another Bowie mystery.  

Nelson Mandela and the Robben Island Bible

September 2016, by timescolumns[ —]

The Robben Island Bible
The Robben Island Bible; © Christopher Jones/Alamy


The life of Nelson Mandela still captures the imagination. Hence the success of Mandela Trilogy performed by Cape Town Opera, which is currently touring the UK. It melds Xhosa folk music, jazz and modern opera; and follows Mandela – who is played by three different actors – from child to revolutionary.

It is an unorthodox approach to biography, and it got me thinking about the difficulty of documenting such a varied life, and in particular the period – almost two decades – Mandela spent in Robben Island prison, which is dramatized in Mandela Trilogy’s final act. Those who have heard the opera may be interested in a relic from this time, the Robben Island Bible (RIB), which gives us another fascinating angle on it. The "bible" is in fact a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare – smuggled into Robben Island prison in the 1970s – that has long held potent anti-Apartheid associations. It is disguised in Diwali paper, masquerading as a religious text; in it thirty-four prisoners have marked and autographed passages that are significant to them. Those prisoners include Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Mandela himself. 

The prisoners' selections are moving and revealing – and potently symbolic. Billy Nair’s choice of the assertion “This island’s mine” bristles with Caliban’s pent-up fury and baffled territorial claims, and becomes for Nair an aggressive proclamation of possession over Robben Island itself. Julius Caesar is, unsurprisingly, the most regularly chosen play in the RIB: from Can Themba’s South-Africanized 1960s version of the play to the RSC artistic director Gregory Doran’s recent all-black, African adaption (2012), the play has continued to offer a paradigm of political insurrection. By 1977, when Mandela signed the RIB, South Africa had been through the systematic homeland development, popular removals and industrial decentralization of apartheid. His selection from Shakespeare (signed “NRD Mandela 16-12-77”) is a defiant one:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

The lines echo his experience of near-execution during the 1960s Rivonia Trial, recalled in Mandela’s autobiography (1995): “I was prepared for the death penalty. To be truly prepared for something, one must expect it”.

The Robben Island Bible 2
The Robben Island Bible; © Christopher Jones/Alamy

If Mandela saw something of his own resolve in Caesar, then South Africa itself could contemplate its reflection in Shakespeare’s portrayal of ancient Rome. “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!”, Cassius exclaims; Mark Antony, for his part, envisions “domestic fury and civil strife”, of “carrion men” and mothers who “smile” over their mutilated children. South Africa made the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 but, decades earlier, the Robben Island prisoners had no assurances that this would ever happen. Laloo Chiba, sentenced to eighteen years' imprisonment for heading the anti-apartheid sabotage units of uMkhonto we Sizwe (Zulu for "Spear of the Nation"), selected as his passage Brutus’s endorsement of continuing battle against the army of Octavius in Julius Caesar – “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. Did Chiba find self-reassurance here – and some degree of self-justification for his actions? 

With twentieth-century names inscribed over an Elizabethan text, the “Robben Island Bible” continues to be, as Dora Thornton, curator of the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the world exhibition (2012) argues, “an object that says so much about what Shakespeare still means”. Through the synthesis of printed word and written word, the literary artefact becomes a living text – an object denoting shared values and, as the retention of its nickname “Bible” suggests, an article of devotion.

The book thieves

September 2016, by Michael Caines[ —]



A postscript/digression following my report from last weekend's Historical Novels Society conference in Oxford. It was while stumbling around the TLS archives that I was reminded of this excellent example of an accidental discovery of plagiarism – one that I could appreciate all the more for having made a similar unintentional discovery myself while working on a book review . . . .

The letter, from Professor David A. Cook of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, appeared in the TLS in December 2007:

Sir, – As someone who wrote a dissertation on the autobiography and Wessex novels of John Cowper Powys (University of Virginia, 1971) and published extensively on him in literary journals during the 1970s, I wanted to contribute the following addendum to Morine Krissdottir’s excellent account of his misfortunes at the hands of publishers, attorneys, and agents during the 1930s (which was reviewed by Margaret Drabble, November 16).

In 1972, I was preparing to write an essay on Powys’s Owen Glendower (1940), a two-volume, massively researched novel of the Welsh prince’s revolt against Henry IV, and I learned that a historical novel on the same subject had been published that year by G. P. Putnams. This was Martha Rofheart’s Fortune Made His Sword (published in 1973 in the UK as Cry God for Harry). I quickly got my hands on a copy to see if Powys and Rofheart had used the same sources, but what I discovered was page after page of verbatim plagiarism. This was no accident: I counted more than a hundred such instances, extending over about 150 pages in the middle of the novel. I considered writing to Putnams directly but was advised instead to contact Laurence Pollinger, Powys’s literary agent and executor, detailing the plagiarism, which I did.

I still have Mr Pollinger’s reply, acknowledging the plagiarism, advising me as to the futility of seeking legal action against a rich American publisher, and suggesting to me as a remedy that I send some money to Phyllis Playter in Blaenau Ffestiniog to help her buy a badly needed set of false teeth.

I sent her a $50 cheque, which was, I suspect, the last royalty ever collected by the Powys estate on one of the greatest (and strangest) historical novels in the English language.

Department of Broadcasting and Cinema, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina 27412.

Big deal, some will say: plagiarism is a fact of literary life. It certainly takes many forms, some more virulent than others. It can be the lifting of whole pages and passages from fellow writers' work, which is what I found when reviewing the reprinted biography of an eighteenth-century nobleman. (The later biographer possibly even took the trouble, if I haven't invented this detail myself, to ward off would-be researchers by dismissing his predecessor's work as not worth reading – while helping himself to great unacknowledged chunks of it.) It may take the form of a single phrase, as implied in a recent issue of Areté, with regard to a line by Derek Walcott – or, in essence, by Elizabeth Bishop. Pierre Bayard has suggested that there's such a thing as plagiarism par anticipation, by which Sophocles stole Oedipus from Freud, and Voltaire got in there first before Conan Doyle.

Plagiarism can also arise inadvertently from the way a student might take notes, as Mary Beard has mentioned on her own blog, with reference to the Raj Persaud case and a single phrase in her own book Roman Laughter. A debate in the TLS letters pages in 2009, involving Pat Rogers, Heather Jackson and others, turned on whether reference books were not to be accorded the same protection from clandestine copying as other works of scholarship. And how about writers who borrow from themselves? It's not unknown for a freelancer, impoverished in more than one sense, to reach into his or her back catalogue and pull out a perfectly serviceable if used paragraph (only one careful owner).

An altogether more extraordinary instance of plagiarism appears in Katy Evans-Bush's splendidly various essay collection Forgive the Language. There, amid her engaging, enthusiastic accounts of the underrated James Merrill, the gone-too-soon Dorothy Molloy and others, is "Now I'm a Real Boy: Poetry's plagiarism problem", a fair-minded reflection on the case of Sheree Mack, who pilfered from August Kleinzahler, Douglas Dunn and a Facebook poetry group run by Jo Bell. It's by no means the first case of verse-burglary.

"In last year's scandal", Bell reminded people, "Christian Ward simply took someone else's poem and put his name at the top on several occasions. Now, it's Sheree Mack who by the kindest account possible, has 'inadvertently borrowed' exact phrases, structures and in some cases whole stanzas, without crediting where they came from. This does not make her the Antichrist, and it's a damn shame that she did it, but she did it at least twenty times – and at least three times in 52, borrowing from published poems." At the same time, Bell advised her fellow poets, "Don't get nervous about using phrases which someone, somewhere else at some other time may have thought of. Don't try to look for a wholly original idea – there aren't any really, in the world of love/sex/death – and don't concern yourself with being overly influenced by others' poetry, because if you stop reading then you will certainly, ironically, write derivative crap."

This is a case that has wider implications, as Evans-Bush observes. Online poetry groups depend on trust. Originality is assumed to be the norm, despite the grand tradition of poems written "after" another poet, of imitations from the classics and centos derived from other poets' work (confession: from personal cento-writing experience, I can appreciate the vicarious thrill to be had from pretending to be, say, William Carlos Williams for a day, just idly moving brilliant phrases around the page). Borrowing isn't the greatest sin in the world, but it can breed mistrust and resentment when it's so audaciously illicit.

It is trust that's at stake here more than the free flow of fine phrases, you might say: contrast Mack, who went ahead and transported Dunn's "Men of Terry Street" from the north-east of England to Trinidad without permission or acknowledgement, with Lamb's chappish assurance to Coleridge: "a gentleman may borrow six lines in an epic poem (I should have no objection to [him] borrow[ing] five hundred, and without acknowledging)". Yet, as Evans-Bush remarks, plagiarism is also a kind of "self-harming activity": "surely, every time a plagiarist publishes a poem and all their friends compliment them on it, it just confirms them in their own conviction that a poem is the very thing they can’t write. It must be agonising".

The gutters of literary history must be blocked here and there with such unfortunate souls writhing in agony, blind to the Wildean stars above them. (That was an allusion to Oscar Wilde, by the way. I added the word "Wildean" to make absolutely clear that I wasn't claiming it as my own. You see how tricky the whole business is?) Go back to 1997, and you'll find the TLS's diarist J. C. quoting lines by a Cornish poet (eg, "my country for lack of will / has gone to hell") next to identical lines by a Scot who happened to have written them first. Only the places are changed, as in the the case of Dunn's Terry Street.

One source of the problem may be that things were very different once – "the belief that it is possible to own an idea is relatively recent and somewhat counter-intuitive. How can something so nebulous and insubstantial be regarded as the property of a single individual?", as David Hawkes wrote in the TLS, reviewing a book about plagiarism in early modern England – and writers, both in verse and prose, have inherited formal habits from those earlier, freer times. (Cf. this week's deeply unsurprising claim about Shakespeare and the OED.) The Latin word plagiarius, Hawkes argues, does not primarily mean "the abductor of the child or slave of another", as many say, but "one who illegally enslaves another". It is not a question of taking from another, in this sense, but "illegitimately 'enslaving' what rightfully belongs to the public domain". Then again: "Had The Waste Land appeared during the Romantic period", Robert Macfarlane suggested, "it would certainly have been stigmatized as plagiaristic."

At the time of writing, Wikipedia doesn't acknowledge that Martha Rofheart borrowed from John Cowper Powys – although it does quote a review of the time that implicitly praises him in its recognition that in Fortune Made His Sword she had "used her historical knowledge and her creative imagination to give us a splendid full-scale portrait of a mighty man". But on Goodreads, "Deborah" gives the novel a one-star review and notes that "portions" of it are plagiarized not only from Owen Glendower but A. M. Maugham's Harry of Monmouth and H. F. Hutchinson's Henry the Fifth. On the same page of the same website, Rofheart's novel is awarded five stars by Endeavour Press, who have had the kindness to keep it in print.

Scholar, meet Author – Author, meet Scholar . . .

September 2016, by timescolumns[ —]

David Mitchell, 2015
David Mitchell, 2015; credit: Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures


What does it mean to research contemporary fiction in a university? How are academics working in this field different from enthusiasts, given that the latter group is often so knowledgeable? And what sorts of contemporary fiction do we actually study in institutions of learning?

These questions, and others related to it, sit at the heart of Robert Eaglestone's “Contemporary fiction in the academy: Towards a manifesto”, published in the literary-studies journal Textual Practice in 2013. Although, as Eaglestone points out, such questions have haunted contemporary literary studies throughout its existence, back to the 1890s at Yale. Among the problems Eaglestone raises, a couple stand out for me: the difficulties of selecting from the "archive" of contemporary fiction; and the challenge of working with living authors, publishers and agents. The former is a question of which texts we can study – for, as the archive is constantly growing, there appears to be no systematic approach to the selection of novels for study. By contrast, the latter is a problem of authority. Much academic literary criticism veers away from ascribing authorial intention and instead focuses on how a literary work can be read – but even then, a living author may step in and decry a piece of literary critical work (although this happens less frequently than might be supposed). Broadly speaking, these are the difficulties of writing what Eaglestone calls the “contemporary history of the book”.

Such challenges have been at the forefront of my mind ever since I discovered that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is actually made up of two separate and quite different textual versions. Mitchell's book was “orphaned” at the US publishing house when his editor left the company, meaning that changes to the UK edition were never synchronized back into that version. Then, when David Ebershoff joined the publisher, he suggested a series of substantial edits to a single chapter of Mitchell's novel, which resulted in a very different text. Textual variance of this nature is hardly new for literary studies. It is the bread and butter of much work done by medievalist scholars, for example. It also happens far more often with fiction in the present day than is readily admitted, although studies of such differences are relatively rare. (One example is a forthcoming work from Erik Ketzan and Christof Schöch that highlights the differences between the versions of Andy Weir's novel The Martian (2011). Much could also be said about the typographical differences between versions of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2011): some feature colouration; others use superscript, for emphasis). The best part of investigating this matter in Mitchell's novel, though, was the discovery that the passage that differs most between the two versions is about the preservation of an archive.

To recap: in Mitchell's SF world, the “fabricant” Sonmi ~451 has been sentenced to death for her role in a conspiracy to overthrow the future state. As the narrative progresses (spoiler warning), it emerges that the entire plot was a set-up designed to strengthen the government's position. This part of Cloud Atlas takes the form of an interview with an “archivist”, whose role is to create a record for “historians yet unborn” – at least in one version of the novel. The duplicitous state is conducting a show trial, hiding the truth behind a veil of false justice. But Cloud Atlas also seems to play with this at the level of its own publication history. In other words, it is possible to interpret the novel by interpreting the differences between its two texts. 

But what about for Mitchell himself? He didn't actually intend to publish two versions of the novel; that was a result of an unfortunate publishing process which exceeded his “faff-tolerance threshold”. So, Mitchell told me, one couldn't really call this a “trans-textual game”. As I say, this is one of the benefits but also the difficulties of working with authors who are living and willing to communicate: they have an authority over the work and its reception. At the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, we are no strangers to such incursions. We have had events where authors – including Tom McCarthy, Jennifer Egan and Siri Hustvedt – have attended entire days of academic panels about their works. Indeed, I know first-hand just how nerve-racking it can be to speak about an author's work with the author sitting in the front row. But I'd say that literary scholars need to think more about this type of “contemporary history of the book” if we are to understand the ways in which contemporary literature enters circulation. We also need to incorporate such differences into our interpretative practices. For what can “close reading” actually mean if we do not even notice such textual divergence?

Making history

September 2016, by Michael Caines[ —]

Peasants' Revolt, from Chroniques de France et d'Angleterre, Book II
Creative Commons/British Library


Historical fiction is, according to Toby Litt, a "deeply bogus" genre. Not that there's anything "essentially reprehensible" about it – or, as Litt admits, that any arguments against it will stop people writing and reading it. Over recent years, historical fiction has attained new heights of popularity – or rather, of both popularity and prestige. But maybe it's nonetheless important to recognize that the name itself can be taken as an oxymoron: it conjoins "what was" (history) with "what might have been" (fiction). A historian is bound to assert the "dull truth" about the past when it is necessary; the prudent novelist takes the opposite course. The reader does not end up knowing more about the past through reading such fiction, Litt suggests, but less: what is offered instead is a "woozy melding of fact with fiction – of accurate fripperies of dress and inaccurate motivations of the heart". . . .

I read Litt's fine piece of provocation in his essay collection Mutants (which will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS) a little while ago. It kept coming to mind over this weekend, however, during the course of a lively, friendly, engaging conference hosted by the Historical Novel Society in Oxford. Here were enthusiasts from as far as away as Tasmania, professional and amateur writers of historical fiction, brought together for a weekend of "talks, workshops, panels and fun events". It's the only conference I've attended where a tea break was interrupted by outbreaks of Saxon shouting, as part of a modest demonstration of how soldiers would have comported themselves at the Battle of Hastings – and very good fun it was, too, even when somebody mentioned Brexit in the context of Melvyn Bragg's talk about his recent novel Now Is the Time, about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. ("It's all going to boil up" was his response.)

For those who work in the genre, the question of how to combine what was with what might have been is, of course, constantly and productively present; and the HNS, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year, has fostered a vast international conversation among its members online, including tens of thousands of book reviews. The conversation continued in Oxford, through the various panels about writing battle scenes, medieval heroines, the Great Fire of London and many other themes. Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discussed writing about the country house; Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott discussed "faith and morality in historical fiction and biography". The oxymoronic side of things surfaced several times during that last panel alone, as one novelist admitted to giving her heroine more personal freedom to roam around London unaccompanied than she knew to be possible for a woman of her class at that particular time; "it always rings false", another observed, when "modern sensibility" is imposed on historical characters.

Lord Bragg likewise made it plain that the question of depicting the past for the present had preoccupied him during the writing of Now Is the Time. That novel includes an authorial guide to what he had researched and what he had made up – and the inventor of fictions here has to work with his sources rather than against them. "You invent along the lines of what you think happened"; historians know, apparently, that the rebels held elections in Kent to pick their leader, gifting the novelist "a great chance to make up speeches". He drew the line at compiling lists of fourteenth-century vocabulary for his dialogue, which was, he admitted, not for him. (And not for his readers, either, implicitly: "Reading a historical novel we have to collude with the text in its fictionality", as the novelist and classicist Harry Sidebottom once put it in a TLS review.) Bragg's further point was not only that the past might inspire a speculative story set in a particular time and place, but that it's a challenge in itself to capture what we can only see with hindsight as if it were happening in the present: "things happen on our blind side again and again and again", although we might prefer to tell ourselves that we knew what was going to happen all along.

Does capturing this dramatic sensation matter more, in the end, than succeeding in the impossible struggle towards the mirage known as "authenticity"? Hilary Mantel, over the course of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, uses a fine range of anachronistic terms: "panicked" (1827, according to the OED), "paperwork" in its bureaucratic sense (1861), "sabotage" (1910), "peripheral" (1808), "thumbprints" (1900) and so on. I take these examples (although I've amended a couple of dates) from an essay by Bernard Richards, who offers examples of phrases that tend to survive in television versions of the same novels: "see you again some time", "trading partners", "downed tools", "liquidate their assets", "while you're at it". "The modern words and phrases have the effect of making 1530 sound like now". One critic's insight is another's pedantry, true – but why spend vast sums on using "real Tudor buildings" and "real candles" (on which the producers of the Wolf Hall television adaptation spent £20,000) and invest so little in the real language of the times?

With these questions in mind, one of most interesting HNS panels I attended concerned "bestselling eras". Angus Donald, the author of a series about Robin Hood, spoke up for the medieval period, Elizabeth Fremantle for the Tudors, Antonia Hodgson for the gorgeous Georgians, and Essie Fox for the Victorians. Each talked up their chosen era in a different way. Fox noted the sheer commodious plenitude of nineteenth-century life, and recalled walking into Wilton's Music Hall and imagining the "miniature gilded melting pot" it must have been over a century ago. Hodgson could gesture to Hogarth's populous canvases and say "I know these people . . .". Given that there was also a rightly dismissive reference to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth films ("contemporary themes pasted over Tudor characters"), I wondered if the basic question here was not so much about which period to write or read about, but whether there was any that could not be made amenable to a modern sensibility. I'm reminded of a TLS review that began "Medieval Scandinavia has proved surprisingly successful as a seedbed for historical fiction . . .".

Fredric Jameson once noted that the "historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about the past (which thereby at once become 'pop history')". Yet here we are, in a historical period when, the fiction editor of the TLS tells me, he receives a steady stream of novels about the Second War, Spanish fiction understandably harks back to the Spanish Civil War, and – in this anniversary year – you can easily lay hands on more than one novel about the Great Fire of 1666. Readers seem to be as comfortable now with this hybrid genre as they were in the age of Scott or Georgette Heyer – and writers are still trying to satisfy what Jameson called that "chemical craving for historicity". As another TLS critic put it, L. P. Hartley's famous line about the past being a foreign country is true; and it seems that "we all enjoy reading the guidebook".

Planet Telex: On the telegram in fiction

September 2016, by timescolumns[ —]

'Right Ho Jeeves', the original cover from the 1934 British first edition
Right Ho Jeeves: the original cover from the 1934 British first edition © Rod Collins/Alamy



Comedy loves telegrams. There is a strange poetry in their frantic demands. Their senders tend to be in love or custody. There is no quill, no candlelight; no time for grammar or dignity. 

In P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, telegrams offer a sort of prim hate mail – volleys of spite from the professionally constipated. When dodging an unspeakably dreary prize ceremony run by his Aunt, Mrs Dahlia Travers, our hero Bertie Wooster sends his solemn "Deep Regrets", to which Dahlia responds: “Deeply regret Brinkley Court hundred miles from London, as unable hit you with a brick. Love. Travers”. She adds:

Consider you treacherous worm and contemptible, spineless cowardly custard . . . Stay where you are, then, and I hope you get run over by an omnibus. Love. Travers.

The "Love" wins it. “Joyful tidings”, Bertie calls them.

In Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the wrath is equally joyous. Telegrams launch the plot: William Boot, nature columnist for the Daily Beast, is wired, to his horror (and by mistake: the message is intended for another Boot entirely), from the high office of the newspaper magnate Lord Copper, who dispatches him to cover a "promising" war in Africa. The naive and hopeless Boot tries desperately to fit in, but is soon urged:


It's almost hate haiku. In one of Waugh’s lovelier inventions, Boot is ordered by Lord Copper to “CONTINUE CABLING VICTORIES UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE STOP”; Boot responds, with awful candour, that nothing has happened, and adds, “LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING”. He is then fired, and responds: "SACK RECEIVED SAFELY” – showing a humility which genuinely inspires.

Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita offers a telegram yet deadlier. In its first incarnation, a recently killed literary critic begs for remembrance:


Even the dead, we learn, have pride to preserve. Please come! Before long, his killer, the Devil, teleports a slick theatre manager, Likhodeyev, to the hinterlands of Yalta, in order to steal his airy apartment. We read a telegram from the Yalta Police:


Later, telegrams from Likhodeyev himself note:




As in Waugh and Wodehouse, the neediness and formality, the severity and the fear, assemble to create a strange bathos.

There's a bit in John Swartzwelder’s hilarious novel The Time Machine Did It (2002) where telegraphy conveys not just desperation, but actual apocalypse. Trapped in 1941, having failed to turn off his time machine's emergency break, our man, Detective Frank Burly, endearingly attempts to telegram his future self. (“The people behind the counter didn’t know what I was talking about at first. And they still didn’t know what I was talking about a couple of hours later”; “It has always amazed me how angry people can get at my stupidity. How do they think I feel?”) Later, safely back in 2003, with much of the past destroyed, Burly is handed the bill for the Second World War, having promised and failed to send an urgent telegram. The message, found buried in his special Time-Travel Pants? Don't Attack Pearl Harbor.

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