"I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.” Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall
Contexts
Seduced by utopia

Seduced by utopia

“Now do tell me – what does it feel like to wake in the morning on a Tuscan farm?” Virginia Woolf asked a much younger Iris Origo in 1935. Invited to stay for tea at the Tavistock Square flat above the Hogarth Press, Origo, we may assume, obliged with a beautifully eloquent answer – after...
A memory of memory

A memory of memory

Memory is our own unreliable narrator. It forgets things that matter and recalls other events that never happened. It can slip away like receding mist or haunt us in a perennial nightmare. To the extent that they track selves through time, all novels are about memory. But some are more concerned with the notion than...
Land of the bens and the glens

Land of the bens and the glens

The Scottish clan that I belong to – or would belong to if it were now anything more than a sentimental myth – was broken a great many generations ago by a party of MacDonalds, who hunted down the last chief of my clan, captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had...
Splinters and reflections

Splinters and reflections

A Broken Mirror is the book on which Mercè Rodoreda worked the longest, which is not surprising given the novel’s ambitious scope. The plot spans three generations; it presents in detail scores of characters of different ages and social classes; it reflects momentous historical events – most notably the Spanish war of 1936–39. More important,...
Cloak and dagger à la Russe

Cloak and dagger à la Russe

The family of Governor Yegor von Rasimkara, we are told early in Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, have only one defect all told: that of “belonging to an era that must pass” – in order to make room for the one impatiently keen to take its place. A generally endearing walrus of a father in...
Saunders in the zone

Saunders in the zone

If you want to succeed in art, you need to be constantly scanning the horizon for inspiration. For me, by and large, this comes more in the form of life experience than from direct artistic influence. A bit of happenstance, a string of tiny coincidences in my day-to-day activities, is apt to set my gears...
A total portrait of the artist as an absence

A total portrait of the artist as an absence

Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence. The word frantumaglia,...
Scenes from a Troubles childhood

Scenes from a Troubles childhood

“Where do you get your ideas?” Or, to paraphrase, “You look like a pretty normal person to me, so where did all that come from?” It’s the baseline question, the one we’ve all been asked. Often, the questioner is really asking something more specific: “How much of your book is written from life?” or “Did...
A wonder to behold

A wonder to behold

Imbolo Mbue made headlines in the publishing world a couple years ago, when Random House snapped up her debut novel The Longings of Jende Jonga with a million-dollar pre-emptive bid. Mbue, a former market researcher left unemployed after the 2008 crash, had written the story of an African immigrant (like her, a native of Cameroon...
Out there

Out there

The Doll Funeral began as an image of a young girl running out from the back door into an unkempt garden. In my mind it’s as if there is a camera tracking behind her. The camera follows her out into the garden where she jumps off the step, runs through the overgrown grasses and begins...