Here, in tribute to P.D. James, who died last week, is my interview with her from 2011 in which she looks back over her career.
Andrew McConnell Stott is an award-winning writer and academic. For several years he was a stand-up comedian, described by London’s Evening Standard as “an absurdist comic with a satirical eye for popular culture.” The world, however, was unprepared for such hilarity and so he decided to give it up.
He is the author of Comedy (Routledge, 2005) and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate, 2009). The latter was praised by Simon Callow in the Guardian as a “great big Christmas pudding of a book, almost over-stuffed with rich and colourful life”. Jenny Uglow in the Observer called it a “fast-paced, rumbustious biography” and said: “A round of applause is due to this exuberant, impassioned portrait, for bringing the great Grimaldi, ‘Joey the Clown’, into the limelight again.” You can hear my interview with Andrew by clicking here.
Andrew is currently a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Here is his selection of books he has enjoyed this year:
I don’t tend to read that many books-of-the-moment, because I’m usually researching something that demands full monogamy on pain of wreaking horrible revenge in the form of shocking biographical errors. At the moment, I’m working on failed Romantic poets, so I’ve been catching up on all the bad literature written between the French Revolution and the accession of Queen Victoria. There’s quite a lot.When I do get a day off, I’m inevitably catching up. This year, for example, was the first time I’ve managed to read anything by Jonathan Lethem, John Le Carre, or Nicole Krauss. I even read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time. Two particular favourites from the catch-up pile were Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Struggling With DH Lawrence, probably the greatest work ever about not getting work done; and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, a graphic novel about the Whitechapel murders that was one of the most bizarre and chilling volumes of any genre I’ve read for quite some time.
Of recent publications, I was particularly taken with two works of non-fiction: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon, which is the kind of book I aspire to write – a swashbuckling adventure, told with a novelist’s attention to character and plot – and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, drawing on more than a decade of research and standing as a monument to what good non-fiction can achieve.
Finally, I loved the stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry. I don’t think there is another writer in America capable of writing the emotions with such razor-sharp precision as Gaitskill. The way external phenomena transmute into internal emotional states in her work feels exactly like feeling – at least to me.
Today’s holiday reading selector is Jan Zalasiewicz, who teaches geology at Leicester University. He was a guest on the very first Blackwell Online podcast, in which he told me about his book The World after Us. You can listen to the interview here. I’m hoping to interview him again this autumn when his new book, The Planet in a Pebble, appears.
Here is his summer readiing recommendation:
Holidays! It’s off to the beach or café terrace or simply that rickety deckchair in the weed-strewn garden. Now – what to pack to read? Nothing too demanding or (the Gods forbid!) improving. An adventure that rattles along with zing and charm and fun and characters you can live with. But that’s so hard to find…
There are the staples, of course, that rarely disappoint: Terry Pratchett and George MacDonald Fraser and – a personal quirk, mostly from the charity bookshop, now – the early Saint stories of Leslie Charteris, admired for their style and craft by that other old dependable, P.G. Wodehouse. But more of that ilk?
One tries so many books, hoping for a new star to come into one’s personal firmament. But either it’s too serious, or too dull, or too clunky or clichéd, or (these days) too gruesome, with authors outdoing each other in their serial killers’ inventiveness at means to disembowel and flay. For me, thank you but no thank you.
But here’s one I lately found. The Janissary Tree, a first novel by Jason Goodwin, an engagingly Byzantine mix of history and harems, food, friendship, grue (just a soupçon, mind), politics and the mysterious requiting of love. It’s all set within the comfortably familiar frame of a nineteenth-century whodunit and I found le tout ensemble a delight.
There are sequels, too, so my spies tell me, so one can bring out the deckchair, put on the kettle and… enjoy!
Today’s guest selector of summer reading is Elizabeth Speller, author most recently of a highly praised debut novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. She is also the author of several works of non-fiction – including a memoir, Sunlight on the Garden – and a prize-winning poet. Here are her choices:
Dragging a hefty suitcase of books to Greece to provide a whole summer’s reading tends to sharpen opinions about the contents; there is, literally, a heavy freight of expectation and hope.
This year three or four big disappointments have been balanced by three surprises. Only as I write do I realize that these are linked by a theme of war. This is perhaps not surprising as my own novels concern war, but my three choices are so different from each other that this almost irrelevant except that war changes everything and these are all novels of individuals whose certainties have been swept away.
Richard Bausch’s Peace is a short novel set in a hard WWII Italian winter and focusing on one small, weary platoon of soldiers simply trying to survive. In poetically spare, poetic prose, Bausch is brilliant on the blurred morality of war, and a sense of place and season and of drawing out the fragile reality of each individual trapped in the inexorable machine of war.
Helen Humphrys, a Canadian writer, obviously delved deep into the archives for her account of one night of the Blitz – Coventry – yet although there is a documentary element here, her research is subtly woven into this novel of love, loss and loyalty in the face of danger and catastrophe. She creates an almost an almost hallucinatory landscape as her characters chart their way through the familiar become strange and terrible.
David Downing’s Stettin Station is the most recent of a series of thrillers set in 1939 Berlin. Evocative without self-consciousness ornament, fascinating about how Germans saw the approaching hostilities, and with an intelligently complex Anglo-American hero, a resident of Berlin, with a son who is enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth movement, it is also the nearest of my choices to a traditionally gripping, well-written holiday read.
Finally, I have just started Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey (also about war, in its way) and had an acute case of writer’s envy by the end of the first page. So far this wittily imagined alternative Odyssey is near perfect. I wish I’d written it.
This summer I’m too too utterly utterly up to my ears in queers, dears. Specifically the (slightly illusory) late nineteenth century London homosexual world and the point at which it collides, in a flurry of ortolans’ tongues and lilies, with the largely abortive English Aesthetes.
This is no indulgence – actually at times it’s hard going – but work: I’m writing (it may sound improbable) a musical about Oscar Wilde with (equally improbably) those two giants of American popular music, the songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller.
The work itself is a treat, but Oscar himself poses three problems: his literary work was something (in England at least) of a dead end; most of the legends about him are untrue; and the world is well-supplied with Oscar mavens who’ll be on the edge of their seats, not with delight, but with anticipation of my making a mistake. So if anyone should think the phrase “Actually, I’m researching a musical” is an oxymoron, let them think again.
Apart from Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography (Hamish Hamilton, 1987) and Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s edition of Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters (Fourth Estate, 2000), the two most enlightening books about him are Oscar Wilde by Martin Fido (Hamlyn, 1973) and the lovely, gossipy, meticulous and utterly humane The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde by Rupert Croft-Cooke (W H Allen, 1972).
Croft-Cooke himself did time, for the crime of being what he calls “a queer”. Here he is on Wilde’s co-defendant, Alfred Taylor: “[He was] an empty-headed invert, gossipy and good-natured, a talented pianist, ‘artistic’ with all the awful implications of the word at that time, and he was to show later that he was capable of a selfless loyalty and courage which made almost everyone in the sorry prosecution of Wilde look mean and treacherous . . . A vapid innocuous queen . . . who under any sane system of legislation would be mildly derided perhaps, or accepted as a harmless anomaly. In most European countries he would have existed happily enough with his own kind, but in England in the ‘90s he was told by a learned judge that he was guilty of the worst crimes he had ever tried and sent to two years’ hard labour.”
It’s hard for me, as a pretty unequivocal heterosexual, to understand the appeal of gay sexuality, and of course the feeling is mutual; but the idea that it should be criminalized (and there are still plenty of people who believe that) is simply incomprehensible. Terror, I suppose; pure terror. Heaven will be full of queers, no doubt, and also of judges, the devout, and family-values bigots, who will slowly begin to realise that they’ve been sent to Hell.
In my off-duty reading, curiously, intolerance, fear and bigotry – under the guise of morality – persist. They pervade Zoe Ferraris’s two novels; City of Veils and Finding Nouf. Ferraris is an American who married a Palestinian Bedouin and lived in Jeddah.
Her subject is Saudi Arabia, that sink of unearned income, sexual segregation and the unmitigated supine terror-of-everything which is Wahabi Islam, and she draws it beautifully. To say that Ferraris enlightens her readers about the hidden life of Jeddah would be another oxymoron, because there is no light to be seen; but she does, brilliantly, make clear the reigning darkness.
And next up: Howard Jacobson’s new novel, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, July 2010). Jacobson has not made a false step in the last decade or more. His energy and invention only increase with time.
I suppose when Jacobson is 96 and still producing masterpieces, we’ll eventually acknowledge that he’s a genius who puts the entire galère of hacks, poseurs and drivellistas to navel-gazing shame. He’s our Roth and we should acknowledge it. Until we do, though, just read his books. All of them. You’ll thank me for this advice.