Category: literature

Rebecca Mead on The Road to Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead at Toppings BathRebecca Mead is an English-born, Brooklyn-based, New Yorker staff writer. I met her recently when she visited Toppings bookshop in Bath to talk about her new book The Road to Middlemarch. Rebecca’s book explores her fascination with George Eliot’s great novel, which started when she first encountered it at the age of seventeen, and has accompanied her through her life, growing, changing, developing, revealing new aspects, as Rebecca’s own life and experience have changed.

Rebecca Mead Road to Middlemarch jacket‘Reading [Middlemarch]’, she writes, ‘does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us as much as we understand them, or even more. […] This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in mid life, looking for something that eluded us before.’

Rather than a work of literary criticism, the book is a blend of biography, memoir, travel, and reflection that defies easy classification. Here’s a very short extract to give a flavour of the book and its pleasures:

My favourite image of Eliot and [her partner George] Lewes is provided by a neighbour who used to see them out walking Pug, and reported, Mrs Cadwallader-like: “They were both very unattractive people to look upon, and they used to wander about the neighbourhood, the biggest pair of frights that ever was, followed by a shaggy little dog who could do tricks.” The censorious glimpse from behind the net curtains is a peculiarly English phenomenon, and I derive delicious pleasure from the two Georges’ carelessness about the judgement delivered by smaller minds and smaller hearts than their own.


Historical novelist Maria McCann on Ace, King, Knave

maria mccann

[An] exuberant revivification of grave robbers and gamblers, hucksters and whores in 18th-century London: like Hogarth sprung to life.

– Hilary Mantel, Books of the Year 2013, Observer

This is my second interview with Maria McCann – I first interviewed her back in 2010 about her previous novel, The Wilding, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize. That novel was set during the Restoration in 1672. For her new book, Ace, King, Knave, Maria has moved forward almost a century to the Georgian England of the mid-1760s. The novel is the tale of two young women: Sophia, born into the Somerset aristocracy, and Betsy-Ann, the daughter of travelling fair people, and their relationship with the same man, though they each know him under a different name. To Sophia, he is Mr Zedland, heir to an estate in Essex with an elegant townhouse in London. The man Betsy-Ann knows as Ned, however, comes from a much more disreputable background.

The Georgian capital is a world where everyone, whether highborn or low, is looking for the Great Chance – ‘London’, as Sophia is to discover, ‘is not like the countryside, where a lady travelling within her own district can expect to be recognized and looked up to. Life here is teeming and anonymous. The most infamous women go lavishly caparisoned and keep carriages, so that even the practised eye can scarcely distinguish virtue from vice’. That problem of telling virtue from vice, the fraud and the trickster from the genuine and trustworthy runs through the whole book. Every human interaction – from a game of cards to a marriage – is fraught with the danger of things turning out to be not what they seem. The high-born can take pleasure dabbling in the mud, and the low-born can pass themselves off as their betters. Social interaction becomes a complex game of trying to read the manners, clothes, and language of other people, while trying not to let too much of your own hand show – highly appealing terrain for a novelist, and indeed for the reader.



Inside Writing: The Faber Academy podcast (1)

Louise Doughty and Sarah Savitt

We recorded the first Faber Academy podcast last autumn. The aim is very simple: to bring together two writers (or a writer and editor) and get them to discuss a theme or a skill likely to be of interest to other writers. The guests on each programme select a text to focus the discussion and to give listeners something read (or reread) afterwards. My guests on this first podcast were novelist Louise Doughty (above left), author most recently of Apple Tree Yard, and her editor at Faber, Sarah Savitt. The text they chose was Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, and the theme Unreliable Narrators. The podcasts are free, not tied to any particular course, and not intended to sell you something. While they are principally aimed at new writers, my hope is that hearing authors talk about what they have worked out about their craft will also be of interest to readers. In this first podcast, among the things we touch on are: keeping a writer’s notebook, reading with a novelist’s eye, self-delusion, John Le Carré, first-person narrators (pros and cons), and Kazuo Ishiguro.

German novelist Eugen Ruge on ‘In Times of Fading Light’

eugen rugeIn Times of Fading Light is Eugen Ruge‘s debut novel, a bestseller in Germany, and the winner of the 2011 German Book prize, awarded to the best German-language novel of the year. A multi-generational story spanning well over half a century (and drawing to a certain extent on Ruge’s own family history), it charts the impact of wider historical events on the lives of the Umlitzer family, who once belonged to the Communist elite but whose socialist utopia has long-since vanished by the time the book opens in 2001.

Through four generations, Ruge presents different perspectives of life under changing political regimes and the restrictions they imposed – we move from Fascism, to Communism and post-Communism, finishing with hyper-Capitalism. We witness characters’ lives that still have their fair share of mundane chores, problems and domestic disputes, but which appear extraordinary set against backdrops that are hard now to imagine.

ruge fading lightEugen Ruge was born in 1954 in the Urals in the former Soviet Union, where his German communist father Wolfgang had fled from the Nazis in the 1930s. When Russia and Germany went to war Wolfgang as an enemy alien was sentenced to hard labour and exile. After his release, he married a Russian woman and in 1956 the family returned to East Germany, where Wolfgang Ruge became a noted historian and his son pursued studies in mathematics and later a career in geophysics. But literature exerted a powerful appeal and Eugen Ruge began writing for the theatre, radio and documentaries, and also became a distinguished translator of Checkhov’s plays. Despite his Russian origins and a period in the west that began in 1988, Eugen Ruge has spent the majority of his life in Berlin, the city where, despite all the changes it has seen in his lifetime, he told me he still feels most at home.

I met Eugen at his home in the Prenzlauer Berg district of former East Berlin in  autumn 2012, where this interview was recorded.



Inventing Ruritania – Vesna Goldsworthy

Vesna Goldsworthy: Inventing Ruritania

I recently interviewed Serbian-born, London-based writer, poet, and academic Vesna Goldsworthy, whose books include a  collection of poetry, The Angel of Salonika, and a memoir entitled Chernobyl Strawberries, which one reviewer described as “suffused with a longing complicated and deepened by the eradication of the Yugoslav state”.

I met Vesna to discuss Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, another book which contemplates the identity of South Eastern Europe, in this case the construction of the Balkans in the British literary imaginary – “a gently ridiculous proxy” as Vesna calls it  (typified by the fictional kingdom of Ruritania) for the real Balkans; a repository for the qualities of a region which by turn attracted, fascinated and repelled the British; a place that could be turned into farce and pastiche, or depicted as a place of potential menace, where European identify dissolved into something irredeemably alien and eastern.

To listen to the podcast [22:45], click here.

To find out more about the book, visit Vesna’s publisher’s site here.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on Becoming Dickens

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s biography of the first three decades of Dickens’ life is published by Harvard University Press next month. It’s a terrifically readable, refreshing look at his life story which rescues Dickens from a sense of inevitability, that the only fate reserved for him was to become the greatest novelist of his day. From the very first page of the book, Robert embraces the counter-factual to jolt us out of our complacency and shows how often Dickens’ life could have branched off in another direction entirely.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on Becoming Dickens from George Miller on Vimeo.

Discoveries: Sarah Bakewell on Irmgard Keun

I interviewed Sarah Bakewell last month about her biography of Montaigne for the new Interview of the Month slot on the Blackwell Online website (that interview will be available there very soon). Visiting her website recently I saw her post about Irmgard Keun, a writer I had never heard of.

Bakewell: How to LiveIt turned out that Sarah had never heard of her either until she stumbled on one of her books in My Back Pages in Balham.  That gave me an idea for a new series of guest posts, featuring readers on writers or books they have recently discovered. 

Sarah has very kindly allowed me to republish her post, the first in a series of what I am unsurprisingly going to call Discoveries. If you would like to contribute, email me at george [at]

Sarah BakewellWhen I’m working from home there usually comes a point where I have to get up from my desk and rush out into the air, usually on the pretext of going to the supermarket or post office. But sometimes, once I get out into the street, I realize at once that I don’t need groceries and I have nothing to post.

When this happens, I keep walking past Balham tube station until I get to the best second-hand bookshop in the neighbourhood (also one of the best in London), My Back Pages.

Irmagard Keun Child of all NationsI tend to come out with exactly one book, and it’s never one I had previously intended to buy. Last week it was a Penguin Classic I’d never heard of, by Irmard Keun, called Child of All Nations. I bought it because I liked the cover.

Child of All Nations was written in 1938, and only translated into English in 2008 – by Michael Hofmann, who is best known for his translations of Joseph Roth. There’s a connection, for Irmgard Keun travelled round Europe for many years as Joseph Roth’s companion. Both were writers and bohemians, both drank too much, and both were in flight from the Nazis, who were burning their books.

The novel is the story of Kully, a young girl whose parents are doing just what Keun and Roth did. The father drifts from one European capital to the next, writing and boozing, and trying to charm or wheedle money out of people. Whenever he does get a few coins, he blows it on inviting impecunious poets and street-drinkers out for absinthe and rum. Meanwhile, Kully waits with her mother in Dutch and Belgian hotels which they cannot afford to leave, for that would mean paying the bill. She picks up languages by the half-dozen, meets children and adults, and plays with anything she happens to find, from rotting crabs to tiny balls of mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. She observes all: an eternally naïve narrator who misunderstands what is going on, but who – of course – really understands more than anyone. The adults are lost and often sad; Kully does not get it, and so she sees things as they really are.

Irmgard KeunIt’s an exquisite, moving book, beautifully written (and beautifully translated). Kully’s father is an unforgettable character: warm, impulsive, generous; intimidating when drunk, shockingly irresponsible, yet somehow reassuring. When he is around, it seems nothing can go wrong; the trouble is, he is hardly ever around. Early on, he is described as having eyes which “sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet.” And when he gives a lecture in Poland, Kully (who isn’t sure what a lecture is) pictures it as a glittering spectacle in a vast castle, attended by thousands of people. It must, she imagines, “must be something like thunder made out of diamonds.”

This book is thunder made out of diamonds too, and it takes you far out to sea. I’m glad so few of the books I find are like this, or I’d never get anything else done; I’d read and re-read them, and perhaps forget to come back.

©  Sarah Bakewell 2010. For original post, see Sarah’s site here.

4. Books of the Year – Andrew McConnell Stott

Andrew McConnell StottAndrew 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.Geoff Dyer Out of Sheer RageWhen 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.

From Hell coverOf 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.

Gaitskill Don'ty Cry coverFinally, 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.