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Introducing M. Swann

Introducing M. Swann

The first time my wife-to-be invited me round for a meal, and sat me down in her book-lined dining-room, my eye was caught by three thick volumes in a slipcase, in decorative blue, white and red dust- wrappers, bearing the name ‘Marcel Proust’ in large black letters at the top of each spine. ‘You’ve read Proust!’ I burst out, thrilled to be able to add to the array of charms with which she had already dazzled me that of having read the incomparable Remembrance of Things Past.
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Well-Salted

Did we all have someone in our childhood who was The Best Giver of Presents? In my case, it was a family friend called Vere Guilford. She entered deeply enough into the person you were to get presents right. At the perfect moment she gave me a lockable cassette box. When my soul was starting to ache she gave me a double-cassette pack of Beethoven symphonies. At Christmas 1974 (I remember the mild disappointment on unwrapping it) she gave me Volume I of the twelve-volume Oxford Junior Encyclopedia.
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48 Königsbrücker Strasse

48 Königsbrücker Strasse

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden on a snow-filled February day in 1899, the adored only child of Emil and Ida Kästner: he a master saddler fallen on pinched times, she – eventually – a hairdresser. Each had begun life in small-town Saxony, Emil coming from a line of joiners and blacksmiths, Ida with a background in bread, beer, butchery and horses. ‘And out of all the butchers, blacksmiths and horse dealers, one solitary member of the family, little Erich, only son of little Ida, has become – of all things – a writer!’

A Writer in Hiding

I first saw A. L. Barker’s books lined up in a row on a shelf in the University of East Anglia library, their dust covers removed, their red, blue and green cloth bindings faded, their pages clean and unmarked – it seemed as if they’d never been read. I borrowed the books and read them one after another. Here was a writer who clearly deserved attention. Her fiction seemed so contemporary, not in terms of style but because of the ideas with which it grappled: the strangeness of so-called ordinary life; the dangers of ignorance or innocence; the consequences of taking, and not taking, action . . .
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No Coward Soul

Emily Brontë is the greatest woman novelist of all time. That is my personal opinion, though it is one which happens to be shared by many others, including highly respected scholars. That in itself is a compelling reason for reading the one and only novel she ever completed. How far her second novel had progressed will never be known, for her sister Charlotte, who often took it upon herself to act for her sisters in the way she thought fit, probably destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death . . .
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An Extraordinary Ordinary Bloke

An Extraordinary Ordinary Bloke

The Orwell of the essays has a pungent literary personality. He’s dauntingly knowledgeable, decided in his views and trenchant in their expression, a non-sufferer of fools, an enemy of pretension and hypocrisy; yet withal humane, reasonable, decent. He writes as if he’s just an ordinary bloke – yet not an ordinary ordinary bloke, but an exceptionally well-read, politically aware, sensitive and intelligent ordinary bloke with wide-ranging interests and a view on everything.
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Aerobatics

Aerobatics

Gavin Lyall was not the first pilot to take to fiction – Nevil Shute, Ernest K. Gann and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry navigated the skies creatively before him – but Lyall’s thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s set a standard of aerial pace and style that has not been bettered. When his first novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, was published in 1961 P. G. Wodehouse was prompted to write: ‘Terrific! When better novels of suspense than this are written, lead me to them.’
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Lives and Letters

Lives and Letters

Most people do not encourage members of their family to become biographers. There is no telling what trouble they will get into. If you write fiction any member of your family who appears on the pages of your book can be hidden by a different name that prevents them being recognized. But biographers are always invading other people’s families uninvited, writing about the dead who cannot answer them and presenting what they have written to their subjects’ families and friends. It’s no surprise we are not welcome.
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Harvey Learns the Ropes

Harvey Learns the Ropes

When he gave Captains Courageous to me, my father described the opening episode of the book: a teenage boy falls overboard from a transatlantic liner at night and is hauled into a dory by a deckhand from a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Unsurprisingly, the story resonated with me immediately, for to the child’s mind the story of Captains Courageous is one of rescue. A boy falls into the sea, has adventures and forms friendships, and in due course is returned to his grieving parents.
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Secrets of the Hive

Secrets of the Hive

The Life of the Bee is not a scientific study or a treatise on practical beekeeping but a study of the bees and their culture written by a man who had observed them during twenty years of beekeeping. ‘The reader of this book’, he says, ‘will not gather therefrom how to manage a hive; but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be known of the curious, profound and intimate side of its inhabitants’; and he writes ‘as one speaks of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not’.
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Brief Encounters

An account of a life deeply devoted to celebrity-chasing, it is both comic and rather pathetic, because though he describes his victims with enthusiasm and a considerable talent for characterization, his encounters with them were almost always unsatisfactory. The Florian’s of the title is of course the celebrated café in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, where Somers lay in wait for his victims on the (perfectly accurate) theory that sooner or later anyone who was anyone would at some time sit down in the Sala Greca or the Sala Orientale or at one of the outside tables for afternoon tea.
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A Different Kind of Wealth

A Different Kind of Wealth

As a rather romantic young man in my early twenties, I longed for a retreat, a cabin by a lake where I could learn to understand nature and write reams of lapidary poetry. Of course this never came to pass, not least because I could no more build a habitable hut than I could fly, but the lure of the self-sustaining rural life remains strong. My dream might have been inspired by Henry Thoreau’s Walden, his account of his life in a hut by a pond which remains an icon of American literature. In fact it was a book by another, later American that really inspired me ‒ Robert Francis’s Travelling in Amherst (1986), a copy of which I discovered one day in Hay-on-Wye.
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