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Articles & Extracts

Uncomfortable Truths

There is no book more haunting than W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I would not advise anyone unfamiliar with his earlier books to make it their introduction to his work, because his decision to do away, in this one, with paragraphs, and the way in which the narrative unfolds, are disconcerting enough when first encountered to be off-putting. It is necessary to make an act of trust – to put yourself in his hands; and this may be a problem for anyone who has not yet learned to trust him by reading his wonderful The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I doubt whether I would have persisted beyond the first thirty-odd pages of Austerlitz if I hadn’t already learned that wherever Sebald led, I must follow him . . .
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The Oldest Paper in the World

The Oldest Paper in the World

It is not surprising that having invented paper over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese found a wide variety of ways to use it. Though the seventeenth-century landscape artist and arbiter of taste, Wen Zhengheng, considered painted wallpaper vulgar, Li Yu (1611–80), owner of the Mustard Seed Garden, advocated brown rather than white wallpaper, and Chinese painted wallpaper depicting birds, flowers, garden architecture and butterflies became popular in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1794, the first British ambassador to China, Lord Macartney, even brought back a set painted with scenes of Chinese streets and workshops for his banker Mr Coutts which can still be seen in the bank’s boardroom.
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Well Done, Carruthers!

Well Done, Carruthers!

In the depths of last winter the bathroom, if by no means warm, was the least glacial room in the house. Ever since the children were born it’s also been the only place in our North Norfolk home in which there is sufficient freedom from interruption to read. I was convalescing from Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and needed the literary equivalent of comfort food: of toad in the hole, cottage pie or dead man’s leg. The choice was Howard’s End, Brideshead Revisited or The Riddle of the Sands, all steadfast companions since I grew out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a rattle of rain on the bathroom window. It was an evening for Erskine Childers. I closed the door firmly on the children, drew the bath and settled down to read.
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Divine Spark

Divine Spark

I first came across Spark when working in a little second-hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road. A battered tome of her selected works was on sale in the outside pile, desolately stationed there to be picked over by tourists and dampened by rain. Not having much to do (the shop closed a month later, not necessarily because I’d worked there) I started reading one afternoon, and was hooked. For while Muriel Spark makes you laugh out loud, she also makes you think – she must, I feel, have been a formidable dinner-party companion, quietly sitting there with her razor-sharp tongue . . .
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Brush with the Law

Brush with the Law

Encountering Roald Dahl in covetable, tactile Puffin paperbacks as a child in the 1970s, I suspect I was too wrapped up in the tales themselves to give their actual titles much consideration. Curious as I was – and I was a curious child in every sense of the word – I took it on trust that a book called The Magic Finger would simply feature a digit with special powers. And indeed it did. Ditto with oversized fruit and someone called James in James and the Giant Peach. And I recall being mildly disappointed that the factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was not fashioned solely from chocolate. Now that literalism strikes me as peculiarly wonderful. And, in retrospect, it seems completely bound up in my enjoyment as a young boy of what was far and away my favourite Dahl title: Fantastic Mr Fox – a book that continues to colonize my consciousness, if in rather bastardized form.
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Plain Jane? Plain Wrong

Plain Jane? Plain Wrong

There is nothing ‘common-place’ about Pride and Prejudice. It has a tightly woven, seductively intricate plot, which unfolds so delicately that the reader falls blindly into the traps of imperception set by the author, alongside that most perfect of imperfect heroines, Elizabeth Bennet. It has dialogue which sparkles and sings in the most extraordinary way, so that characters come alive in only a few words. It has a hero and heroine who fence and fight and fall in love . . .
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Too Much Clevverness

Too Much Clevverness

Hoban started writing Riddley Walker in 1974 and finished it five years later. It is a masterpiece. Those who know it love it, and whole websites are devoted to it, with chapter-by-chapter annotations deciphering the language, and online chat rooms discussing its themes. In 2005 a Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum (a symposium in Riddleyspeak) was held in London, with readings, quizzes and a pilgrimage to Kent to visit locations in the novel. Every 4 February, Russell Hoban’s birthday, die-hard fans leave typed quotations from his novels in random places for strangers to find.
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Sound Nonsense

Sound Nonsense

The words rolled out, natural and clear, and I listened with new ears and understanding. Enlightenment had finally come. Passages spoken aloud in an Irish accent, by someone who loved the prose enough to commit long passages to memory, released the book’s power. Its beauty had been unlocked not by a literary intellectual, but by a half-tight man in a cheap suit standing at the bar of a Dublin pub. Finnegans Wake was revealed as a work of sound rather than sense, a form of high falutin, Gaelic, literary rap. Ireland talking in her sleep. It was as if Brian had taken me by the elbow, and guided me into this particular tavern to receive a final, Celtic benediction.
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‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

No one told me that the pyramids had been one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but they were certainly the primal wonder of mine. From early on they exercised an oddly persistent fascination.They could not, it seemed, be taken for granted, like hills and trees and houses. Approached along the pyramid road they got larger and larger and larger until they filled up one half of the sky. It took a long while to ride lurchingly round the Great Pyramid on a camel, and from no angle could their stupendousness be made a thing of nought. They were made of square yellow blocks, exactly like sugar lumps, but higher than I was.

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