Geordie Williamson

A dubious privilege of belonging to Generation X is that your life straddles the period during which the internet went from being science fiction to settled fact of life. Take, for example, Justin Smith, the American-born, University of Paris-based historian of philosophy and science, a professor who turns fifty this year. He started out on dial-up message boards in the 1980s, saw his first HTML web page in the 1990s, and now maintains a well-regarded Substack newsletter, where, in between meditations on the historical ontology of depression and the metaphysics of onomastics, he writes with a subtle eye regarding online culture in all its manifestations.

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Author and scholar Kevin Birmingham has shown that books as much as people are worthy subjects of biography. This year he has followed up The Most Dangerous Book, his award-winning account of the battle to get James Joyce’s Ulysses published, with The Sinner and the Saint, a book about the genesis of another classic: Crime and Punishment. In this week’s episode of The ABR Podcast, Geordie Williamson reads his review of Birmingham’s latest study, one which ‘brings microscopic detail and a sense of drama to the composition’ of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece.

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There really isn’t another biographer like Joseph Frank – nor a biography to place beside his 2,400-page, five-volume life (1976–2002) of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the wildest and most contradictory of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Frank set out in the late 1970s – a time when historically grounded literary scholarship was losing favour in the academy – to fix Dostoevsky (1821–81) in the complex matrices of Russian history, politics, religion, and culture. An author who had been read in the English-speaking world as a hallucinatory thinker, somewhat detached from reality, could now be seen as one fully imbricated in his era and milieu.

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Censorship is to culture what war is to demography: it creates absence where presence should be. Christopher Hilliard’s fascinating and deeply informed monograph on the politics of censorship in Britain (and by extension its colonies) from the 1850s to the 1980s is concerned with the many books, magazines, and films that fell afoul of the authorities, from translations of Zola in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act 1857 to the skin mags of the 1970s.

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Why ‘burning man’? Because in this immense, obsessive, studiously unkempt work, the biographer brings accelerant to the raging bonfire that is D.H. Lawrence’s reputation and pours it with pyromaniacal glee. Frances Wilson’s new life of the writer stands athwart the accumulated crimes of which Lawrence stands accused – his obstreperousness, his intense and absurd hatreds, his dubious politics, the physical and metaphysical violence he committed against women – and demands a halt to the trial.

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Back in my bookselling days during the early noughties, I spent a grey London autumn in the company of W.B. Yeats. My employers were Maggs Bros., an old Quaker firm and the queen’s booksellers, then based in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square: a venue that sounds glamorous but wasn’t, or at least not for me. The job involved much sitting in an underheated basement, beneath windows that offered a glimpse of passing ankles, cataloguing my way through stacks that bulged with a collection of Irish literature, predominantly by or associated with Yeats, assembled with frugal determination and frankly insane completism over decades by an autodidact bus conductor from South London.

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A tantalising ‘what if?’ emerges from the opening chapters of Hermione Lee’s immense, intricately researched life of Tom Stoppard. On the day in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the future playwright’s assimilated Jewish parents were obliged to flee the Moravian town where they lived. They made it to Singapore, only to endure Japanese invasion soon afterward. Stoppard’s mother, Martha, had to move again, and swiftly, with her two sons while her beloved husband, Eugen, a doctor, remained behind to aid with civilian defence. His evacuation ship was destroyed, and he was lost, presumably drowned, a little later. But when Stoppard’s mother boarded her own ship, earlier in 1941, she thought it was headed for Australia. Only later did she learn that India was their destination.

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‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ That gunshot of a quotation comes from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. I suspect he means writers are traitors to biology – they have higher allegiances than blood ties. Art is their true spouse; their works are the favoured first-born.

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To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser

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A healthy suspicion should surround books that arrive neatly on some commemorative due date – in this case, the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not that biographer Fiona Sampson is less than able and diligent in her efforts to celebrate a novel which has resonated like ...

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