Jonathan Cape

More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

by
December 2021, no. 438

Studying The Crucible in English class engendered fierce competition for the part of John Procter, drawn as we schoolgirls were to his irradiating idealism and dogged pursuit of truth, and besotted by his nobility. The play’s force remains even as the passage of time has worked upon subsequent rereadings. When resisting false allegations of witchcraft, Proctor’s plea is harrowing: ‘Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’

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What distinguishes graphic novels (aka ‘big fat comic books’) from other books is how completely the page registers movements of the maker’s hand. Before we begin the business of reading, we look, and what we see is not margin-to-margin Helvetica or Times New Roman: it’s the mark of the makers, be it Alison Bechdel or Kristen Radtke or Mandy Ord. We might even think of the making of comic books as being closer to letter writing than novel writing. Accustoming ourselves to the style of a particular graphic novelist (‘Aha! That’s how Bechdel depicts euphoria!’) is a large part of the pleasure of reading comics – the business of aligning one’s own visual point of view with the maker’s. Perhaps this is why autobiographical works have been such a vital force behind the rebirth of comic books as ‘graphic novels’.

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‘I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger.’ These are Maggie Nelson’s words to her partner, artist Harry Dodge, as the two negotiate the shapes of love, family, and gender. These include Harry’s gender fluidity (‘I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers’), children, and marriage, which they ‘kill ... (unforgivable). Or reinforce ... (unforgivable)’ when they rush to wed ahead of the Proposition 8 legislation that, for a time, eliminated same-sex marriage in California.

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The ‘land of smiles’ was what they called Prague under German occupation during World War II – at least the Germans did. Few locals. Fresh vegetables and meat were available (to Germans) in quantities unknown back in Germany. Until close to the end, there were more than a hundred cinemas operating in the city, as well as theatres, concert halls, and numerous other places of entertainment. After all, Goebbels was not only passionate about culture in general, but keen, he said, to initiate a ‘lively cultural exchange’ with Czechoslovakia in particular.

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During a 1995 television interview on Charlie Rose soon after the publication of Martin Amis’s The Information, another long novel, there is a moment when, as Rose begins to read the opening passage, Amis’s mouth visibly slackens. Silently he intones the first lines. His hand (often tentatively raised toward his chin in interviews) searches out his forehead. There is a spectral waver in his gaze, a registering (as if accommodating, or incorporating, new information). He looks adrift, unmoored. Free-floating. One has the sense of a man assimilating his own self as it is spoken back to him. For a moment, he seems precarious.

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Scanning my bookshelves, I see a dozen or more of the distinctive green spines of Virago Press. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Virago imprint was a guarantee of good reading by women writers whose works were rediscovered and sent out to find a new public. I had read Margaret Atwood, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in hardcovers; Virago made them new. Kate O’ Brien’s The Land of Spices, banned in Ireland, had been hard to get. Here it was in Virago green, with a perceptive introduction to put it in context.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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Actress by Anne Enright

by
March 2020, no. 419

Anne Enright has never been able to resist the tidal pull of mothers; her novels are animated by complex, ambivalent maternal presences, women rendered on the page with duelling measures of hatred and hunger, empathy and censure. There is the mercurial tyrant Rosaleen Madigan of The Green Road (2015), ‘a woman who did nothing and expected everything’. There is the hapless, hazy Maureen Hegarty of the Booker Prize-winning The Gathering (2007), erased by her endless pregnancies and too many children; ‘a piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room’.

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Like every one of his previous novels, Patrick White’s latest work is both utterly characteristic and completely unpredictable. With the third line, we know we are in for another of White’s dissections of human behavior. ‘“Bit rough, isn’t it?” her chauffeur ventured.’ The verb almost parodies White’s careful placing of human acts any other writer would – perhaps rightly – consider insignificant. It is also characteristic of his more recent novels that the first people we meet are peripheral, people who serve both to comment on the action and to offer a commentary just by their presence. They are the reverse of the chorus of a Greek tragedy in that they are the problem to which the central characters address themselves rather than the passive victims of this address.

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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