A case of mis­taken iden­tity

The writer and founder of The Week on lit­er­ary spats and an un­usual stop on a book tour

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Life and Times -

AMONG THE PLEA­SURES of edit­ing my lit­tle English-lit­er­a­ture guides is be­ing re­minded of how stag­ger­ingly rude nov­el­ists can be about each other. ‘One of the worst, weak­est, least sane, most voulu [ie forced] books I have ever read,’ wrote Robert Louis Stephen­son to Henry James about Tess of the d’urbervilles. ‘Oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile,’ agreed James. ‘The pre­tence of sex­u­al­ity is only equalled by the ab­sence of it.’ ‘A nar­row-gut­ted spin­ster,’ said DH Lawrence of Jane Austen. How cross he would be to find no one reads him any more while she’s as pop­u­lar as ever. Mark Twain would be cross too: ‘Any li­brary is a good li­brary if it has no book by Jane Austen in it,’ he said. It was a shame she’d died peace­fully, Twain thought. ‘Ev­ery time I read Pride and Prej­u­dice I long to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone.’ (The ‘ev­ery time’ is in­ter­est­ing. Why keep re-read­ing a book you hate so much?)

It’s one thing to be rude about an in­di­vid­ual novelist; quite another to dis­miss a whole lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. In his 1960s book Love and Death in the Amer­i­can Novel, the brave New York critic Les­lie Fiedler ar­gued that most Amer­i­can clas­sics were es­sen­tially in­fan­tile; it was no ac­ci­dent, he said, that they were usu­ally to be found on boys’ book­shelves. ‘The mythic Amer­ica is boy­hood.’ Where, he won­dered, was the Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent of grown-up books about women like Pride and Prej­u­dice, Anna Karen­ina or Madame Bo­vary? (Henry James, he thought, be­longed more to the Euro­pean lit­er­ary tra­di­tion.) Un­like Twain’s blast at Austen, there is much to be said for the Fiedler view: while there are no­table ex­cep­tions – like Edith Whar­ton – many of the best Amer­i­can nov­els – Moby Dick, Huck­le­berry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and in­deed The Great Gatsby – are es­sen­tially ‘buddy nov­els’, about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween men or men and boys, rather than men and women. Need­less to say, Fiedler’s book was greeted with out­rage from fel­low crit­ics.

I AM BUSY de­vel­op­ing a new se­ries of short books – the first three, out next month, are on the Sec­ond World War, slav­ery and the Bri­tish em­pire. They’re aimed at time-pressed au­to­di­dacts – peo­ple who want to learn but find the prospect of read­ing 700 pages daunt­ing. So how to pro­mote them? I vis­ited schools to spread the word, and once went to beau­ti­ful Brad­field Col­lege, near Read­ing, to ad­dress a small group of English teach­ers. Be­liev­ing that show­ing is bet­ter than telling, I brought a suit­case of guides to im­press them with. Stand­ing up to speak, I heaved the case on to the ta­ble. But when I opened it I was shocked to find that it con­tained not books but an as­sort­ment of women’s cloth­ing. Some­how, I’d man­aged to leave the train at Read­ing with some­one else’s suit­case. Whether my fel­low pas­sen­ger ever re­trieved her clothes from left lug­gage at Padding­ton, I never dis­cov­ered, but I owe her a debt – the teach­ers still talk about it.

AS A COELIAC, I al­ways carry gluten-free bread with me when I’m away. Nowa­days, it’s more a habit than a ne­ces­sity. Staying in the Caribbean last month, our ho­tel not only had gluten-free op­tions on the menu, but sev­eral va­ri­eties of gluten-free bread. A few years ago, this would have been un­usual to say the least. When I first went on the diet, aged nine, coeliac dis­ease had scarcely been heard of, and though you could get gluten-free flour (with difficulty), my mother had to bake not just my bis­cuits and cakes but my bread too. Now gluten-free has taken over the world. I don’t feel quite so un­usual any more. al­ly­ouneed­to­know­books.co.uk; con­nell­guides.com

When I opened the suit­case, I was shocked to find an as­sort­ment of women’s clothes

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