Christopher Tayler

Christopher Tayler is a contributing editor at the LRB.

Like Colonel Sanders: The Stan Lee Era

Christopher Tayler, 2 December 2021

In​ 1942, Ralph Ellison had a meeting with Fredric Wertham, the director of psychiatric services at Queens General Hospital in New York. Ellison, who was eligible for the draft, didn’t want to join a segregated army. A friend had suggested that Wertham might find a way to get him a psychiatric deferment. Wertham, a German Jewish emigrant, sympathised, and though a deferment...

Dead Ends: ‘Not a Novel’

Christopher Tayler, 7 October 2021

‘Ididn’t  write the book because I wanted to become a writer,’ Jenny Erpenbeck says of her first novel – a novella really – in one of the pieces collected in Not a Novel. She was 27, had studied opera directing and was working in a bakery in her native Berlin when she started writing what would become The Old Child (1999). The germ was a news story she...

C.S.Forester, the writer of the Hornblower books, died in California in 1966. His second wife inherited the bulk of his estate. His elder son from his first marriage, who inherited $5000, began to reappraise his relationship with his father. Years later, in a self-published biography, the son would depict Forester as a manipulative fabulist, a distant, self-centred parent, a cold-hearted...

From The Blog
17 December 2020

I used to have a pet theory – outlined in the LRB in 2007 – to explain why John le Carré’s later stuff didn’t have, as I saw it, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been wrongfooted by social change. More specifically, the declining pay and prestige of most kinds of public service meant that intelligence bureaucracies could no longer serve in the same way as a microcosm of the dark heart of the British establishment. Plummy chaps who, pre-Thatcher, would have made their way from prep schools, public schools and Oxbridge to the higher reaches of the BBC, the Civil Service or MI6 – the chaps whose speech and behaviour le Carré had observed with an outsider-insider’s intentness when he was starting out – were overwhelmingly concentrated now in financial services and commercial law.

In​ Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees, a boy climbs a holm oak to make a point. Fifty years later he’s still up in the treetops: he never touches the ground again. Martin Amis began a similar feat of heroic resolve in the 1970s, and whatever you make of his commitment to an all-consuming idea of style, you can’t say he makes things easy for himself up there. In...

Before I Began: Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler, 4 June 2020

Let’simagine that after this life, or perhaps before it, perhaps as a step in an endless transmigration of souls, we arrive by ship in a new land. Our memories of a previous existence are washed away. A beneficent but impersonal bureaucracy assigns us names and ages – the ages are apparently chosen by guesswork on the basis of how old we look – and arranges for us...

The Manners of a Hog: Buchan’s Banter

Christopher Tayler, 20 February 2020

Betweenthe wars, the journalist Richard Usborne recalled in 1953, there was a feeling that John Buchan was good for you. ‘If not exactly the author set for homework, Buchan was certainly strongly recommended to the schoolboy by parent, uncle, guardian, pastor and master,’ he wrote in Clubland Heroes, a study of the thrillers he had enjoyed as a child. ‘Buchan backed up...

Stoner doesn’t read like a bitch-ex-wife novel in which envious cripples conspire against a blameless hero, and one explanation for that is simply that it’s very well done. You’re left with an impression of complete clarity and simplicity and non- trickery, even when the narrator has been shifting artfully between showing and telling, or offering unobtrusive scraps of general wisdom. There’s a feeling that the writer has almost disappeared through his sheer concentration on the task of lighting up a dull, depressing life without letting the reader notice any departure from sober realism. At the same time, you’re aware of Stoner’s life as a kind of fable, a story in which the central character’s fate is settled early on without him noticing, like Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe or a version of It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey lives in Pottersville all along.

Great Male Narcissist: Sigrid Nunez

Christopher Tayler, 1 August 2019

Thanks to​ a moment of weakness when the children were small and mice would scatter across the kitchen floor each time I came down to make breakfast, I have two cats. The original pair were brother and sister, but the brother ran away, the sister got pregnant, and the children fell for one of her kittens – a male. We had him neutered and later managed to do the same to his mother....

Short Cuts: King Charles the Martyr

Christopher Tayler, 21 February 2019

On 23 January,​ Jacob Rees-Mogg reintroduced the country to the concept of prorogation – the suspension of Parliament by the monarch. Like Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg is fond of bogus erudition – the Brexit white paper was, he said, ‘the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200’ – and he must have enjoyed expressing his hope...

Au revoir et merci: Romain Gary

Christopher Tayler, 6 December 2018

We are​ in the African bush, at night, in the mid-1950s. At a campfire Father Tassin, a Jesuit palaeontologist, is questioning Saint-Denis, the French colonial administrator of this corner of Chad. Tassin is looking for information about a mysterious figure called Morel, whose recent activities have scandalised all of French Equatorial Africa. Saint-Denis begins to recount lengthy...

The Psychologicals

Christopher Tayler, 25 October 2018

On the one hand, it’s clearly part of Anna Burns’s project in Milkman to redescribe the Troubles without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘IRA’. On the other, the narrator’s mad, first-principles language, with its abundance of phrases in inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman with no idea whom to tell, and no templates for what she might say, when she’s stalked and groomed by a powerful older man. The public-political and the personal-political aren’t easily disentangled, and there’s no reason that they should be. But the plot complicates the reader’s – and the narrator’s – sense of the way they interact.

Enric Marco​, an energetic pensioner with time on his hands, joined the Amical de Mauthausen, an association of Spanish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, in 1999. To the elderly Republican deportados and their heirs who ran the outfit on a shoestring from an attic in Barcelona, he soon came to seem a useful person to have around. Under Franco the Amical had been a clandestine...

Some people​ don’t like the idea that they may be living in a metropolitan bubble, but René Unterlinden, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s latest book, has been raised to call the bubble his home. ‘De point is,’ his father – not the only character in the novel with a comic accent – tells him, ‘we like de bubble, and so do you … So dis...

It’s slippery in here: ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

Christopher Tayler, 21 September 2017

James Joyce​ resented the Second World War for distracting readers from the newly published Finnegans Wake, and what with one thing and another I’ve sometimes felt the same way, on behalf of Mark Frost and David Lynch, about the news environment that accompanied the broadcast of Twin Peaks: The Return. I say ‘on behalf of’ because I imagine that Lynch couldn’t care...

Episteme, My Arse: Laurent Binet

Christopher Tayler, 15 June 2017

Roland​ Barthes met Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on 9 December 1976 at a lunch hosted by Edgar Faure, the president of the National Assembly, at the Hôtel de Lassay. Michel Foucault had turned down Faure’s invitation as a protest against Giscard’s failure to put an end to the death penalty, and the left-wing figures who went anyway were later subjected,...

Agent Bait: Nell Zink

Christopher Tayler, 2 March 2017

Nell Zink​ has a great backstory. She’s the woman who came out of nowhere – or, on closer inspection, out of a busy background of Virginia boarding schools, bricklaying, postpunk fanzine production and hand-to-mouth endeavours in Israel and Germany – to publish, in her early fifties, a pair of novels that made her the talk of Brooklyn. The first of them, The Wallcreeper...

The HPtFtU: Francis Spufford

Christopher Tayler, 6 October 2016

Britain​ is good at producing historians, biographers, nature and travel writers and so on, but thanks, perhaps, to a not very extensive magazine infrastructure, powerful marketing departments at publishing houses, and a historical tendency to disaggregate writing into well-defined genres, it isn’t good at knowing what to do with writers who set out their stalls in the equivocal zone...

Pure Vibe: Don DeLillo

Christopher Tayler, 5 May 2016

When​ Libra came out in 1988, the American writer Robert Towers said that it had made Don DeLillo the ‘chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction’. ‘Paranoid school’ doesn’t get you very far – Pynchon and Mailer, both broad-brush comparisons, were the other faculty members Towers had in mind – but there’s mileage in the...

I just hate the big guy: Reacher

Christopher Tayler, 4 February 2016

In the autumn​ of 1994, Jim Grant, a technical director at Granada Television, went to the Arndale Centre in Manchester and bought three A4 pads and a pencil. He was nearly forty and about to lose his job thanks to corporate restructuring, which he’d spent two years fighting as a union shop steward. His plan was to make a living as a novelist, and he set to work on a thriller, using...

Goings-on in the Tivoli Gardens: Marlon James

Christopher Tayler, 5 November 2015

Bob Marley had called a break during a band rehearsal at his house on the evening of 3 December 1976 when two cars pulled up and seven or more gunmen got out. One found his way to the kitchen, where Marley was eating a grapefruit, and opened fire. A bullet scraped his chest before hitting his upper arm, and four or five hit his manager, Don Taylor, who was standing between him and the doorway. The keyboard player’s girlfriend saw ‘a kid’ with his eyes squeezed shut emptying a pistol into the rehearsal area. The lead guitarist took cover behind a flight case.

Bunny Hell: David Gates

Christopher Tayler, 27 August 2015

‘As I​ tell my students, if you’re not at a creative impasse, you’re not paying attention,’ the stalled composer who narrates one of the stories in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me says. In another story, a magazine journalist mentions that he’s ‘taken to smoking weed’ while setting down the words we’re reading – ‘can you...

Is there hope for U? Tom McCarthy

Christopher Tayler, 21 May 2015

By the end​ of the 1980s, two formerly arcane disciplines with roots in the French 1940s were readily available to British aspirants. One was post-structuralism, which not many years earlier you’d have had to go to Paris or New Haven to hear about. Now you could pick up the rudiments of it in any university town, and though there was still an exciting whiff of controversy around...

Under-the-Table-Talk: Beckett’s Letters

Christopher Tayler, 19 March 2015

MAN: It’s hard to imagine you with tired eyes, mademoiselle. Perhaps you don’t know, but you have very beautiful eyes.

GIRL: They will be beautiful, monsieur, when the time comes … I’ll put up with whatever is necessary. And after my eyes have been beautiful, they’ll grow dim, as everyone else’s do.

The French​ originals of these lines went out on...

‘We’re identical’: Elena Ferrante

Christopher Tayler, 8 January 2015

A woman’s husband​ leaves her, she’s determined not to lose it, she loses it, she gets herself back together: that’s the plot of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2002). Olga, the narrator, a mother and stalled writer who’s 38 at the time of these events, knows that words like ‘angry’ are often used to diminish and dismiss legitimate...

Uncuddly: Muriel Spark’s Essays

Christopher Tayler, 25 September 2014

‘No two pictures​ of her look at all alike,’ Stephen Schiff wrote of Muriel Spark in 1993. ‘In one she may seem a sturdy English rose, in another a seductress staring down at her prey, in still another an intellectual prankster peeking wryly over her spectacles, and sometimes she looks merely square and oatmeal-faced, grinning wholesomely into too much flashbulb.’ It...

Hourglass or Penny-Farthing? Damon Galgut

Christopher Tayler, 31 July 2014

Forster​ started writing his novel about India soon after getting home from his first trip there in 1913. During the 11 years he took to finish it, he wrote – but didn’t publish – a same-sex love story, Maurice; worked for the Red Cross in Egypt, where he had his first serious love affair; visited India again as secretary to the maharajah of Dewas; published two books on...

‘I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust,’ a waiting femme fatale says when Philip Marlowe hits his office in The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s response: ‘Who’s he?’ ‘A French writer,’ she says, ‘a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn’t know him.’ She couldn’t have said the same to Philo Vance, S.S. Van Dine’s famous aesthete-sleuth – polo player, expert in Chinese ceramics, former student of William James – whom Raymond Chandler regarded as ‘the most asinine character in detective fiction’, and on some level that’s probably the point.

Death among the Barbours: Donna Tartt

Christopher Tayler, 19 December 2013

I was 18 when The Secret History swept the world in paperback in 1993. It was a bad age for an encounter with Donna Tartt’s first blockbuster. If I’d been a few years older, I might have thought it a reasonably honourable inhabitant of the borderlands between commercial fiction and writing that’s better than it could get away with being. If I’d been a few years...

Come back if you can: Jhumpa Lahiri

Christopher Tayler, 24 October 2013

‘Read all the Russians, and then reread them,’ the hero’s father, Ashoke Ganguli, recalls his grandfather telling him in Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake (2003): ‘They will never fail you.’ These wise words, spoken in West Bengal, don’t address the language problem. But ‘when Ashoke’s English was good enough’, we’re...

Not everybody cries: Tash Aw

Christopher Tayler, 29 August 2013

What kind of politics of representation is in play if you’re writing novels about East Asian countries in English? Is it more complicated or less if you’re Malaysian and a Cambridge graduate? Would the way your experience filters into your fiction look different when transferred to, say, a painter? And how might these questions be dramatised in an opaquely symbolic interlude? One...

Wobblibility: Aleksandar Hemon

Christopher Tayler, 23 May 2013

‘My story is boring,’ the narrator says in Aleksandar Hemon’s story ‘The Conductor’, in Love and Obstacles (2009): ‘I was not in Sarajevo when the war began; I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my hometown on TV; I lived in America.’ He means it’s boring in comparison with the character he’s discussing, a Muslim...

Tables and Chairs: J.M. Coetzee

Christopher Tayler, 21 March 2013

A few months before the publication of Dusklands in 1974, J.C. Kannemeyer reports, Peter Randall, the director of Ravan Press in Johannesburg, asked J.M. Coetzee to consider supplying ‘a few more personal details’ for the jacket of his first novel. ‘We are often criticised,’ Randall wrote, ‘for not telling readers about our authors. While I do not want to overdo...

Keep yr gob shut: Larkin v. Amis

Christopher Tayler, 20 December 2012

‘Sometimes,’ Philip Larkin wrote in a letter, ‘I think I’m preparing for a huge splenetic autobiography, denigrating everyone I’ve ever known: it would have to be left to the nation in large brass-bound boxes, to be printed when all of us are dead.’ In the event he arranged to have his diaries shredded a few days before his death in 1985. But there was enough spleen and denigration to go round in the stuff preserved by ambiguous clauses in his will, stuff let loose on the nation first in 1988 via Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the poems.

Short Cuts: Costume Drama

Christopher Tayler, 11 October 2012

When Ford Madox Ford published No More Parades, the second of the four novels that make up Parade’s End, in 1925, he was likened to Proust and Joyce. Three years later the final instalment, Last Post, was the biggest commercial success of his career. (In 1915 The Good Soldier had brought in £67.) Ford being the man he was, though, his triumph was confused. Was Last Post part of his...

‘Double y’im dees’: Ben Fountain

Christopher Tayler, 2 August 2012

The main thing that Googling will tell you about Ben Fountain is that he’s – depending on your point of view – a slow learner, a model of staying power and resilience, a maniacal perfectionist, or a living vindication of underachieving literary househusbands. That’s because the journalistic handle on him, established by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker piece, is that...

Haddock blows his top: Hergé’s Redemption

Christopher Tayler, 7 June 2012

By the ends of their lives, two great 20th-century stylists had for decades been the heads of their respective trades, monitoring and publishing the younger talent, attracting unmatched levels of scholarly interest and being admired with a special vehemence by conservatives who would once have sneered at the kinds of stuff they turned out. Each man stood for an idea of European culture,...

Dad’s Going to Sue: ‘My Struggle’

Christopher Tayler, 5 April 2012

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first two novels, Out of the World (Ute av verden, 1998) and A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven (En tid for alt, 2004), attracted admiring reviews and won prizes. ‘I was discussed,’ he told the Telegraph recently, ‘but as you discuss literature – in a kind of sober way.’ That changed in the autumn of 2009, when the first three books...

Reality B: Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’

Christopher Tayler, 15 December 2011

‘You know,’ a teenage girl says to Toru Okada, the narrator of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, whom she’s found at the bottom of a dried-up well doing some thinking about his missing wife and cat, ‘you’re pretty weird.’ Later she refines the idea: ‘I mean, you’re such a supernormal guy, but you do such unnormal things.’ It’s a fair description of Murakami’s first-person narrators, who are often referred to by the writer’s fans under the generic name ‘Boku’ – a word meaning ‘I’, as Jay Rubin explains in his guide for Anglophone readers, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2002), ‘but an unpretentious one used primarily by young men in informal circumstances.’

Porndecahedron: Nicholson Baker

Christopher Tayler, 3 November 2011

‘Sometimes,’ a woman says during phone sex in Vox, Nicholson Baker’s first foray into smut, ‘I think with the telephone that if I concentrate enough I could pour myself into it and I’d be turned into a mist and I would rematerialise in the room of the person I’m talking to.’ That’s more or less how people get to the House of Holes – a...

The Rupert Trunk: Alan Hollinghurst

Christopher Tayler, 28 July 2011

Henry James met Rupert Brooke on a visit to Cambridge in June 1909, having been invited there by some young admirers who made him feel, he wrote in a letter, ‘rather like an unnatural intellectual Pasha visiting his Circassian Hareem’. Brooke, in a white shirt and white flannel trousers, took charge of a punting trip on the Cam. ‘Oh yes,’ he said later, ‘I did the fresh, boyish stunt, and it was a great success.’ James sent thanks to all concerned, ‘with a definite stretch towards the Rupert’, and after the poet’s death in 1915 he agreed to write a preface to Brooke’s Letters from America. He didn’t get completely carried away – one sentence worries about Brooke seeming a ‘spoiled child of history’ – but he was old and ill, queasily supportive of the war effort and moved by his memory of the young man on the river ‘with his felicities all most promptly divinable’.

‘I’m English,’ I said: Colin Thubron

Christopher Tayler, 14 July 2011

Some writer-travellers – V.S. Naipaul, for instance – like to project themselves as illusionless figures, immune to prettifying, exoticising urges. Colin Thubron isn’t shy about not liking places: he often endures bouts of melancholy on his journeys and writes about the way ‘a little architectural charm, or a trick of the light, could turn other people’s poverty to a bearable snapshot.’ But an illusionless posture isn’t his style. ‘Like a lot of English travel writers,’ he once said, ‘I began with a romantic idea about travel,’ and the temperament that got him going in the first place – his ‘rather naive love of the exotic and mysterious’, of ‘the strange and the beautiful’ – plays a large role in his depictions of himself on the page.

Short Cuts: The School of Life

Christopher Tayler, 19 May 2011

‘Leave my brain alone,’ the dorky hero says in Peep Show, a Channel 4 sitcom, when mental fitness comes up: ‘I get my brain training from Sudoku and Alain de Botton’s weekly podcasts.’ In truth, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life doesn’t do a weekly podcast, but his admirers could be forgiven for taking the School of Life, a boutique enterprise...

w00t: The Fabulous Elif Batuman

Christopher Tayler, 17 February 2011

Turgenev could be read in English from 1855, Tolstoy had British and American disciples, and Dostoevsky was, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s view, ‘a devil of a swell, to be sure’. But the English-speaking world’s received ideas about Russian literature were mostly laid down in the 1910s and 1920s, the great age of Western interest in the Russian soul – ‘its passion, its tumult, its astonishing medley of beauty and vileness’, as Virginia Woolf put it. Though there were some who mocked the craze for transplanted Russian soul-speak, most handbooks for fledgling Russophiles 100 years ago took it for granted that readers needed briefing on the paradox-filled Slavic temperament. These old-school interpreters of the Russian spirit would not have felt at home in the intellectual world Elif Batuman comes from.

His Peach Stone: J.G. Farrell

Christopher Tayler, 2 December 2010

A coincidence: I wrote the first page of ‘It’ on St Patrick’s Day with Irish pipers tuning up down in the street 12 floors beneath. In the parade along 5th Avenue they carried banner portraits of Sean McDermott, Kevin Barry and, no doubt, other martyrs. I didn’t stay long because the wind was bitter, the pavement covered in slush and my bones frozen to the marrow....

At the Movies: ‘Four Lions’

Christopher Tayler, 27 May 2010

Four young Muslim men with Yorkshire accents are taking turns to address the camera in front of a sagging cloth backdrop. ‘Eh up, you unbelieving kuffar bastards,’ one of them begins. The struggle to hit the right note continues: the speaker, a bulky man with a sweetly confused look, tries to persuade the others that the toy gun he’s cradling looks absurdly small only...

Roth, Pinter, Berlin and Me: Clive James

Christopher Tayler, 11 March 2010

Clip show presenter, chat-show host, star of a series of travel documentaries, essayist, lyricist: he was for a time a king of all media, even publishing a bestselling novel, Brilliant Creatures, in 1983. His shtick – part rough diamond, part name-dropping highbrow, part fast-talking joker, part self-delighting goon, with a dry, singsong Aussie delivery – was something you were expected to understand jokes about if you lived in Britain in the 1980s. A balding, slightly tubby man with a weightlifter’s neck and near invisible eyes, he also presented an end-of-year show in which his ritualistic efforts to flirt with the likes of Jerry Hall were a running gag.

Passing-Out Time: Patrick Hamilton’s drinking

Christopher Tayler, 29 January 2009

Louis MacNeice, it was sometimes said, was always in the pub but never really of it. Much the same could be said of Patrick Hamilton, who was best known in his lifetime for his stage chillers Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938), but is mostly remembered for the expert depictions of joyless interwar boozing in Hangover Square (1941) and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1929-34)....

Walk Spanish: Joshua Ferris

Christopher Tayler, 19 July 2007

‘We had mixed feelings,’ the voice that narrates Then We Came to the End reports from time to time – needlessly, really, since mixed feelings, and the absurdity and awkwardness of reporting them in the first person plural, are one of the main sources of comedy in Joshua Ferris’s novel. ‘Everyone loved Benny,’ the voice says, ‘which was why some of us...

Heir to Blair: Among the New Tories

Christopher Tayler, 26 April 2007

One morning a few months ago I put on a suit and went to Westminster to meet a senior Conservative MP. ‘We’re all on a journey,’ he told me when I asked whether his beliefs had changed, ‘all of us.’ Then, as an example of the ‘quality and range’ of the party’s new parliamentary candidates, he began to tell me about Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones. I...

Belgravia Cockney: on being a le Carré bore

Christopher Tayler, 25 January 2007

When John le Carré published A Perfect Spy in 1986, Philip Roth, then spending a lot of time in London, called it ‘the best English novel since the war’. Not being such a fan of A Perfect Spy, I’ve occasionally wondered what Roth’s generous blurb says about the postwar English novel. As a le Carré bore, however, I’ve also wondered how Roth managed to overlook Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the central novel in le Carré’s career, in which George Smiley – an outwardly diffident ex-spook with a strenuously unfaithful wife and an interest in 17th-century German literature – comes out of retirement to identify the turncoat in a secret service that’s explicitly presented as a metaphorical ‘vision of the British establishment at play’.

Zoning Out and In: Richard Ford

Christopher Tayler, 30 November 2006

It takes me so long to read the ’paper, said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker, because I have to identify myself with everyone in it, including the corpses, pal.

John Berryman, Dream Song

When we first meet him in The Sportswriter (1986), Frank Bascombe is 38 and trying to fend off the ‘dreaminess’ that has afflicted him since Ralph, his first son, died of...

Give me a Danish pastry! Nordic crime fiction

Christopher Tayler, 17 August 2006

Chasing a cross-dressing serial killer through a tunnel beneath Helsinki, Timo Harjunpää, the hero of The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu, pulls out his gun and then pauses to consider the health and safety implications of what he’s doing. ‘He recalled that this communal tunnel was used for almost everything: water and drainage, heating, electricity,...

Kill the tuna can: George Saunders

Christopher Tayler, 8 June 2006

George Saunders – whose semi-official website carries a reminder that the man who played Addison DeWitt in All about Eve was called George SANDERS – was born in Chicago in 1958. A schoolteacher got him interested in literature, but having been exposed at an impressionable age to the novels of Ayn Rand he ended up studying geophysical engineering: ‘I didn’t want to be...

Yuh wanna play bad? Henry Roth

Christopher Tayler, 23 March 2006

For a long time, Henry Roth’s silence was considered one of the most resonant in modern American literature. Ralph Ellison and J.D. Salinger were his only competition. When Call It Sleep (1934), Roth’s first novel, became a bestseller, thirty years after it first appeared, reporters found him scraping a living in Maine, gloomily slaughtering ducks and geese with equipment...

What the Public Most Wants to See: Rick Moody

Christopher Tayler, 23 February 2006

When he published The Ice Storm in 1994, Rick Moody seemed to be looking for a workable compromise between suburban realism and what Gore Vidal once called the ‘Research and Development’ arm of American fiction – the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. That might not sound hard if you think of R&D as a matter of surface effects:...

Imbued … with Exigence: Rachel Cusk

Christopher Tayler, 22 September 2005

Rachel Cusk recently wrote a piece for the Guardian describing her short-lived membership of a book group: ‘As if for the first time, I understood that reading is a private matter.’ Her co-readers’ inadequate responses to Chekhov provoke some grim reflections on the inadequacies of contemporary readers and writers. ‘Generally the greatest writers have written about...

I only want the OM: Somerset Maugham

Christopher Tayler, 1 September 2005

In Cakes and Ale (1930), William Somerset Maugham has Willie Ashenden – his narrator and stand-in – explain that, in reputation-building terms, ‘longevity is genius.’ He comes out with this idea while discussing the case of his friend Edward Driffield, a Hardy-like figure who becomes the Grand Old Man of English Letters after seeing off late Victorian accusations of...

A Knife at the Throat: Meticulously modelled

Christopher Tayler, 3 March 2005

Ian McEwan’s vividly and meticulously imagined novels often focus on characters whose imaginations are either unwholesomely vivid or dryly meticulous. At one end of the spectrum lurk the sex murderers in The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Robert and Caroline, whose actions lead their victim’s girlfriend to surmise that ‘the imagination, the sexual imagination’, embodies...

It’s alive! The cult of Godzilla

Christopher Tayler, 3 February 2005

When Toho Studios released Gojira in November 1954, Japanese audiences, according to William Tsutsui, watched its scenes of destruction ‘in respectful silence, sometimes leaving the theatres in tears’. Gojira – or Godzilla, as he came to be known in English – was a fire-breathing dinosaur played by a man in a latex suit, but his destruction of Tokyo wasn’t played...

Hindsight Tickling: disappointing sequels

Christopher Tayler, 21 October 2004

In Like a Fiery Elephant, his recent biography of B.S. Johnson,* Jonathan Coe writes feelingfully about the perils of too much Eng. Lit. He ‘emerged from the experience of reading English at Cambridge’, he explains in the introduction, ‘imbued with a thriving, unshakeable contempt for anyone who had had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last seventy or...

“’One of the irritations of being a writer,’ de Bernières has said, ‘is that one constantly finds oneself having to get up and go and find a reference book. It might just be a thesaurus . . .’ It just might. De Bernières said this in the course of explaining what drove him to design a small, wheeled bookshelf and, on the evidence of Birds without Wings, the Louis de Bernières Caddy has been subjected to rigorous home testing. People are ‘immanitous’, ‘perseverant’ or ‘inexplicably disculpated’. Istanbul is a place of ‘mommixity and foofaraw’, and de Bernières only manages not to use ‘epiphenomena’ twice by resorting to ‘epiphenomenally’ instead.”

A Turk, a Turk, a Turk: Orhan Pamuk

Christopher Tayler, 5 August 2004

‘Be yourself,’ a beautiful woman called Ipek says to Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s newly translated novel, Snow (Kar, 2002), when he asks how to win her heart. Though kindly meant, it’s discouraging advice to give one of Pamuk’s characters, for whom being themselves is difficult. ‘No one can ever be himself in this land,’ says the shadowy...

Julian Barnes’s new book of short stories is concerned with old age and death. Barnes – who was born in 1946 – should have a few years to go before he experiences either condition, but his fiction has always been precociously interested in both. He visited the afterlife, in the person of a cartoon suburbanite, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). In Cross...

Robert Stone was born in August 1937, nine months after Don DeLillo and three – we’re told – after Thomas Pynchon. Dog Soldiers, his second novel, made his name in the mid-1970s, and since then he has stubbornly held his ground on the upper slopes of American literary life. Fellowships, prizes, grants and commissions have rarely been in short supply, and his later books...

Wacky: Multofiction

Christopher Tayler, 8 January 2004

With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines;...

High on His Own Supply: Amis Recycled

Christopher Tayler, 11 September 2003

“But Yellow Dog also indulges in the sermonising that emerged so cantankerously in The Information. ‘General thoughts are not my strength, but here’s a general thought,’ Xan writes in a clinching letter to his wife. And the novel is much concerned with general thoughts – general thoughts dramatised, discussed and, finally, leadenly explained. PC is a bit pious. Porn is a bit gay. Muck-raking tabloid journalists are wankers. The monarchy is an ‘incestuous and narcissistic’ institution, and kings and princesses would do better to abdicate. Even delivered from the somewhat diminished pulpit of the Ironic High Style, these observations don’t strike the reader with the visionary force of a revelation; nor are they dramatised with much subtlety.”

Genderbait for the Nerds: William Gibson

Christopher Tayler, 22 May 2003

“’Cyberpunk’, as Gibson’s brand of SF soon became known, found a cultish following in the 1980s. Then the Internet hit the mass market, and he found himself routinely hailed as the ‘unchallenged guru, prophet and voice of the new cybernetic world order and virtual reality’. Not all of his admirers were fully aware of the satirical or dystopian aspects of his work, however. Among the solitary, pizza-encrusted supermen of the World Wide Web, ‘meatspace’ became a derogatory term for anything that can’t be accessed via a keyboard.”

Doofus: Dave Eggers

Christopher Tayler, 3 April 2003

‘I am owed,’ says Dave Eggers – or ‘Dave Eggers’ – in his much admired A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Owed, that is, the right to publish a memoir in his mid-twenties, because losing both parents to cancer and bringing up your younger brother obviously cuts you quite a bit of slack. Owed, also, the right to move a few things around, to make...

True Grit: Sam Shepard

Christopher Tayler, 6 March 2003

Sam Shepard found his stride in the mid-1970s, and for the next few years there seemed to be few places it couldn’t take him. He had already made a name for himself as an Off-Off-Broadway playwright, and the movie business had been sniffing around him, too. But his earliest plays were deeply rooted in the 1960s – they were feverish, one-draft performance pieces, mostly – and...

Putting on the Plum: Richard Flanagan

Christopher Tayler, 31 October 2002

Richard Flanagan trained as a historian, and his novels have often emphasised the redemptive power of memory. For his characters, though, remembering is a strenuous business. There are traps to be avoided and barriers to overcome – an obstacle course of crying jags, guilt-ridden stupors, deathbed hallucinations. The frozen sea of the characters’ inner lives needs vigorous axe...

Tseeping: Alain de Botton goes on a trip

Christopher Tayler, 22 August 2002

In the fifth chapter of The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton goes on a trip to the Lake District. He takes his girlfriend, ‘M’, and a paperback copy of The Prelude. Applying his talent for summary to the latter, he explains that it prescribes ‘regular travel through nature’ as ‘a necessary antidote to the evils of the city’. Not being the sort to take a poet...

A Bit of a Lush: William Boyd

Christopher Tayler, 23 May 2002

John Clearwater, the tormented mathematician in William Boyd’s novel Brazzaville Beach, wants to reduce chaos, flux and turbulence to an elegant set of equations. He’s also an obsessive moviegoer who refuses to watch anything which doesn’t meet his one absolute criterion: ‘he believed, with a fundamental zeal, that a true film, a film that was true to the nature of its...

One Small Moment: Michael Frayn

Christopher Tayler, 21 February 2002

Michael Frayn’s new novel is a loss-of-innocence story in which an elderly narrator is prompted to disinter long-buried memories of a particular time and place. Slowly at first, a narrative begins to emerge: a golden summer, a semi-rural idyll, the first stirrings of adolescence. Rather than having a poignant romance with someone close to his own age, though, the protagonist becomes...

Goings-On at Eagle Lake: Barry Hannah

Christopher Tayler, 29 November 2001

Peden, the junkman, is a Baptist lay preacher who plays the electric violin too loud. He lives in a shotgun house at his junkyard, somewhere not far from Eagle Lake, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Cars and religion are his obsessions, cars being to him ‘like whiskey to an Indian’, although he’s not a teetotaller either. Peden drives a Comet, ‘a thing out of the age of...

Bad White Men: James Ellroy

Christopher Tayler, 19 July 2001

Since completing the quartet of LA crime novels that made his name, James Ellroy has left us in no doubt that he wants to be more than a genre writer, embarking on a series of books intended to rewrite the history of America between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. The title is a tribute to Sam Fuller, who directed the film of the same name, but...

Post-Matricide: Patrick McCabe

Christopher Tayler, 5 April 2001

Just before the violent climax of Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy, there’s a short sequence in which the damaged, dangerous young narrator, Francie Brady, pays a visit to the seaside town where his parents spent their honeymoon. His mother and father have been dead for some time – victims of suicide and drink, respectively – and Francie’s happy memories of...

What a shocking bad hat! Ackroyd’s ‘London’

Christopher Tayler, 22 February 2001

Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is as much a history of characterisations of the city as a history of London itself. And although Ackroyd is most concerned with character in the sense of ‘a personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist’, readers of his previous writings will not be surprised to hear that many other meanings...

Bandini to Hackmuth: John Fante

Christopher Tayler, 21 September 2000

Between 1938 and 1940, the Italian-American writer John Fante published three books. The first two – Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939) – were novels; the third, Dago Red (1940), was a collection of short stories. All three were well received. Ask the Dust disconcerted some of its reviewers, but Bandini was admired by James Farrell and Steinbeck praised Dago Red. Italian and Norwegian translations were commissioned, Bandini was published in London, and Hollywood optioned both novels. Then, for various reasons, nothing happened. Distracted by a lawsuit brought against them by the German Government for an unauthorised publication of Mein Kampf, his publishers were unable to promote his work. After drinking and gambling away the money he had earned from his books, he took to the Hollywood treadmill as a screenwriter and scenarist. As a serious writer, he was effectively forgotten for almost forty years.

Fictional representations of real events from Hillsborough to the Stephen Lawrence case – mostly in the form of plays and television dramas – have played a surprisingly large part in shaping national debates about the police and police culture. Novels, however, tend either to use the figure of the detective to investigate larger questions than those of routine police work, or to fall back on the conventional oppositions (efficiency and incompetence, probity and graft) which tend to prop up the morphology of the fictional plod. When three novels emerge which explicitly or implicitly claim to deal with questions of police power and its abuses, it’s hard not to hope for something more than straightforward inversions of the mythic neighbourhood bobby. Unfortunately, the only one of these books with any insight into the daily grind of law enforcement and the attitudes it engenders is a failure as a novel; the other two, no masterpieces themselves, content themselves with posturing and caricature.’

Attending Poppy: David Grand

Christopher Tayler, 9 December 1999

In its fifties heyday 7000 Romaine was the operations centre of Howard Hughes’s organisation, and lent its name to an unusual document known as the ‘Romaine Street Procedures Manual’, an attempt to codify both Hughes’s memoranda and the instructions set down by his compliant lieutenants. Its guidelines for employees, generously quoted in Barlett and Steele’s 1979 biography of Hughes, are extremely precise. They range from general conduct (‘Do not fraternise with persons outside the office … Tell your wife as little as possible’), to the most minute detail: when opening the cinema door for Hughes’s future wife ‘do so with the feet, not the hands’; ‘When crossing any bump, dip, swale, ditch, railroad track or any uneven part of any road’ in the course of chauffeuring one of his contract starlets ‘the speed should be reduced to such a minimum … that no violent motion … would tend to disturb the position of the party’ – Hughes feared that their breasts might be damaged by jolting. The main preoccupation, however, is hygiene. In January 1958, for example, Hughes dictated three pages of single-spaced instructions on how to open a can of fruit:’‘

From The Blog
3 October 2018

A circle of sycamore trees had appeared overnight in Camden Square on Saturday morning. Across the road, outside the Irish Centre, a queue had formed by 10 a.m. Some of the men wore FBI badges. Some of the women wore magenta wigs, and many wore skirts or tops in a black-and-white zigzag pattern, accessorised with something red. My next-door neighbour, who’s retired but still helps out at the Irish Centre, shook her head when I met her on the street. ‘They’re saying they’ll be having real owls going around the place,’ she said. ‘It’s about some show I haven’t even heard of.’ I showed her my ticket for the Ninth Official Twin Peaks UK Festival. Like Lindsey Bowden, the former actor and events manager who organises the festival, I was 14 when Twin Peaks came to BBC2 in October 1990.

From The Blog
9 February 2016

A couple of years ago, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were statistically certified, by Forbes magazine, as the most addictive novels in commercial fiction. The key finding was that ‘Child carries more readers with him from book to book than any other bestselling author.’ Perhaps I’m too weak-kneed to be a proper Reacher fan: the ones I’ve read I found hard to put down, but I didn’t feel compelled to go out and buy the lot. The airport-thriller page counts and twitchy plotting sometimes left me feeling jangled and strung out, as though I’d been bingeing on espressos and Haribo Tangfastics while playing a frenetic computer game. That wasn’t the case with another series about a laconic tough guy with a name ending in ‘-er’, a series that’s put together with more artistry than you’d expect and which has, for me, greater addictive properties: the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008).

From The Blog
10 February 2014

Publicity materials for The Room, an independently financed ‘emotional drama’, began to appear in Los Angeles in the spring of 2003. Postcards turned up in restaurant toilets, there were late-night TV ads, and on 1 April a poster featuring a giant mugshot of Tommy Wiseau – the film’s writer, director, producer and star – went up on a billboard on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, where it stayed for five years.

From The Blog
11 July 2013

Legal sanctions were in place against the talking cure in Ireland when Samuel Beckett decided to give it a shot. He'd been having panic attacks since his father’s death in 1933. So in 1934, aged 27, he moved to London, a place he didn’t much like but that at least wasn’t Dublin (where, he wrote in a letter, ‘you ask for a fish & they give you a piece of bog oak’). In addition to not believing that the Irish public ‘ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever’, he was on the run from his mother, who was, as he put it, ‘alertly bereaved’ and also prone to unlettered bourgeois notions concerning salaried employment. When not discussing her with his analyst, Wilfred Bion, a future pioneer of group therapy, Beckett read widely, moped in galleries and parks, visited a doctor friend working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and generally gathered the material that went into Murphy, his first published novel.

From The Blog
10 January 2013

It’s been George Saunders week in the US, with an adulatory profile by Joel Lovell in the New York Times Magazine, Saunders’s new preface to his first book in the Paris Review and excitement even on websites that often greet lit biz news with a ‘meh’. Interesting titbits thrown out by the flurry – occasioned by Tenth of December, his new story collection – include the information that Saunders and his wife ‘devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism’, and that, among the pictures on his shelves, there’s ‘a great one from his jazz-fusion days of him playing a Fender Telecaster, with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders'.

From The Blog
13 July 2012

From Sviatoslav Richter's music listening notebooks, in Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon, translated by Stewart Spencer (2001): Kate Klausner, Beethoven, Concerto in C major op. 15. It was either at the opera or at a concert that we met this middle-aged and very cultured woman. She was sitting beside us in the stalls and struck up a conversation. Quite repulsive in appearance (like a witch) and eccentrically coiffed in the Spanish style. But our conversation wasn't uninteresting and more than once she said how friendly she was with Karajan, even giving us the impression she was to appear with him on the concert platform. As a result we met her from time to time at the Salzburg Festival.

From The Blog
2 March 2012

Haywards Heath in West Sussex is probably best known for being followed by the words ‘where this train will then divide’ in announcements on the London-to-Brighton line. A commuter town more or less from the beginning (it sprang up around the railway station, which opened in 1841), it’s a boxy settlement with a determinedly dowdy high street and a giant Sainsbury’s on a former cattle market site to serve the socially atomised exurbia surrounding it. Once it had a certain reputation locally on account of the Sussex County Asylum, later known as St Francis Hospital, on Colwell Road. Robert Hounsome, a Brighton-born journalist, writes electrifyingly in his autobiography:

From The Blog
20 July 2011

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland compares events in and around the Murdoch empire – with ‘around’ including Westminster and New Scotland Yard – to the Danish crime series The Killing. I applaud the in-your-face Guardian-ness of Freedland’s analogy, but it seems to me that James Ellroy has a stronger claim than Søren Sveistrup to have pre-scripted Wapping Confidential. It’s partly a matter of the strongly noir-ish overtones to the Murdochs’ performances in front of the select committee on Tuesday, with James’s eerie mid-Atlantic/Pacific voice giving him the air of an Australian actor channelling Kevin Spacey as a serial killer, and Rupert evoking John Huston in Chinatown by way of Clive James. But there are similarities of plot and motif as well.

From The Blog
15 July 2010

I write likeDan BrownI Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing! 'Check what famous writer you write like with this statistical analysis tool, which analyses your word choice and writing style and compares them to those of the famous writers.' This is the - somewhat questionable, writing-wise - promise of I write like..., a handy website that invites casual browsers to paste in 'your latest blog post, journal entry, Reddit comment, chapter of your unfinished book, etc', and then uses its robot brain to break down the material.

From The Blog
16 June 2010

When my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer twenty months ago, the first thing his doctors decided to do was fit him with a stoma, which turned out to be a less dispiriting term for giving him a colostomy. He had private health insurance, so he was booked in at a small hospital outside Brighton with a view of the sea and, he was assured, a functioning wireless network. He bought a new laptop to take along – not for working on a book he’d always meant to write or even, primarily, for sending emails, but for playing Scrabble against opponents on the internet while convalescing. My brother and I visited him soon after the operation, and I remember thinking, on the way in, about the scene in Blue Velvet in which Kyle MacLachlan visits his father in hospital. As I remembered it, the father’s horribly trussed up, with a respirator pumping and an oxygen mask on his face, as a result of his heart attack in the opening scene. My dad, post-surgery, looked healthier than Kyle’s, but he did have a transparent oxygen mask on, and after I kissed him he indicated it and said: ‘It’s like Blue Velvet!’ I think he meant Dennis Hopper's more memorable gas mask, and I admired him for joking about that then.

In the rich American vocabulary of abuse for the white rural poor, hicks and hayseeds connote ignorance but also innocence. The Hill-billie of Mathews’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1900) is a cheerful enough character ‘who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him’. The stereotype is still more comic than threatening. The word redneck, on the other hand, is, variously, ‘a derog. term for a country dweller, a peasant, esp. a southern US poor farmer who is stupid and racist’, a ‘bigoted and conventional person; a loutish ultraconservative’ and – most hurtfully – ‘a Southern rural white; hence, a reactionary’. The urbanised descendants of these people are ‘trailer park trash’ – badly dressed, illiterate, their obesity commensurate with their appetites for junk food and generic beer – a near-universal formula for the undeserving poor.’‘

From The Blog
5 May 2010

I don’t know what kind of demographic targeting apparatus the Lib Dems are packing in this election, but it seems to have determined that there are votes to be had from readers of the Saturday Guardian with a taste for the great masters of modernistic gloom and a relaxed attitude to not namechecking Nelson Mandela. The evidence:

From The Blog
5 February 2010

The New York Times Magazine recently profiled Charles Johnson, who – back in the good old days of Dick Cheney’s ‘Go fuck yourself’ – was an important online player in what one ex-associate of his terms ‘the trans-Atlantic counterjihad movement’. A ponytailed, LA-based jazz guitarist, Johnson was one of those who went a bit nuts after the 11 September attacks. Little Green Footballs, previously a personal blog devoted to web design and bicycle racing, rapidly became the go-to site for defenders of Western civilisation who wished to share genocidal fantasies about Muslims, fret or gloat over the plight of ‘Eurabia’, send pizzas to Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories and so on. Melanie Phillips became its best-known British fan.

From The Blog
9 December 2009

Reviewers in the UK seem to have quite liked Invisible, Paul Auster's latest novel, and I was starting to wonder if it might be worth checking out – I haven’t read a book of his since The Book of Illusions (2002) – when

From The Blog
26 November 2009

James Ellroy comes across as being a difficult man to interview. It’s not that he clams up – he seems to love doing interviews – or only says boring stuff. But his schtick-to-vaguely-serious-answer ratio is highly variable, depending on what kind of mood he’s in, how much press he’s been doing lately and so on, and is in any case quite hard to judge. Choose the wrong day, or press the wrong button, and you’ll get something like this (from a 2006 New York Times Magazine interview): I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime writer who ever lived.

From The Blog
1 July 2009

My parents were science fiction fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1980s, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read quite a lot of their paperback collection: Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Harry Harrison (some of his were for children and some were mordantly political) and Larry Niven, best known for his novel Ringworld. I didn't know at the time that Niven was and is a resoundingly unhip figure even by the standards of science fiction novelists.

From The Blog
20 May 2009

Stories should be able to bear more than one interpretation, and Judith Kerr's books have been read in some interesting ways. But how polysemous is The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a picture book about a tiger that turns up one afternoon on a little girl called Sophie's doorstep and consumes all the food and drink in the house? Maybe not enough to justify the theory that the mother is an alcoholic who dreams up the tiger’s visit in order to explain the vanishing of ‘all Daddy’s beer’. If anyone’s an alcoholic or problem drinker in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, it’s the father. It's his beer, after all; perhaps he drinks too much of it because of the stress caused by his work as a pimp (see the illustration ‘And it can't be daddy, because he's got his key’). He might also be violent: the mother’s anxiety when she realises that ‘I’ve got nothing for Daddy’s supper’ – my italics – gives a Frank Booth-in-Blue Velvet-like undertone to ‘Just then Sophie's daddy came home.’

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