Elizabeth Lowry

Elizabeth Lowry’s novel The Bellini Madonna was published in 2008.

‘How​ was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia?’ the immigrant Sepha Stephanos asks in Dinaw Mengestu’s first novel, Children of the Revolution (2007). Mengestu is himself an Ethiopian-American, having settled in the US with his family at the age of two. His second novel, How to Read the Air (2010), revisited the same question in the figure...

Diversiddy: Binyavanga Wainaina

Elizabeth Lowry, 23 February 2012

In 2005 the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, then living in Norwich, wrote a blisteringly satirical essay on ‘How to Write about Africa’. He was responding to Granta’s Africa issue, which he hated, as he later explained, for being ‘populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known’. The issue offered ‘nothing new, no insight, but lots...

Whose Bodies? ‘Tinkers’

Elizabeth Lowry, 23 September 2010

George Crosby, the hero of Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, Tinkers, has been laid out to die on a rented hospital bed in his living-room, surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren. He is 80, a retired teacher and clock repairer, and is suffering from cancer and renal failure. In the last week of his life he begins to hallucinate about his childhood in rural...

Montaigne had his own literary stalker. Eight years after the Essays first appeared in 1580, he received a breathless letter from a young woman called Marie le Jars de Gournay, who declared herself an ardent admirer of his work. Intrigued, he arranged to meet her. We don’t know what the Demoiselle de Gournay said to Montaigne, and in her new novel about their vexed relationship, Jenny...

The Fishman lives the lore: Carpentaria

Elizabeth Lowry, 24 April 2008

Nine hours’ drive east of Darwin, where the Northern Territory of Australia and Queensland meet, you will find the Gulf of Carpentaria, the sea that separates the top lip of the continent from New Guinea. The surrounding area features in tourist brochures as part of a rugged ‘real Australia’, home to cattle farming, barramundi fishing, a thriving mining industry, a national...

Tooloose-Lowrytrek: Malcolm Lowry

Elizabeth Lowry, 1 November 2007

The two central facts about Malcolm Lowry are that he wrote and that he drank. He drank while writing – or possibly he wrote while drinking. When he died in June 1957 after downing a lethal mix of barbiturates and gin (the coroner’s verdict was ‘death by misadventure’), he left behind a trunk full of unfinished manuscripts and an impracticably ambitious scheme to...

Bang, Crash, Crack: Primo Levi

Elizabeth Lowry, 7 June 2007

The Italian writer, chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi died twenty years ago, on 11 April 1987, when he plummeted down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. He was 67. The coroner’s verdict was straightforward: suicide. The unexpected death of this apparently serene and self-controlled man, particularly the violent and dramatic nature of it, at first stunned his...

Seductive Slide into Despair: Monica Ali

Elizabeth Lowry, 6 July 2006

Superficially, at least, it’s not remotely like Brick Lane. Does that matter? Yes and no. Following her ambitious and pacy first novel about Bangladeshis in the East End of London, Monica Ali has emphatically changed direction by setting her second book in Portugal. This will inevitably alienate some of her fans. But the change of subject should not really come as a surprise. After

Hilary Mantel’s dark, unsettling and gleefully tasteless new novel about spiritualism, Hell and the condition of contemporary England is part ghost story, part mystery, and as alarmingly funny as it is disturbing. Shakespeare makes an appearance – he passes in the spirit world as ‘Wagstaffe’, something of a louche lad about town – and is caught on tape having a...

A Severed Penis: Magic realism in Mozambique

Elizabeth Lowry, 3 February 2005

Mia Couto is a white Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, perhaps the most prominent of his generation of writers – he is 50 this year – in Lusophone Africa. His recurring theme is post-revolutionary Mozambique’s struggle to achieve credible nationhood; specifically, to channel its resources in such a way as to benefit its people rather than its apparatchiks. Couto’s...

Little Red Boy: Alistair MacLeod

Elizabeth Lowry, 20 September 2001

Alistair MacLeod is a Canadian of Scottish descent, and, like John McGahern who has written a foreword to his collected stories, an astute observer of a very specific local setting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; of its landscape and industry, its closed communities, quotidian tragedies and domestic disappointments. In addition, both McLeod’s voice and McGahern’s are recognisably...

Yeti: Doris Lessing

Elizabeth Lowry, 22 March 2001

When Doris Lessing brought out the first two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), she did so, as she explained, partly in ‘self-defence’, aware that at least ‘five American biographers’ were then writing their versions of her life. Some had been in touch and had been given short shrift; others she had never met. ‘Yet another can only be concocting a book out of supposedly autobiographical material in novels and from two short monographs about my parents.’ The soufflé-ish quality of Carole Klein’s Life of Lessing irresistibly suggests that Klein, who approached the forbiddingly private author in 1992 only to be sent packing, was that unfortunate person.

I am going to end up talking about love, but let me start by talking about money. Money, as Marx tells us, is the enemy of mankind and social bonds. ‘If you suppose man to be man and his relation to be a human one,’ he writes, ‘then you can only exchange love for love, trust for trust.’ Money, on the other hand, ‘changes fidelity into infidelity, love into hate,...

In the English popular imagination, the grimly oligarchic Old South Africa, with its smug suburban swimmingpools, bullish police force, forbidden wines and ostracised sports teams, has become the sunny New South Africa, a country against which the rest of the civilised world may once again safely play cricket and where a holiday hardly registers on your credit card. The Anti-Apartheid Organisation has been disbanded. Fergal Keane has packed up his microphone and gone home. In Trafalgar Square, a beaming Nelson Mandela casts a paternal eye over the lobby of South Africa House. Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been signed up by Heinz to carol ‘Inkanyezi Nezazi’ in an advertisment showing blond children eating tomato soup. In Britain we are occasionally treated to a television documentary or news headline about the spread of Aids among South Africa’s black population, the decline in the rand or the alarmingly high crime rate, but most non-South Africans probably know little more about South Africa and its bewilderingly pluralistic society than they did before. One group, however, is always present and easily located on the Uitlander’s mental map. Just outside the boundaries of moral decency – beyond the pale, so to speak – there is a thorny area inhabited by parochial plutocrats speaking an incomprehensible variant of Dutch. It is marked: ‘Here be Afrikaners.’’‘

Like a Dog: J.M. Coetzee

Elizabeth Lowry, 14 October 1999

‘The personal life is dead,’ Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago – ‘history has killed it.’ In J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Disgrace, which is set in a violent post-apartheid South Africa, David Lurie, a Cape Town academic, reaches a similar conclusion when his daughter Lucy is gang-raped by three black men at her isolated homestead in the Eastern Cape. ‘But why did they hate me so?’ Lucy asks. ‘I had never set eyes on them.’ ‘It was history speaking through them,’ her father replies. ‘A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t.’ Lucy decides not to press charges, believing that this rape, in the South African context, is not ‘a public matter’. In the face of irresistible historical change – the collapse of a corrupt order – the claims of the individual are necessarily of secondary importance, even irrelevant. Pasternak, of course, did not believe this. Does Coetzee?’‘


Whites Only

20 January 2000

Charles Landon (Letters, 17 February) is quite right to point out that there is a long tradition of British racism in southern Africa, including Natal. Indeed, in the British self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, white artisans and farmers were also protected by legislation from African competition, and, as in Natal, there was a less liberal attitude to race than in the Afrikaner-dominated Cape....

Our Mistakes

14 October 1999

Discussing the ambiguous ending of J.M. Coetzee's Foe (LRB, 14 October), I say that the character Friday ‘remains an obstacle in the text, refusing to yield his meaning until, in a bold gesture, Coetzee intervenes in the narrative in his capacity as author and effectively divests himself of the authority to tell Friday’s story’. Crucially, Coetzee actually does speak in propria persona...

Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet...

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