James Francken

James Francken, a former assistant editor at the LRB, works at the Daily Telegraph.

Abecedary: Ian Sansom

James Francken, 20 May 2004

At the tail-end of 2000, Ian Sansom decided to move from London to a small town in County Down. He had half expected friends to dismiss his plan as a backwoods adventure, and was surprised when they said they felt the lure of the place. Sansom tells the story of moving house, and makes sense of his friends’ enthusiasm, in a typically buoyant essay, ‘Where Do We Live?’* In...

Grousing: Toby Litt

James Francken, 7 August 2003

It was Bridget Jones’s Diary, published in 1996, that marked the arrival of ‘chick lit’; the phrase appeared in the OED late last year. If the dictionary definition brushes the genre aside – ‘(chiefly derog.) literature which is perceived or marketed as appealing to young women’ – it is not the fault of Helen Fielding’s comedy of manners....

No one reads George Meredith any more. His novels are thought to be brainy and obscure, his difficulty is seen as suspect. In the four weeks ending 22 February, according to Nielsen BookScan, 1359 people in Britain bought a copy of Middlemarch; of the noteworthy novels published in the same decade, Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes sold 182 copies; Meredith’s The Egoist sold nine. He...

So-so Skinny Latte: Giles Foden’s Zanzibar

James Francken, 19 September 2002

Those who argued that 11 September could change the direction of contemporary fiction soon had a facer. The Corrections, published a week before the terrorist attacks, became a runaway bestseller, and the case against Jonathan Franzen and his kind of big social novel did not look so watertight. There may be something too wised-up about these novels, but interest in large-scale fiction has not...

Advertising campaigns for new books have changed their well-established patterns, bringing the old ways of the marketplace up to date. Publishers are using the Internet to drum up business; authors have created websites that give themselves a plug. But some authors seem nonplussed by the need for all this self-promotion, distrusting the visitors their sites may attract. ‘If you are a...

All Monte Carlo: Malcolm Braly

James Francken, 23 May 2002

Born with a silver spoon, Malcolm Braly became a mouthpiece for the no-hopers and might-have-beens in America’s prisons. He was inside for almost twenty years and finished On the Yard (1967) in the final few months of his stretch. It was an unlikely career for a novelist, though Braly, who took a dim view of his success, never seemed surprised, certain that his fate had been forecast...

Short Cuts: The big book prizes

James Francken, 3 January 2002

The winner of the Glenfiddich Award for the year’s best book about food picks up a nice cheque and a case of single malt. The lucky author who lands the Bollinger Everyman Prize for comic writing, awarded annually at Hay-on-Wye, takes home 12 bottles of vintage Bolly. But there won’t even be a half of bitter for the winner of the Whitbread Book Awards, which take place later this...

Diary: British Jews

James Francken, 1 November 2001

At the end of September, the Theatre Royal in London staged a ‘solidarity rally’ for British Jews. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, scolded the press for blaming the events of 11 September on Israel. Would they, he asked, like to live in ‘Gaza under the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran or Libya or Syria’? Or would...

Iron Tearing Soil: golf

James Francken, 4 October 2001

A golf course takes up an enormous amount of space, but the anger this creates among paid-up protectors of the countryside is nothing to the rage it can provoke in a ropey golfer. Golf is not the only pastime in which the object is to hit a small, distant target with accuracy. In rifle shooting, the central ring is around fifty yards away; in archery, it is about one hundred yards to the...

There are three false starts in David Mitchell’s slippery new novel. At the beginning of number9dream the narrator sits in a chaotic Tokyo café staring into an empty coffee cup. Eiji Miyake is a mousy young man who has come to the city to find his father, but he lacks the wherewithal to contact the lawyer who knows his address. When he finally gets up from his table to meet the...

A good God is hard to find: Jenny Diski

James Francken, 4 January 2001

Was God created by a woman, a writer who dreamed up the early stories in the Bible? Differences in vocabulary and style suggest that the Old Testament is a composite of various sources. The oldest sections – parts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers – are more than three thousand years old and there are commentators who believe that they may have been written by a woman, a highly...

Short Cuts: the Booker Prize shortlist

James Francken, 2 November 2000

A flutter on the Booker Prize ought to be a tasty bet. Not this year; the favourites’ odds are short and the serious gambler will wonder if there is enough meat on the bone to justify a punt: Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin and Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (reviewed in the LRB, 5 October and 13 April) are quoted at 2-1 and 5-2 with William Hill. And...

William Strunk was a standard-bearer for the use of bold, brief English. In The Elements of Style, first published in 1918, the Cornell professor set out his rules of usage and principles of composition in the form of direct commands – ‘Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon’. ‘Omit needless words.’ ‘Do not affect a breezy manner.’ But ‘times change, and so do written communications’; a new style handbook has been published that intends to retire Strunk from service. The Elements of E-mail Style insists that in a world of electronic messages, methods of writing and editing that take ‘hours or days’ are outdated. An e-mail should have an impromptu feel and the handbook suggests how to create this effect: sentences can be truncated, for example, and capital letters ignored. A reply to an e-mail can arrive within minutes, so the tone of a message should be conversational: in an informal e-mail, a stiff greeting or stilted closing is out of place. The Elements of E-mail Style gives the reader advice on good ‘netiquette’ – the conventions for messages sent via the Internet – and explains how to have better high-tech chit-chat.’‘

Something Fishy

James Francken, 13 April 2000

China was a surprise to Auden and Isherwood – it reminded them of Surrey. Faber had commissioned them to write a travel book about the Far East early in the summer of 1937. The Japanese invaded northern China in July, capturing Peking; by August the troops had reached Shanghai and the itinerary of the book was decided. With many foreign correspondents already in Spain, Auden was confident that in China ‘we’ll have a war all of our very own.’ But Journey to a War describes how the fighting eluded them – they went to places they had been told were on the front line, but nothing was ever happening when they got there – and how they ended up in Shanghai. The freedoms of the treaty port were disappointing: they were bored by the endless receptions, garden parties and cold buffets. Isherwood came to realise that the ‘appalling atmosphere of suburban Surrey’ masked dissipation:’‘

Antic Santa: Nathan Englander

James Francken, 28 October 1999

A nervous young lawyer leaves a rabbi’s house with a sinking feeling. The arguments that he had prepared now seem hopeless: he couldn’t persuade the immigrants that their old-fashioned clothes were out of place in a New York suburb. The other Jewish inhabitants of Woodenton had warned him: ‘there’s a good healthy relationship in this town because it’s modern Jews and Protestants.’ They had known that the newcomers would be implacable: ‘Making a big thing out of suffering, so you’re going oy-oy-oy all your life, that’s common sense? … They live in the medieval ages, Eli – it’s some superstition, some rule.’ But Eli wants to accommodate the rabbi; he changes out of his new tweed suit and wanders into town in an Orthodox get-up – black hat and gabardine. In ‘Eli, the Fanatic’, the transformation helps Philip Roth connect up some of the leading themes of his short stories: anxiety, desire, separation, the odd, unsettling consequences of changes that are incomplete.’‘

‘Passerby, go tell other peoples that this village died to save Verdun so that Verdun could save the world.’ President Poincaré’s declaration, inscribed on a simple marker, set in stone those memories of French resistance to German aggression in World War One that he hoped would be indelible. By 1920, defences along the Verdun salient were mouldering away, the battlefields being pillaged for copper and steel. The sacrifice made by the 3rd Company of the 137th Infantry Regiment, buried alive by German bombardment while holding their line of trenches, was a fading legend. The soldiers’ bayonets, which protruded from the earth above their upright bodies, had been hacked at, pieces taken away as souvenirs; some had been stolen. An American banker donated 500,000 francs towards the preservation of what has become known as the Trench of the Bayonets. Deciding that ‘nothing could typify the tragedy and heroism of the bayonet trench better than the trench itself,’ the architect of the Verdun monument designed a concrete covering for the site which would stave off decay. He guaranteed that it would ‘last for at least five hundred years’. The authenticity of what was preserved is uncertain: exploding howitzer shells could not completely fill a section of trench with earth; the trench is more likely to have been covered over by other soldiers out of respect; the bayonets may have been planted to mark a mass grave. But the significance of the site was assured, given Pétain’s status as the ‘Victor of Verdun’ and France’s saviour, according to the young Captain Charles de Gaulle – wounded and taken prisoner under Pétain’s command – ‘when a choice had to be made between ruin and reason’.’‘

Pure TNT: Thom Jones

James Francken, 18 February 1999

Sonny Liston didn’t really have any friends. Not, at least, among the reporters covering his heavyweight title fight with Floyd Patterson in 1962. Intimidated by Listen’s criminal record and connections with organised crime, the press took his sullenness for the recalcitrance of an underworld brawler. The former heavyweight champion is no less threatening in Thom Jones’s two previous collections of short stories; though kept in the wings, he is mentioned frequently by the centre-stage characters: a doctor who is ‘about to smirk’ when walking in on a couple having sex in the hospital ward is arrested by the patient’s baleful stare – ‘Sonny Liston could give such a look’; a recently enlisted marine regrets his decision to join up when he meets boot-camp disciplinarians ‘most of whom looked like close relatives of Charles “Sonny” Liston’. Jones – a former boxer and Vietnam veteran – appears to give Liston a better part in the off-beat title story of his new, third collection. A young amateur boxer hoping to go forward to the Chicago Golden Gloves competition finds himself frustrated by the truculence of his stepfather and the indifference of his mother to almost everything but the application of the green paste of her nightly face mask: ‘Can’t you just say, “Good, I’m glad you won. You’ve made me a happy lima bean”?’ His optimism is revived by a trip to watch Liston training for the Patterson fight, where we finally come face to face with the fearsome boxer and the boy receives a signed photo: ‘To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston.’ But a cornerman’s heavy-handed intervention (‘a man in a gray sweatshirt demanded two dollars each for the photographs’) and the boy’s subsequent failure in the ring stress the lessons of adult life that remain to be learned; the photo and the friendship are shuffled into the past.’‘

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