Lorna Sage

Lorna Sage died in 2001. Part of her autobiography, Bad Blood, for which she won the Whitbread Biography Prize, was first published in the LRB in 1993.

Landlocked: Henry Green

Lorna Sage, 25 January 2001

Henry Green put in an incongruous cameo appearance in Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 biography of Roald Dahl. When an interviewer from the Houston Post asked the bestselling author of the low-life and hilarious ‘adult’ short-story collection Someone like You who his favourite British writer was, he answered loftily: ‘Henry Green.’ Treglown thought the reason might have...

Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What’s been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to recognise that the future – that future, the classless, melting-pot, unisex, embarrassing one – is now in the past. Or, more painfully, that it has been hijacked by obscurantism and academic careerism, which often amount to the same thing.’

Talking to Jay McInerney in 1992, the year South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japanese, Haruki Murakami said that he wasn’t so much an international writer, as a non-national writer: ‘You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too “Japanese”. That is what I really want to express.’ His pleasure in jettisoning the picturesque and traditional signs of ‘roots’ is of a piece with the fact that he was a fan of the work of Raymond Carver, and became his Japanese translator. South of the Border is a minimalist’s novel. A 1984 interview with Carver is commemorated in a Carver poem:‘

The philosopher Plotinus was such a good Idealist that he refused to have a portrait done – why peddle an image of an image? – and argued that the true meaning of the myth of Narcissus was that the poor boy didn’t love himself enough. If Narcissus had recognised whose the reflection in the water was, he’d have lived and grown and changed himself, instead of being the helpless subject of a pretty tale of metamorphosis. Salman Rushdie’s new novel is full of such Neoplatonic jokes (though this isn’t one of them). The Ground beneath Her Feet is vertiginous, perilous, on the edge, because it’s all about pushing beyond the author’s Other-love, and the techniques he has so far perfected for dissolving ‘I’ into ‘we’. Here he is embracing what his enemies have always called his arrogance. He is taking things further, to that excess whose road leads to the palace of wisdom.’‘

Spells of Levitation: Deborah Eisenberg

Lorna Sage, 3 September 1998

The short story is the most popular form for people to practise on in Creative Writing workshops where the craft of making things up is meant to be passed on. Still, contemporary stories are always falling out of fiction into documentary of one sort or another – confession, travel, postcards from the front line. Deborah Eisenberg’s writing is so striking because it is impeccably, formally fictional. Her stories have epiphanies, they have closure, they have a discreet patina of style which is nearly matt, has no shiny gloss, but is nonetheless worked to a certain finish. A phrase will suddenly jump off the page – ‘the backs of … houses, hung with a dirty lace of fire stairs’ – then retreat again into its surroundings. Her settings are sketched with great economy, but convey a vivid sense of place (she herself comes from Chicago, and lives in New York). She specialises in brief moments of stillness, when things fall into focus. Her characters are often treated to spells of levitation during which they see themselves from outside, or from the future, or from some point near the ceiling, as in those near-death experiences people report, when for a paralysed time-out-of-time you’re on the wrong side of the mirror that makes life look like itself, lifelike. Things that were obvious, ‘obvious the way air is obvious’, develop a scary, revelatory, toxic shimmer. The characters see in italics, like virgins out of Henry James, and then forget, so that we’re made to feel that only the story itself, with its irony and vertiginous impersonality, preserves their vision.’‘

These handsome volumes contain the last remains of Katherine Mansfield: a full and final transcription of the amorphous mass of hopeful notes, dissatisfied jottings, bad poems, sick scribbles, lists, sums and drafts, some dating back to her youth, which she left behind when she died in January 1923. All her bits and pieces are here, chronologically arranged and beautifully bound, with a picture of the cheap exercise books she used on the cover, their faded marbled fronts transformed into a bookish reliquary.

Derek beavan buret on the scene four years ago with his own bold brand of palimpsest history in Newton’s Niece, a wonderfully circumstantial novel about magic in the new age of science. Real people, from Newton to Swift, Handel, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Mrs Manley, mingled with imaginary ones, not least the eponymous narrator of the title him/herself, a time-traveller from a late-20th-century mental hospital who switches gender in the process. Acts of Mutiny is equally history-obsessed, but this time Beavan doesn’t have to ride a time-machine. We’re well within the world of living memory, in the late Fifties, travelling on board ship to Australia, as Beavan himself did as a boy of 11 back then, according to his publisher’s handouts. There are no real-life historical celebrities either, unless you count the secret cargo, the nuclear device in the ship’s hold, that notorious Fifties character The Bomb. Nonetheless, it’s again a novel shaped and determined by the idea that there is always ‘another history’ that has been suppressed. For the very liner that this fictional boy Ralph sailed on has gone missing from the official records. And so have whole episodes from his own memory. This is the narrator as male hysteric: middle-aged Ralph sounds dry and affectless to begin with, but that’s just a symptom. He’s a Falklands War veteran who knows about traumatic stress disorder first-hand, having suppressed and later recovered his memories of escape from his burning ship. We first meet him when he attends his father’s funeral, and goes back to the old house ‘downstream of the City, downriver of the old Thames barrier … snow clouds heaping up over the Isle of Dogs … my growing up here was an unbroken stream, brown as varnish, leading inevitably to the sea.’ It’s characteristic of Beavan’s style that the shades and resonances of this description are almost immediately jettisoned. His is a prodigal talent: it’s as if he finds fine writing too easy, second nature, when it is not nature that interests him exactly.‘

Gilber Adair the critic writes with feeling and practised bitterness about the anxiety of influence – ‘that looming, lowering pressure exerted, wilfully or not, by those who have already “made it” on those who have not, a pressure cramping, crushing and on occasion castrating the creative energies of the rising generation’. There’s a smack of Hamlet (cabined, cribbed, confined) here – so that when the literary father-figures he has in mind turn out to be Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, it’s hard to believe him. Father’s ghost has to be grander. And he is. Adair the novelist’s true problem, which Amis notoriously shares, is with Nabokov. Adair’s 1990 novel Love and Death on Long Island, ‘currently’, according to his publicity, ‘being made into a major motion picture’, was about a snobbish, reclusive British writer falling hopelessly in love at long distance with an irretrievably straight American boy starlet, but was ‘really’ about its writer’s own love-affair with Lolita, invoking shades of Death in Venice as a thin disguise. This movie will follow on the heels of the ‘controversial’ remake of Lolita.’‘

Waving the Past Goodbye

Lorna Sage, 3 April 1997

Mona Simpson’s novels are long and loose, and make compulsive reading. She not only writes about obsession, but she passes on the effect with extraordinary directness, almost as though there’s no separate authorial presence in her books at all – art concealing art with a vengeance. A Regular Guy is her third novel, and in it she celebrates her first ten years in the business by surrendering her addiction to ‘I’, and edging just a little further over into fictionality with the invention of self-made hero Tom Owens, the multi-millionaire founder of a West Coast biotech company he christens ‘Genesis’: ‘He thought of himself as a guy in jeans, barefoot in the boardroom.’ But the story’s focus, the person whose point of view we share, even if she is in the third person, is Owens’s illegitimate and disowned daughter Jane. She is ten years old at the beginning, the questing girl in search of Dad who Simpson always needs to get the show on the road.’

Property-owning and picaresque were once upon a time in opposition, but the new middle-class diaspora has changed all that. People want to put down roots where they wander, buy themselves a piece of the view and a share of the sky, a place of their own. Marvellous time. Wish I was here. We don’t simply holiday and go home, we dream in brick and stucco and terracotta. Barry Unsworth’s new novel is set in this DIY world inhabited by the suddenly self-made, the restless retired, the seekers of salvation in the soil – someone else’s soil, however, some corner of a foreign field.’

Winter Facts

Lorna Sage, 4 April 1996

Christine Brooke-Rose’s story of how this new book came to be is that she set out to write about her life, and instead produced a kind of antibiography. It’s described in the jacket’s blurb by Carcanet as ‘an autobiographical novel with a difference’ which ‘uses life material to compose a third-person fiction’. Inside the covers we’re told with confessional baldness that ‘the old lady’s publisher has asked for an autobiography. But the resistance is huge. The absorbing present creates interference, as well as the old lady’s lifelong prejudice against biographical criticism, called laundry-lists by Pound. Only the text matters, if the text survives at all.’ But then, isn’t life always text for a Post-Structuralist? And then again, treating the facts as fiction doesn’t seem exactly a major departure if your fiction is of the pareddown, see-through, new-novelish kind. Whichever way you look at it, Christine Brooke-Rose is on home ground in Remake: making it over is second nature to her.

Both Sides

Lorna Sage, 5 October 1995

The present novel completes Pat Barker’s First World War trilogy. It ends just before the war itself ends, with the attempted crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal in which Wilfred Owen was killed. You can read it without having read Regeneration or The Eye in the Door, because these are novels that cover the same ground again, and again, like the battles their characters replay in memory and nightmares. This produces a powerfully ironic sense of imprisonment in the moment. Barker’s strategy is pointedly different from that of most historical novels exploring the processes of change. Sequence and progress and narrative line have largely given way here to a palimpsest history. You cut rapidly from document to dream to memory to dialogue. Historical figures – Owen, Graves, Sassoon, the psychologist Rivers – mingle with invented ones like Prior, the working-class officer who is a kind of exemplary figure, with what one might call a palimpsest personality. The effect is of spread, not sequence. Nonetheless, revisiting the same material from book to book is a compulsive experience. In The Ghost Road the return to the front line gathers intensity from the fact that we’ve been here so often before in Rivers’s patients’ recovered memories of its horrors.’

Paean to Gaiety

Lorna Sage, 22 September 1994

In this camp and dashing and deliberately lightweight study of a certain strand of ‘sexual ontology’ Terry Castle pursues the lesbian-as-ghost from Defoe’s wistful nearly-real Mrs Veal onwards. She had, she explains, been planning and researching a much heavier straight book about hauntings – on ‘the waning of belief in apparitions in Western culture after the Enlightenment’ – but in the end decided to come out of the closet and produce this labour of love: ‘I felt scandalously energised.’’

Bad Blood

Lorna Sage, 7 April 1994

This is a compendious, layered novel – see ‘historiographic metafiction’ in the narratology handbook – the sort of novel that intercuts time zones and genres of fiction (realism, fantasy) and so fleshes out the present’s bleakness. In the present, middle-aged Charlotte FitzRoy is having a breakdown, precipitated very likely (thinks the business-like psychiatrist who plies her with anti-depressants she doesn’t take) by the death of her daughter Miranda in a car-crash; though as Charlotte sees it, loss of her political faith, dating from the coming-down of the Berlin Wall, has had rather more to do with it.’

How to do the life

Lorna Sage, 10 February 1994

Bloody Mary, the blurb suggests, has found her match in her biographer Carol Brightman. Not that this is a hatchet job: if Brightman is a woman in some sense after her subject’s own heart it’s not in the way Randall Jarrell was thinking of when he put Mary McCarthy in Pictures from an Institution, saying that people couldn’t mention her style ‘without using the vocabulary of a salesman of kitchen knives’. On the contrary, Brightman is not murderous at all, but detailed, exigent, measured, beady-eyed. Nor is she a Boswell, however. She may have become an accepted figure in the McCarthy landscape in the years leading up to McCarthy’s death in 1989, interviewing and taking notes, but she proves tough-minded and independent to a degree. The tone is one of unforgiving intimacy. It’s important, obviously, that Brightman belongs to a very different generation, the one that came of age in the Sixties, when she founded and cut her teeth on an anti-war magazine called Viet-Report – the daughter, or even granddaughter generation. She inevitably regards McCarthy’s tours de force in exposing the bad faith of the radicals of the Thirties and Forties with some ambivalence: ‘By withholding pity, by honouring the weight and worth of convention in American life, McCarthy uncovers a deeper truth about the way in which American intellectuals handle the revolutionary dreams of youth, and why they so often turn on them and learn nothing from them.’ You don’t necessarily like someone for being right about this kind of thing – Brightman suspects that McCarthy was so sharp because she was in a sense so reductive, she ‘lived in relations the way other people are attached to things, places, belief systems’.’

Grandma at home

Lorna Sage, 4 November 1993

Hanmer’s pretty mere, the sloping fields that surrounded us, and the hedges overgrown with hawthorn, honeysuckle and dog roses that fringed the lanes, might as well have been a cunning mirage as far as grandma was concerned. They did nothing to alleviate the lousy desert that made up her picture of village life. She lived like a prisoner, an urban refugee self-immured behind the vicarage’s bars and shutters. None of my new school friends were allowed in the house, of course. You could get into the vicarage garden via a side yard, or by climbing over the walls, and that was the way we did it. The whole thing was clandestine, the other children weren’t supposed to be really there at all, any more than that picturesque backdrop of lake and trees and cows. Meanwhile, insulated and apart, vicarage life went on. In the church, in bars, in books (grandpa) or in a scented bedroom fug of dreams of home in South Wales (grandma). That is, of Tonypandy in the Rhondda, which rhymed with yonder, but with its Welsh ‘d’s softened into ‘th’, so that it seemed the essence of elsewhere.

My Schooldays

Lorna Sage, 21 October 1993

These days Hanmer School is tranquil and thriving, just the kind of country school people campaign to keep open because it’s gentler than the bigger urban versions, and the kids get more individual attention. Astonishing, to me, to go back and eavesdrop on these well-behaved children who wear uniforms, talk trustingly with their teachers, and have even produced a booklet which tells me that the school was first built in 1676, and that the Charity Commissioners reported in 1847 that it was damp and dirty, with rotting furniture. This 1847 school is more recognisable to me than the present one: all this cleanliness is unnatural. And what are they doing being literate, for God’s sake? This isn’t the school I knew. Perhaps I really did grow up, as I sometimes suspect, in a time-warp, an enclave of the 19th century? Because here are the memories jostling their way in, scenes from an overpopulated rural slum.

The Old Devil and his wife

Lorna Sage, 7 October 1993

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his. He’d have liked to get further away, but petrol was rationed. The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it – except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime’s mutual loathing. In life, though, she never invaded his patch; once inside the churchyard gate he was on his own ground, in his element. He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality. He had a scar down his hollow cheek too, which grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came home pissed and incapable.’


James Wood, 8 December 1994

Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, is a bold, leathery, coarse book. It summarises thinly its author’s later adventures and preoccupations, as the chapter headings in a...

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