Zachary Leader

Zachary Leader has edited The Letters of Kingsley Amis, and plays tennis with Martin.

Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), won several prizes and extravagant praise from American critics. Whitehead is black and comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. John Updike has called him ‘blithely gifted’, ‘the young African-American writer to watch’. Whitehead’s new novel, John Henry Days, is longer...

No Accident: Gore Vidal’s Golden Age

Zachary Leader, 21 June 2001

‘Of course I like my country,’ Gore Vidal has written. ‘After all, I’m its current biographer.’ With the publication of The Golden Age, the biography draws to a close. The novels which comprise it, to list them in order of the historical periods they cover, are Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976, of course), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1989), Washington, DC...

Daisy packs her bags: The Road to West Egg

Zachary Leader, 21 September 2000

Once upon a time authors were believed to improve their work in revision. Then editorial theory fell in love with first versions, stigmatising second thoughts as impositions. The old dispensation, in which rejected drafts and variants were seen as false starts happily rectified on the road to a work’s final form, which was an incarnation of the author’s final intention, became ‘The Whig Interpretation of Literature’. This belittling tag, coined in a 1988 essay of the same name by Stephen Parrish, general editor of the monumental Cornell Wordsworth, reflected two more widespread beliefs in literary theory: that ‘language is prior to thought’ and that authorial intention is ‘not only elusive and illusory, but irrelevant’. In the case of the Cornell Wordsworth such beliefs were used to defend the publication of early versions as reading texts (a host of ‘yellow’ daffodils, for example; ‘golden’, a second thought, is relegated to the apparatus). The first versions, Parrish proclaimed, contained ‘the real Wordsworth, the early Wordsworth, generally the best Wordsworth’. Today, a third position is in ascendance. Editors, Parrish included, no longer talk of best and worst: instead, the equal validity of all versions is asserted. This third or pluralist position grows out of and reflects several recent developments: the triumph of history in the study of literature in universities, the much-heralded new dawn of hypertext, and a near universal reluctance on the part of literary academics to make judgments of value. Where exactly the publication of Trimalchio, an early version of The Great Gatsby, fits into this admittedly crude narrative, is no easy question.‘

800 Napkins, 47 Finger Bowls

Zachary Leader, 16 March 2000

Size matters – especially in business. In the quarter-century following the American Civil War, consolidation – in the form of trusts, mergers, monopolies, syndicates and cartels – transformed the US economy, revolutionising transport, communications and industrial production. The industrialists and financiers who shaped the new economy regarded its international ascendancy as natural and inevitable. To those who objected that consolidation inhibited free-market competition and local enterprise, depressed wages, produced inhumane living conditions for workers, and was anti-democratic, big money countered with claims of increased efficiency, radically reduced operating and distribution costs, falling consumer prices, greater social mobility and immense national wealth. These benefits it often extolled in moral or religious terms. Economic progress meant ‘discipline’, ‘sound’ money, ‘inviolate’ faith, as opposed to ‘waste’, ‘wild’ inflation, a ‘corrupt’ currency, ‘blind and dishonest frenzy’, ‘reckless booming anarchy’.’‘

Frognal Days: Files on the Fifties

Zachary Leader, 4 June 1998

Nora Sayre’s account of American intellectual life in the Fifties, part memoir, part documentary record, begins with her writer parents and the people she met in their living room in New York: Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Walker Evans, James M. Cain, Nunnally Johnson, S.J. Perelman, Dawn Powell, Joseph Mitchell and John O’Hara. Many of these celebrated figures, artists and authors approaching fifty at the start of the decade or only lately past it, grew up in small provincial towns, emigrated to New York in the Jazz Age and worked together in the city rooms of the Herald Tribune and the New York World. Unlike their successors, writers who came or age in the Depression, or World War Two, or, like Sayre herself, in the Eisenhower years, her parents and their friends still lived ‘as though something wonderful would happen in the next twenty minutes’. Elegant, exuberant, unsnobbish (with the memorable exception of O’Hara, her godfather, who never again spoke to her after she admitted a preference for Harvard over Vassar: ‘His arm flew up and his wife Belle moved swiftly to restrain him’), Sayre’s parents and their circle made their children feel ‘colourless in comparison’.‘

Diary: Oscar Talk at the Huntington

Zachary Leader, 16 April 1998

In February 1987, partly to finance the purchase of a larger house, Kingsley Amis sold his papers (483 catalogued items) to the Huntington Library in Southern California. Amis professed to hate ‘abroad’, but he was only intermittently a cultural nationalist. When Philip Larkin, in his capacity as librarian, canvassed him in 1960 for his views on the export of manuscripts, he received the usual robust reply:‘

More aggressive, dear!

Zachary Leader, 31 July 1997

What happened to Britain’s men in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon? Twenty-four hours earlier Tim Henman had beaten Richard Krajicek, last year’s winner and the No. 4 seed. In his first match Greg Rusedski had eliminated Mark Philippousis, winner at Queen’s and the No. 7 seed. Although both Britons (Rusedski was raised in Canada but his mother is British) had already defeated more highly ranked players than their unseeded quarter-final opponents, they were terrible. Henman called his match against Michael Stich ‘my worst experience on a tennis court’. He couldn’t get a first serve in. He stayed back on the second serve and couldn’t get that in either. He couldn’t return. He missed volleys (against Krajicek he volleyed like Edberg). Even his famed composure deserted him: he began muttering to himself; he smashed a racket into his bag in frustration; he sulked. If Henman looked flat, Rusedski looked jittery. He rushed everything. He snatched at his volleys. He snatched at his towel. He ate his banana too quickly. He stalked about the court with cartoonish resolve. When at the end of the match he complained of fatigue, one could see why: he’d been tight as a drum.

People shouldn’t be fat

Zachary Leader, 3 October 1996

By the end of his life Orson Welles weighed 350 pounds. His appetite, though, was not a late development. In Simon Callow’s biography the composer Virgil Thomson reports the 22-year-old actor-director devouring ‘oysters and champagne, red meat and burgundy, dessert and brandy’ immediately before squeezing into a canvas corset to play Brutus in Julius Caesar. Later in the run, Welles found time during the performance to nip behind the theatre to Longchamps Diner for a snack: ‘generally a triple-decker steak sandwich washed down with bourbon’. Lunch, ‘inhaled’ (this is David Thomson’s word) while rehearsing The Shoemaker’s Holiday, soon to be Welles’s second hit for the Mercury Players, was comparably stupefying. Callow depicts Welles perched at a table in the stalls, ‘roaring out instructions and mock abuse as he chomped his steaks and muffins and swilled brandy’. These instructions, an admiring co-worker recalls, were orders, not suggestions: ‘Orson only knew one way and that was “Now everybody keep quiet and I’ll tell you what to do.” That was his only way of working. He simply didn’t know any other.’

Watch with mother

Zachary Leader, 23 May 1996

Being a boy is not always easy. These two childhood memoirs differ in important respects, but they agree about the problematic nature of boyhood pleasure. Gary Paulsen’s ‘Autobiographical Odyssey’ follows in the wake of his 1995 memoir, Winterdance, a much-praised account of dog-sled racing in Alaska. Though he is only now gaining a reputation in Britain, Paulsen has published over 150 books in the United States, many for children and ‘young adults’, specifically boys. His best-known boys’ books are a trilogy of survivalist novels about an urban adolescent, Brian Robeson, stranded in a Canadian wilderness: Hatchet, which sold over a million copies, Hatchet: The Return and Hatchet: Winter, which Paulsen claims to have written in response to fan mail (‘as many as two hundred letters a day’). The themes of these books – isolation, self-reliance, initiation – recur in his new memoir. So, too, do scenes of fantastic adventure and danger. The distinguishing feature of the new memoir – distinguishing it as a book for adults – is its depiction of sex, though this sex involves Paulsen’s mother, so perhaps the memoir, too, counts as a species of boys’ fiction.’

Going Postal

Zachary Leader, 5 October 1995

The no-bullshit newsman as hero is a staple of film and genre fiction. To Pete Dexter, though, the type is deeply suspect. Dexter has been a newspaperman most of his working life, first as a reporter, for the local West Palm Beach Post (1971-72), then as a staff writer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News (1972-84) and now for the Sacramento Bee. He has also written five novels, the best-known of which, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award in 1988. Though born in Michigan, he was partly raised in the South, in Georgia, the setting of Paris Trout. His new novel, The Paperboy, is also set in the South, but its concerns are only incidentally Southern. Its central preoccupation is journalism, a topic touched on in his first novel, God’s Pocket(1984), set in working-class Philadelphia. The new novel is about a crime, and has a crime thriller’s feel, but as in some police procedurals, the milieu of the investigator, in this case a journalistic milieu, overshadows that of both criminal and victim.

Bad Dads

Zachary Leader, 6 April 1995

Personal identity, according to Locke, is a creation of memory. The American writer Tobias Wolff has already published one volume of memoirs. Now, at the age of 49, he has produced a second. Who can blame him? His father was a conman and impostor: Arthur Samuels Wolff, aka Arthur Saunders Wolff III, aka Saunders Answell-Wolff III, the ‘Duke’ of Tobias’s brother Geoffrey’s memoir, The Duke of Deception (1979).

Down and Out in London and Amis

Zachary Leader, 22 June 1989

Robert McLiam Wilson was born in 1964, which means that Ripley Bogle, his first novel, was written in his early twenties. The novel’s qualities are those of immodest youth: it is ambitious, energetic, self absorbed, bursting with hormonal vehemence and self-consciousness. Structure and sequence (or plot) are not its strong points. The good bits are bits, hit you straight on, and mostly have to do with the narrator-protagonist, his wishes, delusions, comical pretensions and embarrassments. No one else gets much of a look-in, and those who do – parents briefly, a school friend, first loves, a mentor – are perfunctorily, instrumentally rendered: they matter because of the way Ripley reacts to them. All this is quite openly, cheerfully admitted on the narrator’s part, and is meant to be indulged. Whether it will be, though, depends upon one’s tolerance for the narrative voice, a voice which is startlingly familiar. Here is a representative passage:’

Whitlam Fictions

Zachary Leader, 16 February 1989

The most striking feature of contemporary Australian writing – or so it is now claimed – is the robust health of its fiction, notably of two contrasting fictional modes: the short story and the massive novel of national identity. Poetry, the dominant genre of the late Sixties and early Seventies, no longer holds undisputed pride of place, a development attributed in part to the proliferation of state and academic subsidy, in particular the creation in 1973, by the Whitlam Labour Government, of the Literature Board of the newly-formed Australia Council. Behind established international figures such as Patrick White, Thomas Keneally and now Peter Carey crowds a small army – a second wave, as it were – of grant-garlanded and prize-bedecked novelists and storytellers, many of whom, especially those whose reputations derive initially from short fiction, have benefited from the Board’s largesse. The recent publication in Britain of works by three such figures – Rodney Hall, Helen Garner and Frank Moorhouse – provides a convenient occasion for assessment.’

Cartoon Quality

Zachary Leader, 6 December 1979

Edwin Mullhouse etc is by far the most interesting and inventive of the three novels under review. It is also, with all its knowing brilliance, the most irritating – relentlessly clever, frequently cloying. The story it tells is that of the life and aesthetically pleasing death by suicide of Edwin, 11-year-old author of Cartoons, a novel, we are told, of genius. It is also that of Edwin’s biographer, Jeffrey, a mere half-year older, whose exhaustively solemn record of his lifelong friend’s minutest peculiarities and achievements continually draws attention away from its subject. This tension between subject and biographer is central to the novel, and has wider, at times metaphysical, implications.



21 June 2001

There’s an amusing mistake in the second paragraph of my review of The Golden Age by Gore Vidal (LRB, 21 June). What got printed as ‘his father, Romley, claims’ was a mishearing of my telephone emendation ‘his father, wrongly, claims’. Oh well.
At the end of his review of my edition of The Letters of Kingsley Amis (LRB, 1 June) Ian Hamilton asks ‘a few small questions’. These include: ‘What has happened to Amis’s letters to Robert Conquest that are quoted from in Eric Jacobs’s biography of Amis (“May want to borrow your flat at times like the early evening, for an hour or two, to entertain a young lady";...

What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Saul Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty...

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Bad Character: Saul Bellow

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 May 2015

Bellow was in charge of whatever facts he chose to be interested in, and his genius, which can’t be doubted, outstripped anyone’s claim to possess their own story.

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Self-Positioning: the Movement

Stefan Collini, 25 June 2009

Craig Raine recalls that when the former chairman of Faber, Charles Monteith, encountered the suggestion that one of Philip Larkin’s poems was indebted to Théophile Gautier, he was...

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Do you think he didn’t know? Kingsley Amis

Stefan Collini, 14 December 2006

Giving offence has become an unfashionable sport, but Kingsley Amis belongs in its hall of fame, one of the all-time greats. When Roger Micheldene, the central character in his 1963 novel, One...

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During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable...

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When Philip Larkin first met Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the early 1940s, he was appalled, he later said, to find himself ‘for the first time in the presence of a talent greater than...

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Floating Hair v. Blue Pencil

Frank Kermode, 6 June 1996

The time is almost past when writers copiously provided the curious, concerned as much with process as with product, with drafts showing corrections by one or more hands and interestingly...

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Is writing bad for you?

Frank Kermode, 21 February 1991

Writer’s block must be thought of as a disease even more specific to a particular occupation than housemaid’s knee or weaver’s bottom. You can have those without being a...

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