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A beautiful literary classic: The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

A stunning rites of passage novel to rank with Catcher in the Rye

Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, leaving behind two unpublished novels and an impressively determined mother who succeeded – after much badgering – in gaining the novelist Walker Percy’s interest and support in the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Cover of "A Confederacy of Dunces"

Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces. Published posthumously, the  novel garnered instant and great acclaim and has been continuously in print ever since and translated into numerous languages.

While The Neon Bible was in fact written before A Confederacy of Dunces, it only came to light during the successful reception of the later novel, and its publication was delayed by some years because of legal wrangling involving Toole’s mother, the publishers and the courts.

Nonetheless, the novel is an astonishing achievement, not least because it was written, it seems, when Toole was barely a teenager. It will arguably become regarded as a classic of contemporary American fiction, and a classic of Bildungsroman literature. It is a haunting and poetic evocation of a boy’s loss of innocence in the rural America of the 1930s and 40s. There are echoes of Mark Twain, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and S. E. Hinton, to name but a few and, impressively, the ‘voice’ and identity of the central character, the young boy, Dave, are as distinct and compelling as any by those others.

In a series of linking memories we learn about Dave and his painful trials and tribulations growing up. His mother becomes emotionally unstable when her husband returns in a coffin, from fighting in Europe during the second world war; his Aunt Mae, an eccentric, once-travelling singer, and Dave’s only real friend and companion, discards him for the sake of her infatuation with a 70-year-old fiddle-playing boyfriend and the temptations of Nashville; and his local preacher inflicts a destructive hypocrisy upon him (in fact, it is this preacher’s church that displays the tacky, monolithic, ‘neon bible’). As if these weren’t enough, yet more troubles ensue, accumulating to the point that he is compelled to escape to the city, leaving innocence in his wake, and only the memory of bitter experience for reflection.

Juxtaposed, Toole’s two novels differ in style, language and humour – understandably, as he was just 13 or so when he wrote The Neon Bible, whereas he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces as an adult. In the latter novel, we have the fantastic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, towering, Rabelaisain and Falstaff-like, battling against the dim-witted and the short-sighted in his quest for truth, beauty, and a bountiful supply of hot dogs, his favourite food. Its language is rich and boisterous, its style sweeping in its intensity. In The Neon Bible, Dave is the centre, holding the novel together with his rural speech; his gentle, graceful and easy language complementing the impression we have of him and his world. Even so, their lives and their principles are, arguably, the same: both value Platonic ideals above all else; both are outsiders, most often alone – feeling the loss of their innocence – and reflect a pervading sadness that is at the very heart of their lives. There is no question that the publication of this, his only other fiction, underlines the awful tragedy of Toole’s death.

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‘The Leopard’ Lampedusa’s light-hearted, deeply learned, always entertaining letters

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Famous for his 20th century classic, The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) – and Visconti’s wonderfully evocative film of the name, The Leopard [1963] [DVD], with Burt Lancaster – this slim collection of Lampedusa‘s letters, mostly to his two cousins, is a delicious, quirky and charming epistolary treat. Quirky because his deep learning typically combined with his often scatological, irreverent humour (most notably, there are some very funny letters written in the style of a proprietor of numerous models of high-quality testicles to gentlemen in such need), and the fact that he referred to himself in his letters in the third person, as The Monster (because of his voluminous appetite for reading; the title was given to him by his cousin and poet, Lucio Piccolo, one of the recipients of the letters).

Lampedusa was a deeply cultured man, loving – and being immersed in – literature ancient, medieval and modern, especially Italian, English and French. (He wrote a 1,000-page study of English Literature, published in 1990-1991 by the Italian firm Mondadori; he also wrote an incomplete, densely handwritten 500 pages for an intended follow-up study of French literature.) He also loved going to the cinema – he’s insightful, for example, about the now-classic King Vidor’s The Crowd (1938) – sadly not available nowadays to us on DVD – loved architecture, and enjoyed bespoke, quality-made clothes.

If this collection was not already a sufficient joy for Lampedusa’s sense of humour and impressive sweep of literary references, and his easy display of learning and culture with an always light touch, he’s also terrific at capturing the essence of a place he visits (he was a great and regular traveller, typically following a `circuit’ that included London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other vistas) and with great relish he conveys his tremendous Epicurean sensibilities. As one terrific example, let me quote the following, on his love for English food:

But the Monster, as he has already given you to understand, contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig – of which he is proud. And as a pig he appreciates and rejoices in fleshly pleasures. At times the Spartan simplicity of the pure English cuisine terrifies him. But more often he is delighted – whether he is drinking, as he is today, thick buttery milk which leaves a trace of cream in the cup, whether he is biting bloody steaks which pass on to him the vigour of noble and select young bulls, whether he is tasting large thick slices of rosy ham, lying on beds of soft real bread and coming from the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire, whether again at the end of the meal, sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured. Because here cheese is not served in prosaic slices, but whole cheese are brought to the table, and the dilettante (I was about to say the lover) digs into the tasty recesses, rummages in them with a horn spoon and tries them out. And the waiters are often so incautious as to leave the multicoloured treasures in front of the Monster – and their eyes pop out when, instead of three cheeses of about ten kilos each, they find only three fragrant but empty shells.

Isn’t that just wonderful? I get hungry every time I read it and even now am fantasising about chomping on a giant wheel of cheese. And his powers of description extend also to human portraits; in particular one very beautiful, utterly captivating description of a brilliant curator of The Wallace Collection.

But he’s not an absolute star; meaning he’s not – as with all of us – without some deep faults; far from it. An occasional snobbery does come in matters of certain social classes and individuals, and he can be quite (though rarely horribly) cruel in some of his characterisations; these are forgivable, but what is far from palatable is his unquestioning support of Il Duce and fascism, and his barely concealed abhorrence of Jews (at one point he cites the Russian progroms as an example of `Russian wisdom’). (And if there are readers who say, it’s unfair to criticise someone of the 20s and 30s being anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism was common at the time, I think this is no excuse, for we are all responsible for our individual actions and beliefs, and Lampedusa was far from ignorant in his understanding of many other aspects of life and society in general.)

Still, a fascinating insight into a way of life and living that Lampedusa already knew was on the cards (Sicilian aristocracy, and the aristocratic way of life in general).

As to the quality of the publication itself, there’s no complaint, save one absolutely almighty one: It is the infuriatingly stupid way in which each note to a particular reference in the letters has – instead of being numbered – been itemised with an asterisk. As you turn the pages, and the notes inevitably accumulate, you find yourself being advised to – as an example – `See first note to p.43′ to return you to the original note in which that particular reference occurred. But then you turn to p.43 and find that it is not the relevant note but instead is the first occurrence of that reference, so then you have to go and turn the pages of that individual letter’s notes, on p.53, for an explanation of that note! Bloody, hugely frustrating. I can understand completely why the editor wanted to be economical and avoid repeating the same notes – after all, extra pages bump up the cost of publishing a book, and this collection may perhaps only interest the most devoted of Lampedusa fans (I hope not, they’re well worth the read), but then why weren’t all the notes itemised with numbers, so that you could be told to, in the same example, `See p.53, note 1′ – simple, surely?!

Highly recommended.

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Who’s Your Daddy? An appreciation of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev - Penguin book cover

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During his lifetime, Turgenev was the most popular Russian novelist in Europe, even taking into account Dostoyevksy and Tolstoy. Fascinatingly, he was also the most controversial.  (The controversy surrounding this novel continued at least up until the 1950s.)

While he spent most of his life abroad, living in Paris, in particular (he was a passionate Europhile), he remained throughout his life devoted to Russia and its people.

Turgenev’s greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his lead characters’ deeper humanity and greater emotional complexity in his novella-length fictions. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, their own characters often begin in conflict and are riddled with anxieties that get progressively worse while often see sawing still between only two opposing viewpoints over many hundreds of pages .

Of the characters themselves, there is much about them to enjoy, be engaged with as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady’s landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia’s farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons’ is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov’s deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern advocacy of such miserable, cynical views to Nikolai and Pavel.

The story is worth reading just for two characters alone: Bazarov, who is infuriating and an unforgettable anti-hero. Supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others, he respects no codes of conduct and appreciates nothing, save that which he defines and determines. He’s rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who himself is in such awe of Bazarov he can’t help but appear to collude with his all-encompassing miserable and bitter worldview.

Bazarov’s nihilism confounds and upset Arkady’s father – and angers Pavel. Yet ironically it is Bazarov’s own rejection of Arkady’s friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, reconnecting him with a sense of humanity, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.

Pavel is another compelling character; he’s amusing, with a caustic sense of humour and irony and is superbly realised. He’s a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, with a reputation as a `lady-killer’, sustained by his aristocratic flair and his taste for colourful English bespoke tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He’s deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent perspective and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having given much of his money to Nikolai, to help his brother keep his farm and land. 

It is no surprise, given the brilliantly drawn and vivid characters of Bazarov and Pavel, that it is their debates that make the novel such a compelling read. We witness Pavel regress from civilised decorum to bemusement, yet all the while becoming increasingly agitated, and failing in trying to stay true to his sense of honour and code of conduct. Bazarov mirrors him for integrity, yet insults by his bored manner, his steely, offensive and effortless cynicism. 

Their discussions constitute the heart of the novel and convey Turgenev’s conflict over the ever-deepening rift between his own generation of ‘fathers’ and that of Russia’s ‘sons’; a portrait of a country in turbulent times and anticipating even more troubled times ahead. Powerful, evocative and deeply thoughtful: it more than merits its status as a classic novel.

——-

A note on this edition:

There are several English editions of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861) including some cheaper than this (e.g., the Wordsworth edition), but this is by far the best to date for two reasons:

  • Rosemary Edmonds’ translation from Russian into English in this edition is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent – providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev’s talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through.
  • The second reason is that as far as I can tell, this edition is the only one that has Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards. It has an invaluable review of the novel’s historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev’s lifetime.

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Charles Dickens: The making of a literary giant – Hibbert’s masterful biography

book cover of Charles Dickens biography by Christopher Hibbert

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Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he deservedly remains one of the most popular and widely read. His Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant is just one of the many proofs of his excellence as a biographer.

It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor – more impressively – his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects, with over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication: from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), King George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment, besides many others.

It is  because, combined with these two talents, he was first an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller.  As he said once in an interview with the UK’s The Sunday Times in 1990:

The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next, even if you’re writing about something the outcome of which is well known.

This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet become accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert’s only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonesuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while certainly covering a wide range across Dickens’ entire life, was itself thought of as ‘patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens’s correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition’ (page 1,084, in the hardback edition of Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 – i.e., a further 31 years’ worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren’t, until – with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection – was published in 2002.

Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert’s style of writing – as always – is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author’s psychology, personality – it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive – the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey’s The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is also particularly brilliant on these issues), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) – well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens’ novels is profound, and the way he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening about Dickens himself, as well as – of course – offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.

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Twelve 20th-Century Women Writers – a great book by Lorna Sage

Book cover Moments of Truth by Lorna Sage

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A wonderful collection. Sage, sadly no longer with us, was a phenomenal and thoroughly well-read essayist, journalist and critic of literature, not just about writers of the 20th century period, but from the 18th onwards. She not only understood what the writers and their work were about, but also knew about the culture and society within which they lived, engaged and often struggled.

This collection of some of her literary criticism/essays/journalism (there’s another fab, even larger selection titled Good As Her Word, also published by Fourth Estate) focuses on a number of great women writers of the 20th century. They’re not linked in any way, other than the writers are all female and brilliant each in their own way, and the fact all these articles reflect Sage’s tremendous insight, appreciation and sensitivity for the work of these writers, leaving you always with a deeper understanding of their psychological, intellectual and literary viewpoints as well as a passionate interest in the novels she discusses.

From an obituary of Iris Murdoch (both as a novelist and philosopher, and the relationship between these two), to intelligent essays on perhaps lesser known novelists Christine Brooke-Rose and Djuna Barnes (and certainly this applies to Violet Trefusis), to the well-known Edith Wharton, Angela Carter – I think she’s the best critic on Carter’s work and has written a book on her and edited a collection of essays on her – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, and Simone de Beauvoir, you will finish this collection with a passion to read the novels Sage discusses. What better recommendation is there for a literary critic’s work?

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An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

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